Peak Atlantic

Burial service for victims of the SS Atlantic shipwreck, April 1873.

At last, I’ve finally reached the end of The Atlantic. I have read one article that is like a flawless, pure distillation of everything that annoys me about waffly liberal writing. Sarah Hepola writes a long rambling pointless essay titled The Things I’m Afraid to Write About. She starts off with a conversation in which she talks about a literary party in New York City that she had attended — already we’re deep into the territory of the cliche. Here’s what bothers her:

“So why were you there again?” he asked.

“Because I wanted to talk to other writers about the things you can’t write about anymore.”

His eyes narrowed. “What things can’t you write about?”

“Gender, sex, politics. The things you and I discuss.”

He ran a hand through his hair. “I’d think those would be the most interesting things to write about.”

I gave him an exasperated look. “Are you kidding? I’d get killed!”

His look wasn’t judgmental. I’d say it was disappointed. What he said was slow, and careful, and I’ve never forgotten it. “But I thought that’s what writers do.”

Then, the rest of the over-long pseudo-literary noise is Hepola whining about all the things she can’t write about, which she’s writing for a fairly prestigious magazine, and she somehow manages to squander this opportunity by not saying anything about what she thinks, except to say, gosh, here are topics I won’t write about. It is a colossal waste of time.

She ends with a promise to work up the courage to speak up more about her positions on all these vaguely stated topics. You know, the ones she couldn’t speak about in this tedious essay.

Maybe I’ll write something great this year. Maybe I’ll write something lousy. Maybe I’ll meet the love of my life, and maybe come April, I’ll be picking up groceries for the good people of North Texas who need those seven items, pronto. You can’t predict these things; it’s all guesswork. I know this: I’m finally ready to have a conversation with the world.

Ready? But she didn’t. How did this get published? Were the editors deeply impressed with her ability to say nothing at all at such great length? Most writers, when they write, write because they have something to say; this writer wrote because she had nothing to say, and didn’t say it. And The Atlantic published it.


  1. weylguy says

    Regarding nearly every Atlantic article, I would amend “long and rambling” to “insufferably long and rambling.”

  2. gijoel says

    It’s just conservative, whinging about being censored for stupid ideas, by proxy.

  3. R. L. Foster says

    Interesting coincidence. I just let my Atlantic subscription lapse last week. There were only a handful of their writers I ever bothered to read:
    Frum, a Canadian conservative, but a keen mind
    Yong, some of the best pandemic coverage anywhere
    Applebaum, excellent take on Russia and Ukraine
    There were a few others, but the topics they tended to cover were of only marginal interest to me.

    I suspect I only read about 20 of their articles in the past year, not worth the $60/yr. subscription.

  4. microraptor says

    So, was the point of that article that you can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant?

  5. chrislawson says

    Jebus, I’m in the middle of watching I May Destroy You. It is all about sex. And violence. And drugs. And politics. And race. It’s been winning awards everywhere. Recently finished season 1 of We Are Lady Parts, which is wonderful BTW…and all about gender politics and religion and the immigrant experience in the UK. It also won awards all over the place. Belatedly finished GLOW, which somehow manages to mash gender, race, money, and complex questions about entertainment pandering to prejudice into its comedy-drama format. Also well received and nominated for numerous awards…

    Is Hepola not aware that the year’s most successful streaming show was a brutal political horror-satire from South Korea? Even a show I thought was overpraised but still worth catching, White Lotus, is overt about its take on political inequality and the ongoing aftermath of colonialism (for those wondering, my main gripe about the show is that an important non-White character abruptly disappears from the storyline as soon as their narrative point has been made — an unintentionally self-referential example of the show’s theme).

    Given that plenty of creators are having huge success exploring these spaces, Hepola surely can’t be afraid to write about sex, gender, and politics. It seems far more likely that she’s afraid that she can only excrete reactionary prose gruel and that people will criticise her for it.

  6. whywhywhy says

    #7 The article seems in contrast to Alice’s Restaurant Massacree since Arlo actually makes a point (a meandering point, but a point none the less).

  7. crimsonsage says

    When ever I see people complaining about cancel culture or wokeness, or whatever, I just hear “T wish I coul still call you T-slur!” Like yes online people can get hysterical and bandwagony when it comes to criticizing people-oriented bad takes, but the lesson is not “I guess I should be a bigot now” but instead “wow I guess maybe that was wrong” or “Humm maybe there us more nuance here I should think about.” Ultimately though they never do any of that because, as I said, these are just bigots who want their ‘common sense’ bigotries confirmed and applauded.

  8. StevoR says

    I gave him an exasperated look. “Are you kidding? I’d get killed!”

    Don’t ‘spose Sarah Hepola specified who she thought would actually kill her and why?

    Or if inmstead a sseems more likely #3 KG is spot on and “killed” here really just equals criticised or getting called out for bigotry and forced to confront the prospect she’s been badly wrong and hurt people by her writing?.

    Consequences have always been a thing in our cultures – calling them “cancelling” is new, far as I know.

  9. hillaryrettig1 says

    At this point, I only subscribe (with $$$) to leftist media, and to a couple of local media projects in my state. Centrist media will always disappoint you.

    The Atlantic currently has a lot of sketchy writers, including Frum (an evil Minion of Shrub) and Applebaum (a right winger who wrote a whole book about her surprise that so many of her rw friends turned out to be fascist). They also tried, for no reason at all, to resurrect Ruth Shalit of infamous plagiarism fame. Their editorial process seems really tainted.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    I lost a lot of respect for The Atlantic back (IIRC) in the ’90s, on reading a heavily hyped cover story about what Abraham Lincoln would say about abortion. The author interrogated an entirely imaginary Lincoln who supported vague middle-of-the-road non-solutions, and did not touch on actual 19th-century US politics of gender, medicine, or reproduction at all.

    That, and many following, failures of editorial judgment do not mean that everything in the mag deserves disregard – Ed Yong”s articles on Covid-19 and other scientific topics stand out particularly – but the good stuff seems to appear there almost by accident.

  11. David C Brayton says

    To some extent, KG is absolutely right. Many people seem that reasonable discussion and criticism of their expressed opinions is the equivalent of death threats.

    However, reasoned discussion and criticism are often lacking, especially on line (where no one knows you are a dog). Death threats, especially those directed at women, are incredibly common. Combine this with the easy ability to locate and easily harass anyone, I can see how folks would be scared to express an opinion.

  12. DanDare says

    Its a ground work article.
    There are “things” I can’t write about. Dog whistle to those that know precicely which things. Others who imagine cancel culture is real drum up ghosts of “things” and become convinced that is what she wrote.
    This raises the level of excitement about cancel culture without putting forward anything that can be rebutted.

  13. andrei613 says

    To Ms. Hepola:

    If you were really being cancelled, then you would NOT have gotten an ‘article’ whining about people (gasp!) daring to disagree with you into The Atlantic.

    Now, when some such folks also get a spot in that rag, well, that would be, you know… EQUALITY.

  14. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Old media is addicted to the “bold truth teller” narrative, so when the internet calls them out, they become convinced that the problem is with the audience and clearly not them because they’re bold truth tellers.

  15. Kagehi says

    Snort… To be clear, her “problem” isn’t that she can’t write about the things she wants, it’s that what she wants to write would be seen by the vast majority of “readers” as narrow minded bullshit, with no depth, understanding, or likely compassion for those that don’t conform to her stereotypes. It’s only ” freedom” to these people, seemingly, if everyone nods and tells them, “Great job. I totally agree!”

  16. Nemo says

    Yong, some of the best pandemic coverage anywhere

    I remember him from ScienceBlogs. But I never knew he was British until I saw him on MSNBC recently.