The Oral History of the Oral History of Oral Histories

(Photo Illo: Pawns)

When, earlier this month, The Daily published Michaelangelo Matos’s oral history of oral histories, some observers thought our society had reached the final destination in self-referential excess. They were wrong.

MICHAELANGELO MATOS: I pitched The Daily a feature on the oral history boom of the last few years. I had a cultural idea: it’s happening at the same time that blogs are making first-person writing so popular and accessible. After I sent my pitch, I thought, “I should have just pitched an oral history of the oral history. Somebody’s going to do it eventually—people are going to run out of ideas.” I had that thought for maybe ten seconds, and then I went back to what I was doing.

CLAIRE HOWORTH, ARTS AND LIFE EDITOR, THE DAILY: Chris Wilson, one of the news editors, saw the pitch and wrote back, “How about an oral history of oral histories?” And from there, it was pretty obvious that was what should happen.

MATOS: Once Claire gave the go-ahead, I thought it wasn’t going to happen right away, because I had five other giant assignments to do. But she said, “How fast can you make it happen?” I said two weeks, and I actually did it in about two and a half. The great thing was I managed to negotiate my fee up.

HOWORTH: I gave him a list of people and editors I knew had worked on oral histories. Vanity Fair, where I worked, is known for publishing a lot of really brilliant ones. And I suggested he talk to somebody at Grove/Atlantic, where I also used to work. They were Legs [McNeil]‘s publishers, and the VP had worked for Studs [Terkel].

MATOS: I asked a bunch of my friends, “What are the oral histories that I don’t know about?” That’s how I found out about a lot of non-music and non-entertainment ones.

BRET MCCABE, FORMER MUSIC EDITOR OF THE BALTIMORE CITY PAPER: As an undergraduate I took a class called “Life History Anthropology” with this really delightful old man by the name of Sidney Mintz.Then my interests started overlapping with the things I saw oral histories for. One book I suggested was The Last Cannibals, a look at a collection of stories told by a Brazilian indigenous population. Fairly niche, but I thought it was something nobody else would recommend.

MATOS: At first, when I approached people for interviews, I would just say “I’m doing a feature on oral history,” but they got suspicious. Sean Fennessy [of] was interrogating me about my motives: “What are you doing? I know you’re up to something.”

ROB TANNENBAUM, CO-AUTHOR OF I WANT MY MTV: When Matos contacted me and [co-author] Craig [Marks], he just said he was working on a piece about oral histories. At whatever point I learned that it was an oral history of oral histories, I did pretty quickly think, “So when is the oral history of the oral history of oral histories?” And I have to say, I’m hoping it will end here, because an oral history of the oral history of the oral history of oral histories would pass the point where it’s no longer postmodernism but just some stupid bullshit.

MATOS: Once I got full-bore into it, I realized it was enough of a joke conceptually that I didn’t have to make it a piss-take. I think that’s the reason the piece works.

HOWORTH: The piece was really fun to publish. Somebody tweeted, “If The Daily gets the joke, this is really funny.” Obviously, we got the joke.

The Oral History of the Oral History of Oral Histories