Newsletter #5: The Zoo Story

Today I want to share a private concept—a category, really—that I use to describe a common kind of story. I call it the Zoo Story.

The Zoo Story

A zoo story is a piece of nonfiction writing, usually written for a general-interest magazine, in which a writer goes to the zoo.

Sometimes the animals are cruise-ship vacationers or porn stars, or political candidates or publishing bigwigs, or Christian rock fans or writers themselves, or furries or Trump voters or Christian zionists or men looking for Ukrainian mail-order brides.

The zoo itself is almost always a formal event constrained in space and time: a convention, a conference, a festival, a tour, a campaign, a party, a protest, a hunt. It is an opportunity (for the writer) to examine the animals in an enclosure that approximates one conspicuous aspect of—but in most cases is not—their natural habitat.

Some other features:

The writer is always separate from the animals, looking into the cage, describing what he sees. A clever writer, or a writer who believes himself clever (it is, for whatever reason, most often a man), might attempt to implicate himself as “just” one of the animals, or somehow no better than they, but this third-act twist is a feint. The writer is always superior, because he is always the observer, the person uniquely positioned to document the absurdities of animal life. The writer who describes another person is always exerting power over them while at the same time justifying that exertion in the name of truth. There is no pure debasement of the self in writing, except to stop.

Moreover, the author is the one who sees that there is something worthy of documentation in the first place. This is the superior station upon which all zoo stories (maybe all stories, full stop) depend.

The author might be undercover or open about his writing project. It doesn’t matter. He is still looking in, whether in disguise (zebra stripes, lion’s mane) or with binoculars.

The success of a zoo story hinges on one of the axioms of journalism, which is that people like to talk, especially about something they are passionate about, even against their own self-interest.

However, distinct from most kinds of journalism, the zoo story is not designed to effect change or address injustice. It is mainly supposed to be fun—like a zoo.

Some events—like the Adult Video News awards—seem almost inexhaustibly attractive to a certain kind of writer. Such occasions have produced numerous zoo stories, although every zoo story also carries an implicit anthropological thesis: that the writer is decisively describing a never-before-described tribe. Every zoo story converges on the image of Malinowski’s tent.

The difference between a zoo story and a piece of travel writing circumscribed by an event ("I went to the Czech countryside for Masopust," for example) is that the subjects are bound together by something other than geography, something beyond a shared culture born of proximity. Unlike the safari, the zoo is an unnatural state of animal affairs.

I doubt that Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion invented the Zoo Story— it is not, or not exclusively, a product of New Journalism, and probably owes as much to an older phenomenon, the gossip column—but they no doubt codified some of its most recognizable features: the emphasis on style and descriptive originality, the dual nature of the reporter as participant / observer, and the position of moral ambivalence onto which the writer always, finally, stumbles.

(Actual zoos often produce in their more thoughtful patrons a similar kind of moral fatalism.)

In conclusion, this is a popular genre of story that as far as I know does not go by any (other) name. One reason it’s so popular is that it’s easy to do: the zoo event provides a ready-made narrative shape, and its subjects are easy for a writer to access either by presenting himself as a journalist (free publicity) or, in cases where the subjects are savvy enough not to want publicity, by pretending to be one of the animals. It’s especially popular among self-styled literary writers, I think, since editors can assign it to a non-journalist and give conscious stylists the opportunity to set off the prose fireworks for which they are celebrated in a low-stakes, participant-observer reporting environment.

A few canonical examples alongside one or two personal favorites and others chosen at random, not all of which perfectly align with every part of my above description, but all of which, I think, embrace the zoo story spirit, for better or worse:
-Joan Didion, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (kind of an ur-zoo story)

-David Foster Wallace, “Shipping Out” (a.k.a. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”)

-John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Upon This Rock”

-Tom Bissell, “My Holy Land Vacation”

-The Artforum diaries of Kaitlin Phillips

-Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “The Last Book Party”

-Wells Tower, “Bird-dogging the Bush Vote”
-Any online story whose headline begins, "I Went To A..." (as popularized by Vice Magazine)

(Note: Edward Albee’s one-act play The Zoo Story is not an example of a zoo story.)

Sometimes—maybe often—zoo stories can feel exploitative or mean or supercilious, but I’m not trying to suggest that they are categorically bad. Or if I am—I realize it is considered pejorative in some circles to equate journalistic subjects and animals—I don't mean that zoo stories are especially morally suspect. For me, a nearly perfect example of the zoo story is Elif Batuman's "The Murder of Leo Tolstoy.” Batuman's essay is wonderful, a delight at every level with not a word out of place, but for the first 4/5 it does seem to follow a predictable genre of essay (with an admittedly ingenious hook): She is going to a Tolstoy conference, held on Tolstoy's estate, featuring a bunch of wacky Tolstoy experts, with the idea of proving that his death more than 100 years earlier was in fact...murder. Except for the funny and absurd (or is it?) murder conceit, which gives certain moments the air of a cozy whodunit, this is a classic Zoo Story, as I like to think of them: an essay where the pleasure comes from a writer encountering characters and passions on display somewhere, all enclosed together in a unified location and time period. This is a genre with its own cliches and pitfalls, but Batumen manages to avoid them all. Part of the reason is that she is more than averagely implicated in the proceedings—she is herself presenting a paper at the Tolstoy conference—and part of it is her half-serious conviction that Tolstoy was killed by his wife or else a dark acolyte named Chertkov.

She also, crucially, I think, makes a move in a final section where, at the end of the conference, everyone goes to Anton Chekhov's house. It's technically part of the conference but has no real bearing on what we had imagined was the scope of the zoo, namely, Tolstoymania, literary obsessions, the lampoonable antics of academics in the humanities, and "the Russian soul.” These first three themes fade into the background and the last one is transformed by a series of anecdotes we must then reconcile with the two central objects themselves: Tolstoy and Chekhov. The zoo then fades before these looming guardians of mortality and art.

Thanks for reading. Send me your favorite zoo stories, please. My own recent stories, none of them zoos and none very recent, are available here. These newsletters are archived here.