Beyond “this thing is long.”
Even though things have been shit, we got really, really lucky.
The story doesn’t just detail the many things that went wrong as the virus emerged and various countries struggled to deal with it—including China’s reticence to admit anything was wrong, the WHO’s complete miss, the CDC’s testing debacle, failed leadership from the White House and so on. What came through to me was how there have also been a set of scientific bets going in our favor that could have landed a completely different way. The speedy development of vaccines has been because this virus just happened to fit a set of circumstances we were sort of prepared for. That’s a little bit of judgment, but a lot of luck.
Lawrence Wright has some great lines.
Wright is a master of stories that pitch the reader up against powerful, dark forces that need to be viewed up close to be understood: His famous piece on Scientology wasn’t just great reporting, but really got at the friction and bullying in the cult. I remember how eye-opening I found his profile of Ayman al-Zawahari, which is nearly 20 years old now, for fuck’s sake. This story has a few moments that stuck out to me: describing the covid protein spike as an erection that has to be suppressed, which my mind cannot unsee; his images of Deborah Birx driving cross-country; a metaphor of the pandemic as an unwanted dinner guest.
Telling a story like this is hard.
In journalism, “tick tocks” are stories that recount an event. The giveaway is that they focus on chronology, and lots and lots of New Yorker stories use the form, or tip their hat to it even if they aren’t always true tick tocks. The cliched opening: “On Wednesday 25 July, 2018, Brenda Hubbard, an astrophysicist in Brooklyn, was walking her dog down the street when an accident changed her life.” The New Yorker generally mixes the traditional tick tock style with the explanatory feature formats, and this story does the same—plus mixing in some personal stuff from Lawrence Wright’s own experiences of the pandemic. Working out how to tell this story must have been impossible: Wright says he filed more than twice the final length, and to be honest it feels like it’s been edited down. There are so many individual scenes and characters, and the chronology bounces backwards and forwards, and the personal moments sit a little oddly. It’s just too big a story for even the whole of the NYer feature well.
So perhaps some ideas are just too big for a single article, even a really long one.
Most of the memorable stories from and about the pandemic have done one of two things for me as a reader: they answered a burning question, or they helped me grasp what was coming next (Sometimes they do both.) I think that’s what Ed Yong did so well over at The Atlantic: he started asking questions that people were having and produced . (You can hear Ed talk a little about that in this episode of the Longform podcast.) Wright’s story was comprehensive, but to me it didn’t really do either of those things. If its motivating question was “what went wrong?” then it felt too big for a magazine article, even one that was more than 30,000 words. I could have devoured the whole book, each section expanded into a whole chapter, each character a fully-realized study. I’m not sure that’s anyone’s error, though: the pandemic itself is just a story too big to hold in your hand this way. (Even more so, I think than legendary previous single-issues like Hiroshima.)
It’s easy to get things wrong. This didn’t.
After reading Wright’s piece and feeling only partially satisfied, I then saw Nicholson Baker’s piece in New York on whether SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab—which, by comparison, was wild-eyed and reckless. I was disappointed in that story and its presentation in ways I have yet to fully express. We’ve had such a lot of great journalism in this pandemic, truly, that Baker’s story—a piece of “Big, If True” memealism that cherry-picked its way to a vapid conclusion and pretended its shit didn’t stink along the way—reminded me that it’s hard to make it look easy.