Tag Archives: Tom Wolfe

Memoirist, skin thy own cat

Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either.

The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this and other early interviews before the book was finished that Rushdie, this erudite novelist, was very actively educating himself about memoir.

How could he not be? He’d probably paid some attention during his career to the memoir boom, but study is in order when you begin to write a book in a new genre. So study he did, into journalism and memoir. That is, into the poles of nonfiction. And one can watch the process of Rushdie’s self-education happening on YouTube. Some of his insights are surprising, maybe idiosyncratic, and others are rather scholarly.

In one interview he confesses, “I don’t actually understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.” That would be a shockingly untutored admission for anyone in the academic literary world—for anyone who’s been to writing conferences and workshops or read any of the stream of books on memoir that take pains, first, to set it apart from autobiography. Maybe Rushdie’s confusion is reflected in the length of Joseph Anton, a baby whale at 656 pages. More likely, he had a big story to tell, a big reputation, a big publisher, and a big market.

By the time of the Emory interview, Rushdie had done enough research, probably building on his existing knowledge as a literary man, to name with confidence the world’s first memoir—and not Augustine’s Confessions like you might suppose:

Early memoirs by St. Augustine, St. John, and St. Teresa were written as confessions to God, or about their relationship with God, not as what we’d consider memoirs. The Confessions of Rousseau [1782] is the first modern autobiography. He kind of chickened out by not publishing it in his lifetime. But there is an intent there [to tell the truth about his life in the world]. Nobody had ever understood that it was interesting to tell your own story.

What happened to literature with Rousseau’s memoir, Rushdie says, was personal “self awareness.” Novels made use of this newly discovered power:

The most famous novels of the eighteenth century pretended to be memoirs—Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. It was a marketing device of the time. And Dickens had a very biographical view of fiction. He liked to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t know and I don’t care what my characters do after the book ends. But he did care. And he told you about what happened to them—and their dogs.

In his study of the memoir Rushdie learned a dismal truth—maybe he relearned it since it would seem true of the novel as well: “Other people’s work doesn’t help really. You have to find your own solutions to the story you have to tell. It’s useful to see how other people skinned the cat, but you have to skin your own cat.”

At least, in Rushdie’s reckoning, the memoirist faces an easier task than the novelist, who must answer many more questions of presentation: “In the novel you have to answer a what question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a who question: Whose story am I telling? Then you have to answer a why question: Why am I telling this story? And finally you have to answer a how question: How do I tell this story? And the ‘how’ question is the most difficult of all.”

Memoirists only have the “how question,” he says. “So it’s a little easier. Three quarters . . . that’s already there.”

He credits Oprah Winfrey and the confessional culture she has created for memoir’s current boom, but links it also, rather surprisingly, to the New Journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s that borrowed back from the novel tools now associated with fiction, such as scene, dialogue, and a involved or intimate point of view. He also reveals that he’s studied the most popular recent literary memoirs:

What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived. The reader doesn’t experience them as living. In that sense it’s completely novelistic. If you look at the best examples of the memoir genre, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best of them are novelistic in that way. It derives from the earlier form we call New Journalism, where journalism decided to put on some of the clothes of the novel.

 

Writers like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer in his nonfiction, Hunter S. Thompson in his book on the Hell’s Angels, deliberately wrote those books novelistically, with all the techniques of the novel. And it created a new form, one element of which was participation. If George Plimpton was going to write about Mohammed Ali, he was going to get in the ring with Mohammed Ali; if he was going to write about the New York Yankees, he is going to get on the field. The journalist enacts the drama he is writing about. And out of that came the New Journalism, which is really extraordinary.

 

In the next generation, what happened with the writing of memoir was the use of the novelistic technique in the writing of autobiography. Of course there are problems of truth. For example, verbatim dialogue. It’s very difficult to believe someone writing about their childhood and what their mother said to their father, and it’s in inverted commas as direct speech. I don’t care how good people’s memories are, there’s a sense that a convention is being used: that to represent the conversations that dialogue is being partly if not completely made up. And there’s sort of not a way around that—you sort of have to do it. That’s how it is like a novel. You’re making it up in the service of truth if you’re doing it properly.

Rushdie spoke to how a memoirist enhances his credibility: “You have to be harsher on yourself than anyone else. It’s self-glorifying to begin with to say ‘I’m going to write 500 pages about me.’ You have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. You have to describe yourself more critically than you do other people.”

I mentioned to a fiction writer that Rushdie has chosen to tell his memoir with an unusual and interesting strategy, in the novelistic and distancing third person, writing about himself a la Norman Mailer in his nonfiction as “he,” and my acquaintance was amused: “That was probably a good move for someone with an ego so big.”

So one lives with the perception one has created. Indeed Rushdie seems to suffer from no lack of confidence. But I have to admire him for surviving mentally and emotionally, let alone physically, for a decade with a sentence of death-by-terrorist on his head. And now he’s revealed that decade in hiding—and apparently much of his life story—in a memoir. His choice might have been different in another time:

The market for fiction has dwindled. In terms of numbers of books being sold, nonfiction is king at this time. Not that it will always be that way. The way people want to see their world described changes. Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, fiction, honesty, journalism, memoir, NOTED, Persona, Voice, POV, scene, structure

About John D’Agata

I believe in immersion in the events of a story. I take it on faith that the truth lies in the events somewhere, and that immersion in those real events will yield glimpses of that truth. I try to hew to a narrow definition of nonfiction partly in that faith and partly out of fear.  I’m afraid that if I started making things up in a story that purported to be about real events and real people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.—Tracy Kidder, from his essay “Making the Truth Believable”

I’m a sucker for an art-for-art’s-sake stance, but given my background in daily journalism I cannot easily accept John D’Agata’s defense of changing facts in About a Mountain as his artistic right. He says art tricks us and that he practices art, not traditional essayistic nonfiction and certainly not journalism. Apparently he calls About a Mountain a book-length lyric essay.

But to reasonable people About a Mountain presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry that melds D’Agata’s righteous probe of nuclear waste disposal with details of Las Vegas’s strangeness and an account of his and his mother’s relocation there. He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.

That stream of screaming whys is damn good, let’s face it. And, again, it reinforces the sense that like any good reporter D’Agata is a stand-in for us. He’s a stand-up guy on a quest to get at truth.

Maybe he’s playing with a journalistic approach to rub our noses in the shallow, obtuse nature of traditional journalism that preserves the status quo even as it ostensibly attacks it. But in doing so he’s also trading on the legacy of journalistic martyrs. From 1960s Mississippi to today’s Syria, reporters have endangered their lives to file their reports. They’ve died trying to get mere facts, like how many innocents were vaporized in a bombing. They’ve struggled to place those fatalities in a larger context, tried to show a brutal pattern asserting itself. They’ve suffered to assemble meaning from random shards. To give faces to the dead, to transcend mere facts, to carry the awful truth of human tragedy into our hearts.

It bothers me, to see anyone appear to mock that.

For instance, D’Agata portrays Congress debating whether to make Yucca mountain a nuclear dump, and, as if in response, a sixteen-year-old boy makes a suicide leap off the balcony of a cheap Las Vegas hotel. In a review for The New York Times Book Review, novelist Charles Bock excoriated D’Agata for changing the date of the boy’s death to better serve his narrative (D’Agata gave the correct date in a footnote). The book indicates that D’Agata worked hard in a journalistic way, collecting data and even visiting the boy’s family, but he changed things here and there, in this instance not only the boy’s suicide date but also the fact that at least one other person in Las Vegas took his life in the same way that day.

Bock writes of D’Agata’s decision to change the date, one of the few fabrications known at that time, before D’Agata’s recent admissions in The Lifespan of a Fact:

To me, the problem isn’t solved by a footnote saying, Hey, this part of my gorgeous prose is a lie, but since I admit it, you can still trust me. Rather, it damages the moral authority of D’Agata’s voice, which is his narrative’s main engine. It causes me to question the particulars of two other important scenes that, according to endnotes, were actually composites—a visit to a mall and a tour of Yucca Mountain. I don’t know what to think. What’s specific or representative or smudged? Pandora’s box is wide open.

I agree of course, and don’t see how using the boy’s actual date of death would have undercut D’Agata’s saying he emotionally associated it with another event—if that’s true and not another pose. The purpose of persona is to reflect and to reveal self and its reaction to the world, in this case Las Vegas’s and America’s damaged soul, thereby treating readers as friends or partners instead of as foes or stooges.

And besides, it just feels wrong to use that kid, poor Levi who solved his temporary problem permanently, as a narrative prop. To deny him the dignity of his choice to die on a particular day. Real journalism is far more humble than that; it says, I don’t know the significance of this fact, this date, this brand name, but maybe it will mean something to someone.

Maybe the day he chose to die meant something to Levi.

John D’Agata: a genre of one

Surely D’Agata is an outlier. But this flap has implications for how nonfiction practitioners are enculturated, especially since the rise of creative nonfiction as a popular major in English departments’ writing sequences. D’Agata himself teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa. It concerns me that kids who don’t yet know the original sin of assumptions—how hard it is to get the most basic facts right in the first place—might think they have license to make up stuff and to change facts, stubborn signifiers of objective reality.

Nonfiction has a plethora of subgenres, including reportage, literary journalism, criticism, classical essay, narrative essay, memoir, and the currently popular catch-all and mixed-bag label of creative nonfiction. Having an over-arching rule—don’t make up anything unless you tell the reader or it’s obvious—can make the genre seem lesser, since the only rule in fiction is that it work (not bore the reader). But the sonnet is the result of following rules, and fictions operate within rules the writer chose (such as the ramifications of point of view) and then had to live by.

When Lee Gutkind came up with the term creative nonfiction, I think he wanted to describe the genre’s writerly freedom to employ persona and the dramatic storytelling techniques now associated with fiction (point of view, scenes, dramatic structure). Gutkind is most famous himself for his work as an immersion journalist. Tom Wolfe, as the 1970s poster boy for the now-dated label New Journalism, famously expressed contempt for the mere essayist, calling him “the gentleman in the grandstands.” That is, someone too refined and timid to talk to people and report. Someone who misses the real story of what real people, civilians, are doing and saying and thinking because his gaze is directed equally between the oh-so-distant parade and his own fuzzy navel.

But while immersion is the hallmark of all great writing, some can produce art by immersing in themselves alone. And while Wolfe was a great reporter, personally I can tire of his persona: always aping the alleged point of view of his subculture subjects, whether Black Panthers, test pilots, or NASCAR drivers, who always sneered at the uninitiated in the same voice.

I enjoy seeing a real human put on his big boy pants, stuff a notebook in a back pocket, and wade into the impersonal world on some heroic, ennobling quest. That’s what I thought D’Agata was doing, and I admired him for it. There’s a self at work, and we see it grapple with everything that’s not-self, see its limits and its biases and its internal conflicts. But that self is trying to get the objective world right.

The master of this sort of fused essay and reportage was David Foster Wallace, and lately John Jeremiah Sullivan walks the same path. A milder master of reporter-with-persona is science and food writer Michael Pollan, who once told Nieman Narrative Digest, “Journalists often write as people who have mastered subjects and are telling you about them. That’s a real turn-off for readers. In my work I often begin as a naif. It’s a good place to start because it’s a lot closer to where your reader is. Instead of starting as someone who knows the answers, you begin as someone learning about something. That’s a good way to connect with readers.”

Restoring persona to reportage makes the process transparent and makes the reader an ally. The writer can be a blunderer who makes his fear and confusion and flaws a theme, but he cannot be an unreliable narrator, at least not in the same way that one in fiction can be. We must believe, whatever the charms of his damage, that he’s trying to get at truth through hard internal and external inquiry.

His character must stop short of being or appearing to be sociopathic.

Giving D’Agata the benefit of the doubt here—he’s so young, such a wunderkind—rather than institutionalizing him, and since he already is sequestered in academe, if I could I’d sentence him to three year’s hard labor on a small American daily.

Johnny D’Agata, cub reporter, would cover city council, two school boards, the cops, and, oh, all high school sports. Since I have magical powers here, I’d also put him under my scariest editor from my newspaper days.

It would cure John—if choleric Bill, forever seething and red-faced, didn’t strangle him first.

8 Comments

Filed under creative nonfiction, essay-lyric, essay-narrative, essay-personal, fiction, 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

14 Comments

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.

4 Comments

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