Of all the horrors the Covid-19 epidemic has brought, one is personally preoccupying me — the slaughter of country and regional newspapers, suburban papers, online outlets, journalism jobs and what surely is the final gasping breath of the failing business model that until now has kept most media afloat.
On so many levels, in so many places, this carnage is devastating but on a macro-level, I fear Covid-19 will hasten the death of substantial feature writing, aka narrative, non-fiction, long-form writing. For some years in Australia, the number of places publishing this style of journalism — crafted pieces of thousands of words — has largely been limited to Good Weekend, The Weekend Australian Magazine, QWeekend and The Monthly. As advertising has fallen away in recent years, precipitously so in these past few months, magazines have become ever thinner. I fear the advertising will never return.
In Australia, there are only a handful of staff writers employed to write long-form. For freelancers, even if they can find a publication with the space for their contribution, the rate of pay per word is so slight as to make it financially impossible. Long-form takes time: to research and write a substantial 4000-word piece that might include investigative elements and/or require dozens of interviews can take a month or longer.
Australian philanthropic efforts to support journalism have tended to focus on hard news, investigative reporting and data journalism. Narrative non-fiction writing is the poor relation in this game. Yet I’d argue it is as important. These are the human stories, the stories of pain and grit and resilience, the quirky stories, the wickedly funny stories and the stories that tell us about the way we live and who we are.
American long-form writing has always been the pinnacle for me and I read it with envy and admiration and awe. It too is under grave threat in this changing world but for now there remains a rich seam of it from which I draw inspiration.
The American Man at Age Ten, by Susan Orlean
I come back again and again to this 1992 piece by author Susan Orlean. I mean, just look at the first par, the first sentence: “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.” … I comb this piece looking for clues as to how I can better get inside subjects’ skins when I’m writing. I’m awed by the utter seamlessness of Orlean’s segways between being Colin Duffy and exerting her narrator’s voice. And I know from experience that trying to get any sort of substantial material for a feature out of an interview with anyone younger than, say, 16 is almost impossible. (Not to mention that, these days, it’s highly unlikely that any parent would allow a journalist to trail after their 10-year-old son for two weeks!)
The Black American Amputation Epidemic, by Lizzie Presser
This stunning piece of journalism produced by the American non-profit news organisation ProPublica took my breath away. It explores the appalling, extraordinarily high rate of amputations black Americans undergo — “a form of racial oppression dating back to slavery”, says Presser. I love stories that tell broad, sweeping stories, in this case the deep and systematic inequalities black Americans face, through the prism of specific events or circumstances.
The Garner Diary, by Matthew Condon, Weekend Australian Magazine
It is a brave soul who embarks on writing a profile of Helen Garner. How do you even start? How do you lift your writing to a level that even begins to do her justice? Queensland writer Matthew Condon did a delicious job with this profile, published to coincide with the release of Garner’s first volume of diaries last year. He alternates an imitative, staccato style of writing with penetrating insight to deliver a really enjoyable read on one of our most distinguished literary figures.
Bunfight at the bowlo: how one woman got banned from the greens, by Tim Elliott, Good Weekend magazine
My former Good Weekend colleague Tim Elliott’s story is simply a wonderfully written tale about an Australian institution and about human nature. It pokes fun, but ever ever so gently.
How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The New York Times Magazine
Taffy Brodesser-Akner has cornered the market in sharp, witty profile writing. This one is a glorious look at Gwyneth Paltrow and the “wellness” epidemic. Brodesser-Akner (whose first novel, Fleishman is in Trouble, was released in 2019, inserts herself in her profiles (“I thought of my big, disgusting Size 11 feet, which are wide and flat and have the look of scuba flippers”) — but her work is so effortlessly illuminating and funny that all is forgiven.
The Pandemic is a Portal, by Arundhati Roy, the Financial Times
A deeply moving story by the author of The God of Small Things about the effect of the pandemic on India, “my poor-rich country”. After the lockdown started, Roy travelled to the border between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh to witness the exodus of workers leaving the city to return to their villages: “The scene was biblical. Or perhaps not. The Bible could not have known numbers such as these.” She spoke to migrating workers. A carpenter called Ramjeet who was walking all the way to his home near the Nepalese border told her: “Maybe when Modiji decided to do this, nobody told him about us. Maybe he doesn’t know about us.”
Topic of Cancer, by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair
Personal essays, when they include insight, sharp reflection and research, can often be the very best of long-form journalism. From having written my own personal essays, including one I wrote for The Guardian about my book, Fake in which I told the story of my relationship with a con artist, I also know that they can reach readers in the deepest and most significant of ways. I love this 2010 Hitchens’ essay. He is so eloquent, so honest, so wry. Of his new world, the world of hospitals and the sick, he writes: “The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism.”
Stephanie Wood is a writer and journalist. She is the author of Fake: A startling true story of love in a world of liars, cheats, narcissists, fantasists and phonies (Vintage, 2019). She is a former senior staff writer for Good Weekend magazine.