Pale Wire (Popscene)

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Middle Path

I did it. After months of intermittant interest, I finally finished Floating Off The Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's "Middle Column." Like the title says, it's a collection of those curious confections that appear smack dab in the middle of Dow Jones' clarion for commercialism. The editor is WSJ veteran Ken Wells.

The layout's stern, businesslike demeanor—articles are numbered 1-67 in order of apperance and organized under headers like "The Way We Are Now" and "Style"—combined with the austere typography pull a neat trick: By standing soberly in contrast to the wry, colorful voices that fill the book, the presentation offers a simulation of the off-beat rhythm each story must have struck when it appeared alone in the middle of the Journal's famously formal front page, surrounded by dot-matrix portraits of government regulators and the latest news from the bond market.

"For more than five decades, the middle column of The Wall Street Journal has been the antidote to boredom, written by people who, at least while on this peculiar assignment, take delight in standing the usual front-page journalistic convention on its head. They find a subject that is merely delightful to read about—a man who has built a medieval catapult to throw grand pianos across his sheep pasture, for example—and try to persuade you of its significance. Or not," Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and the business bestseller Liar's Poker, writes in the book's foreword. "A goodly portion of the 1.8 million serious businesspeople who subscribe to the Journal will read it. Hundreds of thousands of business conversationalists will break the ice with some mention of the thing. (Q: 'Did you know, Penelope, that armies in the Middle Ages routinely flung dead, plague-filled cows at one another?' A: 'No, Really?')"

But that's not to say that it's without its own conventions, or that every article is a stroll along the Seine. Because the novelty and inventiveness of the story is the editorial imperative, the middle column is often manufactured without the quality of timeliness, referred to as a "peg" in the industry, that usually makes news, news. I read whole articles in this collection without picking up a cue from the characters or content betraying when the story was written. It's the style that gives up the game. If the content of the lead sentence doesn't give you your When, how it's written usually will. All writing, all storytelling is formulaic. And while the
the middle column has certainly proven itself more entertaining (more literary, Lewis or Wells might say) than the standard Anecdote—> Nut—> Context—> Kicker formula you find on the Journal's front page doesn't mean its writers don't abide by fashions of their own. Snappy one-line wisecrack? No way it was printed after the Chicago Daily News closed in 1978. First-person tomfoolery in the Tom Wolfe mode? It must be from the 1980s. Sharply drawn bit of color that sets the stage and introduces the main character? Welcome to the present, dear reader.

And there are a few serious stories mixed in, including Lucette Lagnado's haunting portrait of Emma Thornton, the mail carrier who serviced the 77th to 110th floors of One World Trade Center.

While a lot of the writing feels dated (Don't believe George Clooney. The quality of the news media, especially the elite print media, is miles ahead of where it once was.) the stories built with the telling details and generous tone that has consistently marked the best of American journalism still shine. Fun stuff.