Tuesday, June 14, 2016

This is Where the Division of Labor Ends

By Jane Maher

Obituaries don’t come immediately to mind when we think about creative nonfiction, but they may be the truest form of the genre, particularly as they are being written today, and particularly by Margalit Fox of the New York Times. Fox has a reputation for producing obituaries (about 1,200 so far during her tenure at the Times) that are so well crafted, so detailed, and often so funny that readers forget they were written in a newsroom, on deadline.
I first became interested in Fox’s work because it seemed that whenever I read the obituary of one of my heroes (usually a woman, usually on the front page of the Times), Fox had written it. And it wasn’t just the subject that drew me in; it was Fox’s style and sensibility. Consider, for example, this one-sentence paragraph in the obituary of the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich: “She was never supposed to have turned out as she did.” Or the almost rueful humor in the obituary of Carolyn Goodman, the mother of slain civil rights activist Andrew Goodman and an activist in her own right: “In a telephone interview yesterday,” Fox wrote, “her son David recounted a characteristic incident, which happened in 1999, during the public protest over the death of Amadou Diallo. . . . A colleague came into Mr. Goodman’s office to tell him that his mother had just been seen on television, being taken off to jail.” Fox recorded his reply, “Well, that happens from time to time.”
Fox insists she has “the best job in American journalism” because she “is paid to tell the stories of people who did really interesting and significant things. I truly believe that obits are the most purely narrative sections in any daily paper, and what reader doesn’t love to read stories, and what writer doesn’t love to write them?”
The question most people ask Fox is how she got involved in writing obituaries in the first place. She likes to answer by saying (as she did in a 2014 interview for the Paris Review), “I’d never planned for a career in obits. The child has not yet been born who comes home from school clutching a composition that says, ‘When I grow up, I want to be an obituary writer.’” Fox recently told me she began at the Times as a copy editor for the Book Review in 1994, but “although working on the Book Review was wonderful, I was mostly spending my days shoveling commas. I was able to work my way onto obits because, at that time, it was still, however wrongly, perceived as the job that nobody wanted, or the job that nobody thought he wanted.”
Twenty—or even ten—years ago, she explains, “the obituary department in any newspaper in America was Siberia. It was where they sent you if they wanted to get rid of you but they didn’t have quite enough on you to fire you outright. It was also where they put you out to pasture if you were deemed to be within a couple of years of needing an obit yourself.”
By 2004, Fox was writing obits full-time and had worked over the years with highly regarded writers such as Bruce Weber and Douglas Martin. Martin was the successor to one of the most famous obit writers in the country, Robert McG. Thomas (see 52 McGs: The Best Obituaries from Legendary New York Times Writer Robert McG. Thomas, Jr., compiled by Chris Calhoun). Fox never met McG, who died in 2000, but she credits him with being “the first person to make obits tremendously lively and dynamic, and to really emphasize humor.” (He most famously wrote the obituary of the man who invented Kitty Litter.)
In recent years, writing obits has gone from “being a punitive assignment to a destination section”—so much so that, in addition to the collection of Thomas’s obituaries, there are scores of books on the subject; one of the best (and funniest) is Marilyn Johnson’s The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Further evidence that the genre has taken on a life of its own (one cannot resist such puns when writing about obituaries) is the existence of a Society of Professional Obituary Writers (“an organization created for folks who write about the dead for a living”); their 2016 annual conference will be held in Chicago. And if there is a society and an annual conference devoted to a genre, then surely a thirty-credit master’s program in obituary writing cannot be too far behind.
The second most asked question, says Fox, is why the preponderance of obituaries that appear in the Times is about men: “Right now we are writing about people who had an impact on the world in the mid twentieth century; we are just now getting into the Vietnam era. However we feel about this, the reality is that the people who were allowedto shape history and policy forty or fifty years ago were overwhelmingly white men. I’ve been doing obits full time for eleven years, and in that time, I’ve begun to write about more women. We are edging into an era when women were starting to be allowed to be active in public life. It is the same with people of color.”
Fox’s favorite assignments are those of “quirky” people, the “colorful characters” who changed the world or changed culture in some way, particularly those who invented “a pop cultural artifact” but whose identities remained obscure. Fox has written the obituary of the man who invented the crash test dummy, the man who invented Etch A Sketch, the woman who invented Stove Top stuffing, the man who invented the Pet Rock, and most recently, the man who invented the pink plastic lawn flamingo. “It’s very thrilling to be able to write about a single person doing something on a single day fifty years ago and say, ‘That’s where this piece of our culture comes from.’” These are people we have never heard of, Fox explains, but “they put a wrinkle in the social fabric.”
One such person was Leslie Buck, a Holocaust survivor who invented the blue, gold, and white paper coffee cup that read We Are Happy to Serve You. Buck used a Greek-inspired design because he knew that most diner owners—the people who were most likely to purchase the cup—were Greek. The cup was a ubiquitous symbol of New York City for more than fifty years, widely used on TV cop shows set in New York City.
Read the rest here.

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