What's the difference between a blogger and a writer? Bloggers are crazy obsessive freaks, who can't get away from their work, unlike other writers who are crazy obsessive heroes, dedicated to their work. At least that's the impression one might get reading about the two related—though admittedly different—careers in The New York Times Magazine.
In this week's Magazine, we get one such article about Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal, who, as portrayed by Binyamin Appelbaum becomes the embodiment of extreme journalism. It's clear the magazine's editors see him in the freak show category, since The Times even uses the word "freak" as a descriptor for Weisenthal: "A Day in the Life of a Journalistic Speed Freak," reads the headline of the accompanying slideshow.
Meanwhile, another extreme writer, one who created a different sort of product under no less obsessive circumstances, managed to avoid this type of irreverence -- even though, his process is just as driven, passionate, and insane. A few weeks ago, the Magazine's Charles McGrath profiled LBJ biographer, Robert Caro under the headline "Robert Caro is a Dinosaur and Thank God for That". Like Wiesenthal, Caro has spent his life immersed in work, and his process, like that of Business Insider's blogger, sounds pretty crazy to regular humans: "He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts. And then he rewrites the typescript," explains McGrath. The Magazine's accompanying slideshow calls this process "painstaking." That's one word for it.
Weisenthal isn't the first blogger trotted out by the Magazine to make readers and wannabe writers happy they don't do this for a living. Weisenthal at least sounds happy about his 4 a.m. wake up time and 17 hour work days. In a piece she wrote for the Magazine in 2008, Emily Gould, a former Gawker blogger, offered a long, depressing take on her time writing for the site. There's a lot of crying and curling up in the fetal position mixed in with the obsessiveness of the job, which eventually leads her out of two relationships and into more crying and fetal positions. "I immersed myself in my job in a way I hadn’t even realized was possible — I thought about Gawker, one way or another, 24 hours a day," she wrote back then. Gould's piece followed most people's introduction to blogging via the Magazine, in this 10 page article about Wonkette founding editor Ana Marie Cox by Matthew Klam, which detailed the non-stop lifestyle of minute-to-minute campaign blogging.
It all sounds very crazy because a lot of the time it is. Weisenthal has no life outside of blogging. He has to schedule dinners with his wife, who tweets at him to get his attention. His bosses have to force him to take vacations. To a normal 9-5-er, that sounds insane, but probably not all that different from a lot of workers caught on a treadmill in their careers. Still, we feel bad for Weisenthal. It sounds like his life sucks.
But, the lifestyles of other, non-blogger, writers we have seen in Magazine profiles don't differ too much from Weisenthal's, in that they too are extreme. Caro takes so long on projects his editors have given up on giving him deadlines. He too takes few holidays and spends most days at his desk. He rewrites drafts five times. And his drafts are particularly long because he gets so into the work. Yet, we don't feel bad for Caro at all. We respect that. That sounds kind of romantic, especially since his wife, who he met when she was 16, is his only research assistant. He works in one of those iconic writer offices, too, with a brown leather couch.
There's a certain respect these writers get for their behavior that bloggers don't. But Caro—or Nicholson Baker or Mark Leyner or any author profiled by the Magazine—is just as obsessed with his work as Weisenthal. "The installments keep ballooning, in other words, developing subplots and stories-within-the-story, in a way that reflects Caro’s own process of discovery," writes McGrath, in his Caro profile. What's "discovery" for Caro, is too much time spent working for Weisenthal.
We suspect this dissonance has something to do with the product. Caro's quirks help craft a project that will turn into a literary masterpiece, that could possibly be excerpted in The New Yorker or reviewed by Bill Clinton. Weisenthal writes sensationalist headlines and often gets things wrong. Per Appelbaum:
It helps that in Weisenthal’s line of work, being wrong doesn’t hurt much. Writing about the markets is like playing fantasy football; it’s a simulacrum of Wall Street. Weisenthal’s money is not at stake; investors aren’t paying him.
Weisenthal embraces this freedom. He will make the same prediction repeatedly, crowing when he’s right and shrugging it off when he isn’t. Earlier this year, he wrote several times that a major stock index, the Standard & Poor’s 500, was about to post its first big loss of the year. When it finally happened, he hailed the successful prediction without reference to its less-fortunate predecessors.
It's hard to respect someone without a noble cause. Weisenthal's cause is feeding his own ego and the pageview beast that is Business Insider: Working around the clock on faster, snappier posts means more traffic and theoretically more Internet fame. Meanwhile, Caro is somewhere obsessing on his fourth or fifth draft of a single paragraph.