Today: Today: nothing about Target, the Apple Store, my daughter or her diapers! For once. Today it's beer and New York Times feature-writing cliches! Tomorrow, Target and the Apple store. My promise to you.
The Wall Street Journal had a piece on the new top fave American stagger-sauce: Corona. Its toppled Heinekin the last few years, and the Heinie folks are desperate to catch up. Heres some free advice:
1. Corona is the winner because there are more Mexicans in America now, and their taste in beer is as appalling as most native-born Americans. Corona is awful beer. Corona is diluted Chihuahua piss. Its darker on the way out than on the way in, which ought to tell you something. Its astonishing that they make Corona light - that would be, by definition, the anti-beer. Want to sober up fast? Slam six Corona lights.
Not to say there arent good Mexican beers. Negro Modela isnt entirely undrinkable. Leon, a Yucatan beer, is one of my favorite beers in the world - partly because I always had one on a beach, while broiling, and it usually brought along its cheerful friend Senor Tequila. But theres something about Leon that sets it apart, and whether its better hops, filtered water, or the dead worker simmering in the mash vats, I cant say. But its good.
2. Corona is the winner because it reminds doltish louts of the time they went to Cancun and threw up a lot of it. In the past the number of louts whod gorgled out a bellyful on the beach was low, but with the explosion of spring-break culture there are now millions of Americans scattered across the land who associate the beer with that one night in that place where that chick took off her shirt and it was like, whoa. Whats Heinekin? Its Dutch. No one remembers going to Dutchland. If they do, they have a dim memory of some hash-house stuffed with guys in sandals and women whose armhair could be used in a Rapunzel-type scenario.
3. Corona is the winner because the label is painted on. Hienekin labels are pasted. People always go for the painted label; it makes them feel as if the beer has tradition. (See also Rock, Rolling) They are correct. And the tradition consists entirely of: painted labels.
4. Heienkein screwed the pooch several years ago when switched ad campaigns. It decided it didnt want to be a premium beer for people who had premium tastes, and instead it went for the Xtreme market. The brand had been nurtured for decades as a symbol of taste and refinement, and now its slacker-hooch? Great move. Putting out a can in the shape of a keg to cement the frat-boy connection - another great move. The ad reps should have gone to the store and looked who bought it: Dad. He thought he was an aesthete when he was in college, drinking Heneken while everyone else pounded down the Fox Deluxe and Walter and Falstaff and other iterations of the eau de dead mouse imbibables; now hes the golf geek with madras shorts, white legs, dark socks and sandals. The guy who still has a reel-to-reel for his Gil Evans collection, the guy who wonders why Leroy Neiman doesnt apppear in Playboy anymore, the guy whos noted in his social circle for his ability to use the Internet, but whos never used the right mouse button. No, hes not hip. But he makes $174,000 a year. By all means, alienate him in an attempt to win over that lucrative Kinkos demographic!
5. NO ONE KNOWS HOW TO SPELL HEINEKIN.
Right before I woke up I dreamed I had an assignment: write a bad feature story in the style of the New York Times. When I woke I had the last sentence still in my head; I stumbled next door to the studio, woke up the Mac, and typed this sentence:
Over in the field, a hound was hunched over excreting a striver, the locals term for the hard, elegantly tapered stools for which the wild dogs are renowned.
It has it all! It has a field, which is always a sign that the urban reporter is braving the flat & empty lands of America. It has a word known only to the locals, and the locals are always the real subject of the piece. Every East Coast story on Midwestern people feels like theyre writing about pygmies. Doesnt matter if the storys about clothing, or music, or nose-bones; beneath it all is the writers underlying inability to forget that these are pygmies, for Gods sake. And theyre so cute! The final detail - for which the wild dogs are renowned - reminds you that the author has some knowledge of this culture you dont. Now that you have it, you can pretend you knew it all the time, too. There are two sorts of people who read the Times, perhaps - those who blow through it hoovering up headlines and pull quotes, and those who absorb the details, file them away, and deploy them at dinner parties. And if someone at the party says they remember reading a piece in the Times about that, the teller of the tale will still have the advantage, and imply that he knew all about strivers before the Times did that piece. Well, the locals call them strivers now, but the Dutch had another word for them. Anyway . . .
I recounted this dream to my buddy Bill, the copy editor who sits a few feet away from me at work, and we agreed that a striver would be the new term for a piece of writing that was painstakingly crafted, produced with some difficulty, and was an absolute piece of crap.
Granted: to be a true Times feature, someone would have to be hunting the dogs to extinction, or find that their livelihood of building doll houses out of strivers was being squeezed out by Mexican competition. Picture the perfect Times 1A feature headline:
In a Carolina town, old ways are slowly ending
Sound familiar? Of course. In the world of New York Times feature stories, the old ways are always slowly ending, somewhere. A weathered old man is always pushing his boat out to sea for a diminished catch of mottled scrod; the lone practitioner of the milk-by-hand school is about to sell his cows, marking the total conquest of Wisconsin by the Teet-Skweezr AutoMilker (a division of Haliburton.) Somewhere a farmer is running dirt through his hands, squinting up at the merciless sun; somewhere a small store that sold Truman a cherry coke when he was a young man prepares to shut its doors for good. These things make for excellent feature stories. Ive written a few myself. In the late 80s the state of Minnesota required all gas stations to bring up the old underground tanks, an expensive proposition that drove a few corner stations out of business and convinced others to give up gas altogether and just run repair operations. (My transformation to the dark side was not yet complete, so I think I just concentrated on the effect of the rule rather than the obtuseness of the rule itself.) On a street corner in St. Paul, the old ways of selling gas are slowly ending.
Feature writing is the easiest gig in the business, if you ask me. Depending on the paper, bad writing can actually be encouraged and rewarded if its literary enough. You can shape the story as you please - as opposed to covering a fire as a news story, where you cannot use the fire as a jumping-off point for ruminations on the role of the Dalmatian in 19th century East Coast fire-company iconography. Not to say there arent good feature writers these days - our paper has Chuck Haga, who has a flawless touch for old Minnesota culture. And I ran across this piece in City Pages by Britt Robson - an account of a night at a roller rink that manages to include sex, gawky adolescence, middle-aged nostalgia, murder, and octogenarian wisdom in a compact piece. Nothing is ending in this piece; life is simply happening. I read that piece at 8:50 AM and it hung around all day.
When your profession is fraught with scandal, I suppose you dream of the writing style of writers whose work has been clouded with controversy. I dont know much about Rick Bragg, except to say that the excerpt of his work I read in connection with the BYLINE SCANDAL must have had enough old ways ending moments to trigger that dream.
I will say this: when I was a feature writer, everything I wrote about, I saw. The idea that someone else would provide me with raw material to shape into a story from my desk would have seemed completely wrong, and would have made me feel like a fraud when anyone said they liked the piece. Its not the writing alone that makes a good piece, its what you noticed, what your eye chose and your mind remembered. Its all the stuff you leave out that makes your piece work, as much as the stuff you put in.
Yes, you can take some stringers notes and compose a story, but the difference between that an a piece you wrote from your own research is the difference between a Penthouse Forum letter and your recollection of your wedding night.