Steve Oney was the guest of honor at a reception celebrating the release of his new book, "A Man’s World: Portraits—A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes."
Oney discusses the secrets of good magazine writing, fireflies and the future of journalism
A well-written magazine feature can be deceiving.
“The goal is to write a piece where you don’t see any of the work,” Steve Oney said during a recent reception honoring him and his new book.
Oney (ABJ ’79) admits to putting a “back-breaking” amount of work into his writing, but the goal is to not let the work show.
Oney was in town to sign his new book, “A Man’s World: Portraits—A Gallery of Fighters, Creators, Actors, and Desperadoes,” a collection of 20 of his best magazine features written for magazines including “Time,” “Esquire” and “Playboy.”
In addition to reading brief passages of the book, including a portion of the introduction that illustrates UGA campus life in the 1970s, Oney shared his experiences at Grady College, the profiles he is most proud of and his thoughts on the future of journalism.
Oney’s education at Grady
“Everything I am as a writer and a person really stems from my years here in Athens at the University of Georgia,” Oney said of his journalism major and English minor. “I got an extremely good education.”
While at UGA, Oney was influenced by professors including John English, Wally Eberhard and the late Dan Kitchens.
English did a good job “exposing us to the outside world of writing and thinking and creativity, not just in the classroom but by his very presence.”
Oney credits Eberhard with helping him “become a more rigorous thinker and better reporter and a more honest human being, and training me in the virtues of making your work add up. You have to be creative and you have to be imaginative, but you can’t take any fliers if you are writing journalism. It has to add up. It’s about a factual presentation of the world.”
Oney’s new book
While there are women referenced in each profile, Oney said his book is all about men.
The subtitle is about a gallery of profiles, which is fitting reference to the fact that Oney considers himself a portraitist.
“When I go to a museum, I am immediately drawn to the portraits,” Oney said as a preface to his writing style. “I am trying to do a study. If it’s one of the big pieces, it’s a very well-realized study like an oil painting of somebody.”
Oney’s new book is divided into four sections, which he described:
Fighters—“I’m talking about what it takes to marshal the gumption to get through the world; what it takes to fight to achieve something in life.”
Creators—“It’s about what you do actually after you are in the game. How you give something back. How you build something new. How you excel. I think all men have to create.”
Actors—“These are profiles of five famous actors. It’s about how we present ourselves to the world.”
Desperados—“This could be called ‘fighting your demons,’ or it could be called ‘walking on the wild side.’ It’s about the times in your life when you go emotionally off-roading. When you leave the script and you have to face down something that’s been be-deviling you, or you have to take a risk and you have to do something wild that is just an urge that you have to satisfy. You have to try to do something every once in a while that is dangerous or spectacular.”
“This was a firefly that I caught in the summer but it remains alive when you open the book back up. You can see just a little flicker or a little light and you think ‘oh, that’s who that was and that’s what it is to be alive.’ “
Oney also described his thoughts on profiling Andrew Breitbart seven years ago (“it feels prescient reading it today because most of what I thought was insane seven years ago did come true”); one of his first interviews as a young journalist with Harry Crews (“he was funny and vulgar and great. He was a wild man”); and his most ambitious features profiling Craig Raywood, which took him nine months to write, and Chris Leon, a Marine killed in action (“I wanted to answer the question, what is it like to lose a human life?”)
Oney was asked what he hoped that readers would take away from “A Man’s World.”
“I want them to enjoy it. Maybe I also want them to think whether my premise is correct. Do they need to fight; do they need to create; do they need to act? They should think ‘are these gender-specific?’ Is this a man’s world or is it a human world? I am not a moralist. I am not trying to prescribe or teach. I am really most interested in delighting you.
I’m hoping you read these pieces and that you catch a glimmer of life. This is a little life that was caught. This was a firefly that I caught in the summer but it remains alive when you open the book back up. You can see just a little flicker or a little light and you think ‘oh, that’s who that was and that’s what it is to be alive.’”
About the future of journalism
“The future of journalism is dire,” Oney began.
He went on to cite the fact that newspapers don’t publish Sunday magazines as they once did and that there are only a few long-form vehicles still being published including “The New Yorker,” “Vanity Fair,” “Esquire” and the online vehicle, “Bitter Southerner.” He said it is challenging to earn a living writing for magazines.
“There’s an appetite for storytelling,” Oney adds, turning to the positive.
Oney said some podcasts like “Serial,” for example, are very similar to long-form storytelling.
“The venues may change, the forms may mutate, but as long as there are complicated interactions in life and people are fascinated by other people there will be an appetite for great magazine writing.”
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