“Life of a Salesman” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 20)

One of my favorite forms of nonfiction work is a well-written profile, especially when the subject of the piece isn’t a celebrity or a politician. It’s not hard to get people interested in a profile on Rhianna or LeBron James, but when a writer can look at at an everyday person and tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way, that’s a beautiful thing.

“Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized” by Eli Saslow in the October 7, 2012 edition of the Washington Post is a good example of this. Saslow spends some time with Frank Firetti, a Virginia-based small business owner and pool salesman, as he struggles to keep his business afloat in the struggling economy of 2012. Nothing shocking or dramatic happens in this story; there’s no life or death moments at stake, no critical conflict, no crime, no injustice, no tragedy. It’s about a man trying to sell a pool. More broadly, it’s about his dreams and his hopes as they come up against economic challenges. It’s a little story and big story at the same time.

Frank Firetti

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount for the Washington Post

There’s a lot I admire about this story. Saslow pays close attention to the little details. As he shows us Firetti out on sales call, or back at his office, we get a very clear sense of what it looks and feels like in his space:

He loved being in the car, the one place that was his alone, where he could fortify himself against stress and negativity. There was Motrin in the center console for his headaches, hand sanitizer for germs and four empty bags of pistachios, because cracking shells occupied his hands and quieted his mind. There was classic rock on the radio, because he had changed the station when the host of his favorite conservative talk show started dissecting the economy, a word Frank couldn’t stand to say or hear, because he had come to equate it with “an excuse for failure,” he said. There was a Bible open on the back seat, because having it there occasionally helped seal the deal with a religious customer, but mostly because Frank was an ardent believer who liked to read and annotate the book when his faith needed restoration.

I like how that paragraph opens and closes with two broader themes: his need for solitude and his reliance on faith. But in between that, Saslow sandwiches a ton of detail: the Motrin, the hand sanitizer, the empty pistachio pags, the classic rock on the radio, the conservative talk radio, the bible in the backseat.

I also like how Saslow ties the profile to the broader themes of the middle class struggles in 2012, in particular, the idea of the swimming pool as a symbol of success:

But the more he learned about pools, the more he found them representative of something larger. They were carvings etched into back yards as a mark of ascent, commemorating a customer’s arrival in the upper middle class. They were a signal: You had a pool, you were an American somebody. Frank loved to visit his construction sites, exchange his few words of Spanish with the crew and then patrol the area with a digital camera. The crews sometimes found it peculiar, but Frank didn’t care. He wrote into each contract that he was allowed to take pictures and chronicle his creation. A black hole in the earth became a smooth bowl of white-and-blue speckled plaster, filled with water so calm and pristine that it offered a promise. Here was a place of undisturbed relaxation, of aqua blue and sandstone, a monument to luxury that could be owned. He hung photos of his favorite pools in the office and brought others home to show his wife. He wanted one.

It’s telling that he sells swimming pools to others, but he hasn’t built his own yet. He has sketches of this elaborate, gigantic pool for his next house, but he’s nowhere close to getting it yet. And the fact that swimming pools sales have been down for years indicates the toll of the recession. The middle class is struggling right now, and, as a result, so is Firetti.

And the story captures some small, meaningful scenes. In the middle of the story we witness a video chat exchange between Firetti and his Philipino wife, who is overseas visiting her family. We’ve already learned about the financial and business pressure that mounts on him, and the reader then finds out that his wife is hosting a 300-person party for family and friends in Dumaguete City. As he hints at the cost of the event, she can’t (or pretends not to) hear him:

“What are you doing today?” he yelled.

“Oh, we are still getting ready for the party.”

It was the one-year anniversary of Suzette’s mother’s death, and she and her sisters had planned an event for 300. As usual, they had paid for all of it.

“Free dinner on the Firettis?” Frank said.

“What?” Suzette said.

She pointed to her ear, indicating a problem with the volume, but Frank wondered if she was choosing not to hear.

One thing that bothered me about the piece is that Saslow despite doing a fine job showing us Firetti and his challenges, he didn’t seem to trust the reader enough to get it without hammering the point home. At several spots, Saslow interjects heavy language that frames the story in the wider context, and I don’t think he needed it. For example, there’s a nice scene between Firetti and his son (who is now living at home and struggling with two jobs) and they talk about his future. But then Saslow adds this:

They stayed out on the deck until the sun disappeared behind the townhouses. Frank went to bed just before midnight and awoke at 4. He always had been a sound sleeper, but lately he had been putting himself to bed with Tylenol PM and stirring awake to questions in the middle of the night. When had stability become the goal in America? What kind of dream was that? And in the economy of 2012, was it even attainable?

I like that paragraph until the last two sentences. Do we really need those two questions for the reader? At times, Saslow, gets a bit heavy with lines like that that seem to hammer home the theme of the story, but we don’t need it. He’s already done his job well enough already. Firetti’s story stands well on its own; the reader doesn’t need the author to explain it as explicity as he does as certain stretches in the piece.

But overall, this is a good read. Ten years from now, if someone wanted to read about what it was like for many struggling middle-class Americans a month before the 2012 election, this would stand up well as a snapshot of a time and place, and how one man struggled with the American Dream.

Read Life of a Salesman: Selling success, when the American dream is downsized →

Washington Post’s “Facebook Story”

As I’ve noted before, many modern web communications create natural narratives. “A Facebook Story” by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post is a powerful work of narrative journalism that follows the story of a pregnant woman’s journey through her posts and those of her family and friends. Most of the story is told through the status updates by Shana Greatman Swers, with some small narrative annotations by Shapiro:

screen capture from Facebook story, showing posts and comments

It’s a powerful, emotionally-wrenching bit of journalism, done in a very unconventional way. I read it this morning and can’t get it out of my mind. I’m not sure if the story strikes me so deeply because my wife and I have recently had two children, or because it’s set, mostly, in the same hospital where our girls were born, or simply because it’s a gripping story told in the primary characters’ own words.

Shapira doesn’t do much traditional writing in this piece, but he shaped and edited Swers’ facebook feed to tell the story, with minimal bits of his narrative to round out the feature. The editors and designers at the Post also did a good job making the online story interactive: when you click on some of the photos, they expand so that you can see them bigger.

This approach wouldn’t work for a lot of stories, but this piece illustrates beautifully how old and new media can come together to create powerful, compelling narrative nonfiction.

If you haven’t read this, you should.

For more, check out Shapira’s live chat on the Post, as well as an interview with his editor Marc Fisher at the Nieman Storyboard.

Long-form narrative and the art of cooking slow food

In the Washington Post last week, Joel Achenbach wrote an interesting feature on the diminishing opportunities for long-form narrative nonfiction in the newspaper-death-spiral/Twitter/iPhone era.

As seems to be the case anytime that I read about trends in the magazine and news business world these days, the outlook isn’t promising.

There seem to be two lines of thought: one is that modern audiences don’t have the patience or the attention span for longer narratives, which is why they watch reality TV shows and love Twitter. The other line says that people still want good journalism and storytelling: the problem has to do with the business model of publishing, not with the demand for good narrative. Achenbach gets to the heart of the problem:

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

And that’s part of the challenge as a writer. There are lots of opportunities to deliver “fast food” writing: short, punchy pieces. Sidebars. Lists. Examiner.com would rather I write five short posts a week than one long, thoughtful one. Getting the chance to write good, long-form narrative is a big challenge.

For what its worth, call me a optimist. There’s no question that there are a lot of ADD Americans out there who lose interest after 140 characters. But most people still crave good stories, true ones or fiction. It’s in our DNA. I see it with co-workers who are counting down the days until return of Lost, gripped with “what’s going to happen next.” I see it on the Metro, with commuters nose down in Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer books. I see in in my 18-month old daughter when she begs me to keep reading to her at night.

Huffington Post jumps ahead of Washington Post in online readership

Arianna Huffington

Arianna is conquering journalism?

Editor & Publisher reports today that the Huffington Post, which didn’t exist until 2005, had more unique visitors than the Washington Post web site in September.

It doesn’t help that the Post editorial page has drifted to the right for a decade, that the editors allow for gross inaccuracies and distortions by one of its most prominent columnists, or that it has decided to diminish the Washington Post Magazine by striving to make it “lighter and happier.”

I’m not sure what’s more amazing about this: a) that a political web site started up four years ago by a wealthy left-wing celebrity has build a bigger online readership than a legendary American newspaper, or b) how rapidly a legendary American newspaper continues to shrivel away both in substance and reputation.

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