The sudden death of a beloved indie musician throws the Manhattan offices of a major national magazine into chaos in Gloria. The writers must scramble to get to work. How quickly can they complete a thoughtfully crafted obituary in order to make the next issue before it goes to the printer? Writing articulately and sincerely about death on a tight deadline can make for a highly controversial assignment in the world of publishing.
In the field of obituary journalism, it is common practice for newsrooms to begin writing obituaries well before their subjects’ deaths. Called “advances,” these commemorations are often prepared in readiness for heads of state (no matter their age) and aging stars of stage and screen. According to The New York Times’ Margalit Fox, obit-journalists sometimes even interview these figures (she uses the charmingly morbid term “pre-dead”) in the development of these stories. She writes about the challenges of hosting these interviews, which often begin with vague introductions such as “We’re updating your biographical file,” or “This is for possible future use.”
The Washington Post has an overage of 100 advances on file at any given time. The Los Angeles Times has 400. The Associated Press has roughly 1,000. The New York Times has 1,700. No newspaper wants to be caught unprepared to deliver in-depth coverage of major events—publish or perish, distribute or die.
But when Anna Nicole Smith passed away in early 2007 at the age of 39, the Associated Press was unprepared to eulogize the relatively young celebrity. When actor Brad Renfro died at 25 a year later, they again were caught without an obituary at the ready. According to one of the AP’s managing editors, these events led to a new trend at the company of preparing necrologies for younger movie and music stars who are known for living lives of excess. In 2008, the AP announced it was preparing an advance for Britney Spears, then 26. In 2010, several major outlets began preparing obituaries for Lindsay Lohan, age 23, after a series of episodes and arrests. When Michael Jackson passed away in 2009, many major papers had advances at the ready and only needed to edit details. (Fox refers to the adding of the “when, the where and the how of the death” to an advance as “putting the top on the story.”)
There are risks to this practice. The AP announced Bob Hope’s death in 1998, five years prior to his actual death, before the announcement was retracted. An errant keystroke in 2003 erroneously published obituaries on CNN’s website for Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford and Dick Cheney when none had died.
And it is not unheard of for an obit-journalist to die before the subject of his obituary, and for their name to appear as a staff writer even post-mortem. When Gerald Ford died in 2006, one of his print eulogists had been dead for nearly a year. Critic Mel Gussow prepared obituaries for Harold Pinter and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom outlived him by a few years; thus his byline appeared in The New York Times from beyond the grave.
“Is there not something cynical, exploitative and opportunistic about a book in which the subject is the abominable things that happened to real people in the real world?”
Publishing reflections and memoirs about death on a larger scale is just as challenging a field. Writers face some of the same usual demands here—they are still a part of the shaping of the public’s understanding of the tragedy—but, given more writing and editorial time, the questions around morals and content are different. One must consider the medium as much as the message: When a book about a mass murder, a terrorist attack or a genocide is on The New York Times’ best-seller list, what does that mean for those who found their fortunes writing, editing or publishing it? While healing can be found in writing and in reading stories of trauma, this area of publishing has its critics as well: The Guardian’s Darragh McManus writes, “Is there not something cynical, exploitative and opportunistic about a book in which the subject is the abominable things that happened to real people in the real world?… Publishers know there is a vast audience of ghouls out there, keen to wallow in others’ misery—and pay for the privilege.” A year after the September 11 attacks, The New York Times’ Walter Kirn wrote a critique of just a few of the very many books on the topic flooding bookstores: “…because that is how the publishing industry works now: it doesn’t just seize its moments, it engulfs them… [these] reflections on terrorism have a strained, hurry-up-and-say-something-memorable feeling. One suspects that events caught these authors napping just like almost everybody else, but, being literary professionals, they felt obliged to snap out of it immediately and hit their keyboards, like pianists on the Titanic. Play us something. Play us anything.”
Many critics have noted certain predictable tropes in these accounts, whether of 9/11 or of Columbine or the University of Texas Tower Massacre: how mundane everything felt prior to the incident, for example. No portents; everything was normal. (Kirn writes, “That one can be flossing one’s teeth or feeding the cat when tragedy strikes and history spins sideways is a perennial human astonishment.”) They also notice a distinct uncomfortableness in describing events—either the account is flat reportage, leaning away from meaning and emotion, or it is a cliché and unconvincing attempt at metaphor and symbol. How does one process real-life tragedy, and then sell it to the highest bidder at a publishing house auction?
Because it truly does sell. In the last 10 years, some of the best-selling non-fiction has been from this arena. American Sniper. 13 Hours, about the attack in Benghazi. Witness, about the Scott Peterson trial. Rampage Nation. Columbine. A quick Amazon.com search displays thousands upon thousands of books about 9/11. Some authors donate their fees and royalties to non-profits and trauma-therapy groups; still, the publishing industry itself salivates over the next ripped-from-the-headlines story of murder, terror, loss, and it stands to make a huge profit from these accounts. “These things,” writes McManus, “are the literary golden tickets. And that really is horrible.”
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