Sunday, October 16, 2016

The New Journalism (1973)

I first read Tom Wolfe's polemic-as-anthology (or should that be anthology-as-polemic?) when it was much newer, in the mid-'70s. I checked it out of the library, read it, mostly forgot it after a few years, and never owned it until recently, when it came to my attention that Robert Christgau has a piece in it alongside such usual suspect luminaries of the time as Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Hunter Thompson (twice), and many others. Michael Herr is also in it—another name I did not know until later. The collection is packed full of good and even some great pieces, including an early chapter in Wolfe's inchoate fulminations against the state of the novel and fiction, a hobbyhorse he would rock and rock again—though my dwindling interest in him finally evaporated for good when he attempted schooling us with 800-page novels of his own. Let me be clear that I believe in "the New Journalism" as much as ever—both in the sense that journalism remains one of the most direct and effective routes to greater truth, and in the idea that giving up the journalist's pretend game of objectivity remains valid and useful. In fact, Wolfe admirably argues for what he calls "reporting"—talking to people and writing down what they say. New Journalism then was criticized for its recklessness in embracing the subjectivity of reporting. I never had much problem with that, as it seemed a matter of common sense, not to mention fundamentally more honest, to acknowledge that every reporter has a personal point of view. Today, more and more, the word for reporting has turned into "access," a PR term, and most journalists in major reporting venues (broadcast and cable-TV news, and nationally distributed print news outlets such as Time, USA Today, and the New York Times) are practicing PR much more than they are journalism. That's the newer journalism, since some point in the '80s. On the other hand, in fairness, and for better or worse, it must be said that this book weirdly comes with an unexpected aura of those "Best American" volumes which also came from the '80s. I was particularly impressed with the journalism in the Best American Crime Writing series, for example, many of whose pieces (though not all) could sit alongside the pieces here as very good examples of New Journalism. Like disco, it was never that new and it never really went away. It was just called other things. Some of the best and earliest examples are here.

In case it's not at the library.

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