I Love Myself

Is first-person journalism a pox on the profession—or a valuable weapon?

Drake performs during Coachella on April 12, 2015 in Indio, California.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images for Coachella

The writer Ernest Baker published an essay at the website Four Pins last month describing a drug-addled week he spent orbiting Drake, the hip-hop superstar. Baker is a smart, funny young writer whose work often features himself as the main character. He has attracted a robust and vocal set of online admirers, the ranks of which include, it happens, Drake, who once made cryptically flattering reference to Baker in an Instagram caption. Baker’s best writing is crisp and colorful. In the Drake piece, joints are smoked in hot tubs and celebrities drift in and out of the author’s narcotized field of vision. Flashes of depression complicate the prevailing atmosphere of hedonism. Mostly, a whole lot of nothing happens. Here’s Baker, adrift at Coachella: “I take a bunch of shrooms before noon and hop in an Uber. There aren’t many acts that I want to or need to see until later, so I post up on a couch in the artist lounge area. I mooch weed from 50-year-old rock dads. I trip balls. I charge my phone.” It is no mean feat, describing such mundanities, to build a narrative so lively.

The piece made a big splash but was, among Baker’s colleagues, divisive. On Twitter, some invoked narrative-nonfiction grandees and argued for Baker as their heir. Simon Vozick-Levinson, an editor at Rolling Stone, wrote that although a “lot of writers think they can be Hunter S. Thompson” and “most fail miserably,” Baker “got closer than anyone I’ve seen.” Music critic Gary Suarez likened Baker to a “Young Tom Wolfe.” The writer Doreen St. Felix brought up “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”—Gay Talese’s canonical Esquire writearound—and voiced enthusiasm more generally for what she called “black dude gonzo journalism.”

Others, less enamored, criticized what they saw as the piece’s self-absorption and fawning tone toward its subject. “This Drake profile is basically: ‘Drake, who I met in real life, is a living breathing human, who I definitely totally met,’ ” wrote the editor and critic Kevin Nguyen. Some suggested that it was a category error to call the piece a profile, as Four Pins had presented it, and sought to put the story, and Baker, in their proper place. Carrie Battan, a music journalist, wrote, “Serious q: is this fan fiction?” Anne Helen Petersen, of BuzzFeed, asked, “Does Ernest Baker consider himself a journalist?” and wondered if it wouldn’t make more sense to call his piece a “diary” entry.

It’s true that if you didn’t find Baker a winning narrator and were reading in order to learn about Drake, there was little on offer for you. Baker included some great journalistic details—among them the fact that Drake’s privacy-minded security team confiscates women’s phones before they are allowed into his Calabasas compound—but he left room for many more. He left room for criticality, too. Last year, Baker wrote a barbed piece for Noisey recounting how Rick Ross cut short an interview when Baker’s line of questioning veered into controversial territory. Baker, disdainfully addressing Ross and other celebrities, wrote, “Journalists aren’t your fucking friends, and they’re not your fucking publicists.” In the Drake piece, Baker’s in-the-tank approach could have benefited from a dash of that antagonistic spirit.

On some level, Baker’s article, which is titled “Drake in Real Life,” works best if you read it as an account of the author’s delirious, disoriented failure to capture the person named in the title. Profile writers—and readers—covet access to subjects, and in Baker’s story the access is, paradoxically, both abundant and telescopic: Access leads to more access, which leads to yet more access, and yet Drake remains tantalizingly just around the corner. The story unfolds as a series of barriers that Baker must, and does, surmount. He wants to get into Drake’s gated community; he sends Drake a text. He wants to get past Drake’s security; he’s waved in by someone in the entourage. He wants to get into a more rarefied VIP section at Coachella; he sends Drake another text. He wants a ride somewhere and all the nearby Ubers are booked; he ingeniously hitchhikes with a Papa John’s deliveryman. The structure recalls Donkey Kong: a series of challenges that closely resemble one another, a continually deferred encounter with the big guy, and then—kill screen—an unresolved ending.

With her “black dude gonzo” tweet, Doreen St. Felix praised not only Baker’s story but also a recent piece by Grantland writer Rembert Browne. Browne, like Baker, routinely fits himself into his writing: The first-person pronoun shows up in his stories early and often, whether he’s describing his experience as a black man walking through late-2014 Ferguson (“I” is the first word) or as a black man interviewing Barack Obama while flying toward Selma aboard Air Force One (“I” is the first word). Much of Browne’s writing, and Baker’s Drake piece, pointedly foregrounds a black-American subjectivity—a black “I”—as it enters restricted or rarefied air.

Journalism can represent its own restricted and rarefied air, of course: one where self-effacing “objectivity,” or its pantomime, is the rule (and the rule that the first-person pronoun flouts). I thought of this while reading through a Twitter argument last week between the writers Michelle Dean and John Podhoretz. Dean interviewed the author Kate Bolick here at Slate about Bolick’s new book, and Podhoretz objected to the abundance of first-person pronouns in the Q&A. He tweeted out a link with a mocking note appended: “I, I, I, I, I, me, me, me, I, I, I, me.” When Dean challenged him on this, he called out the interview’s “egregious and stomach-churning” “solipsism.” He subsequently clarified that he objected to the use of the first-person pronoun not by Dean, who’d used it in two of her 12 questions, but by Bolick—a surprising criticism to raise, some observed, against an interview subject responding to questions about herself and her largely autobiographical book. Podhoretz was accused of misogyny, and he scoffed. (Other figures and institutions that Podhoretz has charged on Twitter with solipsism include Joe Biden, Nate Silver, Washington, Hollywood blogger Jeffrey Wells, New Yorkers, the New York Times, Oberlin students, and a woman from Denver named Pam who has 46 followers.) 

Calling Podhoretz a misogynist on the evidence of that tweet is rash. And yet there is a compelling argument to be made, more generally, that journalism’s putative standards of objectivity are sometimes wielded to check not subjectivity, per se, but unwanted subjectivities. This argument has been mounted forcefully by Glenn Greenwald—a writer with abundant disdain for power—in response to fellow-journalists who call his reporting exposing state surveillance biased, accuse him of nursing an agenda, and/or classify him as a (mere) activist blogger rather than a (neutral, objective) reporter. Greenwald argues, in essence, that no reporting can ever be free from bias, and that to pretend otherwise is a status-quo-protecting canard.

Can “objective” sometimes function as code for journalism’s unmarked category of “white and male?” Certainly. But championing objectivity in writing—and, more precisely, decrying solipsism, narcissism, and self-absorption—can of course have legitimate uses. As a magazine writer, I know (and have doubtless succumbed to) the danger of fooling myself into thinking I’m more interesting than subjects I write about. And in the era of Twitter and Facebook, when we are given an infinite supply of blank fields to fill with our thoughts, we are all encouraged to think we are more interesting than we actually are. But I have a very low tolerance for those moments, especially abundant in celebrity profiles, when a writer—perhaps frustrated with minimal access to a wary, oversubscribed subject; enamored of the techniques of David Foster Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Janet Malcolm, or Joan Didion; or simply feeling cynical about the very enterprise of profile writing—philosophizes gaseously, attributes great profundity to details that don’t bear it, or mounts an elaborate charade of rhetorical tics, trying to hide weakness of craft within an excess of “voice.” If such writing doesn’t feel sufficiently grounded in actual experience and does not produce revelatory insights, it threatens to obscure the subject and waste our time.

Overt, extended authorial intrusion in narrative nonfiction can be irritating, not because it falls short of some perfect ideal of objectivity, but because, on the level of form, it’s redundant: A writer’s subjectivity will necessarily be communicated in a story no matter what, regardless of whether the writing is first-person. Katherine Boo absents herself from her narration in Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Adrian Nicole Leblanc does the same in Random Family, and yet their writerly talents, social-political sympathies, and reportorial coups scream out from every paragraph.

At the same time, there’s something to be said for writing and reporting that acknowledges, through devices like quote attribution and scene-setting, that someone actually wrote and reported it, and that a story is the result of numerous contingencies, constraints, conventions, and contradictions. I admire Chris Jones and Sean Flynn, to name two tremendously talented writers whose stories routinely abjure the first person for an omniscient P.O.V., and yet, reading their tick-tock accounts of, say, the escaped-wild-animal ordeal in Zanesville or the 2011 Norway massacre, I find myself alternately stunned and distracted, engrossed and irked by their virtuosic efforts to make these stories play like thrillers written, shot, and directed by God.

A tempting way to praise Baker’s Drake piece is to say that its true subject is not Drake but Baker. Several days after I read it, however, it occurred to me that the piece’s true subject—and a basic reason why many found it so enthralling—is actually movement. It’s a story, at bottom, about wanting to be somewhere, then charming, bluffing, or favor-calling your way in. Baker’s preferred term for this maneuvering, cribbed from the rap group Migos, is “finessing.” That Baker is black is crucial here, since black mobility in American culture—particularly, young black male mobility—is not only historically and symbolically fraught but literally policed, and is an inextricable theme in our contemporary debates around stop-and-frisk and the shootings of unarmed men: Trayvon Martin walked through a subdivision; Oscar Grant rolled on a BART train; Michael Brown strolled down “the middle of the street” with a friend; Tony Robinson was running “in traffic.” These politics are nowhere near as pronounced in Baker’s story as they are in, say, Browne’s Ferguson travelogue, and yet there is something quietly, breezily radical about a story in which a young black man freely moves where he pleases.

It’s fascinating to think about uses of the first-person in journalism, not in terms of rankly narcissistic trespasses, but in terms of power imbalances. According to research published in 2013 in the Journal of Language and Social Psychology, “people who often say ‘I’ are less powerful and less sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the word,” as a Wall Street Journal article summarized the findings. “There is a misconception,” James W. Pennebaker, the study’s co-author told the Journal, “that people who are confident, have power, have high-status tend to use ‘I’ more than people who are low status. That is completely wrong. The high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”

Too much me in a piece of journalism can be noxious, and as confession and micro-memoir have become ascendant in the social-media age it makes sense that journalism’s devotees and would-be defenders might regard first-person incursions with added suspicion. But even if success varies from piece to piece, there is an important sense in which first-person narration can explicitly mark the attempt of marginalized voices to assert their right to narrate—it can represent a means, in this light, for outsiders to butt their way into a conversation that has excluded them, and to declare, “My story matters, too. Listen to me.”