Writers hate rules, so when the rule was that we should keep ourselves out of stories because readers aren't interested in us, we started injecting ourselves into the story. Sometimes it worked, but mostly, it led to the Spago story, in which writers substituted their own personalities when they failed to get a subject to offer up his or hers, so that we're left with, "I'm sitting at Spago awaiting Winona Ryder, anxious that she's not going to like me as much as I adore her. . . . "
Such stories are examples of why we should keep ourselves to ourselves. But Inc's April profile of Pat Croce, whom the magazine dubs "the Dale Carnegie of the 21st century," is an example of when we shouldn't.
Those who've heard of Croce probably know him as president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. Before that, Croce was a physical therapist who, largely on the strength of superhuman ebullience, built an 11-state chain of fitness clubs he sold for $40 million. Croce left the Sixers in July, Joseph Rosenbloom reports, and has been seeking to "brand" himself, a la Martha Stewart, "so that he can exploit his fame in a variety of profit-making endeavors."
Pretty quickly, Rosenbloom makes clear that going into the story he was "on guard against a Croce charm offensive." He acknowledges his belief that Croce's success, rather than being based on outlandishness, might well have come in spite of it.
A knee-jerk reader might ask why Rosenbloom put himself into the story at all, particularly when Croce has enough personality for several profiles. But as the piece progresses, that becomes clear. Rosenbloom begins to be won over in a process one suspects that Croce has orchestrated countless times. Croce shows "the capacity to listen keenly to others," Ro sen bloom writes. He starts to see Croce's "unassuming nature . . . as an important counterbalance to his thundering style."
By story's end, when Ro sen bloom shares his sense of Croce's "overweening desire to help me succeed on my terms," the conversion is complete and the reader is convinced of Croce's winning way, an effect achieved by Ro sen bloom's including himself.
The May Atlantic Monthly engages in a vastly different sort of profile, in which the writer, Mark Bowden, never comes near the subject, Saddam Hussein. In the typically lengthy format of an Atlantic lead story, Bowden reveals reams of detail, but little else, about the Iraqi tyrant.
The detail is impressive: He has a bad back but swims to stay in shape. He has written two novels and may have a third on the way. He likes to watch television - news channels, mostly - and movies: conspiracy tales such as "The Day of the Jackal" and "Enemy of the State," as well as "The Godfather" movies and "The Old Man and the Sea." He's been married to his first cousin for nearly 40 years. His son Uday killed a top lieutenant of Saddam's, but got away with it, only to be paralyzed in an assassination attempt in 1996.
More than a half-dozen Iraqis who have been in Saddam's presence, several at a high level, inform Bowden's story, raising it above what could fairly be expected about an unreachable subject.
But little of the big picture has been expanded. Saddam is vicious, a point bolstered not-at-all delicately by Saddam's blood- drenched hand in the cover portrait. Saddam is ruthless. Saddam won't go, short of death. Which of those revelations is enlightening?
The April National Geographic Traveler offers a lesson in illuminating personality without offering a profile at all. Julia Child pens a two-page piece that is as pleasing as its cover headline is painful: "Julia Child's Santa Barbara." Now, I've never been to Santa Barbara, Calif., and don't want to like it, precisely because it is Julia's; I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that it's no longer "Julia Child's Cambridge," even if she makes clear that in 40 years here, she "never became a New Englander."
But in short order, she conveys her love for the "eucalyptus and oak and flowers [that] make the place verdant and lush" and for "the warm, cream color of the Spanish-style houses and the red of their tile roofs." Her voice sings on the page just as it does on television, such as when she describes the local dining scene. There aren't any great restaurants, "but we have some perfectly nice ones."
Concurrently, the April issue of Sunset, "the magazine of Western living," delivers travelogue from the same region. In an entirely churlish way, reading Matthew Jaffe's version of Santa Barbara is a lot easier to take: The area doesn't sound nearly as interesting. The contrast allows the provincial New Englander to think that it isn't the place that's so special, but the light of our Julia that makes it shine.