I read Alexis Paige’s essay On Didion and the “Selling Out” Mantra today on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. In summary, she discusses Didion’s statement that “writers are always selling somebody out.” Paige describes how she instructed a group of students to create their own writing mantra, sharing Didion’s quote, presumably by way of example. Her students didn’t get it – or at least got their own version of it, which differed substantially from hers.
I got it, but I’m not sure if that says something positive about me. I love the quote (which is from the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem):
My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.
“Temperamentally unobtrusive and neurotically inarticulate” – that is a good description of my journalist persona. Just as my public speaking persona is much more lively and outgoing than I really am, when I approach and interview subjects I project a more introverted self who wouldn’t dare be unfair in her reporting. I can’t help it, and I am the same person whether I am giving a speech or interviewing a subject. It’s like I’m showing two different sides of myself which are both true.
Being neurotically inarticulate – also a post for another day, but let’s just say that being quiet is the key to a good interview and also to avoiding babbling. Much of the time that’s a good thing, but not always, which is why I abhor talking on the phone. Okay, on to the main point: do writers “use” their subjects?
When I did my masters project – profiles of drug offenders – I had to approach strangers who were drug addicts with criminal histories – people I might know in private life but wouldn’t necessarily approach. Sometimes I literally chased them down the hall after court was finished (which the public defender wasn’t always happy with). When I convinced someone to talk with me, I’d say I had “bagged” them. The irony is that that phrase was in contrast to what I really felt – that I had given someone the opportunity to tell their story, which is what my goal is as a journalist. Yes, I was a small, quiet, polite person, but if I were to say I was selling subjects out it would refer to using myself as a tool rather than them.
As a student I interviewed white supremacists for a class assignment. Did I sell them out? I would argue no, because I didn’t write a story that was angry or judgmental.
Perhaps my version of “selling somebody out” really means inviting them to meet the journalist me, which is questionably deceptive but entirely acceptable if the subject is treated with respect and fairness and without judgment or prejudice.