What is great writing … in a blog?

November 19, 2008

I read quite a few blogs. Interestingly, I know of several that regularly write very well, in depth, on topics in which I am very interested. I add them to my Reader, so I don’t “lose” them, and then proceed to not read them. On reflection, I think a blog must just be the wrong form for an in depth analysis.

Instead, I will try very hard to imitate what does seem to work: an episodic conversation. I realized several years ago (reading a Harvard Business Review interview about supply chains) that a Q&A form is very effective precisely because it leads me to not expect a structured argument (whereas I would expect such in a normal essay in the same magazine). This lack of expectation forces me to assemble the structure for myself – and I guess I remember those occasions where I think I did a pretty good job of it ; ) .

So hey, let me tell you about what I read on the weekend. Perhaps for the same reason as Q&A’s, the business books that work best for me come across as essentially narrative, not analysis. My all-time favorite is Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed (about the collapse of LTCM in 1998 – two whole financial crises ago).

A close second is Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. This weekend, I read a great article by Lewis about the culture that lead to the current crisis (a shout-out to Chris Eirich for pointing me to it).

The End, by Michael Lewis, Condé Nast Portfolio, Nov 11 2008

The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. Michael Lewis, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.

… [In Liar’s Poker] I thought I was writing a period piece about the 1980s in America. Not for a moment did I suspect that the financial 1980s would last two full decades longer or that the difference in degree between Wall Street and ordinary life would swell into a difference in kind.
… The funny thing, looking back on it, is how long it took for even someone who predicted the disaster to grasp its root causes. They were learning about this on the fly, shorting the bonds and then trying to figure out what they had done.
… That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower.

I don’t know Mr. Lowenstein or Mr. Lewis, or Victor Fung & Joan Magretta of the HBR Q&A, so I can’t ask them. But I’m quite sure there was a lot of analysis before the writing started. And so, in that spirit, I’m already thinking about my next pseudo-random blog posting.

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