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.

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Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

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