Every week—beginning last September—you could read a new oral history-style article in some reputable print publication. In fact, if you were good about not overindulging, you could read two every week. Since Spin published their take on the Chuck Taylors on September 10, a total of 68 oral history articles have published in 232 days. That’s one oral history every four days.
(Note: “print” is being used loosely, websites are included too. The focus here is on words as the main form of content).
You can break down this slew of sources in many different ways. A handful of major outlets took to the format at least three times: Complex, Esquire, Spin, Vanity Fair (4), Sports Illustrated (5). Looking at those leaders, you might guest that topically sports (18) and music (15)-related oral histories led the way. But really the subject matter is all over the place. Pieces exist on individual sports teams from ’93, ’03 and ’13, and on individual television episodes from the absurd (NFL Countdown’s Princess Bride hour) to the holiday special (Boys Meets World‘s Halloween). YOLO, the year 2012, Widmer’s Hefeweizen and the song “Detachable Penis” all made it through the pitch process too.
What gives? Oral histories clearly demand a fair share of resources—several pages when in print, coordination of at least six interviews—but they’ve seemingly become the style of choice when editors want to do something out of the ordinary.
The most obvious theory: this is print’s adaptation of the Twitter generation. There are more ways than ever for culture things we care about—celebrities, athletes, restaurants, films, whatever—to deliver content to fans unfiltered. The days of depending on Rolling Stone to interview the day’s biggest musician has vanished; we’ll just follow whoever on Twitter and sign-up to receive e-mail newsletters directly. So for print entities to recreate that experience, story formats such as Q&As or oral histories make the most sense. (Though a number of outlets also began providing space to relevant, celebrity voices in recent years. Patton Oswalt wrote for Spin, Aisha Tyler and Adam Savage for Wired, Jim Meehan for GQ, etc.—heck, Anthony Bourdain helped outright found a publication.)
For an alternative take on that, perhaps oral histories are simply the purest evolution of today’s microblogging emphasis. Oral histories are Twitter slapped into a feature space. So much online written content is about short, sweet and to the point (think Storify, Tumblr, slideshows with sentence captions, Buzzfeed lists, etc.). Traditional reporting often highlights the quote as the sizzle to steak of the surrounding paragraphs. Oral histories cut the fat. Rather than having a writer create a course of navigation for us, a reader gets multiple quick hits of character voice that (hopefully but often loosely) tells a larger story.
As a writer who aspires to create features, books, screenplays and the other long-term goal projects of the craft, oral histories are a fickle thing. Yes, of course I want new insights on Jurassic Park from the people who created it. But I entered journalism (and I enjoy reading many bylines) because a well-written narrative helps me understand a subject as much as the direct quotes do. Great feature writers add context and details that sometimes a source can’t articulate or doesn’t even have access too. After all, the writer is often the only one who sees the whole picture all these individual interviews make up. The content outside the parenthesis is often more valuable than what’s in it.
This all came to light the way any subject does for a writer: digging in a bit deeper because you wanted to write something. I saw the Chuck Taylors piece on a plane while trying to brainstorm potential pitches around the 10-year-anniversary of Give Up, thinking an in-depth piece with Gibbard, Tamborello, Ben Folds, Zach Braff, Jenny Lewis and more could be my first sold feature. Based on the evidence, there was probably some merit to the thought. But would I be satisfied as writer for an oral history to be my first foray into longform spaces? I’m not even sure I’m satisfied as a reader.
Page two: a full calendar (with links) to all the oral histories of the past eight months.