Category Archives: journalism

Journalism & John D’Agata

“Facts are stupid things,” said Ronald Reagan in one of his priceless gaffes. He meant to say what his speechwriter wrote, that facts are “stubborn things.”

They’re both.

D'Agata blows the whistle on himself in his new book.

Reluctantly I address the controversy that’s been raging over John D’Agata’s fictions in his nonfiction, specifically in his book About a Mountain, which deals with the federal government’s desire to entomb nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. The topic is radioactive enough without the fallout over D’Agata’s cheerful duplicity that’s revealed in his new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, about his conflict with a fact checker over an article excerpted from About a Mountain.

I know the limitations of the “just the facts” objective journalistic style, the five Ws and the H: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How, and I believe deeply in openly subjective, personal writing. But my twelve years in daily journalism, counting a year spent as a Kiplinger fellow at Ohio State, marked me in more ways than one.

When I was in newspapers, I raged sometimes against the objectivity that cruelly constrains reporters. For instance, at most daily newspapers, then and now, news reporters put their honest perceptions in the mouths of others by asking leading questions: “Miss Councilwoman, don’t you think the mayor looked haggard tonight, facing this same issue all over again?” And she says, “The mayor is weary—we’re all weary.” That’s often how reporters get their “ledes” and get their headlines—“Mayor wearies of battle”—and how they skirt the reality that a human being—someone functioning as a writer—selected and shaped the world into words, imposed meaning. An exception is columnists, who are expected to operate at the opposite extreme, as colorful personalities or even as cranky ideologues whose screeds are untainted by reportage.

The authorial persona allowed newspaper reporters is slim to none except at the biggest and best newspapers. Which is one reason I refuse to allow newspapers to define what journalism is and does. Why not The New Yorker as a model? Some commentators now call magazine articles “essays” because of greater writerly freedom to use the self overtly; in blurring genre these folks are thereby claiming that the authors of magazine articles are writers even if they are functioning also as journalists.

They are writers, of course, but so are reporters. Yet to be a journalist is fraught; there’s so much baggage. Including the fact that the objective style can allow them to dodge responsibility for what appears under their bylines: they followed the rules. A writer’s task, like anyone’s, is to become ever more human, while a “journalist’s” is to figure out what a journalist should do. And she or he is going to fail somewhere along the line as a journalist and somewhere as a person.

I was shocked when I left daily newspapers by how self-serving some objective journalism practices appeared. I’d just finished writing a long investigative series of articles about the head of a unit at the local university, which was as big as a small city, and I then went to work for a division of that institution. The embattled leader, now technically my colleague and hanging on by her fingernails, told a visiting reporter that I’d been preparing to write something favorable about her, so the university had bought me off.

The reporter called me for a response.

“You can’t believe that,” I said. “It’s obviously nonsense. It’s crazy.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But unless you comment it’s going to look bad for you.”

Outraged as I was, I almost laughed. I’d surely performed the same blackmail many times, I realized, and at last knew how it felt to be on the receiving end. Ostensibly I’d done it to “get both sides,” but really to get a better, juicier story, to get and to stoke even more conflict. If a reporter is any good, his allegiance is to the story more than to sources, especially if they’re not daily, bread-and-butter beat sources but those who stray into the news or who are obvious miscreants he’s beholden to bite in the ass.

And yet, for all that, the format and the flawed practices that served so-called objectivity had rough virtues.

The odd beauty of the objective style

I learned how strong a case you had to build and how you had to demonstrate it, show it, number by number, quote by quote. The rigor of it amazed. Strange, too, how slippery “facts” were: carefully gathered, when reassembled in your story they had to be checked again, as if they’d somehow altered when lifted from their original context and placed beside other information.

And I believed in the crusading aspect of American journalism. There’s a long tradition of “afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted,” as they say. Good newspapers reek with the desire to uncover and expose wrongdoing. As a reporter, I tried to live up to that ideal. Who else could take on politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations? Who else was supposed to? The aggression unsuited my temperament, but I was good at, and it was my job. That’s what I got paid for, won awards for.

This role of being a feedback loop to society contributes to the reduced use of persona, a restraint that bleeds even into the feature pages. The most painful lesson a young reporter learns—only by making mistakes and having to write corrections and to deal with angry readers—is how hard it is to get basic facts right. One reason is that reporters often aren’t deeply familiar with what they’re writing about. A related but deeper reason is that humans operate daily on assumptions: the downtown will not shift locations, the lover will remain true, the sun will rise in the east. But in writing, which confidently proclaims “the way it is,” natural assumptions lead to errors.

Two plus two, strangely, no longer equals four. As the old newsroom quip goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I left daily journalism because I wanted to do longer, deeper, and much more personal work. But, as I say, I internalized some rules. Like get the basic facts right, even if—praise God!—you’re going to function as a writer in the larger sense and reveal your perspective, even your biases. I go weak with admiration when a magazine journalist reveals her passionate beliefs, even her agenda, maybe her own relevant flaws, and yet is fair to the ugly opposition.

Next: John D’Agata’s genre of one

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Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, teaching, education

The 100 best nonfiction books?

The Modern Library on its website lists the100 best” English-language books in fiction and nonfiction. Alongside each are the best according to an online poll—and the readers’ choices consist of much trash: the top three slots of each list, fiction and nonfiction, are filled by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard.

Modern Library’s own considered nonfiction list is fascinating because it’s wildly diverse, reflecting the genre’s diversity, no doubt. It mixes histories and works of philosophy that have had social or intellectual impact with essays and memoirs. Virginia Woolf’s pioneering feminist essay A Room of One’s Own is ranked 4th,, while Vladimir Nabokov’s classic literary memoir Speak, Memory—panned and lauded on this very blog—is 8th and Richard Wright’s heartfelt memoir  Black Boy is 13th. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, the title essay of which I’ve previously declared America’s greatest, ranks 19th,  while Gertrude Stein’s genre-bending The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas ranks a solid 20th.

The Library’s number one greatest nonfiction book ever published in English is officially an autobiography, memoir’s staid precursor, The Education of Henry Adams. I read it so many years ago I can’t remember it, but do recall that it was recommended to me then because of its introspective impulse, which today we’d call memoiristic—a meditation on Henry Adams’s intellectual life—rather than being the usual dry recitation of a politician’s public deeds.

 

It helps to be named Woolf, Wolfe, or Wolff

Seeing Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff in 52nd place confirmed my recent hunch that it would be a great book to teach—it’s a monument to immersion reporting and to narrative nonfiction storytelling. Wolfe penetrated the world of military test pilots and rocketed away with their immortal tough-guy phrase—“the right stuff”—as an overarching metaphor. He showed how those steely fighter jocks bent the U.S. space program to their will, wresting a degree of flight control from pocket-protected missile scientists and coffee-breathed NASA bureaucrats.

I was gratified that one of my favorite memoirs, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, made the list (86th) and nodded when I saw Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 96th. Without apparent irony, in 97th place is Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, an expose of the pitfalls of the kind of empathetic immersion with criminals that Capote practiced. Malcolm generalizes the issue of some crime writers’ duplicity toward killers to all journalists—the way they act friendly and then sell sources out.

Having recently reread and written here about the excesses of The Journalist and the Murderer, I wonder what its placement says about the status of journalism. Even as narrative nonfiction dominates publishing and bookselling, people don’t fully trust it, or at least are wary of what they sense are inherent flaws. Maybe that’s simply wise—most people call any narrative book a novel, after all.

But I can think of several books, equally slim in size, that are better than Malcolm’s narrow screed. Offhand, Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being, reviewed here, is far larger in its ambition, its achievement, and its relevance for civilians.

 

The Modern Library’s top 100 nonfiction list . . .

1. THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by Henry Adams

2. THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE by William James

3. UP FROM SLAVERY by Booker T. Washington

4. A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN by Virginia Woolf

5. SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson

6. SELECTED ESSAYS, 1917-1932 by T. S. Eliot

7. THE DOUBLE HELIX by James D. Watson

8. SPEAK, MEMORY by Vladimir Nabokov

9. THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE by H. L. Mencken

10. THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST, AND MONEY by John Maynard Keynes

11. THE LIVES OF A CELL by Lewis Thomas

12. THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY by Frederick Jackson Turner

13. BLACK BOY by Richard Wright

14. ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL by E. M. Forster

15. THE CIVIL WAR by Shelby Foote

16. THE GUNS OF AUGUST by Barbara Tuchman

17. THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND by Isaiah Berlin

18. THE NATURE AND DESTINY OF MAN by Reinhold Niebuhr

19. NOTES OF A NATIVE SON by James Baldwin

20. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS by Gertrude Stein

21. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by William Strunk and E. B. White

22. AN AMERICAN DILEMMA by Gunnar Myrdal

23. PRINCIPIA MATHEMATICA by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell

24. THE MISMEASURE OF MAN by Stephen Jay Gould

25. THE MIRROR AND THE LAMP by Meyer Howard Abrams

26. THE ART OF THE SOLUBLE by Peter B. Medawar

27. THE ANTS by Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson

28. A THEORY OF JUSTICE by John Rawls

29. ART AND ILLUSION by Ernest H. Gombrich

30. THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS by E. P. Thompson

31. THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois

32. PRINCIPIA ETHICA by G. E. Moore

33. PHILOSOPHY AND CIVILIZATION by John Dewey

34. ON GROWTH AND FORM by D’Arcy Thompson

35. IDEAS AND OPINIONS by Albert Einstein

36. THE AGE OF JACKSON, Arthur Schlesinger by Jr.

37. THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB by Richard Rhodes

38. BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON by Rebecca West

39. AUTOBIOGRAPHIES by W. B. Yeats

40. SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION IN CHINA by Joseph Needham

41. GOODBYE TO ALL THAT by Robert Graves

42. HOMAGE TO CATALONIA by George Orwell

43. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN by Mark Twain

44. CHILDREN OF CRISIS by Robert Coles

45. A STUDY OF HISTORY by Arnold J. Toynbee

46. THE AFFLUENT SOCIETY by John Kenneth Galbraith

47. PRESENT AT THE CREATION by Dean Acheson

48. THE GREAT BRIDGE by David McCullough

49. PATRIOTIC GORE by Edmund Wilson

50. SAMUEL JOHNSON by Walter Jackson Bate

51. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

52. THE RIGHT STUFF by Tom Wolfe

53. EMINENT VICTORIANS by Lytton Strachey

54. WORKING by Studs Terkel

55. DARKNESS VISIBLE by William Styron

56. THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION by Lionel Trilling

57. THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Winston Churchill

58. OUT OF AFRICA by Isak Dinesen

59. JEFFERSON AND HIS TIME by Dumas Malone

60. IN THE AMERICAN GRAIN by William Carlos Williams

61. CADILLAC DESERT by Marc Reisner

62. THE HOUSE OF MORGAN by Ron Chernow

63. THE SWEET SCIENCE by A. J. Liebling

64. THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES by Karl Popper

65. THE ART OF MEMORY by Frances A. Yates

66. RELIGION AND THE RISE OF CAPITALISM by R. H. Tawney

67. A PREFACE TO MORALS by Walter Lippmann

68. THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE by Jonathan D. Spence

69. THE STRUCTURE OF SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTIONS by Thomas S. Kuhn

70. THE STRANGE CAREER OF JIM CROW by C. Vann Woodward

71. THE RISE OF THE WEST by William H. McNeill

72. THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS by Elaine Pagels

73. JAMES JOYCE by Richard Ellmann

74. FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE by Cecil Woodham-Smith

75. THE GREAT WAR AND MODERN MEMORY by Paul Fussell

76. THE CITY IN HISTORY by Lewis Mumford

77. BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM by James M. McPherson

78. WHY WE CAN’T WAIT by Martin Luther King by Jr.

79. THE RISE OF THEODORE ROOSEVELT by Edmund Morris

80. STUDIES IN ICONOLOGY by Erwin Panofsky

81. THE FACE OF BATTLE by John Keegan

82. THE STRANGE DEATH OF LIBERAL ENGLAND by George Dangerfield

83. VERMEER by Lawrence Gowing

84. A BRIGHT SHINING LIE by Neil Sheehan

85. WEST WITH THE NIGHT by Beryl Markham

86. THIS BOY’S LIFE by Tobias Wolff

87. A MATHEMATICIAN’S APOLOGY by G. H. Hardy

88. SIX EASY PIECES by Richard P. Feynman

89. PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK by Annie Dillard

90. THE GOLDEN BOUGH by James George Frazer

91. SHADOW AND ACT by Ralph Ellison

92. THE POWER BROKER by Robert A. Caro

93. THE AMERICAN POLITICAL TRADITION by Richard Hofstadter

94. THE CONTOURS OF AMERICAN HISTORY by William Appleman Williams

95. THE PROMISE OF AMERICAN LIFE by Herbert Croly

96. IN COLD BLOOD by Truman Capote

97. THE JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER by Janet Malcolm

98. THE TAMING OF CHANCE by Ian Hacking

99. OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS by Anne Lamott

100. MELBOURNE by Lord David Cecil

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Filed under Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, teaching, education

What’s an essay, what’s journalism?

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward.”

—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Over thirty years ago, in the heyday of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe enumerated the techniques, associated with fiction, that can make journalism equally absorbing. He repeated his precepts recently in an essay, “The Emotional Core of the Story,” collected in the excellent 2007 textbook Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. I’ve used this book in journalism feature writing classes, along with Zeitoun by Dave Eggers and sometimes The John McPhee Reader.

There are, Wolfe repeats in the book, “exactly four” techniques the successful narrative journalist needs to employ:

 Scenes: Present the narrative in a series of scenes and use “ordinary historical narration” as little as possible.

Dialogue: Quote copious verbal interplay among characters. Dialogue is the easiest prose to read “and the quickest to reveal character.”

Details: The careful use of details that reveal “one’s rank or aspirations, everything from dress and furniture to . . . speech, how one talks to the strong, to the weak, to the sophisticated, to the naïve . . .”

POV: Point of view that puts the reader “inside the mind of someone other than the writer.”

“Journalists no longer argue about the New Journalism—I mean, how many decades can you keep arguing about something that calls itself ‘new’?” Wolfe writes. “Instead, a new generation of journalists, writing books and magazine articles, have simply appropriated the techniques however they please and are turning out brilliant work—in fact, the best of contemporary American literature, taken as a whole. I could mention more names, but consider just these two and you will know what I mean immediately: Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden.”

Grandpappy Wolfe has taken a lot of credit here, deservedly so, and yet one begins to wonder if he totally missed the latest posse of literary journalists following in the tracks of the late David Foster Wallace. But Wolfe goes on:

To this day newspaper editors resist the idea, but they desperately need their reporters to adopt the Lewis and Bowden approach. It is not that it produces pretty writing—though indeed it does. They need such reporters and writers to provide the emotional reality of the news, for it is the emotions, not the facts, that most engage and excite readers and in the end are the heart of most stories. . . .

. . . [E]very newspaper editor in the United States is asking, “How can this newspaper be saved?” They should be asking, how can we get to the emotional heart of our stories? Yet only a few newspaper editors are considering any such thing—not knowing that it is the question of the hour, and that this is the eleventh hour.

Criticizing newspaper editors is good mean fun, and I agree about emotion, but I find Wolfe’s principles incomplete. It seems the best essays do so much more than present scenes, dialogue, details, and someone else’s point of view—and so do magazine articles, which some people are now labeling essays if they’re successfully personal. For instance, in the New Yorker recently (December 19 & 25, 2011) critic James Woods reviews John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, made of pieces that sprang from GQ assignments (and available there on line) and gigs for other magazines, and calls them “essays.”

Woods does this, strangely in my view, by comparing Sullivan’s work to fiction while attacking both the “perceived conservatism” of contemporary short stories and the flaws of Sullivan’s putative nonfiction storytelling model, Mr. Wallace. For example:

Sullivan . . . has been compared to Tom Wolfe and David Foster Wallace. But he is kinder than the former, and less neurotic than the latter (whose own compassionate sensitivity got blocked by obsessive self-consciousness, or, when unblocked, sometimes emerged as outright sentimentality).

Amen on the big bad Wolfe, James, but nice drive-by on DFW. I suppose Wallace has reached Parnassus, so that criticism can be levied without citing evidence: “If you don’t know WTF I am talking about, it is because you are not well read.” For me, Wallace’s magazine journalism is superior to Wolfe’s because he is warmer while also having more interesting and less political observations, flowing from the fact that he has at least ten IQ points on Wolfe. On Wolfe! Imagine that. Is it possible? The hell of it is that DFW really was smarter than almost anyone.

But, unlike Wolfe, Wallace didn’t present himself as a Master of the Universe; he didn’t ape the halt and lame, though he did have sport with them—and with himself, too. He exposed himself in his reportage in a way Wolfe would never do and never did. Thus Woods dubs him an essayist, while sidestepping labeling Wolfe. Maybe because Wolfe didn’t reveal himself, but appropriated others’ supposed points of view, he’s more obviously and only a journalist.

Woods joins Geoff Dyer, author of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (and Dyer’s unmentioned fanboy David Shields), in expressing weariness at the techniques that the bright-eyed Wolfe dragged back into the foul cave of journalism:

One knows exactly what Dyer means by novelization—it’s the clanking train of novelistic grammar (the plots, the formulas, the scenes, the “conflict,” the dialogue, the so-called “telling details.” Roland Barthes spent a lifetime subtly exposing the artifice of this artifice; sometimes he just called it “Fiction,” as if indicating the entire monstrous novelizing urge. . . .

So the contemporary essay is often to be seen engaged in acts of apparent anti-novelization: in place of plot, there is drift, or the fracture of numbered paragraphs; in place of a frozen verisimilitude, there may be a sly and knowing movement between reality and fictionality; in place of the impersonal author of standard-issue third-person realism, the authorial self pops in and out of the picture, with a liberty hard to pull off in fiction.

Where does this contempt—for fiction on the one hand, traditional journalism on the other—lead?

There’s a huge flap going on right now over John D’Agata’s fabrications in his “lyric essays,” presented in the form of journalism, that alter facts (the day of a boy’s suicide, verifiable numbers recast for better “rhythm”). (Laura Miller’s Salon take is here.) D’Agata seems to have set himself up as the Andy Kaufman of nonfiction: he’s smarter than everyone, and is putting all of us on.

Is D’Agata an outlier who’ll help us find the center? We used to know what we thought journalism was. Apparently, when we weren’t looking, it mated with the essay. And to boot, it seems we’re running out of ways to label nonfiction’s messy genres. Woods has tried to clarify things momentarily, at least for himself, but there’ll be another furious mashup soon that causes everyone to scratch their heads.

At least we’ve lived to see Tom Wolfe, journalism’s three-piece radical, become the fuddy duddy he really always was. I still like his four rules, as far as they go, but it’s interesting that he left out the journalist-as-writer—which is to say, as human being—from his decoction of prose verities. Wolfe’s journalist was a smirking chameleon. DFW’s work restored a moral dimension to personal magazine journalism; he stood before us with a persona seemingly closer to his naked human—and therefore wounded—self. D’Agata, a child prodigy, flaunts his contempt for his audience’s lumpenprole expectations, and stands utterly alone.

John McPhee, who never considered himself a New Journalist, meanwhile keeps writing his personally astringent and intricately structured “essays” or “articles” or “stories” or “pieces”—whatever he or his magazine, The New Yorker, calls them—in his eighth decade. I think both sides still claim him.

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Filed under emotion, essay-narrative, honesty, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, scene, teaching, education

Noted: William T. Vollmann

I believe in the American myth that it is both admirable and even possible to devote one’s life to a private dream. The probability of failing oneself, either through laziness, incompetence or bad luck, or else, worse yet, through dreaming what one only imagined one desired, is terrifying. All the same, you had no more obligation to public dreams which dreamed you wrongly.—William T. Vollmann, Riding Toward Everywhere

W.T. Volmann

I believe Vollmann is some kind of genius, as well as being brave and incredibly hard working. Recently I added to my reading stack his first book, An Afghanistan Picture Show: Or How I Saved the World, written about going to Afghanistan in 1982, at age twenty-three, to help the Afghanis fight the Soviets, and his historical novel The Rifles, and Riding Toward Everywhere, about riding the rails with hoboes.

Publishers Weekly called Volmann “a kind of rogue innocent, a Candide with a supply of condoms and a girl in every port.” Booklist said “differentiating between a Vollmann novel and a collection of his stories is often difficult, because, in his hands, the two forms share a similar structure—are surrealistic, sordid, sensational, and terrific.”

Tony DuShane interviewed for Bookslut the prolific journalist, story writer, and novelist Volmann—author of twenty books totaling many thousands of pages—who won the 2005 National Book Award for his novel Europe Central.

An excerpt of Volmann’s comments to DuShane:

I would say, don’t fixate on getting published because that’s really the least important concern. If you really care about writing, you should do it because it makes you happy and you should be just as happy if you can write something that you think is beautiful and you can keep it in a drawer and show it to a few people and they’re thrilled. That’s just as important. If you can have that attitude, then no one can take the pleasure of it away from you. So often there are beginning writers who put “copyright by” on every page of the manuscript, and they’re so anxious to get an agent and do this and do that. That stuff is irrelevant. That’s like asking a photographer, which is the best equipment, and all that matters is the image. With writing, all that matters is the word.

You have to think of the sad lives and commercial failures, which so many great writers have experienced. Look at somebody like Melville. If you’re an aspiring writer, do you want to write Moby Dick? Sure. Well, if you’re going to do that, that means you’re willing to accept not just no success, but poverty and even a certain measure of disgrace for the rest of your life. Can you proudly accept that? If so, you may still not be a good writer, but you’re on the right track. If your thing is getting recognition as quick as possible, then I would say why, why do you want that, and is writing going to help you do that? And are you going to be a happier person by having that recognition?

Madison Smartt Bell interviewed Volmann for The Paris Review. In it, Vollmann discussed the effects of his sister’s death on him and on his relationship with his parents. He was nine when she drowned, at age six, while he was supposed to be watching her and momentarily daydreamed. Vollmann has typed so much that he suffers from carpal tunnel inflammation and chronically sore hands, and speculates he may have to give up the keyboard for writing by hand in notebooks.

Excerpts of Volmann’s comments to Bell:

When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density. I still do that from time to time, but I’m getting increasingly interested in taking things out as I write. It’s fun for me to try to write concise, compact things. It’s a very good exercise for me. And I think it’s important to try to do different things—change what I write about, and also the way I write. Otherwise, I’d just be repeating myself, which wouldn’t be good for me, or fair to my readers. . . .

The computer really does help. One good thing about having had a job as a programmer is that I learned to look at things on the screen. I don’t really need to hold a piece of paper in my hands to see if the thing works or not. When it’s alive and volatile on the screen, that’s just as good for me. . . . But I think a crucial part to writing, always, is letting it sit; a greater efficiency on the computer can’t really address that problem. Once you’ve finished typing and moving text around and everything else, you have to leave it alone for a while. You do that to see if it stands up, to see if all the loose edges have been trimmed, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent, what shape it really has. You can’t tell that while you’re working on it. The computer also helps in that I work on a lot of books at once—as many as six or seven. . . .

Visual aids are very important to me in my writing. I like to see places that I’m writing about, experience things that I’m writing about. So throughout my career I’ve taken photographs of things, which I can then study. The whole business in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, when he talks about the spontaneous overflow of emotion recollected in tranquility—a photograph can help you do that. . . . For me, at least, it’s easier to create coherence and beauty on a small scale. Organize a block, reread and rewrite from beginning to end. Afterward, the blocks can be arranged in a narrative or architectonic way, rejiggered accordingly. . . .

I figure some people are watching, but I really don’t care what anybody thinks. All I want to do is be able to have my freedom and do the things in life that I have always wanted to do. I want to see all of these unknown places, walk on the frozen sea as often as I can, and see the jungles. I want to fall in love with beautiful women of all races. Rescue somebody every now and then, improve my painting, and improve my sentence structure. If I can make a living doing that stuff, that’s great, and I will keep doing it, and they can do whatever they want with my image. I couldn’t care less.

 

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Filed under fiction, journalism, NOTED, syntax, working method

Rampant use of the term ‘narrative’

I want to raise the question of what the world thinks “narrative” means, what educated media commentators and writers mean by it, and what relationship does the widespread use of “narrative” have to do with the use of the term narrative journalism?—Gerald Grow, “The Invasion of the Term ‘Narrative’ “

Gerald Grow, now retired, a Shakespeare scholar who ended up teaching journalism at Florida A & M University, keeps an eclectic and useful web site about writing and teaching. It brims with neat stuff, including journalism and magazine-writing teaching strategies, ideas about visual art, AP and APA style guides, and thoughts on Eastern spirituality, to name a few categories. His beef about narrative’s proliferation is lodged in his annex of article ideas for “anyone who wants to take them, develop them, use them, disprove them—in the interest of continuing the conversation on journalism education.”

Grow gives examples from reviews and news stories of what he considers misuse of the term, and says:

I am puzzled by what looks like a tendency to reduce events in the world that can mean life or death (e.g., men with guns, big storm, food shortage, job lost, clash of cultures, core beliefs) to the terms of literary criticism (narrative, story, margin). In many cases, I would expect some term like theory, explanation, understanding, picture, biography, motive, version, alibi, etc.

What is going on? What does it mean to conflate so many useful and content-filled distinctions into the vague theoretical term “narrative”? Calling so many types of discourse “narratives” is rather like referring to both wood pulp and voters as “biomass.” Where did this reductionistic use of the term “narrative” come from? Who is promoting it? Who benefits from it? Why do so many articulate, educated people so easily slip into using it when they are trying explain something? To question this devil in its own terminology: What is lost when the term “narrative” colonizes public discourse?

So, reading this, one begins to wonder. I admit I’m a prime offender—Exhibit A: this blog—but I love the richness and connotations of “narrative,” even if Grow’s got a point that the word’s rampant usage appears trendy and mindless. (A clothing section of a department store in my town is labeled Narrative, big letters up on the wall above the racks.) The other day, reading about the Penn State scandal in The New York Times, I saw this usage in a story about Coach Joe Paterno meeting with President Graham Spanier:

In 2004, Mr. Spanier, Mr. Curley and select board members twice went to his house in efforts to get him to retire. Mr. Paterno declined, and the moment was looked at in the narrative of Paterno’s career as an instance of his overcoming adversity.

Something else may have sufficed, but here “narrative” embodies ongoing and mythic overtones that seem just right.

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Noted: Anthony Lane on reviewing

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, on the perils of reviewing:

On a broiling day, I ran to a screening of Contact, the Jodie Foster flick about messages from another galaxy. I made it for the opening credits, and, panting heavily—which, with all due respect, is not something that I find myself doing that often in Jodie Foster films—I started taking notes. These went “v. gloomy,” “odd noir look for sci-fi,” “creepy shadows in outdoor scene,” and so on. Only after three-quarters of an hour did I remember to remove my dark glasses.

Where's dat canary?

Lane began writing for The New Yorker in 1993, recruited from the “squalling pit of London journalism,” where “most newspapers are ideally read as a branch of experimental fiction,” by the magazine’s former editor, another Brit, Tina Brown. I feel sorry for his reviewing colleague, the excellent David Denby, because Lane is so funny he makes Denby’s smart reviews look turgid. Lane can provoke my helpless laughter (see his quip in another Noted about the sex life of Grace Kelly).

His highlighted bon mot and the quotes above come from his introduction to Nobody’s Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker. In it, he says, “movies deserve journalism.” His, anyway. In his corner of the pop culture merry-go-round, he poses any adult’s eternal question—how to take seriously Hollywood movies?—with the answer that, by and large, one of course doesn’t.

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Patricia Hampl: memoir’s excitement

The big fiction advice is “Show, don’t tell,” but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. It’s instead “Show and Tell.” It’s the idea that you can’t tell unless you can show, but you don’t just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing that’s happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and, “Why aren’t you writing fiction?” Too much tell and, “I’m  not going to listen to you because you’re boring.”

The narration is the thing that lets you do the other. Sometimes the equation is off. Take a  memoirist like Mary Karr, who I love, but a lot people who would say what I just said wouldn’t like her. Not a lot of analysis. Very narrative. But the language is so great, so fantastic. The sheer writerly ability is so great that we don’t care. We feel that a revelation of her generation is happening in that narration, and as a result her experience becomes historical even though she doesn’t go on about history. So it isn’t like a formula: “Make sure to have 30 percent of this followed by 30 percent of that.”

Now, there are some people who would criticize Mary Karr, “How could she remember all of this. She’s making this up.” And this brings up one of the other big questions about memoir, which has to do with veracity, as well as ethical and moral issues related to the genre, which are insoluble to my mind. I don’t know that we can ever resolve these issues because if we are working with consciousness itself, not with fact, we’re dealing with not what “happened” but with what “has happened.” That is to say not what happened out there—we all agree that happened—but rather something happened and then “I” reflect on it and perceive it, and I don’t just think about it, I actually constellate it as an act, which in narrative terms means that I change it. Now, conscious invention is a whole other thing. We sometimes run into that as a problem, too. . . .

Part of the excitement of this form is that we are living in the middle of deciding what it’s going to be and learning not only how to write it but how to read it. How do we read this form? We may have made a big mistake when we put memoir into that big, baggy category of nonfiction. Once we did that, we put it right next to the newspaper, and we pretty much all know what we want the newspaper to be. If they say, “George Bush dropped dead,” we don’t want to find out tomorrow that he’s alive, right? We want to think he’s gone. If we put those same exact strictures on memoir, if we think the rules are exactly the same, we’re going to be disappointed.

From River Teeth, Spring 2004, Vol. 5, No. 2

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Jen Knox defends ‘romantic’ semicolon; 25 ‘terrific novels’ for J-students

Jen Knox, a fiction writer and author of the memoir Musical Chairs, recently issued a nice defense of the semicolon on her blog:

Kurt Vonnegut is famous for saying the following: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Great quote, but total bullshit.  The semicolon is beautiful, the epitome of a soft pause that gives cadence to an otherwise abrupt shift in ongoing thought.  The semicolon is delicate and necessary and, if not overused, the most romantic of punctuation marks.

And OnlineCollege.org has posted “25 Terrific Novels for Journalism Students.” They define “novel” rather broadly: Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism epic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is number one on the list. Other literary journalism classics listed include In Cold Blood, All the President’s Men, and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

But the actual novels look great, so what the heck. The list includes The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, New Grub Street by George Gissing, Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, and Floater by Calvin Trillin.

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Janet Malcolm, ‘Capote’ & ‘Infamous’

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

  In Cold Blood created a sensation in America in 1966 hard to imagine today. From the start of the 2005 film Capote we see it is a revisionist look at Truman Capote and, to a degree, his blockbuster. Right away, there’s a character tut-tutting about the writer at work. Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, clearly disapproves when Capote ingratiates himself with the murdered girl’s best friend by telling her that he knows, because of his strange voice and affect, what it’s like to be misunderstood.

Audio book’s cover, from the paperback

Keener plays Lee subtly and brilliantly, but this aspect of her role got on my nerves. What Capote did there was just fine by me—you could view him as being honest and human in the service of his work. He did know what it was like to be seen as strange; he did need to win over the girl in order to deepen the story. A journalist’s allegiance is to his work, if he’s any good, and the work must be worth such commitment. There’s tension, of course, because one must, or should, remember we live first as humans, not as writers.

But journalism is rather like politics and sausage: maybe you don’t want to watch it being made.

Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murder about another case but the same issue Capote faced with his killers; she specifically indicted Joe McGinniss’s queasy relationship with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald for Fatal Vision. McGinniss, in interviewing the doctor accused of murdering his family, concluded that MacDonald was guilty, but he pretended otherwise so that MacDonald would continue cooperating.

Malcolm, going somewhat overboard, argues famously:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and “the public’s right to know”; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living. . . .

In the MacDonald-McGinnis case we have an instance of a journalist who apparently found out too late that the subject of his book was not up to scratch—not a member of the wonderful race of auto-fictionalizers, like . . .  Truman Capote’s Perry Smith, on whom the “non-fiction novel” depends for its life.

Malcolm tars journalists with a devoted brush, begging the question: what about every other human interaction? Do we really mean it when we say good morning or ask someone how it’s going? What about almost everyone who makes nice with a despised coworker or two for the sake of workplace harmony? What of the salesman who loathes his company’s biggest customer but doesn’t let on? The point is that all human interaction involves role playing, often complex, while everyone’s relentless private judgments are hidden. The journalist does withdraw and upon reflection publish his gossip. That’s a difference, perhaps, but if he’s compromised it is a matter of degree, not of kind, by and large, from the rest of us.

(As for McGinniss, he defends himself against Malcolm’s “skewed perception” in an afterword to his best-seller and has reprinted it on his web site.)

Nonetheless, journalism has rightly been called a moral minefield, and Capote depicts Capote wandering way too far into it. The movie’s premise is that Capote sold his soul to write In Cold Blood, and so the case is built from the start that he, already a freak and prima donna artiste, became an utter monster in order to effectuate it. This is a cautionary tale about the journalist’s, if not the writer’s, awkward role and relations, and it appeared to stun my feature writing students.

But the movie is a fictionalized work. In the service of its message, or its vision, it invents, and pushes factual aspects to the breaking point. After accusing Capote of trying to keep the killers alive only for his book, Capote advances a worse condemnation: he managed then to hasten their executions by ignoring their pleas for further legal assistance. Capote makes it appear he could have saved them but needed their deaths for a literary climax—an accusation that also arose when In Cold Blood was published. Kenneth Tynan, writing in The Observer in Britain after the book’s release there in March 1966, said, “It seems to me that the blood in which his book is written is as cold as any in recent literature.”

Biographer Gerald Clarke, from whom I got Tynan’s comment, rebuts:

Tynan’s thesis was based on a sloppy reading of the book and false assumptions about Kansas law, which would not have permitted the psychiatric defense he was suggesting. Truman set him straight in a lengthy reply, during the course of which he charged him with possessing “the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly.” The victory was Truman’s, but Tynan’s accusation stung more than it otherwise might have because it hit an exposed nerve. Truman could not have saved Perry and Dick if he had spent one million dollars, or ten million, but Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.

Clarke’s biography, sympathetic to the writer, says that Capote faced “an insoluble moral dilemma,” desiring their deaths for closure while opposing the death penalty and identifying deeply with Perry Smith, the wounded artistic type of the pair. The reality of Capote’s dilemma appears to be the germ from which the movie Capote grew.

Which brings me to the movie’s last contention, that Capote was destroyed by guilt, a wretched creature in the wake of In Cold Blood finished off by alcohol and drugs. Only the latter appears to be unquestionably true. He was the toast of the literary world afterward, and gave his famous black and white ball, and was set for life financially. Some years later his society friends turned against him when he began to serialize a novel that told their secrets and but thinly disguised their identities. I suppose the movie’s vision implies that his later betrayals flowed from having sold his soul for In Cold Blood.

But Clark’s 631- page biography arrives at no such reductive message about the author. Perhaps a biopic can’t be as subtle as a book, even if it wants to be, which Capote doesn’t. The writer had been an unwanted child—the mother who had him at seventeen repeatedly abandoned him; her heart’s desire was to become a New York City society lady. It’s interesting that her son picked up that dream and made it real; even more interesting is that he betrayed that world, in his serialized novel Answered Prayers, and was cast out of it. Surely he was traumatized by his research for In Cold Blood, if only because he befriended Smith. The experience, from Capote’s own statements, seems to have scraped raw deep old psychic wounds. But I don’t think personal guilt over Smith’s death was a factor—just my sense from what I’ve read and seen, and lived as a reporter.

There are many ways to look at all this, including that Capote deserved Capote. If not literally always true, the movie prosecutes its own vision—or it panders to our desire for comeuppance, take your pick—but does crystallize the ambiguities in the journalist-source relationship.

Plimpton’s sunny look influenced ‘Infamous’

A sunnier movie, and one far more sympathetic to Capote, the good but lesser-ranked Infamous, appeared a year later, in 2006. Its screenplay was based on George Plimpton’s oral history Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. I watched Infamous again, too, and though it fictionalized as well, it tries for a balanced view of Capote, his bon vivant lifestyle, and his courage in going after the killers’ story. Less beautifully filmed, less beautifully cast, Infamous finally reaches a similar conclusion—his nonfiction book made him and it destroyed him—but places the cause more on the nature of the work itself rather than on Capote’s guilt for betraying the killers.

Both films need to show him pay in the end for titillating readers with story derived from murder and from consorting with murderers. By going to the dark side. And finally they ask, Have you, would you, sell your soul for success?  

In Cold Blood opened the eyes of journalists to what immersion, scenes, dialogue, structure, plot, and characterization could do, and it impressed other novelists with what journalism could do. But one of the things that makes the book difficult to teach today, in journalism and creative nonfiction classes anyway, are Capote’s inventions. Apparently he created from whole cloth Smith’s apology on the gallows—others didn’t hear Smith say a thing. But Capote wanted others to see Smith sympathetically, hence, Smith’s rather well crafted contrition in In Cold Blood.

The director-screenwriter of Infamous said that Capote proclaimed so often that “every word was true” in the book that he knew the statement must be a lie. Most obviously, Capote invented the book’s ending scene, an elegiac denouement in which investigator Alvin Dewey visits the Clutters’ graves. Long established as a classic and a masterpiece, In Cold Blood would be a scandal for that closing scene alone if published today in the genre it did so much to expand. A genius Capote surely was, but he hadn’t learned old newspapering tricks: he could have called Dewey to the cemetery, had him gaze at the graves, chatted with him. Maybe that would have got Capote off the hook, technically at least. Except he not only put Dewey in the graveyard, he had him run into Nancy Clutter’s best friend there. He gilded the lilly, journalistically, for that coda.

I suppose Capote might tell Oprah, if he could be summoned to her couch for expiation, “If something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true. Dummy—who could possibly believe such a scene was literally true?”

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Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ revisited

The original cover, 1966.

Here’s the evocative, elegiac opening to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood:

The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveller reaches them.

This paragraph bears a resemblance to the first paragraph of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published almost twenty years before, when he was in his early twenties:

Now a traveler must make his way to Noon City by the best means he can, for there are no buses or trains heading in that direction, though six days a week a truck from the Chuberry Turpentine Company collects mail and supplies in the next-door town of Paradise Chapel: occasionally a person bound for Noon City can catch a ride with the driver of the truck, Sam Radclif. It’s a rough trip no matter how you come, for these washboard roads will loosen up even brandnew cars pretty fast; and hitchhikers always find the going bad. Also, this is lonesome country; and here in the swamplike hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man’s head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses; often the only movement on the landscape is winter smoke winding out the chimney of some sorry-looking farmhouse, or a wing-stiffened bird, silent and arrow-eyed, circling over the black deserted pinewoods.

Whew, three long, flowing, gorgeous sentences. I was rereading Other Voices, Other Rooms even before I assigned my feature writing class this quarter to read the first section of In Cold Blood, still available to anyone on the web site of The New Yorker, which serialized the book in the fall of 1965 (it was published in January 1966).

Like Noon City, Holcomb isn’t only hard to get to and emotionally affecting, it isn’t much to look at: “an aimless congregation of buildings”; “a haphazard hamlet” with “streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved” that “turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud”; a town where “dancing has ceased.” And Holcomb Bank, which “failed in 1933” has been turned into apartments; it doesn’t have any money in its safe, one of my students pointed out, just like the doomed Herbert Clutter, whose throat was cut and his family likewise slaughtered over a rumor of a hidden safe at his farmhouse. All that melancholy setting—those quotes from the second paragraph alone—to also make the point that Holcomb isn’t what it appears: many of its wheat farmers are, like Herb Clutter, wealthy. They are hard-working, sober, law abiding, and into their midst come avatars of another America: down at the heels, broken, and mean.

I didn’t realize, when I uploaded the book’s first act to Blackboard and assigned my students to read it, that it’s about seventy pages. Nor, not having read In Cold Blood for several years, did I remember—if I’d ever noticed—that it is divided into four acts of equal length. The book, which took Capote about six years to write and report, is built. It still creeps me out to read it; I have both my mother’s original hardback and a newer paperback. The latter has a cover tied in to the 2005 movie Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar. I’d seen the movie at least once before, but when I showed it in class, having just read the first act of the book, I was alarmed by the movie’s inventions.

What shot me bolt upright, watching Capote with my students, was this: in the movie, Capote tries desperately to keep the two killers alive on death row by hiring them a good lawyer—because he hasn’t yet gotten their stories of what actually happened in the Clutter house. Then, alive due only to Capote’s self interest, the killer he’s closest to, Perry Smith, doesn’t want to talk about that night. Smith stalls, and Capote resorts to bullying and manipulation. Three-fourths of the way into Capote, Smith finally spills his guts—and now Capote wants him dead, so he can end his book.

As in the movie, In Cold Blood also recreates the murders exactly three-quarters into the story. Structurally it’s a great emphasis point; and it fulfills the writer’s implicit promise, made in the first section when the murders were summarized, to give readers the crime’s gory, harrowing details. But the confession in the book appears to be based solely upon what Smith told investigators, the lead one of whom, Alvin Dewey, had become Capote’s friend.

The bio consulted for the movie 'Capote'

There’s no indication whatsoever that Capote lacked for the killers’ statements. He may have sweetened his third-act climax with details from them, but he had a powerful climax already from their confessions to lawmen alone. And he recreates the crime only in the context of Smith’s formal admission of guilt. The book that the movie flows from, Capote: A Biography, by Gerald Clarke, doesn’t mention this as an issue. It acknowledges the writer’s moral dilemmas in reporting In Cold Blood, while being sympathetic.

Capote prosecutes its own vision; it isn’t a documentary. Maybe I’m the one straining at gnats. But, just maybe, Capote wasn’t tormented to death by In Cold Blood, as Capote has it. Maybe we need to make meanings like that, for sins to be paid, but his decline may simply have been from alcoholism and drugs, self medications for a mortal wound suffered in a sad childhood.

Next: The writer’s moral dilemmas and whether Capote deserves Capote.

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