Is Style Dead? No, But It’s Trying to Find Its Way
Is Style dead? Is the sassy, iconoclastic section that the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee created back in 1969 headed for the scrap heap of journalistic history?
Signs point that way. Style editor Deb Heard issued a memo mandating shorter stories. Star writers are leaving: Mark Leibovich to the New York Times, David Von Drehle to Time, Ben Forgey to retirement.
Some Style writers are being switched to other sections. Laura Sessions Stepp, who chronicles the trials and triumphs of teen life and love, has moved to the Health section; promising writer Darragh Johnson is back at Metro.
But some remaining staff say that reports of Style’s demise might be premature.
“It’s a moment of transition,” says Phil Kennicott, whose title is culture critic but whose beat has expanded to cover architecture. “Style has won the war. Narrative journalism is now on the front page and Metro. At Style, we have to forge ahead. We have to do it better.”
Kennicott is the new face of Style. An essayist who came to the paper in 1999 as a classical-music critic, he writes brainy and often provocative essays about everything from the Baltimore Basilica to the cultural context of Saddam Hussein’s hanging.
He described that as “the first great Shakespearean death scene of the YouTube generation.”
More than a few readers still pine for the generation of writers who once made Style a fun and feared read. Sally Quinn made her mark writing irreverent profiles of the political and social set. Style had brassy writers like Myra McPherson, Lynn Darling, Stephanie Mansfield, and Judy Bachrach. Amazing voices like Marjorie Williams. They described the social scene and then undressed it. Henry Allen was writing cultural essays when Kennicott was in grade school. He won a Pulitzer and still edits at Style.
Says Kennicott: “I’m not nostalgic for a period of time when I was ten years old.”
What happened to the section that once surprised readers with features by David Remnick and Steve Coll? Kennicott hopes it’s poised for a rebirth.
“We have a mandate to write on the edge,” he says. “I pick it up many days and say, ‘Wow, there’s nothing like it.’ ”
Kennicott, 40, came to the Post from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he covered classical music. Born in Schenectady, New York, he got a degree in philosophy from Yale and moved to New York City. His first reviews were published in Newsday, thanks to Tim Page, a Newsday editor who would go on to precede Kennicott at the Post.
“I wanted to be an essayist,” Kennicott says. “Over time the Post editors became more comfortable with that.”
The result is Kennicott’s unique take on images, art, and architecture. Where Quinn and her brigade were writing about people, Kennicott writes in the realm of ideas.
Style does have some fine feature writers on the ground. David Segal has found his place in Manhattan. Peter Carlson writes about quirky culture, but he’s going on book leave, as is Wil Haygood. Libby Copeland’s takes on politics are smart and sassy. Jose Antonio Vargas peeks in on the video-game world. Tamara Jones’s features hearken back to Style’s best days.
And there are Style’s highly regarded critics: Tom Shales and Lisa de Moraes on TV; Robin Givhan on fashion; Stephen Hunter and Ann Hornaday on film; J. Freedom du Lac on pop music; Tim Page on classical.
And Kennicott on culture.
“Obviously,” he says, “people are jittery, not just in Style, not just at the Post.”
The larger question may be whether there is a future for edgy feature writing in the newspaper as the Post puts more of its energy and money into its Web site. Perhaps a good subject for a Kennicott essay?