By Cynthia Scott
A comment about Minnesota Alumni recently came my way from a reader who was disgruntled that we seem to write only about highly accomplished alumni: the CEO of the billion-dollar company, the extraordinary humanitarian, the scientist who’s made an earth-shattering discovery, the young superstar, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam. Where, he wondered, are the stories about the regular folk who go about their day with diligence and integrity, take care of their families and friends, and have a positive, though unsung, presence in their communities?
As an Average Josephine, I sympathize with this hero-weary reader. I suspect most of us more readily identify with the Onion’s proverbial “Area Man” than with the prodigy who spends his days kicking up dust on the road to greatness. (See recent Onion headline, “Report: Someone Needs to Get Chips and Dip Away From Area Man.” Are there other Area Men and Women out there who think that headline was written for them?)
Many of my peers nationwide are discussing and writing about this tendency to focus on and inflate success stories at the expense of authentically portraying the Average Joe. One critic dubbed it Alumni Magazine Syndrome. She described feeling deflated every few months when her magazine arrived and she felt the inadequacy of her life up against the alumni who were profiled. Ouch.
I applaud this discussion. It implicitly recognizes and values the infinite textures of alumni lives, even as it acknowledges that writers and editors can fall short in translating them into stories. Some of this discussion revolves around the question of how to write about failure: an important question, to be sure, but to my mind, lurching from stories about one extreme—outrageous success—to its opposite still doesn’t quite honor the messy middle where life is lived.
So I understand and respect where our disgruntled reader is coming from. He poses a worthy challenge. But I would also offer the observation that readers can fall into assuming that anyone who appears in print must be larger than life or they wouldn’t be in print. This is just not true. When I was editor of a different publication, a reader once expressed this sentiment upon meeting me for the first time with a crestfallen look and the comment, “I thought you’d be taller.” Well, so did I, but I was sorry to disappoint nonetheless. The comment drove home how we all create ideas about and assign attributes to the person behind the photo and the story that bear no resemblance to reality.
The messy middle also happens to be where humor resides. This issue of the magazine showcases alumni comedians: artists of the messy middle who cast a quirky gaze on human foibles and hold them up as invitations to see life from a different perspective. Are the alumni we’ve written about superstars? I can guarantee you they don’t think so. They’re more on the side of Area Men and Women who have just followed their hearts. What could be more extraordinary than that?
Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) can be reached at email@example.com.