Pollan and Lewis Share Dialogue, First Name

Photo: Face to face. New York Times bestselling writers Michael Pollan and Michael Lewis engage in a discourse on the state of journalism at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
Ryan Ballard/Photo
Face to face. New York Times bestselling writers Michael Pollan and Michael Lewis engage in a discourse on the state of journalism at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

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Those expecting a sob-fest on the decline of print journalism might have left "Michael x Michael" scratching their heads. The event, hosted by the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism this past Thursday at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, showcased a discussion between Michael Lewis and Michael Pollan, both Berkeley residents and New York Times bestselling authors, on the subjects of contemporary journalism and non-fiction writing.

Pollan, perhaps best known for his books on U.S. food politics and "nutritionism" in (respectively) 2006's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and 2008's "In Defense of Food," is also a Knight Professor at the J-School. He has written about harvesting sea salt and the biochemistry of bran flakes and somehow managed to make it bestselling.

Lewis is a different animal: while Pollan handles a sticky issue with critical gloves, Lewis' work is more autobiographical. Working as an associate for Salomon Brothers in the late '80s, he was exposed to the insanely lucrative world of bonds salesmen (see Oliver Stone's 1987 film "Wall Street" for a liberal artist's rendering). Amazed by his associates' financial success and pure blockheaded brazenness, he published articles about the company as "Diana Bleeker," before leaving to work as a financial journalist. His bestsellers include "Liar's Poker" (1990) and most recently "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine" (2010), which explains the build up to the U.S. financial crisis. Lewis currently works as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

So these two bestselling Michaels sat in business-casual armchairs and chatted about journalism. The event's staging resembled a good-natured if not contrived pre-dinner-party chat: A small table sat between the two Michaels, as they made congenial conversation about their careers. Picture "Between Two Ferns" but without the interrogation, or any actual ferns. There was no facilitation to the event save for an introduction by the J-School dean, so the dynamic was pleasantly relaxed and free-form, just shooting the shit about Greece's financial implosion and where to buy an entire cow.

Refreshingly, little time was devoted to lamenting the decline of print journalism. It may be an unavoidable topic nowadays in such forums, but the reactionary rhetoric can be seen as highly reminiscent of the movement from vinyl LP to CD to MB - that inevitably, with that shift from the physical to digital, a necessary part of the form would be lost. The two Michaels lauded the growth that long-form journalism has garnered in the digital age, where the Internet allows for an expanded reader forum and omnipresent access. Both Michaels stressed that the potential of long-form journalism lies in books (gasp!). Securing a book deal can attract movie studios, hopefully creating a successful evolution from magazine article to major motion picture. It happened to Susan Orlean's New Yorker article, "Orchid Fever," developed into Spike Jonze's feature-length film "Adaptation." They're even making a movie out of "Freakonomics," for Oprah's sake.

The discussion ended with a handful of questions from the audience, revolving mostly around creative process and actual writing style. The Michaels wrapped up the discussion with a few pieces of advice: Try to find the narrative in your piece, and remember the diversity of your readership. So all in all, a hopeful night for print journalism, and maybe we'll get an "Omnivore's Dilemma" movie out of it.

Shoot the shit about "nutritionism" with Amelia at [email protected]

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