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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Analyzing “The Five Bedroom, Six Figure Rootless Life”
You've worked on analyzing the Peter Kilborn New York Times article about the Link family, an upper-middle class family living in Alpharetta, Georgia. This family is profiled because they are typical of a “growing segment of the upper-middle class, executive gypsies.” (paragraph 6).
Kilborn refers to the Links and other families like them as “relos” because they are continuously relocating, following the economic trade winds. They are employees of large, powerful, rich, multinational corporations that merge and expand and contract and spin off in whatever direction profits dictate, and if they want to maintain their employment, or their status, they have to be prepared to move around the country wherever they might be needed.
Why should we be interested in the Link family? They aren’t celebrities; they’re not famous; they haven’t achieved anything specifically. What’s the appeal? Why write a profile about them?
The Links are interesting to us because they are typical, representative—not because they are special. They are representative of a particular lifestyle that many people in America want to have. Observing them helps us understand something about ourselves, our aspirations. This is a typical family from a particular social class living the latest installment of the American dream. They’ve attained much that we would like to attain. (I’m using “we” loosely—you may not personally want what they have.)
So now that they’re “living the dream” the next question is—well, what’s it like? Are they free? Are they happy? Is it everything they hoped it would be? Kilborn may not openly ask or answer these questions (they’re a poet’s questions, actually)—but the way he communicates his observations, the impressions he creates by the way he describes things, let us know his answers just the same. He has his own impressions and those come through in the writing. You might wonder if he’s being fair to the Link family; would you want your family to appear in this light in an article in the New York Times? Did he betray their trust by painting them in a negative light, or did he do them (and us) a service by showing the truth about their struggles?
After reading an article like this, readers may be asking themselves the same questions Kilborn asked while he was observing the Links: Do they like their life? Are they happy? Is this a life worth striving for? If Kilborn has done his job well—if he’s provided enough information and objective description, along with the subjective impressionistic description, then readers will be able to form their own opinions. Yes, the Links are happy; no the Links are miserable.
The profile writer’s job is to give us enough information, enough observation, that we can understand his attitude, his perspective, while also being free to form our own impressions. This is what the writer thinks, we can say, and this is what I think. If he’s done his job well, then he’s given us enough objective description and information so that we can form our own impression of the Links as we observe them (via Kilborn’s description). It’s not always easy to separate our own attitudes and impressions from those of the writer, but it’s possible, and sometimes necessary if you want to think for yourself.
In your own responses to the analysis exercise on Wed., this room for a difference of opinion, the support for different impressions, became clear as some of you interpreted Kilborn’s attitude toward the Links as positive and some interpreted it as negative:
There’s much in this article to make readers feel like the Links are living the American dream—the big house, the big car, the attractive, safe neighborhood, the good schools, parks, sports, etc…the Links seem to have the best of practically everything. But then, despite this, there’s much in this article to make the reader feel like the Links are living the American nightmare—the lack of individuality and freedom, the stress of being in relentless motion, the lost sense of community and friendship, the strained family (father is always away), and lots of status anxiety (kids call it peer pressure).
It’s a great article that gives us a lot to think about, and we have something to think about because this profile is so good at closely observing its subject and presenting those observations skillfully.
Profile essays above all closely observe their subjects. They give us an “insider’s view”—a close up perspective—and they ultimately offer readers, not only information about the subject but the writer’s impression of the subject, too. They collect observations, gather information, and then select the material they hope will communicate to readers a coherent impression—what Trimbur refers to as the “dominant impression.”
That is why, when you recognize that you are reading a profile, you ought to know right off the bat that you are not reading purely objective reporting or objective analysis; because you have an awareness of the genre, you know the writer has been free to include (sometimes subtly, sometimes very obviously) his or her own subjective impressions as well.
The whole thing has the effect of putting a very human face on what might otherwise be very dry, abstract subject matter. That’s why is such an appealing and popular kind of article to read, and to write. In the case of this article and the next one, these writers are putting a human face on some very abstract cultural and demographic trends like the increasing appearance of a certain brand of affluent but transient suburbia; or the rise of the politicized “megachurch.” The profile makes these issues more accessible, more understandable, to more people, and it is a genre frequently used in newspapers and magazines, and even on news broadcasts.
It’s an important critical thinking skill, not only as a reader and a writer and a listener, to develop the ability to separate what’s been fused in the profile—that subtle combination of fact and impression. It’s only a small step to being able, later, when you’re evaluating the validity of arguments, to tell the difference between “fact” and “spin.”
The handout “Objective vs. Subjective Description” looks closely at two kinds of description, to give you an idea of this subtle difference between fact an impression.
Questions? Contact me.
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