Newsletter #7: Marvel Journalism

Marvel Journalism

Bloated, expensive, dense with narrative cliché, worshipful of technology, ignorant of the history of the medium and dismissive of its obscure and patient pleasures, averse to the small and weird, enamored of the big and explode-y, stylistically incoherent, produced by hardworking but interchangeable talents, allergic to nuance, absurdism, and mystery—it’s Marvel journalism!

I’m talking of course about those ascendant “epic” and “impactful” long-form “investigations,” “projects,” and maybe, occasionally, “stories,” although never anything so meandering as an “essay” nor miniature as an “article.” Just as Marvel has transformed and homogenized American cinema with a catalogue of movies guaranteed to turn a profit and never surprise the audience—each new entry a world-ending epic designed to shield you from introspection for two to three hours and make at least half a billion dollars—so have similar forces produced a mold of narrative storytelling equally competent, equally successful, and equally obtuse and forgettable.

With one deserving exception below, I’m not going to pick on any specific writers or magazines. Nor am I going to unpack this term in an especially rigorous way, although I'll note that I’m talking exclusively about 'stylish narrative magazine writing,' as it is sometimes called, and not hard news.

That said, by Marvel journalism I mean:

-Stories that rely entirely on a protagonist’s unverifiable recollections to reconstruct an unbelievable, option-ready tale. (The great Jeff Sharlet put this best: “the relentless trend of spectacular ‘ca-razy’ ‘yarns,’ many involving ‘heists,’ based on reconstruction rather than immersion, inviting fictionalization in place of perception.”)

-The tendency to demand that the story or thoughts of a single character explicate an entire class, race, gender, voting block, or other group in a narratively tidy way. It’s understandable why writers do this--every magazine story is an attempt to reconcile the difference in scope between the word count (limited) and the subject matter (infinite)--but this particular trick most often serves to displace the writer’s own analysis or reflection. In nearly every case, the desire to make characters' stories signify powerfully devolves, almost definitionally, into cliché. And when the subject itself becomes shopworn, as with parachute dispatches from “Trump’s America” or refugee camp misery porn, the effect is grotesque.

-Misery porn in general: journalism in which the protagonist is merely a victim rather than the primary agent of his or her own life. And/or stories in which the point is to horrify the audience by the fireworks of violence and tragedy on display. Recall the infamous (apocryphal?) anecdote of the journalist wandering among the tents of a refugee camp, shouting: “Anyone here raped and speaks English?”

(There are good ways to write about violent experiences that manage not to dehumanize or fetishize. One of my favorites in recent memory is this 2017 story by Sarah A. Topol on child soldiers in Boko Haram.)

-Epic bloat: stories or series (or--and for whatever reason, especially--podcasts) two or three times longer than they ought to be, an inflationary attempt to create the impression that the subject deserves the degree of attention the writer gives it. In theory, any subject could command lots of attention; John McPhee's Oranges began as a very, very long New Yorker story on oranges. But narrow style guidelines at most outlets usually mean that the writer in question isn’t Proust (or John McPhee) but is rather filling space with hyperbolic exposition or characters/scenes that add no value, or, most often, a bewildering number of dramatic cliffhangers and section breaks.

-Finally, any tentpole story you didn’t like but for which until now you lacked a punchy, derisive term. (You’re welcome!)

Marvel journalism has no single cause, but one element has got to be the suspicion with which some editors and readers view (or are encouraged to view) anything resembling difficulty or tangible style in a work of art, and especially a work of nonfiction. Lo some half a century ago, Sontag noticed the tendency among literary critics to preserve the creaky old antithesis of "style vs. content" even as they claimed to disavow it, moreover even within their very claims of disavowal. One way they did this was by praising works despite a crude or careless style (as we do all the time with certain franchise superhero films); another was by regarding any complex style in a piece of writing with "barely concealed ambivalence." Despite the tendency for critics to praise such hermeneutic and "beautiful" prose, she wrote, “it is clear that such a style is often felt to be a form of insincerity: evidence of the artist’s intrusion upon his materials, which should be allowed to deliver themselves in a pure state.”

This goes double for nonfiction, for obvious reasons, where what is most often demanded is not an absence of style but rigorous adherence to a single style. (“The antipathy to “style” is always an antipathy to a given style. There are no style-less works of art, only works of art belonging to different, more or less complex stylistic traditions and conventions.”) Marvel journalism is an identifiable style--increasingly prevalent, it seems to me--whose sins include but are not exhausted by the above list.


I'm thinking about Marvel journalism this winter because of the new scandal of journalistic integrity at Der Spiegel. I'd argue the blame for Spiegelgate falls on the trend of Marvel journalism, not any anti-American bias (as our ambassador here in Berlin tweeted), and not, apparently, any dearth of fact-checking at Der Spiegel. No, they have seventy fact-checkers. It didn't matter. Thanos is unstoppable. Marvel journalism allowed Spiegelgate to happen.

From what I've read of them, the pieces Relotius filed weren’t particularly good, but they followed an established formula that seemed to guarantee editors would run them, fact-checkers would O.K. them, and readers would read and respond to them. Every invention succeeded precisely because it made for an “epic” tale or presented a recognizable stock character (rural racist, simple immigrant, sympathetic refugee) of the sort that already fills the pages of cinematic-style long-form adventures, real or invented. When two residents of a small American town profiled by Relotius fact-checked his story, it became clear that Relotious’s mind tends toward the treacly and unsubtle, and his inventions run exclusively to explanatory cliché, such as the real-life UPS employee he reimagined as a coal-plant worker whose “hands are always black.” But bad writing is hardly unique to fabricators. These kinds of details are everywhere, which helps them get away with it.

Marvel journalism delivers a thin reality that’s easy to fake; its thoughts and observations are simplistic and pull-quotable, its skimmable details are already pre-fab and therefore simple to actually fabricate. Such stories feel real the way a dishwashing glove feels like a hand. They are lazy approximations and exaggerations that--ironically--no reader would tolerate in a novel or short story. If writers, editors, publishers, and readers were more skeptical of Marvel journalism to begin with—if they bothered to ask what such “epic” and “engrossing” stories are presenting or obscuring, and what assumptions they make about readers’ patience and intelligence—then we wouldn’t mistake a thin impression of reality for the actual transformation of reality that takes place when we encounter it in a work of art, and it’d be that much harder for writers to fabricate stories that feel real--really real.

One of Der Spiegel’s editors-in-chief told the New York Times that the issue is a crisis in narrative journalism:

In fact, the crisis is not narrative but Marvel journalism: It is the idea that tidiness or epicness or "denseness of detail" makes a story “better” or even "perfect"--when actually none of these things is inherently good, and in any case none is ever countable--as well as another error, that the problem is a lack of humility rather than the presumption that these stories are any good to begin with. It's clear from the interview that Fichtner views style in nonfiction as adornment or embellishment--the exact category error Sontag identified--and that he believes embellishments are quantifiable in terms of number or density of detail. (Sontag, again: “Style is not quantitative, any more than it is superadded.”) Worst of all is the implied belief that "details" are primarily explanatory adornments, meant to explicate and "make better" the separate content of "story."

Instead, when style is forcibly divorced from content by the artist, the content being intentionally distorted, exaggerated, or "stylized," the notorious result

That’s all I've got for now. Take the term, use it wisely! Thor: Ragnarok was pretty good, by the way, and I didn't introspect once through the whole thing.

A Year in Review

While I have you, some personal housekeeping for the end of the year:

In April, I published my first story for The New York Times Magazine, a feature on floating villages in Cambodia. Long-time readers will be sick of hearing about it, but if you’re new here, the story follows five weeks in the life of ethnic Vietnamese communities who are functionally stateless in their ancestral home on and around Tonlé Sap Lake. I’m grateful to have found a home for it, and also for the work of my editor, fact-checkers, and other collaborators at the Times Magazine and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. I first started thinking about this story in 2014, and it has since turned into a more general interest in what I’ve been thinking about as “fugitive spaces”: regions of state resistance and evasion, locally improvised governance, and acephalous and egalitarian societies—mostly in Asia and Eurasia—now threatened with extinction by the encroachment of rapidly modernizing nation-states.

In June, I published my first piece in frieze magazine, a profile of the artist-investigator Lawrence Abu Hamdan. This was a commissioned profile that touched on some themes I like: borders, state coercion and the pursuit of total knowledge, surveillance, modes of local resistance, and conceptions of West and East.

This was also my second year as director of the Berlin Writers’ Workshop, which I co-founded last summer with three other graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “Director” is a mostly meaningless title, as the workshop is democratically run by a steering committee and the program director does all the real work. But it’s been fun to help this little writing community grow, and to teach a class or two.

I traveled a lot. I won and lost some awards. I’ll spare you the details. Overall, a mixed year. It’s always easy to despair looking at the successes of other, more productive writers. But the struggle goes on.

I’ve assembled some of the best magazine stuff I read in 2018 in a Tweet thread here, a highly unscientific list of pieces I managed to remember over the past week or two.

One of the best books I read in 2018 also happened to be the last, Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, the first volume in his Memory of Fire trilogy. Another standout was Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. The best novel I read this year was probably Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies. I also liked Rachel Cusk’s Outline, which was one of the only contemporary novels I managed to get to. I also embarked on (and am still) rereading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, one of the great books of my life. If you’re looking for New Year resolutions, put all 1200 pages of West on your list.

Thanks for reading. Archive here.