There’s something I got stuck on when looking at the Essay Prize nomination for Finnegan’s “Silver or Lead.” It’s that this piece is “the kind of real-world essay I’m always dying to share with anyone around.”
What, exactly, is a “real-world” essay?
Are other essays, say the work of past winners Mary Ruefle and Aaron Kunin, not of the real world? Ruefle’s world has fantasy elements, sure, but does the weight of Finnegan’s “real world” trump these, I don’t know, less-grounded works? I am reading “real-world” here as a signifier of relevance, of importance. I’m inferring that, to the nominator, the scope of Finnegan’s work – not just the depth of reportage, but also the topic’s scale, from a private ranch owner outside of Zitácuaro to international relations – makes it significant in ways that other essays of 2010 were not.
This seems problematic to me, the idea of an unspoken sliding scale of relevance and import as applied to works that, when it comes down to it, are pretty tough to compare. But of course I do it, too. One of the things that bothered me about “Plastic Bag,” for example, was the way it was essentially a commissioned project resulting in what I saw as a form of propaganda. But since Finnegan is a staff writer for The New Yorker, does that make this project commissioned as well? What stake does he have in telling this particular story? He traveled, as he seems wont to do, to places where his personal safety was at risk. I don’t get the sense that Finnegan is only telling the story because he was paid to in the way I felt that Bahrani was. Finnegan doesn’t have an agenda. Or! Is it that any agenda he’d be pushing would come from the prize scapegoat of conservative activism, the liberal media, whose bias I’m blind to because I share it?
The answer to that, at least, is below in Lucas’s entry – that Finnegan’s uncertainty is so visible on the page that I think it’s clear he doesn’t have a stake in pushing the reader to develop an actionable political stance on the vast clusterfuck of issues facing Mexico—its cartels, its government, its ordinary people – and of course – the basic issue of supply (Mexico) and demand (U.S.) that seems to be at the root of all the power grasping. I mean, this is the stuff of book-length essays. Like The Devil’s Highway. Or the back catalog of unapologetic breast man Charles Bowden (seriously…read Desierto and try to come away with a different impression).
There’s a book’s worth of material in La Familia. That Finnegan was able to wrangle this into a comprehensible and digestible piece of journalism strikes me as an accomplishment in and of itself. And I can’t overlook the fact that to me, “Silver and Lead” was not only comprehensible and digestible, but devastating, once we moved from the attempt to untangle the post “Pax Mafiosa” political environment and into the personal stakes of nearly-executed ecology officer Delacruz or retired school teacher Don Miguel. I am invested in these people. The uncertainty about Don Miguel’s ranch at the story’s end is more upsetting now, because I’m reading it almost a year later, and so much can happen in a year.
Call me out for misspeaking, Lucas, but it seems to me that initially you had some doubts as to whether this piece of literary journalism qualified as essay per se. On my first read, I had reservations about its contention for the Essay Prize, not because I don’t think it’s a very fine piece of work, but because I too have some lingering parochial concerns about category. It’s journalism! It’s reportage! Lucas quotes: “Work that is defined by what it does—the activity that it engages in—rather than what it is—its ‘nonfictional’ verifiability.” To which I additionally quote that the Essay Prize “emphasizes the activity of a text, rather than its status as a dispensary of information.”
This is a dispensary of information, yes, and important information, but on second read, it seems to me that it is the presence of Finnegan’s first person narration that tips this work into essay territory. And not the “I” alone, but the action of the “I” – Finnegan’s relentless lines of inquiry are visible on the page. We know when he is conducting an interview in Mexico vs. Washington, D.C. We know when information is second-hand. We are aware when he has been forced to choose sides (traveling with the “Queen of the South”) for the purposes of information gathering. And we get loaded observations: “Such violence sounded so benign and neighborly that I felt odd asking about the kind of violence that La Familia is better known for.” I think that Finnegan’s methods in “Silver or Lead” are unequivocally essayistic.
Which brings me back to the question of weight and scope and the idea of a “real-world” essay. It’s so hard to shake my own poorly-defined sliding scale of relevance and import. One way would be to ignore content in favor of structure and craft. But these are all interrelated, and discovering the way that they integrate in this particular piece (thinking here of the way that this formally traditional essay controls the release of information, from the abstract to the personal), is evidence, I think, of a fine mind at work.
So as far as I’m concerned, at this juncture in the nominee discussions, it’s Finnegan’s hand-carved walnut box to lose.