Writing in the space between trite and esoteric
One basic distinction for non-fiction pieces produced within the commercial publishing world is that of service writing and features writing. “Don’ts of Gratitude” in the current issue of Psychology Today is an example of the former, and “Buried Secrets” in the current issue of The New Yorker is an example of the latter.
There are a few other kinds of pieces, including the profile and the roundup. In short, consumers of commercial publications pick them up to be informed and to be entertained. On the trite side of things are the service writing-heavy publications which are constantly recycling content. Think exercise, weddings, babies, technologies of the self sorts of things. One response I have to Bogost’s provocation is that there is plenty of room for informative, smart, varied, non-Panoptical service writing, too. For example, having been raised by an RN who enjoyed talking about her day at work when she picked me up from school, I am constantly amazed at the general level of medical non-knowledge amongst Americans. A couple of weeks I watched the growing postings of and comments on the Atlantic piece “How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby?” by my junior faculty-heavy Facebook network and found myself once again asking, “People didn’t know this alread?” (Alright, that piece is not the best example of non-Panoptical service writing, but it is informative, smart, and a variation on the usual.)
Another response I have is that not all academic publication is so much esoteric as it is industry specific. In this way academic journals share much in common with trade publications. Regardless of how much they may have in common in terms of their day-to-day, loggers and miners don’t really need to find one another’s trade publications accessible, do they? Is there a good reason anthropologists and social psychologists do?
What I like very much about Bogost’s tweet is the notion that there is a sweet spot somewhere between Helen Gurley Brown and Deleuze and Guattari. I like it because I’ve had it before myself and because that is exactly the kind of material I enjoy writing. I think that a lot people out there want to be informed and entertained in a slightly smarter and more nuanced way, but I have a hard time putting my finger on how much smart and nuance needs to be applied. My latest column for a Western North Carolina-based monthly is a piece about Cherokee-derived toponyms which I originally thought was kind of meh but which my editor was positively enthused about. I am still calibrating, but my initial thoughts are, Vanity Fair aside, that the piece is “smart for a glossy.” Early this past winter I did a piece discussing the possibility that snowsports might have a positive effect on Seasonal Affective Disorder which I am particularly proud of. I think of it as being somewhere between the levels of Psychology Today and PLoS.