[Paleopsych] CHE: (Wolfe) Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience
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Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.4
[Tom Wolfe's letter appended.]
By ROBERT S. BOYNTON
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
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
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
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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"
("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
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
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.
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