Sumus quod sumus.
Garrison Keillor

I glossed this piece on the “contemporary” aesthetic malady of “quirk” by Michael Hirshorn in this month’s Atlantic, and had blessedly forgotten about it until Gapers Block linked to it yesterday. That’s when I realized it had to be stopped. Its take on This American Life is representative of a pernicious attitude towards storytelling in journalism, born from specific ignorance of the form, an attitude that’s undermining a lot of what I love about  the business. I know that TAL doesn’t lack for fans, but bear with me, as the problem is systemic. 

Hirshorn calls Ira Glass the “avatar of contemporary quirk,” which he defines as an “embrace of the odd against the blandly mainstream. It features mannered ingenuousness, an embrace of small moments, narrative randomness, situationally amusing but not hilarious character juxtapositions . . .” Hirshorn moseys around anything more specific than this; quirk, for him, can mean anything from a fictional rock band having one fan to a movie character having epilepsy, a disease I had not previously thought of as mannered, ingenuous, or situationally amusing.

When I say that Hirshorn demonstrates a specific ignorance of the form, I’m referring both to his analysis of This American Life and of (for lack of a better list of terms) features/literary/narrative journalism. Writes Hirshorn:

“Famously, the radio show tells multiple stories around a theme, with Glass, the pleasantly nasal narrator, gently prodding the action along and summing it up in ways that correct yet almost always redeem the people—white and middle-class, to a disconcerting degree—who populate his stories.”

Some TAL shows are like this. They’ve been doing the show for a really long time, they tend not to deal with extremes of good or evil, and Ira Glass is a white Brown grad who’s been in public radio his entire life, so mathematically speaking there are going to be stories like this.

But having listened to a considerable portion of the archive (my first job out of college was paperwork-intensive)–Hirshorn’s just wrong. Take a listen to shows from their list of favorites; they’re all over the map. My personal favorite is The Fix Is In, which is almost exclusively devoted to the story of an Archer Daniels Midland whistleblower turned FBI informant and is one of the most compelling narratives you’ll ever hear (it’s based on Kurt Eichenwald’s equally compelling book The Informant). It’s not particularly quirky. Scott Carrier’s piece in Jobs That Take Over Your Life is far from quirky, nor is the piece on the Port Chicago disaster (that would be Port Chicago in San Francisco), in the way that catastrophic explosions aren’t.

I could keep going. The point is that some of the stories do actually reflect the demographics of the people that make them, unlike the melting pot that is the Atlantic, and some, uh, don’t. They’re just stuff that people made for different reasons. Hirshorn writes that TAL is less like journalism and “more like sociology, wherein the paradigm is set and specific circumstances are nipped, tucked, torqued, and squeezed until they fit the theme.”

Hirshorn gives an example, but it reflects more on his methods than Glass’s. 

“In a short introductory piece, an elderly guy who visits his wife’s grave three times a week, but also brings along a TV set for company, is seen as just another piece of this magically odd tapestry we call America. There almost certainly are some depths here—the loneliness of losing a spouse, the poignancy of aging, perhaps a touch of senile-onset dementia—but we’re directed to see him as simply quirky, a guy doing his thing, man.”

Hirshorn seems to have been watching a different piece, perhaps the quirky TAL that exists mostly in his head, as the one I saw was about the loneliness of losing a spouse and the poignancy of aging. It’s unclear how the work should be more about that. Statistics? Graphs? Maybe Glass could have interviewed an expert.

There wasn’t anything about senile-onset dementia, perhaps because the subject seemed perfectly lucid. It’s actually quite revealing that Hirshorn attributes the man’s just-slightly-abnormal behavior to a brain disorder. Perhaps there are depths there, man. 

More important, Hirshorn seems to think that TAL‘s “quirk,” such as it is, represents a recent affliction contracted from David Byrne, who once used baby talk in a song. This is, quite simply, ignorance of journalism’s history.

One of the reasons that I like This American Life is that I fell in love with literary journalism at a young age, long before I’d ever heard of the show. TAL‘s particular aesthetic, intentionally or not, comes from a very, very long tradition of short narrative journalism about the everyday, the picaresque, the odd. The New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town section is the most famous purveyor of the form, and much of the magazine’s coverage is simply a longer variation. Richard Preston’s famous article on the Chudnovsky Brothers, which inspired Darren Aronovsky’s Pi, is pretty damn quirky, the account of two brilliant mathematicians who built a supercomputer in their apartment to find patterns in the number. Susan Orlean was doing TAL-esque stories when Ira Glass was just a dude at WBEZ.

Chicago has birthed some of the richest work in this vein; the Reader, particularly the Our Town section, owes a great debt to Talk of the Town and to Ben Hecht’s 1,001 Afternoons in Chicago. And probably, in a more general sense, to the work of Studs Terkel. Perhaps Glass would have done something along the lines of TAL no matter where he’d ended up, but as a resident and listener I can’t separate it from the city anymore. Going back even further, the midwestern ur-literary-journalist to whom we all owe a debt is Mark Twain, and his reportage was quirky as fuck.

And there but for the grace of Very Serious Journalists goes contemporary nonfiction, into an excruciatingly dull world of relevance, trends, and news hooks. People can’t do things for personal, unique reasons, or things that are merely of interest. They have to be symbols from the depths of grand cultural schema. Three is a trend! Unleash the hounds of significance!

The result, too often, is a leveling of the human drama into generic cultural narratives, much like Hirshorn does with TAL. It’s not just a show that offers a broad range of narratives, it’s an Important Representation of an Aesthetic. Ira Glass isn’t just a host with tendencies, talents, and shortcomings, he’s an Avatar of Quirk.

Bah. People have enough to do outside of the shadow of what they represent. Let us be, and let us be that.