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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Short epistolary format at its best

This weekend I read Marjorie Williams' The Woman at the Washington Zoo, a collection of her profiles, essays, and other writing. Williams' husband, Timothy Noah, edited the book after Williams died of liver cancer in January 2005. The book is really, really good. My favorite political essays were "Thank You, Clarence Thomas" and "Bill Clinton, Feminist," but I was moved most by the personal essays about her son's fear of bugs and her cancer diagnosis.

My favorite part is the section of reprints from Williams' "Breakfast Table" feature at Slate. The pieces were printed as short letters between two authors about reading the daily newspapers over the course of a week. The short epistolary format works so well here: there's none of the high-minded, content-lite language of media criticism, just friendly, thoughtful conversation. Here's a selection from Williams (reprinted in the book) from March 1999:

Today's stinker is the New York Times' Page One story "One Precinct, 2 Very Different Murder Cases," which ponders the public treatment of two recent murders in Brooklyn's 77th Precinct. One, the unsolved stabbing of white graduate student Amy Watkins, got big play in the Times and all the other New York media; the other, the stabbing of Jamaican immigrant Marvin Watson, got no notice at all. Here at my actual breakfast table in majority-black D.C., when we see the Post showing the same egregious double standard the Watkins/Watson story addresses, we sing out, "When Bad Things Happen to White People!" But the Post is at least free of the Times' disingenuous self-consciousness. The Times story, by Jim Yardley and Garry Pierre-Pierre, does note that Watson's death "went unreported by the tabloids and the New York Times." But it presents this as just one of those unfortunate realities, folks--like the alignment of the planets; not as a failure the Times should perhaps be re-examining. Did this silence from the paper of record have anything to do with the fact that the city's finest assigned two dozen detectives to the first case, while handling the second as a routine homicide? The Times doesn't speculate. And the story re-commits the moral error it is supposedly exposing, noting, for example, that the white Kansan had an ex-boyfriend who now attends Harvard Law School (who cares?). Worst of all, it closes with a quote from the girlfriend of the dead man, in which the Times somehow gets her to ratify its original, brutal news judgment: "There are a lot of killings in New York, and I don't think all of them could be covered," she says. That's a relief. Whatever twinge of doubt caused some editor at the Times to assign this story is now assuaged.

Although Slate doesn't run the "Breakfast Table" feature anymore, they occasionally use the epistolary format in for the Book Club, Movie Club (scroll down to Scott Foundas's entry for 12-29 to read a smart critique of Crash), and other discussions (I linked to Katha Pollitt's and William Saletan's discussion of abortion).