The Secret (Podcast) Vault Where Writers Tell All
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because listening to talking about reading is just a little bit easier than reading stories about reading.
In the words of a porn star and alleged rapist: “It’s basic reality, refracted through a mirror, heightened for drama.”
That was James Deen’s take, according to writer Stephen Rodrick, on the story Rodrick did about the making of “erotic thriller-drama” The Canyons, co-starring Deen and Lindsay Lohan. (A spokesperson for Deen confirmed the quote is “close enough.”) And although Deen was commenting on a particular — peculiar — situation, his quip isn’t a half-bad assessment of the practice of journalism. Record the real and amplify, within ethical parameters, the story.
Stories about stories about stories. If that’s your thing, I’m about to hook you up with roughly 190 hours of it.
In August 2012, Aaron Lammer, Evan Ratliff and Max Linsky (in a curious twist of small-world media history, Linsky helped come up with OZY’s Good Sh*t section in a pre-OZY era) set out to create a podcast they themselves wanted to hear: discussions with writers about how stories get made, particularly those, as the name indicates, that are hefty in length, and about how storytellers make a living. Guests of the weekly Longform podcast have included Lena Dunham and Ta-Nehisi Coates (three times, in fact), and well over 175 others.
For writers and journalists, it’s a master class. And possibly free therapy. Impostor syndrome has emerged as a major theme throughout the show, says Ratliff, who’s also editor-in-chief of the Atavist Magazine. “Writers worrying, even incredibly successful ones, both that the work they’ve done is terrible and also that they’ll never work again,” he says. “That feeling is lodged so deeply.” What comes across is that nobody has the capital-S Storytelling answers, that there isn’t some underground vault to which only Columbia grads have the key. In fact, Ratliff says, everybody also cops to some version of outsider syndrome. “It’s rare that we get someone who says, I went to Harvard, graduated, got a job at the New Yorker and now I do features, and I’m good at it!” — but even those people, he says, “manufacture an outsider story for themselves.”
[Linsky] dove right into the most complicated part of any answer and then asked a question about that.
These shows stick with me; I tell stories from them again and again to anyone who’ll listen. In #184, Daniel Alarcón talks about a bank robber he met in Peru who was writing a novel from prison. He’d just been moved, had no bunk, was sleeping on the floor of his cell. A pipe bursts. His pages are soaked. So what does he do? Oh, takes over the prison yard, aka the heart/lungs/vitals of prison life, and spreads out his manuscript page by page, pinning down each one with a rock. And whenever he got a complaint, he’d bellow, Mess with my book and you mess with me! Alarcón wonders, “Would I be willing to defend my book in a Peruvian prison?” Wry, glorious Brooke Gladstone, host of my other favorite podcast, On the Media, comments in #175 that at this phase of her career, “I’m not going to get any richer or more famous than I am right now. … The beautiful thing is that I just don’t have any more fucks to give.” I’m evangelizing even when I’m playing a colleague the bit of audio in #185 when Linsky reads BuzzFeed’s definition of diversity aloud to its editor-in-chief, Ben Smith. (After a reverent beat, white guy No. 1 says to white guy No. 2, “That’s a pretty good definition.”)
Heather Havrilesky writes New York magazine’s Ask Polly advice column. Her interview, #182, is about as much fun as you can have without liquor, sex or Santa Claus. Just as luscious: She slings the kind of real talk — salary figures and pay rates — for which people thirst. Linsky, she says, “dove right into the most complicated part of any answer and then asked a question about that.” She cites a “palpable curiosity” that “can change even the most mundane subject into something that feels odd and unexpected and electric.” Artist and writer Molly Crabapple tells OZY that “whiskey and a brilliant, challenging host” made her interview one of the most enjoyable she’s ever done.
The term longform got some stinkeye in the media back in February, when SB Nation ran 12,000 words about convicted rapist and former Oklahoma City cop Daniel Holtzclaw in its Longform section. A disaster in almost every imaginable sense, it was deleted five hours after publication. Greg Howard wrote on Deadspin, “There is no such thing as longform writing. … Longform is a variant of feature writing — a branding strategy, really — that confuses a secondary indicator (length) for the thing itself (quality).”
“I could give a shit what it’s called,” says Ratliff, adding that there have been terrible pieces of journalism that are long and terrible pieces of journalism that are short. “It’s a nothing controversy.”
My only beef with Longform is the bro factor. In the intro of #132, Lammer says, “I’m tempted to go fart in Evan’s chair while he’s gone.” (Dude — that’s gross.) Generally, the intros stretch into three-minute sprawls of chuckles and joking. Which, yes, you might also call simple friendly banter, and they are trying to introduce the sponsors and guests in a way that’s not a snooze. But the fratty chatter of the male literary elite can be a little hard to take at times. Ratliff says if they’d known the pod would go for three years, they might have designed it differently and chosen different hosts. As for my internal shorthand — “lit bro” — Ratliff says, “It has that vaguely pejorative feel that anyone can get behind, myself included.” But he adds that “a person would be hard-pressed to listen to, say, Max’s interview with Cheryl Strayed or mine with Margo Jefferson and then say, ‘God, these lit bros and their bro talk. Listen to that frat-house vibe!’”
Ultimately the goal is connecting people with interesting guests. At the beginning, they were worried they’d run out of guests within a year. Now they could book the next five years solid. And unless it gets boring? We’ll be listening.
An earlier version of this story misstated which host made the fart joke and interviewed Ben Smith.