The Commodity of Others’ Lives

November 11, 2015 § 7 Comments

51KdglJZ7CL._SX389_BO1,204,203,200_Short nonfiction storytelling–often photo-driven, largely consumed on social media and at events staged in bars–is enjoying a vogue. Which personally, I like. The Moth is one of my favorite venues, I enjoy Jeff Sharlet’s micro-essays on Instagram and post my own.

But as a “storyteller,” am I ducking my responsibility to the people who figure in my work? Am I appropriating their stories? Is mine the best point of view to deliver their experience?

In The New Yorker, Vinson Cunningham reviews Humans of New York–first a series of Facebook posts, now a book. Author/photographer Brandon Stanton has compiled his work and published with St. Martins, even as he moves into new Humans territory in Iran, India and Pakistan.

Cunningham doesn’t like it. He compares the work (unfavorably) to the social justice journalism of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell, James Agee and Walker Evans, and Jacob Riis. He posits:

The quick and cavalier consumption of others has something to do with Facebook, Humans of New York’s native and most comfortable medium. The humans in Stanton’s photos—just like the most photogenic and happy-seeming and apparently knowable humans in your timeline—are well and softly lit, almost laminated; the city recedes behind them in a still-recognizable blur. We understand each entry as something snatched from right here, from someplace culturally adjacent, if not identical, to the watcher’s world; there’s a sense (and, given Stanton’s apparent tirelessness, a corresponding reality) that this could just as easily be you, today, beaming out from the open windowpane of someone else’s news feed. Any ambiguity or intrigue to be found in a HONY photo is chased out into the open, and, ultimately, annihilated by Stanton’s captions, and by the satisfaction that he seems to want his followers to feel.

But maybe it’s OK to want the reader/viewer to feel kinship, immediacy, identification. Maybe satisfying stories have their own charm. Our editor here at Brevity, Dinty W. Moore, advocates that a piece is by definition not ‘nonfiction’ if you make stuff up, change the timeline, or condense characters. I’d add that it’s very possible, through selective leaving-out and keeping-in, to form a messy, chaotic, even improbable story into a tight bundle of nuance, character growth, temporal journey, and yes, satisfaction.

Check out Cunningham’s review and tell us what you think.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 7 Responses to The Commodity of Others’ Lives

  • I find Cunningham’s review great food for thought and I would hope, so does Stanton – rather than take it as a negative review – it calls upon all of us to look deeper beyond the soundbite culture we’ve become.
    Stanton is young, so earnest and I think, genuine. Walker Evans, Agee, White, etc. are all greats with a depth to aspire to. Stanton might just get there – especially if he pays attention to insight like Cunningham offers.

  • greenvree says:

    Thanks for opening up a new perspective for me! I love HONY, and personally feel there is nothing wrong with the way he paraphrases and presents their stories. Reading comments under his post and through my own personal feelings I would say he succeeds in increasing a sense of connection among the readers. Great post!

  • HONY presents a snippet into various lives around us. HONY reminds me that the human condition is universal. We all search for connection and meaning.

  • meredithsell says:

    I see the danger of oversimplifying people’s stories, but I appreciate HONY because it reminds us that everyone around us is going through something. It’s easy to live in New York City (or elsewhere) and see the people around you as mere obstacles. HONY reminds us of our shared humanity. Everyone else — on the street, in the subway, etc. — lives a life as complicated and messy as mine.

  • […] thought this article, touching on the responsibility nonfiction authors have to the people they write about, was […]

  • I didn’t find the review to be particularly negative. Instead, I think that Cunningham is correct to compare HONY’s photos and storytelling to its cultural (and politically-minded) predecessors, and to critique it within that sphere. Does it stand up to those heavyweights? That’s, of course, for the reader to decide. But I found the comparisons instructive, particularly in our culture of forgetfulness and moving on to the next big story at the speed of wifi — which is part of what makes HONY’s stories work, and part of their drawback as well.

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