Goldberg and Orlean
Slate turns 10 this week, and we're publishing The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology. In celebration of the book and the anniversary, we're publishing (or, rather, re-publishing) a selection of pieces from the anthology, including this article. This article was originally published Jan. 25, 1999. You can see a list of all the republished pieces, as well as everything else we are publishing in honor of the anniversary, here.
First things first: What do you theoretically want to eat for our theoretical breakfast? I'm game for anything, except for pork or pork byproducts or any Kellogg's cereal (remind me one of these mornings to tell you why I'm boycotting Kellogg's).
I'm sending off this e-mail to you a bit later than preferable, but, in anticipation of dissecting the news this morning, I forced myself to read every impeachment story in both the Times and the Washington Post. This was the first time I ever did this. Also, the last.
In your new book, The Orchid Thief, which, by the way, is a wildly entertaining book ("'A Wildly Entertaining Book,' Says Slate"), you bring the reader inside the shadowy and obsessional world of orchid-collecting. (Parenthetical Obligatory Full-Disclosure Conflict-of-Interest Clause: We've never even met, so my flackery is not motivated by friendship, but I happen to be friends with your editor, the estimable redactor Jon Karp--"The Estimable Redactor Jon Karp," Says Slate.) But where you hooked me was not in your discussion of flowers (orchids are flowers, aren't they?) but in your description of how you find good stories.
"I read lots of local newspapers," you write, "and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combination that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story, I was interested to see the words 'swamp' and 'orchids' and 'Seminoles' and 'cloning' and 'criminal' together in one short piece."
I think your approach to the craft of story-finding is simple and smart, so I tried to apply the Orlean Paradigm (or would you rather be a dictum?) to my reading of the papers this morning, in search of something shocking or original in the Clinton story.
In the lead story in the Post, I found the following words: "court order," "cellular," "talk show," "snacks," "Asa Hutchinson" and "the" (several times). In a Times story headlined, "Experts Scold Decision to Question Lewinsky," I found the following combination of words: "separation of powers," "forfeit," "letter," "moot," and "Prof. Laurence E. Tribe."
Applying the Orlean Paradigm to today's papers proves that the Clinton story has become the most boring story in the history of stories. My idea of a story is something that no one else is working on, and this ain't it. I was driving through downtown D.C. yesterday on the way to the Natural History museum (which houses, my 22-month-old daughter reminds me at every turn, a "big elephant") when I happened past the biggest stake-out I'd ever seen. Monica is in temporary residence at the Mayflower, and she met yesterday with three of the House "managers" there. (On that awful Cokie and Sam show yesterday morning, Bill McCollum said the "managers" were hoping to "get acquainted" with Monica. Unfortunate Imagery Alert!)
There were, and I'm not exaggerating for effect, 10,500 reporters staking-out the hotel. That's the kind of scene that makes me glad I write for a magazine.
All this is to say, let's not discuss impeachment unless we really must. Let's discuss something no one else is talking about. Like the Olympics. Or Social Security privatization.
Talk to you later,
Jeffrey Goldberg is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and Slate. Susan Orlean is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Orchid Thief, which was published this month.