1 In “Gain of Function” (January 4–17), Nicholson Baker explored the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan. The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor wrote, “This is a well-told summary of the whole ‘lab leak’ theory but I still end up with the same conclusions of nine months ago 1) the science is too complicated for a layman to have a firm opinion 2) we will probably never know for sure.” Alina Chan, a molecular biologist whose research was highlighted in the essay, called it a “fearless analysis … of whether COVID may have originated from a lab, how the U.S. research system could be implicated, and the nearly decade-long debate over gain-of-function research.” Many vocal scientists and science journalists challenged not only Baker’s conclusions but also his ability to write about the subject. WNYC health-and-science editor Nsikan Akpan wrote that the “story is deceptively unbalanced. The natural rise of SARS-CoV-2 isn’t just plausible; it’s well supported. Rather than explore those details, the story conflates the idea of an accidental release with speculation of SARS-CoV-2 bioengineering.” In a Twitter thread, virologist Angela Rasmussen argued, “Baker is in no way qualified to write a deep dive about this topic unless it is regarded as the work of fiction this is.” But to many, it was high time for the mainstream media to explore the possibility of a lab leak. The biologist and podcaster Bret Weinstein tweeted, “Acknowledgment of the considerable evidence for the lab-leak hypothesis is slow because the virology establishment must somehow reverse themselves without vindicating the people who saw it clearly from the start.” National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote, “Baker’s legwork, interviews, and investigations are exhaustive. But there’s something a little infuriating about how the question that was once largely dismissed by elite media circles as a crazy conspiracy theory can now be examined and taken seriously in a mainstream publication, roughly a year later … The possibility of a lab accident should not be seen as another crackpot conspiracy theory in a year full of them.” Science historian James Gleick wrote that the story “deserves attention. It is frankly speculative but honest and thorough. At the very least, the world’s virology laboratories need more scrutiny than they get.” And The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan added, “The origin of the pandemic is an open and unanswered question, and if we don’t get it right we won’t learn what we need to know to avoid a second one. More scrutiny is needed, not less.”
2 Lila Shapiro charted how American Dirt went from one of publishing’s most-hyped books to a PR nightmare — only to wind up a best seller (“Blurbed to Death,” January 4–17). Sarah Khalil said the report was “a superb post-mortem of the American Dirt debacle, sharply penned and comprehensively reported.” Scholastic editor Shelly Romero wondered, “While every single person involved in this process is at fault, will folks ever face accountability for their actions? Or just continue to level up to other positions of power and authority.” Others thought the story raised important questions about how books are marketed. Book editor Rakia Clark tweeted, “The central issue for me was never about who can tell what stories. It was about 1) how the book was positioned; and 2) the epically promotional campaign that followed.” The historian Daniel Bessner added, “I don’t know the solution to this problem, but publishing under capitalism is insane and encourages lowest common denominator art.”
3 Jackson McHenry asked why Ryan Murphy’s output has suffered since he decamped for Netflix (“Prom King,” January 4–17). Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall wrote, “Spot on. When Murphy is good (which he’s been as recently as Pose), he’s great. But his Netflix shows all seem to indulge his worst creative impulses.” On Twitter, Neil Way added, “Netflix is a blessing and a curse for creators. Sometimes limitations create better art.” Some readers thought perhaps Murphy’s shows were never that great. @akaMARTIAN wrote, “His work is fun to watch, but I’ve only ever been moved by his work a few times.” Content strategist Karen Geier countered, “At least he’s creating tv that isn’t remakes or shitty sitcoms? … I feel like it’s easy to go after Ryan Murphy or Shonda Rhimes because they take chances.”
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*This article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!