Vinson Cunningham has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 2016. His writing includes commentary on art, books, sports, politics, and culture. Cunningham has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Fader, The Awl, Vulture, and McSweeney’s. He previously served in the Obama administration as a staff assistant.
The Politic: You’re a writer of cultural criticism pieces. In your mind, what skills are helpful for writing well in this genre?
Vinson Cunningham: I’m often looking at pieces of art, books, movies, comedy specials, basketball games sometimes. A little bit of everything. But for me, the main skill is attentiveness. Being able to pay deep attention to something and trust that that attention will yield something. And the great tool of writing is analogy, is metaphor. Trying to find a way to make unlike things like yields the kinds of fruits I’m looking for when I write. I trust that’ll often give me an excuse to really talk about things that bother me on the larger level of politics or society.
I would assume that there are somewhat different processes for writing about a political subject versus a musical subject or an artistic subject. Are there any differences in approach?
I think about this stuff in two ways. In one way, I make no distinctions. Part of my work, what I consider freedom in criticism, is to cast the same eye over all different kinds of things. To treat the movement of a basketball game as you would a work of visual art, to subject it to the same description that you would a figure in a painting. So that’s part of the fun. But the differences between these things sometimes show themselves in the way you’re able to write about them.
Sometimes when you’re writing about a kind of art or artistic production, the challenge can be to do what that thing can’t do. Comedy has things it can and can’t do, for example. Sometimes it’s fun to write in the spaces where that medium can’t go, to explain what comedy can’t or doesn’t want to explain, to be verbal where images are obviously withholding in that way, to try to play the polar opposite of a kind of medium.
How much choice do you have regarding the subjects you write about? How often are the pieces you come out with a result of you singling out things that interest you versus something an editor gives you to grapple with?
It’s total back and forth between those ways. Luckily, I’ve got a great editor who shares a lot of my interests and has a good sense for what I’ll be interested in. So he’ll bring me stuff and I’ll bring stuff to him. I’ll say, “The next thing I want to do is review a book,” and then he’ll be like, “Yeah, what about these?” So yeah, we go back and forth. But I’d say it’s probably 50-50 between my offerings and my editor’s suggestions.
As a writer of color, how does your blackness affect how you analyze things, affect what you focus on, or affect what you’re skeptical of?
I think, as writers, we like to pretend that there’s this thing called “art for art’s sake,” or that people’s interests come from this celestial place that has nothing to do with them. And that this kind of identity-based frame of mind only comes into play with writers of color. But my experience is that everybody brings their life to their writing and that people’s experiences color their interests. So my blackness certainly directs my attention. I’m interested in black people. I’m interested in everything in America that contributes to my own making and to the making of the people that I love. That’s kind of where it lands in terms of interest.
In terms of method, I sometimes pull back from the expectation, especially recently, that a writer of color has to carry a certain tone. We often ascribe these labels to black writing, after Ferguson or after Charlottesville, any kind of racial disaster, we describe the writing of black people as searing or profound. It’s always got this Mississipi Burning label. Even in writing about those things, I want to be the person in control of my tone. I don’t want the fires of the world to be in control of how I go about my work. So it’s about trying to deal with that kind of political material, but still trying to be funny, or withholding, or however I want to be tonally. It’s an interesting challenge.
What criticism depends on is a voice. You can’t be a voice for more than yourself. You can care about the community you come from and feel a responsibility to tell the truth about the world as you see it. But you can only ever speak for yourself. I’ve found that there are exterior pressures, not from anyone at The New Yorker, but in general, asking you to be something more than yourself.
You were a staff assistant at the Obama White House. What was that experience like, and how has it affected your writing?
I worked in a very obscure office in the White House called the Office of Presidential Personnel. I learned a lot about the way government works. It’s the office that manages the President’s political appointments to agencies all across the federal government and the Cabinet. I was a part of a small team of great people who selected people to serve in the Treasury, the Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, and a whole bunch of regulatory agencies. So I certainly got to see the rote mechanics of government, but also how people conducted themselves. I worked on the Obama campaign. I worked for the Democratic Party. Then I did this job at the White House.
I was never very good at being a person in politics. It was something I was super interested in, but I could tell I wasn’t long for that world. It certainly gave me a chance to go deep and get smart in politics, government, and a whole side of American culture. Also, it made me a bit more merciful now when I write about politics. There is a certain cynicism in politics. But the people that work for the politicians—the staffers—they tend to be incredibly earnest, well-intentioned people. I try to remind myself of that when I’m exasperated.
The New Yorker articles don’t have comment sections beneath them. How do you feel about that?
Writing now in the era of social media, the comment section for your piece is the Facebook or Twitter conversation that unfolds when a New Yorker account posts something. Beneath a posting is a chorus of dissent and agreement. I’m happy to leave it there. I’ve been an Internet person for years and have seen how comment sections can turn into cesspools. That’s a great outsourcing, leaving it on social media.
But, there was a great murderers row of bloggers at The Atlantic—Jeffrey Goldberg, now the editor-in-chief, James Fallows, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ross Douthat. They had well-handled comment sections, heavy on banning people who weren’t adding to a civic community. That is the exception to the rule. Comment sections are usually not that great. The Gawker comment section used to be awesome though, lots of snark. People who went on to become pretty interesting writers in their own right would always be in the comments there. Again, that’s an exception to the rule. It’s probably wise on the part of The New Yorker not to have them.
Now, just a couple of quick questions. Where do you generally get your news?
I’m trying to get off of Twitter now. That used to be my answer. Now, I just get The New York Times in print, and have a roster of different sites, POLITICO and others.
What place would you most like to visit?
I really want to go to Sierra Leone. My mom’s father is from there. I have a whole branch of my family that I’ve never met.
If you weren’t in your current job right now, what do you think you’d be doing?
I might still be in politics.
Which living person do you admire most right now?
I don’t know. I’m very inspired by Pope Francis. I’m not sure if he’s the only one, but I do admire Pope Francis.
What’s one thing that keeps you up at night?
I’ve got a kid. That’s enough.
What advice would you give to college students? And what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
It’s the same answer for both. Take advantage of the time you have here. Read a ton. I would err on the side of under-scheduling yourself so that you have enough time to let your mind go where it wants to go.
Definitely. Thank you very much, Mr. Cunningham.