[Paleopsych] CHE: (Wolfe) Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Wed Apr 13 19:56:59 UTC 2005

Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.4

[Tom Wolfe's letter appended.]


    When I began teaching a course on American literary journalism, I was
    puzzled by the 30-year gap between the end of what was considered the
    New Journalism and the contemporary writers who were my focus. Was
    everything written since Tom Wolfe's influential 1973 introduction to
    The New Journalism -- in which he argued that nonfiction, not the
    novel, had become "the most important literature being written in
    America today" -- merely a footnote to that movement?

    The more I looked into it, the more I came to understand that not only
    was Wolfe's account inaccurate, but it was also an impediment to
    appreciating both the distinctively American quality of modern
    literary journalism and its continuity with its 19th-century
    predecessors. And since the way writers construct the story of who we
    are is as important for our culture as it is for the study of
    journalism, Wolfe's distortions pose a genuine dilemma.

    For even as Wolfe was celebrating the triumph of the New Journalism,
    the seeds of an even more formidable stage in American literary
    evolution were being planted. In the years since Wolfe's manifesto, a
    group of writers has been quietly securing a place at the very center
    of contemporary American literature for reportorially based,
    narrative-driven, long-form nonfiction. These New New Journalists
    -- Ted Conover, William Finnegan, Jonathan Harr, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon
    Krakauer, William Lang-ewiesche, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis,
    Susan Orlean, Richard Preston, Eric Schlosser, Lawrence Weschler,
    Lawrence Wright, and others -- use the license to experiment with form
    earned by the New Journalists of the 1960s and 70s to speak to social
    and political concerns similar to those of 19th-century writers like
    Stephen Crane, Jacob A. Riis, and Lincoln Steffens (an earlier
    generation of New Journalists), synthesizing the best of the two
    traditions. Hence the admittedly clumsy moniker, the New New

    Rigorously reported, psychologically astute, sociologically
    sophisticated, and politically aware, the New New Journalism may well
    be the most popular and influential development in the history of
    American literary nonfiction. Neither frustrated novelists nor wayward
    newspaper reporters, today's authors tend to write magazine articles
    or nonfiction books that benefit from both the legitimacy that Wolfe's
    legacy has brought to literary non-fiction and from the concurrent
    displacement of the novel as the most prestigious form of literary

    For today's New Journalists, society is more complex than for their
    immediate predecessors. They consider class and race, not just Wolfe's
    "status" (how one dresses, where one lives), to be primary indices of
    social hierarchy. They view ethnic and ideological subcultures ("terra
    incognita," as Wolfe called them) as different in degree, not in kind,
    from the rest of American culture.

    This movement's achievements tend to be more reportorial than
    literary. Wolfe's New Journalism was a truly avant-garde movement that
    expanded journalism's rhetorical and literary scope by placing the
    author at the center of the story, channeling a character's thoughts,
    using nonstandard punctuation, and exploding traditional narrative
    forms. By contrast, the new generation experiments more with the way
    one gets the story. To that end, its writers have developed innovative
    strategies to immerse themselves in their topics -- Conover worked as
    a prison guard for Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House, 2000)
    -- and they have extended the time they've spent reporting --  Adrian
    Nicole LeBlanc spent nearly a decade reporting Random Family: Love,
    Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003).

    It is ironic, then, that this reportorial movement is exploring the
    very territory Wolfe once ceded to the novel. "There are certain areas
    of life that journalism still cannot move into easily, particularly
    for reasons of invasion of privacy, and it is in this margin that the
    novel will be able to grow in the future," Wolfe wrote in 1973. What
    he didn't anticipate was that a new generation of journalists would
    build upon (and ultimately surpass) his reporting methods, lengthening
    and deepening their involvement with characters to the point that the
    public-private divide essentially disappeared. Wolfe said he went
    inside his characters' heads; the New New Journalists become part of
    their lives.

    Finally, theirs is the literature of the everyday. If Wolfe's
    outlandish scenarios and larger-than-life characters leaped from the
    page, the New New Journalism goes in the opposite direction, drilling
    down into the bedrock of ordinary experience into what Gay Talese has
    called "the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of
    reality." In that regard, the elder statesmen who have most inspired
    this generation are John McPhee and Talese, prose poets of the

    McPhee's influence has been twofold. First, a generation of literary
    journalists has taken his "Literature of Fact" course at Princeton
    University. Second, he has opened up subject matter. His work has
    proved that anything -- geology, nuclear weapons, fishing, basketball
    -- is fair game for the literary journalist, as long as it is
    prodigiously researched and painstakingly reported.

    Of course, the New New Journalists do not constitute a coherent group.
    Some of them know each other, but most do not. They don't live in any
    one city or part of the country. They write for magazines -- primarily
    The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker,
    Rolling Stone -- but mostly make their living writing books. What they
    do share is a devotion to close-to-the-skin reporting as the best way
    to bridge the gap between their subjective perspective and the reality
    they are observing.

    How did Wolfe's misleading history of American literary journalism
    take root? His manifesto has long been considered the New Journalism's
    bible; and, as with the Bible, it contains a creation story and a set
    of guiding principles. The principles are fairly straightforward. The
    New Journalism uses complete dialogue, rather than the snippets quoted
    in daily journalism; proceeds scene by scene, much as in a movie;
    incorporates varying points of view, rather than telling a story
    solely from the perspective of the narrator; and pays close attention
    to status details about the appearance and behavior of its characters.

    The creation myth is more involved: "The sudden arrival of this new
    style of journalism, from out of nowhere, had caused a status panic in
    the literary community," Wolfe wrote. No longer would journalism
    function as little more than the "motel you checked into overnight on
    the road to the final triumph" of the novel. The drama of Wolfe's
    account was in its headlines -- Status Panic in the Literary World!
    The Novel Dead! The New Journalism Triumphant! But it rested on two
    hidden premises. First, because he insisted that the New Journalism
    sprang forth "from out of nowhere," Wolfe had to explain away the
    presence of writers whose work bore any similarity to it. Second,
    because he was smart enough to know that nothing springs forth ex
    nihilo, he needed to provide the New Journalism a proper pedigree
    -- something not as base as mere journalism; otherwise, the "new
    style" would be little more than the next logical stage of the genre.
    And where was the fun in that?

    Wolfe's solution to those seemingly contradictory needs was ingenious.
    What better literary precedent with which to upend the novel, he
    figured, than the novel itself? Thus he argued that the New Journalism
    was not a stage in American journalism, but a revival of the European
    tradition of literary realism -- a tradition unjustly ignored by a
    generation of navel-gazing M.F.A.'s. In one fell swoop, Wolfe
    simultaneously "dethroned" the novel, broke from American journalism,
    and claimed the mantle of 18th- and 19th-century European fiction,
    particularly the work of Balzac, Dickens, Fielding, and Zola. Wolfe
    gave grudging acknowledgment to the fact that New Yorker writers like
    Truman Capote, John Hersey, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, and
    Lillian Ross had been experimenting with various New Journalism
    techniques for years, lumping them along with what he called other
    "Not Half-Bad Candidates" for historical forerunners of the New

    Critics griped, but largely accepted Wolfe's account. Latching on to
    his notion of the "journalistic novel," literary theorists set off on
    a wild postmodern goose chase to divine the line between fact and
    fiction, producing a rash of scholarly studies on such topics as
    "fables of fact" and "the novel as history." Most discussed the same
    six writers (Capote, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, Norman Mailer, Hunter
    S. Thompson, and Wolfe).

    The skeptics, for the most part, focused on the question of whether
    the New Journalism was, in fact, new. Wasn't 18th- and 19th-century
    English literature -- Addison and Steele's coffeehouse reports,
    Dickens's Sketches by Boz, Hazlitt's "The Fight" -- bursting with
    precedents? In that respect, Wolfe's reply was convincing. On close
    inspection, those writers had entirely different aims and methods, he
    argued. Addison and Steele were, essentially, essayists who
    occasionally used scenes and quotations to animate their work. Most of
    the others weren't writing journalism. They simply hadn't been playing
    Wolfe's game.

    As often happens in an age of planned obsolescence, the New Journalism
    didn't remain new for long. "Whatever happened to the New Journalism?"
    wondered Thomas Powers in Commonweal, two years after Wolfe's
    manifesto. By the late 1980s, the consensus was that the New
    Journalism was dead.

    On closer examination, however, it is clear that something quite
    exciting was taking place in American literary journalism. Although
    indebted to Wolfe's experimentation, the New New Journalism was
    rehabilitating important aspects of a different set of predecessors.
    The figure who most forcefully elaborated the principles of that
    19th-century genre -- artfully told narratives about subjects of
    concern to ordinary people -- was Lincoln Steffens, the city editor of
    the New York Commercial Advertiser. Insisting that the basic goals of
    the artist and the journalist -- subjectivity, honesty, empathy
    -- were the same, Steffens (best remembered as the first "muckraker")
    led the movement to produce "literature" about America's most
    important institutions (business and politics) by infusing journalism
    with the passion, style, and techniques of great fiction.

    Among his contemporaries, the writer who best put Steffens's vision
    into practice was Stephen Crane, who prided himself on balancing the
    demands of literature and journalism in a manner that honored both.
    Crane's favorite journalistic form was the closely observed sketch of
    city life. Those sketches -- of the poor, of immigrants, of ordinary
    citizens -- drew readers with the unsentimental, artful way they
    captured characters and their pedestrian struggles. Crane wrote not as
    a social commentator or a polemical, muckraking journalist in the
    style of Jacob Riis, but rather as an observer. "He is not concerned
    with converting the reader to social sympathy (perhaps distrustful or
    weary of the condescension of such a stance), but with converting the
    sheer data into experience," the historian Alan Trachtenberg once

    While connected by that sensibility, the New New Journalists range
    widely over the areas of experience they choose to render. Lawrence
    Wright's respect for the evangelical impulse, combined with his
    grounding in psychology and Arabic culture, have made him one of the
    most insightful commentators on the class of convictions that have led
    to war and terrorism, as in his New Yorker article from Saudi Arabia
    last year, "The Kingdom of Silence." Eric Schlosser's muckraking
    exposés of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal
    (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) and Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap
    Labor in the American Black Market (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) are
    exactly the kind of meticulously reported work I could imagine
    Steffens or Riis producing.

    William Langewiesche's American Ground, Unbuilding the World Trade
    Center (North Point Press, 2002) refashions the popular 19th-century
    genre of the travel adventure into a journey deep into the bowels of
    America's foremost symbol of global capitalism. Jon Krakauer, too,
    builds on that sturdy literary form. His trek into the wilds of Alaska
    -- Into the Wild (Villard Books, 1996) -- traces the final days of a
    young adventurer. Even when writing about mountain climbing or Mormon
    fundamentalism -- Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount
    Everest Disaster (Villard Books, 1997) and Under the Banner of Heaven:
    A Story of Violent Faith (Doubleday, 2003) -- the terrain Kra-kauer
    explores is first and foremost psychological.

    It is not that their 19th-century predecessors have directly
    influenced these writers. More, I would argue, the New New Journalists
    are, often unwittingly, dwelling on questions that the genre has been
    posing since the 19th century: How does a fast-growing society of
    immigrants construct a national identity? How does a country built by
    capitalism consider questions of economic justice? How does a nation
    of different faiths live together?

    As in the 19th century, America today is rethinking its place in the
    world. It is questioning whether and how it can absorb the huge number
    of immigrants who have flocked to its shores. Once again, America's is
    the story the world wants to read about, although perhaps more out of
    spite than admiration, and the subjects that the New New Journalists
    write about are those the world cares about. Ted Conover -- Coyotes: A
    Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens (Vintage
    Books, 1987) -- and Jane Kramer -- Unsettling Europe (Random House,
    1980) -- explore transnational migration. Leon Dash -- Rosa Lee: A
    Mother and Her Family in Urban America (BasicBooks, 1996) -- William
    Finnegan -- Cold New World: Growing Up in a Harder Country (Random
    House, 1991) -- and Alex Kotlowitz -- There Are No Children Here: The
    Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (Doubleday, 1998)
    -- report on race. Michael Lewis -- Moneyball: The Art of Winning an
    Unfair Game (W.W. Norton, 2003) -- chronicles big business.

    We are currently experiencing the fascination with "true stories"
    -- seen also in "drama ripped from the headlines," "reality TV" -- but
    the stories the New New Journalists care about concern the precarious
    state of our society and the world.

    Much as it was in the 19th century, nonfiction today is as prestigious
    -- if not more so -- as the novel. Ours is an age of nonfiction, "the
    de facto literature of our time," the critic Seymour Krim once called
    it. That is as true commercially as it is culturally. There is nothing
    quaint or marginal about these works of literary journalism, many of
    which have been enormous best sellers. The New New Journalism is big
    business on a scale never before seen by serious literary journalism.

    With their intensive reporting on social and cultural issues, the New
    New Journalists have revived the tradition of American literary
    journalism, raising it to a more popular and commercial level than
    either its 19th- or late-20th-century predecessors ever imagined.
    Perhaps it is time we give it its due.

    Robert S. Boynton is director of New York University's
    magazine-journalism program. His book The New New Journalism:
    Conversations on Craft With America's Best Nonfiction Writers will be
    published by Vintage next week.


Tom Wolfe Replies to Robert S. Boynton on 'The New New Journalism'
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.4.15


   Tom Wolfe Replies to Robert S. Boynton on 'The New New Journalism'

    To the Editor:

    Is it really true that due to the sheer enormity of the task, college
    department heads today no longer read books -- and instead rely on
    "book briefings" by graduate students? When that rumor began
    circulating four years ago, I dismissed it as absurd. But recent
    events have caused me to pause, and ponder.

    For example, in The Chronicle Review's March 4 issue, writing about
    what he calls "the New New Journalism," Robert S. Boynton, director of
    New York University's magazine-journalism program, states that the
    book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, "chronicles big business"
    ([3]"Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience"). Inexplicably,
    the director's statement is not merely inaccurate. It is wildly
    gibber-gibber ape-shrieking off the wall.

    Moneyball is about playing a game on a field, baseball. Specifically,
    it is about how one Billy Beane, office-bound general manager of a
    woebegone team, the Oakland Athletics, used the findings of a string
    of baseball-happy amateur statisticians to make a completely objective
    analysis of which player skills and field strategies work best in that
    game. The figures showed, for example, that the stolen base, the
    sacrifice bunt, and the hit and run actually reduce a team's chances
    of winning at that game. They showed that the hitter who has the knack
    of forcing the pitcher to a long count, say, 3-1 or 3-2, and then
    drawing a walk is a team's great invisible batting power, and that a
    hitter's on-base percentage was more important than his batting
    average in that game.

    By using the blind stats and ignoring conventional baseball savvy,
    over a four-year stretch (1999-2002) the Athletics won more regular
    season games than any other team in the Major Leagues aside from the
    Atlanta Braves, made the playoffs three times, and in 2002 won the
    toughest of the Major League divisions, the American League West, with
    103 wins, including a record-breaking 20 straight in September
    -- despite being so strapped for money, they could afford only two
    types of players: has-beens and not-yets of that game. In other words,
    Moneyball is a book about a radical mathematical science for playing a
    particular game. It is not a book that "chronicles big business." It
    is a book about a game.

    How could Director Boynton get the very subject of a book he cites as
    evidence supporting his thesis so completely wrong? Could it have
    possibly been a bungled briefing by some underpaid, overworked
    graduate student who himself couldn't find time to read the book? It
    is very hard to believe such a thing. But I challenge anyone to come
    up with a more logical explanation.

    Or how could Director Boynton be not merely incorrect but, again,
    astonishingly, brain-numbingly wrong about an essay he chooses to make
    central to his argument, "The New Journalism" (1973) by Tom Wolfe?
    According to Director Boynton -- or some grad student who hasn't slept
    for three days?? -- "Wolfe's New Journalism" involved such
    "avant-garde" devices as "placing the author at the center of the
    story" and "exploding traditional narrative." In fact, ego-centered
    narration is as old as journalism itself, and Wolfe warns against its
    pitfalls. And far from "exploding traditional narrative," Wolfe
    recommends the opposite: bringing into nonfiction the traditional
    structure and narrative of the novel or short story.

    Director Boynton -- or the voice at his ear? -- says Wolfe uses the
    sociological term "status" to refer to cosmetic matters, "how one
    dresses, where one lives," and overlooks the more profound matters of
    "class and race." In fact, Wolfe uses the term "status" in precisely
    the way Max Weber, who introduced it to sociology, did; i.e., to refer
    to the entire range of ways in which human beings rank one another,
    class and race being two of them -- and he underlines that point in
    his essay.

    Not incidentally, the essay served as the introduction to an anthology
    that included excerpts from two of the most vivid and best-known
    nonfiction stories ever written about class and race: "Martin Luther
    King Is Still on the Case," by Garry Wills, and "Radical Chic &
    Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers," the only chronicle of the thousands of
    racial "confrontations" minority organizations were compelled to use
    in order to get money out of the Poverty Program's white

    Director Boynton -- or the grad-grind elf on his shoulder? -- says
    that when Wolfe's essay uses the term "point of view," it is referring
    to "varying points of view," the narrator's being one. In fact, it
    refers to something else entirely: point of view in Henry James's
    technical use of the term, i.e, making the reader feel he is always
    inside the skin, the eye sockets, the central nervous system of some
    character as the story unfolds.

    Director Boynton says that Wolfe thinks of "ethnic and ideological
    subcultures" as "terra incognita," phenomena that so baffle him, he
    regards them as different not just in "degree" but "in kind" from "the
    rest of American culture." Really? Whose hookah has the elf been
    smoking? The fact is, Wolfe doesn't refer in any way to "ethnic and
    ideological subcultures" and uses the term "terra incognita" only in
    reference to the physiology of the brain.

    Today, just as in 1973 when Wolfe wrote his "New Journalism" essay,
    neuroscientists are still unable to provide a physiological
    explanation of consciousness, memory, language, sleep, or the effect
    of general anesthesia. But they do know what such brain functions are
    not. They are not "ethnic and ideological subcultures," whatever these
    12 poor old tumble-down shabby-genteel abstract syllables may summon
    up in the mind of the director.

    If this is the extent of Director Boynton's -- or the homunculus's?
    -- grasp of the obvious, I'm not sure I want to see how he has -- they
    have? -- handled the excellent journalists included in his -- their?
    -- upcoming book, The New New Journalism. Speaking of which, the
    evidence, as we have seen, indicates that he -- or the little fellow?
    -- has never read Michael Lewis's Moneyball.

    It should come as no surprise, then, that he appears oblivious of
    something else: the "New New" locution of The New New Journalism is a
    haircut off Michael Lewis's brilliant Silicon Valley story, "The New
    New Thing."

    Despite all the foregoing, I still don't believe Director Boynton or
    any other college department head in America would have graduate
    students read books for him. But should such a practice exist, it is
    the strongest argument yet for paying graduate-student T.A.'s
    professional-level salaries and lowering their workloads. They must be
    given greater incentive and more time for the important chores they
    now do for faculty members.

    Tom Wolfe
    New York

More information about the paleopsych mailing list