The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 4, 2005
When I began teaching a course on American literary journalism, I was puzzled by the 30-year gap between the end of what was considered the New Journalism and the contemporary writers who were my focus. Was everything written since Tom Wolfe’s influential 1973 introduction to The New Journalism — in which he argued that nonfiction, not the novel, had become “the most important literature being written in America today” — merely a footnote to that movement?
The more I looked into it, the more I came to understand that not only was Wolfe’s account inaccurate, but it was also an impediment to appreciating both the distinctively American quality of modern literary journalism and its continuity with its 19th-century predecessors. And since the way writers construct the story of who we are is as important for our culture as it is for the study of journalism, Wolfe’s distortions pose a genuine dilemma.
For even as Wolfe was celebrating the triumph of the New Journalism, the seeds of an even more formidable stage in American literary evolution were being planted. In the years since Wolfe’s manifesto, a group of writers has been quietly securing a place at the very center of contemporary American literature for reportorially based, narrative-driven, long-form nonfiction. These New New Journalists — Ted Conover, William Finnegan, Jonathan Harr, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, William Lang-ewiesche, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Susan Orlean, Richard Preston, Eric Schlosser, Lawrence Weschler, Lawrence Wright, and others — use the license to experiment with form earned by the New Journalists of the 1960s and 70s to speak to social and political concerns similar to those of 19th-century writers like Stephen Crane, Jacob A. Riis, and Lincoln Steffens (an earlier generation of New Journalists), synthesizing the best of the two traditions. Hence the admittedly clumsy moniker, the New New Journalists.
Rigorously reported, psychologically astute, sociologically sophisticated, and politically aware, the New New Journalism may well be the most popular and influential development in the history of American literary nonfiction. Neither frustrated novelists nor wayward newspaper reporters, today’s authors tend to write magazine articles or nonfiction books that benefit from both the legitimacy that Wolfe’s legacy has brought to literary non-fiction and from the concurrent displacement of the novel as the most prestigious form of literary expression.
For today’s New Journalists, society is more complex than for their immediate predecessors. They consider class and race, not just Wolfe’s “status” (how one dresses, where one lives), to be primary indices of social hierarchy. They view ethnic and ideological subcultures (“terra incognita,” as Wolfe called them) as different in degree, not in kind, from the rest of American culture.
This movement’s achievements tend to be more reportorial than literary. Wolfe’s New Journalism was a truly avant-garde movement that expanded journalism’s rhetorical and literary scope by placing the author at the center of the story, channeling a character’s thoughts, using nonstandard punctuation, and exploding traditional narrative forms. By contrast, the new generation experiments more with the way one gets the story. To that end, its writers have developed innovative strategies to immerse themselves in their topics — Conover worked as a prison guard for Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House, 2000) — and they have extended the time they’ve spent reporting — Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent nearly a decade reporting Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003).
It is ironic, then, that this reportorial movement is exploring the very territory Wolfe once ceded to the novel. “There are certain areas of life that journalism still cannot move into easily, particularly for reasons of invasion of privacy, and it is in this margin that the novel will be able to grow in the future,” Wolfe wrote in 1973. What he didn’t anticipate was that a new generation of journalists would build upon (and ultimately surpass) his reporting methods, lengthening and deepening their involvement with characters to the point that the public-private divide essentially disappeared. Wolfe said he went inside his characters’ heads; the New New Journalists become part of their lives.
Finally, theirs is the literature of the everyday. If Wolfe’s outlandish scenarios and larger-than-life characters leaped from the page, the New New Journalism goes in the opposite direction, drilling down into the bedrock of ordinary experience into what Gay Talese has called “the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality.” In that regard, the elder statesmen who have most inspired this generation are John McPhee and Talese, prose poets of the quotidian.
McPhee’s influence has been twofold. First, a generation of literary journalists has taken his “Literature of Fact” course at Princeton University. Second, he has opened up subject matter. His work has proved that anything — geology, nuclear weapons, fishing, basketball — is fair game for the literary journalist, as long as it is prodigiously researched and painstakingly reported.
Of course, the New New Journalists do not constitute a coherent group. Some of them know each other, but most do not. They don’t live in any one city or part of the country. They write for magazines — primarily The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone — but mostly make their living writing books. What they do share is a devotion to close-to-the-skin reporting as the best way to bridge the gap between their subjective perspective and the reality they are observing.
How did Wolfe’s misleading history of American literary journalism take root? His manifesto has long been considered the New Journalism’s bible; and, as with the Bible, it contains a creation story and a set of guiding principles. The principles are fairly straightforward. The New Journalism uses complete dialogue, rather than the snippets quoted in daily journalism; proceeds scene by scene, much as in a movie; incorporates varying points of view, rather than telling a story solely from the perspective of the narrator; and pays close attention to status details about the appearance and behavior of its characters.
The creation myth is more involved: “The sudden arrival of this new style of journalism, from out of nowhere, had caused a status panic in the literary community,” Wolfe wrote. No longer would journalism function as little more than the “motel you checked into overnight on the road to the final triumph” of the novel. The drama of Wolfe’s account was in its headlines — Status Panic in the Literary World! The Novel Dead! The New Journalism Triumphant! But it rested on two hidden premises. First, because he insisted that the New Journalism sprang forth “from out of nowhere,” Wolfe had to explain away the presence of writers whose work bore any similarity to it. Second, because he was smart enough to know that nothing springs forth ex nihilo, he needed to provide the New Journalism a proper pedigree — something not as base as mere journalism; otherwise, the “new style” would be little more than the next logical stage of the genre. And where was the fun in that?
Wolfe’s solution to those seemingly contradictory needs was ingenious. What better literary precedent with which to upend the novel, he figured, than the novel itself? Thus he argued that the New Journalism was not a stage in American journalism, but a revival of the European tradition of literary realism — a tradition unjustly ignored by a generation of navel-gazing M.F.A.’s. In one fell swoop, Wolfe simultaneously “dethroned” the novel, broke from American journalism, and claimed the mantle of 18th- and 19th-century European fiction, particularly the work of Balzac, Dickens, Fielding, and Zola. Wolfe gave grudging acknowledgment to the fact that New Yorker writers like Truman Capote, John Hersey, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and Lillian Ross had been experimenting with various New Journalism techniques for years, lumping them along with what he called other “Not Half-Bad Candidates” for historical forerunners of the New Journalism.
Critics griped, but largely accepted Wolfe’s account. Latching on to his notion of the “journalistic novel,” literary theorists set off on a wild postmodern goose chase to divine the line between fact and fiction, producing a rash of scholarly studies on such topics as “fables of fact” and “the novel as history.” Most discussed the same six writers (Capote, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Wolfe).
The skeptics, for the most part, focused on the question of whether the New Journalism was, in fact, new. Wasn’t 18th- and 19th-century English literature — Addison and Steele’s coffeehouse reports, Dickens’s Sketches by Boz, Hazlitt’s “The Fight” — bursting with precedents? In that respect, Wolfe’s reply was convincing. On close inspection, those writers had entirely different aims and methods, he argued. Addison and Steele were, essentially, essayists who occasionally used scenes and quotations to animate their work. Most of the others weren’t writing journalism. They simply hadn’t been playing Wolfe’s game.
As often happens in an age of planned obsolescence, the New Journalism didn’t remain new for long. “Whatever happened to the New Journalism?” wondered Thomas Powers in Commonweal, two years after Wolfe’s manifesto. By the late 1980s, the consensus was that the New Journalism was dead.
On closer examination, however, it is clear that something quite exciting was taking place in American literary journalism. Although indebted to Wolfe’s experimentation, the New New Journalism was rehabilitating important aspects of a different set of predecessors. The figure who most forcefully elaborated the principles of that 19th-century genre — artfully told narratives about subjects of concern to ordinary people — was Lincoln Steffens, the city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser. Insisting that the basic goals of the artist and the journalist — subjectivity, honesty, empathy — were the same, Steffens (best remembered as the first “muckraker”) led the movement to produce “literature” about America’s most important institutions (business and politics) by infusing journalism with the passion, style, and techniques of great fiction.
Among his contemporaries, the writer who best put Steffens’s vision into practice was Stephen Crane, who prided himself on balancing the demands of literature and journalism in a manner that honored both. Crane’s favorite journalistic form was the closely observed sketch of city life. Those sketches — of the poor, of immigrants, of ordinary citizens — drew readers with the unsentimental, artful way they captured characters and their pedestrian struggles. Crane wrote not as a social commentator or a polemical, muckraking journalist in the style of Jacob Riis, but rather as an observer. “He is not concerned with converting the reader to social sympathy (perhaps distrustful or weary of the condescension of such a stance), but with converting the sheer data into experience,” the historian Alan Trachtenberg once wrote.
While connected by that sensibility, the New New Journalists range widely over the areas of experience they choose to render. Lawrence Wright’s respect for the evangelical impulse, combined with his grounding in psychology and Arabic culture, have made him one of the most insightful commentators on the class of convictions that have led to war and terrorism, as in his New Yorker article from Saudi Arabia last year, “The Kingdom of Silence.” Eric Schlosser’s muckraking expose of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) are exactly the kind of meticulously reported work I could imagine Steffens or Riis producing.
William Langewiesche’s American Ground, Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press, 2002) refashions the popular 19th-century genre of the travel adventure into a journey deep into the bowels of America’s foremost symbol of global capitalism. Jon Krakauer, too, builds on that sturdy literary form. His trek into the wilds of Alaska — Into the Wild (Villard Books, 1996) — traces the final days of a young adventurer. Even when writing about mountain climbing or Mormon fundamentalism — Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster (Villard Books, 1997) and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (Doubleday, 2003) — the terrain Krakauer explores is first and foremost psychological.
It is not that their 19th-century predecessors have directly influenced these writers. More, I would argue, the New New Journalists are, often unwittingly, dwelling on questions that the genre has been posing since the 19th century: How does a fast-growing society of immigrants construct a national identity? How does a country built by capitalism consider questions of economic justice? How does a nation of different faiths live together?
As in the 19th century, America today is rethinking its place in the world. It is questioning whether and how it can absorb the huge number of immigrants who have flocked to its shores. Once again, America’s is the story the world wants to read about, although perhaps more out of spite than admiration, and the subjects that the New New Journalists write about are those the world cares about. Ted Conover — Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens (Vintage Books, 1987) — and Jane Kramer — Unsettling Europe (Random House, 1980) — explore transnational migration. Leon Dash — Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America (BasicBooks, 1996) — William Finnegan — Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (Random House, 1991) — and Alex Kotlowitz — There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (Doubleday, 1998) — report on race. Michael Lewis — Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (W.W. Norton, 2003) — chronicles big business.
We are currently experiencing the fascination with “true stories” — seen also in “drama ripped from the headlines,” “reality TV” — but the stories the New New Journalists care about concern the precarious state of our society and the world.
Much as it was in the 19th century, nonfiction today is as prestigious — if not more so — as the novel. Ours is an age of nonfiction, “the de facto literature of our time,” the critic Seymour Krim once called it. That is as true commercially as it is culturally. There is nothing quaint or marginal about these works of literary journalism, many of which have been enormous best sellers. The New New Journalism is big business on a scale never before seen by serious literary journalism.
With their intensive reporting on social and cultural issues, the New New Journalists have revived the tradition of American literary journalism, raising it to a more popular and commercial level than either its 19th- or late-20th-century predecessors ever imagined. Perhaps it is time we give it its due.