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Whatever happened to New Journalism?

The Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2005

The Gang the wouldn't write straight book coverThe Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution, by Marc Weingarten. Crown, 326 pp., $25.

New Journalism is dead. Long live New Journalism!

Has ever a literary movement’s demise been more frequently hailed than New Journalism’s? “Whatever happened to the New Journalism?” wondered Thomas Powers in a 1975 issue of Commonweal. In 1981, Joe Nocera published a postmortem in the Washington Monthly blaming its demise on the journalistic liberties taken by Hunter S. Thompson. Regardless of the culprit, less than a decade after Tom Wolfe’s 1973 New Journalism anthology, the consensus was that New Journalism was dead.

And yet, as Marc Weingarten shows in “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight,” the movement thrived (he calls it “the greatest literary movement since the American fiction renaissance of the 1920s”), survived and has even achieved a measure of respectability. “Once a rear-guard rebellion, its tenets are so accepted now that they’ve become virtually invisible,” Weingarten writes. “The art of narrative storytelling is alive and well; it’s just more diffuse now, spread out across books, magazines, newspapers and the Web.”

Weingarten takes the reader on an enjoyable romp through New Journalism’s most famous works, telling the “story behind the story” of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night.” Along the way, Weingarten drops nuggets that may enrich our readings of these classics (Capote “never tape-recorded any conversations and never jotted anything down in a notebook during the entire six years it took for him to research the story”; Mailer picked up his third-person narrative technique from “The Education of Henry Adams,” which he read as a Harvard freshman). As a narrative history of an important journalistic movement, Weingarten’s book might be paired with Carol Polsgrove’s “It Wasn’t Pretty, Folks, but Didn’t We Have Fun?” an excellent history of Esquire magazine in the 1960s.

Surprisingly, the writer who seems to have had the most influence on the movement was the New Yorker’s Lillian Ross, whom several others in the book cite as their inspiration. It is sometimes forgotten that long before Wolfe proposed nonfiction that reads “like a novel,” Ross was doing just that in her pieces on John Huston and Ernest Hemingway in the early 1950s. “I don’t know whether this sort of thing has ever been done before, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to do a fact piece in novel form,” she suggested to her editor.

The standard interpretation of New Journalism is that it was a writer-centric movement in which renegades like Thompson and Wolfe pushed the form almost to the breaking point. While this is true, Weingarten’s book provides evidence that it was as much, if not more, of an editor’s movement than a writer’s. His portraits of Clay Felker (founder of New York magazine), Harold Hayes (Esquire), Warren Hinckle (Ramparts and Scanlan’s) and Jann Wenner (Rolling Stone) make it clear that the linchpin of the movement was a group of visionaries who were willing to take serious financial and editorial risks. They didn’t merely provide a venue for Wolfe & Co., they were the catalyst that encouraged New Journalists to experiment in the first place. As important as individual writers and articles were, the enduring cultural influence of Rolling Stone (Wenner envisioned it as combining “the professionalism of Time and the hipness of the underground press with stories that would run as long as The New Yorker’s”), Esquire and New York was far greater.

If these editors played a crucial role in the movement’s success, they also bear some responsibility for its failings. As the recent outpouring of praise for the late Thompson shows, we have a tendency to deify these writers, imputing a level of professionalism to their work that most of them never would have.

It is often forgotten that they were, for the most part, a bunch of young writers who were making things up as they went along with a free-spiritedness that occasionally led them astray. With the public’s opinion of journalism at an all-time low, we are still living with the legacy of these corrupt practices. Weingarten is too generous to Thompson’s erratic work, which he characterizes as “journalism as bricolage.” “Back in New York, Hunter had to file the story for Scanlan’s, but he couldn’t recall most of what had transpired,” Weingarten observes of Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Similarly, the composites used in New York magazine by Gail Sheehy and George Goodman (who published under the nom de plume of “Adam Smith”) had a deleterious effect on journalism’s reputation. “New Journalism is rising,” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “but its believability is declining.”

So what really “killed” New Journalism? I would say it was the twin evils of all magazine journalism: service and sensationalism. As Weingarten notes, by the early 1970s, magazines like New York were beginning the long slide down toward “Top 10” service features and puffy lifestyle stories. The 1977 appearance of “Star Wars” on the cover of Rolling Stone suggested that, from then on, most magazines would function as little more than “press organs for movie stars.” The journalistic form with which writers like Wolfe chronicled postwar consumerism eventually succumbed to it.