The Freaks Came Out to Write Jennifer Krasinski

Seven decades of rabble-rousing voices from the Village Voice, chronicled in a new book by Tricia Romano.

The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper that Changed American Culture, by Tricia Romano, PublicAffairs, 571 pages, $35

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One of the many stories that perfectly and succinctly captures the golden age of the Village Voice goes something like this: once upon a time, back in the mid-1970s, a straitlaced if earnest young intern sat in on one of the paper’s staff meetings. It was the usual feral assembly of editors and writers hotly debating what to cover and who should cover it and how. When the meeting ended, the intern turned to a senior editor. “Now let me get this straight,” he said, trying to wrap his head around what he’d just learned. “We’re against gentrification, and we’re for fist-fucking. Do I have this right?”

Brimming with nearly seventy years’ worth of equally colorful accounts, The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper that Changed American Culture is simultaneously an oral history, a bestiary, a case study, and a cautionary tale told across eighty-eight chapters totaling nearly six hundred pages. Tricia Romano, a former nightlife reporter for the Voice, has done the almighty work of conducting and editing more than two hundred interviews with writers, editors, and staff, rounding out this rowdy chorus with quotes from former publishers, such as Rupert Murdoch and Leonard Stern, as well as from artists, musicians, politicians, and other adjacent figures. “In an oral history, a person’s story is the story,” Romano explains in her author’s note. In that sense, it’s the most apposite way to piece together an otherwise disparate record, allowing for the same subjectivity and dissonance that made the paper so legendary.

The Freaks Came Out chronicles the Voice’s rise and fall (and rise and fall) as it became one of the most powerful independent publications in America, then neutered and defanged, and eventually reduced to a mere heritage brand. It was launched in 1955 by writer Dan Wolf, psychologist Ed Fancher, and novelist-firebrand Norman Mailer, who believed that Greenwich Village—then teeming with intellectuals and activists, poets and musicians, filmmakers and artists—deserved a newspaper worthy of its rollicking, bohemian community. What the founders lacked in resources and experience they made up for in moxie and devotion. “We were gonna put a goddamn paper out, and we didn’t know how,” Fancher remembers. “It was a religious thing.” The writers too had varied backgrounds and proficiencies, and Wolf became known as an editor who could transform passionate amateurs into rabble-rousers to be reckoned with. Mary Perot Nichols, whose prose was at first “unreadable,” was instrumental in taking down New York’s urban-planner-cum-demolition-man, Robert Moses. As Jill Johnston, the paper’s great dance critic and first out lesbian in a major American media outlet, once noted: “The opportunity of learning to write on the job was not lost on me.”

The place was an absolute anomaly, bucking “house style,” actively encouraging critics and journalists to defy all systems—political, cultural, even literary—while upholding the highest standards of craft. The book offers dozens of portraits of the “freaks” who did just that, from critics (like Greg Tate, Ellen Willis, and Andrew Sarris) to investigative reporters (Wayne Barrett, Nat Hentoff) to editors (Robert Christgau, Karen Durbin) and many, many more. If there was a single ethos that unified its contributors across generations (and there wasn’t), it might be summed up as see bullshit, set it on fire. Was their writing righteous? Always. Litigious? Sometimes. Incorrect? Almost never.

As a progressive institution, the Voice was forged of firsts: it was the first home for countercultural journalism in America, the first media outlet to seriously take on the subject of abortion, the first company to give large-scale health benefits to staff with same-sex partners. (One unfortunate shortcoming of oral histories, however: that legend can seamlessly stand in for fact. Immersed in the book’s tsunami of brilliant claims—none of which I doubt—I did long to anchor myself to something definitive.) Speeding through a long history at a high velocity, The Freaks Came Out grazes the Voice’s supreme achievements, and regrettable failures, making vivid how the paper held power accountable for its inevitable corruptions and how effective it was at changing New York politics. Annual columns like “10 Worst Landlords” and “10 Worst Judges,” for example, meticulously researched and reported over weeks, sometimes months, may not have brought every bad guy to justice, but they empowered readers by putting verifiable information in their hands.

Vivid too is how the staff’s devotion to telling a whole, true story meant not only taking on the world but also taking on each other. In 1989, the paper devoted a special section to “The Voices Not Heard: Black and Women Writers on the Central Park Rape” to stand against the outright racist coverage of the rape of a white woman, allegedly by a group of young Black men. Although a powerful issue, it didn’t fix the Voice’s long-standing, willful blindness to the subjects of race and racism. When Hentoff was told that as a white man, his opinion on the subject wasn’t needed, he accused his editor of undermining free speech. As Lisa Jones notes, “If you don’t have a regular political reporter who’s covering the Black community and racial politics, are you really covering it?” Romano pointedly includes a full-page ad in response to the Central Park Rape that appeared in other major papers, presumably in the spirit of free speech:


The ad was placed and paid for by Donald Trump.

The story of the Voice is also one of the canary in the coal mine, and Romano tracks how the once-great paper was asphyxiated by the slowly creeping toxins of corporate interest, the loss of ad revenue due to the rise of the internet, and inept leadership. A small but striking revelation is how personality, more than waning profit margins, can doom a publication. In 1978, the Voice was in one of its most lucrative years when owner Rupert Murdoch decided to fire editor-in-chief Marianne Partridge, the first woman to hold the position. It didn’t matter that she was brilliant, ran a tight ship, and was admired by staff and writers. He just didn’t care for her. The book makes clear that the killing of the Voice happened over years, publisher by publisher, so that by the time the penultimate (at current count) owner Peter Barbey immolated the print edition in 2017, the paper’s loss had been announced and mourned so many times, it felt like old news.

Like the Voice itself, The Freaks Came Out can be an unruly, lawless read, suffering the limitations of its strengths. Romano’s oratorio, so dynamic and robust, at times slips into cacophony. Diligent readers might dizzy themselves by flipping back, over and over again, to the cast of characters and the tightly wrought timeline she provides to try and keep straight who’s who and under which editor they worked and were fired when the next publisher took over and when they were rehired and then fired again. Still, this book is a bona fide treasure chest. While not everything in it may be purest gold, it’s chockablock full of rare and precious gems nonetheless.

Jennifer Krasinski is a writer, critic, and editor. She was a pinch-hitter critic and then an art columnist for the Village Voice between 2014 and 2018.

Seven decades of rabble-rousing voices from the Village Voice, chronicled in a new book by Tricia Romano.
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