James McManus has written the same column for LA Times Magazine, Card Player Magazine and one of his books. It’s about the history and culture of poker, and for each medium it’s a little different. The book has footnotes, the articles don’t. The LA Times readers need common card terms explained to them, whereas the niche audience of Card Player already knows them well.
McManus constantly deals with the question of whom he’s writing for, a subject he talked about at length during his presentation Monday as part of Medill’s “Literature of Fact” lecture series.
In poker journalism, as in political punditry or film criticism, there is a “language of art”—an insider’s jargon—which he must use differently around those who play the game regularly and those who barely know it. For poker enthusiasts, the game is the major topic of interest. For Harper’s, it’s more likely the illuminating literary and political connections McManus makes.
His columns often look at relationships between trends in poker and what’s going on in the political sphere. (One that ran in both the New York Times and Card Player argued the boom in online poker is a “telling example” of Tom Friedman’s digital-connectedness thesis in The World Is Flat.) Although he enjoys the serious academic thought that goes into his writing, McManus also tries to soften it for readers looking for an easy read.
“If I use a three, four or five-syllable word, I feel obligated to simplify—not dumb down, but simplify—the next sentence,” he said.
Sometimes, though, McManus says the process of tweaking his work for audience’s sake can feel limiting.
“When I rewrote a Card Player article for the LA Times, I had to define words to a maddening amount. And I felt it made the prose clunky,” he said.
In addition to his column, McManus has written four novels, a book about the 2000 World Series of Poker, and Physical: An American Checkup, about his visit to the Mayo Clinic. He also did a piece for Esquire on the political stem cell controversy, called “Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended.”