40 years on

Just as the jazz made by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and the Art Ensemble of Chicago will forever be known as ‘the new thing,’ so will the journalism written by Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe forever be known as ‘the new journalism.’

‘New’ means something like ‘journalism with stylistic elements borrowed from other sources, chiefly written fiction, and most often longer than a more traditional report on the same subject.’ It also retains a distinct late 60s, early 70s air, which means that even though many, many, many books these days are the children and grandchildren of the new journalism, they don’t feel like it. They aren’t dandy enough.

To be exact,  today’s non-fiction isn’t this:

God knows I didn’t have anything new in mind, much less anything literary, when I took my first newspaper job. I had a fierce and unnatural craving for something else entirely. Chicago, 1928, that was the general idea . . . Drunken reporters out on the ledge of the News peeing into the Chicago River at dawn . . . Nights down at the saloon listening to “Back of the Stockyards” being sung by a baritone who was only a lonely blind bulldyke with lumps of milk glass for eyes . . . Nights down at the detective bureau—it was always nighttime in my daydreams of the newspaper life. Reporters didn’t work during the day. I wanted the whole movie, nothing left out . . .

That’s Wolfe, from a 1972 essay on the birth of the new journalism. It was a look back, which 40+ years down the road might be considered premature, given how the new journalism would continue to spread and spread and in 2011 if you look very hard you could see echoes of it in everything from ‘This American Life’ to reality tv. Still, a valuable early record, and if I had my way, every young reporter would memorize this:

 The crucial part that reporting plays in all story-telling, whether in novels, films, or non-fiction, is something that is not so much ignored as simply not comprehended.

I was a tv reporter for a good many years before I figured out that what I heard and saw off-camera, the sights and sounds that would never directly be a part of my story, was the compost, the stuff I had to take in and let my unthinking mind chew over for a few minutes or hours. I figured it out, partly, because of people like Wolfe.

(HT to Longform.org)

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