The Journalist and the Con ArtistS

It wasn't even a well-executed story about a golf club. Most people agree now, broadly, about Grantland's failings toward transgender people in its telling of—and creation of—the tragic story of the golf-club inventor Essay Anne Vanderbilt. Bill Simmons, the founder and editor-in-chief of the prestige-sportswriting website, signed off on that agreement Monday with a long note of apology.

Imprinted on that agreement, though, was the outline of a different, quickly abandoned agreement. As Simmons wrote, about the initial publication of Caleb Hannan's story:

People loved it. People were enthralled by it. People shared it. People tweeted it and retweeted it. A steady stream of respected writers and journalists passed along their praise. ...

The piece had been up for 56 solid hours before the backlash began. The narrative shifted abruptly, and by Friday night, early high-profile supporters were backtracking from their initial praise.

This was what one magazine veteran called "Longform Altamont"—the moment when a self-satisfied subculture's idea of good times spun out of control into horror, national disgrace, and death. Why did the journalism enthusiasts celebrate what the broader public would recognize as a debacle?

Callousness toward trans issues was part of it. But the callousness was wrapped up in something larger. In the best-realized part of the Grantland piece, where Hannan explained the business of golf equipment and the psychology behind it, he described the process of "positive contagion," in which people who have been cued to believe a golf club is used by a professional will experience it as being easier to use.

Something related is at work in feature writing: If you cue nonfiction-writing fans to expect a great story, they will read it as a great story.

Thus the lead on Hannan's piece:

Strange stories can find you at strange times. Like when you're battling insomnia and looking for tips on your short game.

Here, it announces, is a story about a story. Something similar happens in Simmons's editor's note, where in the first paragraph, he offers his "condolences to Dr. V's friends and family." This comes across as a sort of crude overcorrection—in addition to posthumously granting Vanderbilt her gender identity, he's signing off on her bogus academic credentials. Whatever you people say! But also: "Dr. V" is not a person; "Dr. V" is a character in a narrative.

It's a narrative in which crazy and surprising things happen, as its early admirers noted—things that are marked as being serious. Only marked as such, however: Vanderbilt's death apparently registered not as a terrible fact that had happened in the real world, but as one more twist in the narrative that the reporter had gotten. Similarly, the initial outing of Vanderbilt as transgender person was taken as a stunning surprise turned up by a curious reporter—the narrative pivot of the story—not as a malicious remark delivered by a source known to be hostile to her.

This blindness didn't just apply to the moral implications of the narrative, but to the narrative itself. As a piece of reported nonfiction, it didn't really hold together. It visibly contained the bones of at least three separate stories, wired clumsily together. And none of those stories was really ready to publish.

First, there was the sports-technology story of Vanderbilt's Oracle GX1 putter, which may have been a revolutionary golf club. But Hannan never figured out whether it was revolutionary or not. Then there was the story of the mysterious and troubled inventor, with false credentials and a confusing history, who might have been anything from a true genius to a con artist. But she stopped cooperating with Hannan before he could persuade her to give an account of herself.

Finally there was the story that brought most readers up short: the story of a reporter whose source, after being upset by his questioning, had killed herself. But Hannan—and Grantland—got nowhere, or went nowhere, in exploring what role the article's reporting played in her death.

Simmons's editor's note was fairly open about some of the shortcomings. When Vanderbilt was alive but refusing to cooperate, he wrote, "[t]he story had no ending....We never seriously considered running his piece, at least in that version's form."

In other words, it was the news of Vanderbilt's suicide that led to a rewrite—although a peculiarly limited one:

When anyone criticizes the Dr. V feature for lacking empathy in the final few paragraphs, they're right. Had we pushed Caleb to include a deeper perspective about his own feelings, and his own fears of culpability, that would have softened those criticisms. Then again, Caleb had spent the piece presenting himself as a curious reporter, nothing more. Had he shoehorned his own perspective/feelings/emotions into the ending, it could have been perceived as unnecessarily contrived. And that's not a good outcome, either.

One solution would have been to make the suicide something more than a tacked-on ending—to tear the story apart entirely and make the death the point of it, from the very beginning. That would have required more reporting, and a difficult and painful kind of reporting.

"Not only did we feel terrible about what happened to Dr. V," Simmons writes, "we could never really know why it happened. Nor was there any way to find out." Perhaps that's true in a philosophical sense, about the nature of suicide. Hannan's story ends on a similar note of helplessness:

The only person who can provide this strange story with its proper ending is the person who started it....[I]t's hard to argue with Dr. V's conclusions. "Nobody knows my life but me," she said. "You don't know what the truth is."

Yet Vanderbilt's girlfriend and business partner, Gerri Jordan, had survived her, and had participated in the earlier reporting process firsthand, until the reporter-subject relationship turned openly hostile. Hearing Jordan's account—agonizing though it would have been for both sides involved—would surely have added something to everyone's understanding of the case.

Meditations on the unknowable usually mark the spot where a fatally botched reporting job lies down to die. This is not about Grantland's or Hannan's relative lack of experience with major features (note: I edited Hannan once, for Deadspin). Everyone is capable of it. In the New Yorker last year, Mark Singer spent 9,700 words setting up the mystery of how a suspicious marathoner had posted improbable-unto-impossible race times, without running afoul of all the cheating-detection procedures, only to wave his hands and admit ignorance on the central question of his story:

Like the most dazzling of magicians or the most artful of art forgers, by withholding the secret of how the illusion worked he retained a power uniquely his own.

Rather than sending Singer back to work until he had solved the problem, the editors at the New Yorker let him dump his failure onto the magazine's readers. The story was well received anyway. The connoisseurs of long writing don't care if it gets anywhere.

So who cares if the golf club really works? When Hannan thought Vanderbilt was an aerospace expert, he wrote, he played better with the club:

As soon as I learned she had simply been a struggling mechanic, the magic was lost. Today, Dr. V's Oracle is collecting dust in my garage.

If you believe that Stealth Bomber technology, which Vanderbilt had claimed to have worked on, should help you hit a ball with a stick, you are already a willing participant in a confidence game. Aerospace hokum is deeply integrated into golf culture; this is a sport where the word "Titanium" stamped on a club guarantees as much elemental titanium as the word "martini" guarantees vermouth.

As plenty of people have noted, the true conceptual pivot hidden in the story is not the revelation that Vanderbilt was transgender, but Gerri Jordan's would-be sarcastic complaint to Hannan:

"[W]hat you are telling golfers is that the most scientifically advanced Near Zero MOI putter, and the science of the Inertia Matrix was invented by a lesbian auto mechanic."

In fact, the premise that an auto mechanic could have engineered a superior golf club could have made a perfectly inspiring story, and one a good deal less corny than the premise that a top-secret military airplane designer did. Vanderbilt was not a Ph.D., and she was not one of the genuine Vanderbilts by birth, and she was not a lot of other things. But she was a mechanic, and she did invent a new kind of golf club.

And rather than figuring out if she'd made a real breakthrough, Grantland left the putter in the writer's garage, "collecting dust," its mysteries unresolved. Essay Anne Vanderbilt—as a human who dedicated her life to an invention, not as a narrative character or an emblem of discrimination—deserved an answer.

[Image by Jim Cooke]