Balancing Opinion With Perspective

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Harper’s Magazine, September 2012 Issue


As a reader, my affection for Harper’s Magazine continues to grow. That’s not because of its leftward political cant, but because its articles usually contain explanatory substance behind most provocative statements made. That could be because with the U.S.'s current political malaise, the leftward leaners feel a need to explain every step they take, but then that’s an issue for at least a six-pak of someone’s lager. 

But even as I write this, I have to confess to occasional frustration with Harper’s reportage. My frustration is most evident in this month’s centerpiece articles on Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But some explanatory background:

As with the The Atlantic's reporting previously written about here, there’s a lot of hyperbole concerning what the Prez should have accomplished in his first term. In pursuit of this angst, David Samuels follows Obama from fund raiser to fund raiser, and he gives us as complete a picture of the man’s glaring complexities (the no doubt necessary complexities) anyone must have in order to compete in the Presidential sweepstakes.  

Regarding Romney, Dan Halpern  is less detailed but just as jaundiced in his examination of the challenger. Here, he portrays Romney, not through a personal microscope, but through the montage of perspectives within the wild and wooly Republican base, perspectives Romney must juggle (maybe to make everyone equally unhappy with him?) in order to keep his base corralled. Talk about herding cats – the Republicans are now having to learn how to manage intra-party diversity, as the Dems have always had to do.

What leaves me with a bad taste here is that both Samuels’ and Halpern’s dissatisfaction with their subjects isn’t supported with specific political weaknesses. Both writers are trying damned hard, it seems, to portray some depth, but their reportage is weighed down by their own biases. As a result, Harper’s gives us opinion pieces, not journalism we can use.

I’m also disappointed in a piece of fiction by Stephen King that I’d expected to like. The story, “Batman and Robin Have an Altercation,” concerns two elderly men who, in the midst of a living-in-the-past conversation and interactions with relatives, manage to get under one another’s skin. You would expect King’s writing to be taut, occasionally provocative with a tad of sentiment, and it is. My problem here is one of a genre novelist trying after all these years to write short literary fiction. He has all the writerly chops, but the story leaves me as cold as one by a mediocre MFA grad. Sorry, Stephen – I hate having to leave you with that.

Harper’s has always enthralled with their you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up snippets that speak volumes about life in the U.S. and within the modern world, and they don’t disappoint in this issue. Also, there’s a spectacular photo essay on Africa’s Niger Delta that will take your breath away.

You win some, and you lose some in taking on a magazine issue, but as I’ve written before, being an editor and trying to reach the complete spectrum of a magazine’s readership is a tough job. I’ll keep on reading. Things will be better next month.