Let me start with a place to go in search of weekend reading. Byliner debuted in the last week or so as the latest online curator of longform journalism. Byliner was preceded by longform.org and Instapaper, but there’s a significant difference. Byliner also publishes—as downloads that cost between $0.99 and $5.99—original work, “Byliner Originals,” for which it pays a flat fee, like a magazine, plus a royalty on sales, unlike a magazine. The new website vaulted into the news recently with one of those original pieces, Jon Krakauer’s scathing “Three Cups of Deceit,” in which he alleges fraud and deceit by Greg Mortensen, founder of the charitable Central Asia Institute and author of Three Cups of Tea. Other original pieces include work by William T. Vollman and Tad Friend, with forthcoming pieces by Mark Bittman, Mary Roach, Anthony Swofford, Bob Shacochis, and Buzz Bissinger. That roster of heavyweights no doubt reflects the Rolodex of scribblers assembled over the years by Byliner‘s editorial director Mark Bryant, who has been an editor at Men’s Journal, Outside, and HarperCollins. The originals, also for sale at Amazon.com, are readable on the e-reader of your choice or your computer. By publishing new work, Byliner competes with another recent startup, The Atavist.
For me, Byliner is notable for two things beyond their originals. One, as curators, the editors have been scouring not just the usual suspects like Esquire, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair but periodicals that even a print hound like me has not heard of—Grantland, The Bygone Bureau, Other, and 5280. Two, anyone can submit a story for consideration, which has resulted in the appearance of some university magazine stories, such as Stacy Forster’s “Opening the Door to Forgiveness” from On Wisconsin.
One more thing. Byliner‘s vice president for marketing is Kevin Smokler. Years ago when he was an undergraduate, Smokler worked as an intern at Johns Hopkins Magazine. I lost track of him after he graduated, but maybe 10 years ago I came across mention of him and sent him a note asking if he was the Kevin Smokler who had worked for me at the magazine. His response was great (paraphrased here from memory): “I am that Kevin Smokler, if you are the Dale Keiger who once told me that a story of mine needed ‘judicious liposuction.’”
Finally, for something to read, I point you to The Paris Review, which has posted for download its complete interview with the extraordinary writer Janet Malcolm. In books and many remarkable stories for The New Yorker, Malcolm has a substantial body of work worthy of your attention, in part because they are the product of a writer profoundly ill at ease in her professional role.
The “I” character in journalism is almost pure invention. Unlike the “I” of autobiography, who is meant to be seen as a representation of the writer, the “I” of journalism is connected to the writer only in a tenuous way—the way, say, that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. The journalistic “I” is an overreliable narrator, a functionary to whom crucial tasks of narration and argument and tone have been entrusted, an ad hoc creation, like the chorus of Greek tragedy. He is an emblematic figure, an embodiment of the idea of the dispassionate observer of life.
It occurs to me now that the presence of this idealized figure in the narrative only compounds the inequality between writer and subject that is the moral problem of journalism as I see it. Compared to this wise and good person the other characters in the story—even the “good” ones—pale. The radiant persona of Joseph Mitchell, the great master of the journalistic “I,” shines out of his works as perhaps no other journalist’s does. In the old days at The New Yorker, every nonfiction writer tried to write like him, and, of course, none of us came anywhere near to doing so. This whole subject may be a good deal more complicated than I made it seem in the afterword. For one thing, Superman is connected to Clark Kent in a rather fundamental, if curious, way.