The New New Journalism
Robert S. Boynton
Ted Conover
Richard Ben Cramer
Leon Dash
William Finnegan
Jonathan Harr
Alex Kotlowitz
Jon Krakauer
Jane Kramer
William Langewiesche
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Michael Lewis
Susan Orlean
Richard Preston
Ron Rosenbaum
Eric Schlosser
Gay Talese
Calvin Trillin
Lawrence Weschler
Lawrence Wright
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by Robert S. Boynton
about the book

1. What is "The New New Journalism"?

           In the thirty years since Tom Wolfe published his manifesto, "The New Journalism," 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–Adrian LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Lawrence Weschler, Eric Schlosser, Richard Preston, Alex Kotlowitz, Jon Krakauer, William Langewiesche, Lawrence Wright, William Finnegan, Ted Conover, Jonathan Harr, Susan Orlean, and others–represent the continued maturation of American literary journalism. They use the license to experiment with form earned by the New Journalists of the sixties to address the social and political concerns of 19th century writers such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane (an earlier generation of "New Journalists"), synthesizing the best of these two traditions. 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. The New New Journalism d explores the methods and techniques these journalists have developed, and looks backward to understand their dual heritage -- their debts to their predecessors from both the 1890s and the1960s.
           The New New Journalists bring a distinct set of cultural and social concerns to their work. Neither frustrated novelists nor wayward newspaper reporters, they tend to be magazine and book writers who have benefited enormously from both the legitimacy Wolfe's legacy has brought to literary nonfiction, and from the concurrent displacement of the novel as the most prestigious form of literary expression.
           This movement's achievements are more reportorial than literary, which is why the focus of The New New Journalism is on journalistic practice and method, as opposed to the theory or state of the genre. The days in which nonfiction writers test the limits of language and form have largely passed. The 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. That freedom to experiment has had a tremendous influence on many of the New New Journalists.
           Contrary to the New Journalists, this new generation experiments more with the way one gets the story. To that end, they've developed innovative immersion strategies (Ted Conover worked as a prison guard for Newjack, and lived as a hobo for Rolling Nowhere) and extended the time they've spent reporting (Adrian LeBlanc reported Random Family for nearly a decade; Leon Dash's Rosa Lee took over five years). While some are literary stylists of note (Richard Ben Cramer, Michael Lewis and Ron Rosenbaum, for instance), their most significant innovations have involved experiments with the way they reported the story, rather than the language they used to tell it.
           Finally, the New New Journalism is the literature of the every day. If Wolfe's outlandish scenarios and larger-than-life characters leap from the page, the New New Journalism goes in the opposite direction, drilling down into the bedrock of ordinary experience, exploring what Gay Talese calls "the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality." In this regard, writers such as John McPhee and Talese–prose poets of the quotidian–are its key figures in the prior generation. In Talese's quest to turn reporting on the ordinary into an art, we find an aspect of the New Journalism enterprise that Wolfe obscured in his manifesto. Both McPhee and Talese emphasize the importance of rigorous reporting on the events and characters of everyday life over turns of bravura in writing style. Reporting on the minutia of the ordinary–often over a period of years–has become their signature method.
           Talese draws the distinction between himself and Wolfe well. Unlike Wolfe, he prefers to write about failure. "It is a subject that intrigues me much more than success," he says. "Tom is interested in the new, the latest, the most current ... I'm more interested in what has held up for a long time and how it has done." And even when Talese does write about a subject as dramatic as the Mafia (as he did in Honor Thy Father), he shuns the story's most sensationalist dimension in favor of exploring the social and psychological reality of criminal life. Ronald Weber contrasts Wolfe and Talese differently. "If Wolfe could be placed on the literary end of the new nonfiction spectrum, Talese belonged on the journalistic end. If Talese was a reporter reaching for the levels of art, Wolfe was an artist who also happened to be a reporter."
           McPhee's influence has been twofold. First, a generation of literary journalists has taken his "Literature of Fact" course at Princeton (including Eric Schlosser and Richard Preston). Second, McPhee's influence on the New New Journalism can been seen in the catholic approach he takes toward subjects: anything–from geology and nuclear weapons to fishing and basketball–is fair game for the literary journalist, as long as it is prodigiously researched and painstakingly reported. As William L. Howarth writes, he has "stretched the artistic dimensions of reportage." The attraction of McPhee's work is the spirit with which he produces it, in his quietly defiant personal style, as much as the subjects he writes about. The informal, declaratory, almost deliberately inelegant tone one hears among many of the New New Journalists comes straight from McPhee. His authorial presence is the exact opposite of Wolfe's "hectoring narrator"; McPhee is rarely a character in his work, and if he does appear he is never in the foreground.
           The writers who appear in this book do not constitute a coherent group in any social or institutional manner. 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 different magazines–primarily The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone–but most of them make their livings writing books. It is a far cry from the group of writers Wolfe describes in the Herald Tribune city room (Charles Portis, Dick Schaap, Jimmy Breslin), or at Harold Hayes' Esquire, and Clay Felker's New York Magazine.
           What they do share is a dedication to the craft of reporting, a conviction that by immersing themselves deeply into their subjects lives, often for prolonged periods of time, they can–much as Crane did before them–bridge the gap between their subjective perspective and the reality they are observing, that they can render that reality in a way that is both accurate and aesthetically pleasing. In their devotion to "close-to-the-skin" reporting–a journalistic version of Keat's "negative capability"–they are the "children" of McPhee and Talese.
           What this new breed represents is less a school of thought, or rule-defined movement, than a shorthand way of describing the reportorial sensibility behind an increasingly significant body of work. The list of writers I have focused on is neither exclusive nor complete–there are a dozen others I would have liked to include had I the time and space. Yet I chose these nineteen writers because each strikes me as representing a particular dimension of the New New Journalism.
           Much as it was in the 19th century, nonfiction today is also as prestigious–if not more so–than the novel. Ours is an age of nonfiction, "the de facto literature of our time," the critic Seymour Krim once called it. This is as true commercially as it is culturally. There is nothing quaint or marginal about works of literary journalism like Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, Michael Lewis's Moneyball, Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation–all of which have been enormous bestsellers. The New New Journalism is big business on a scale never before seen by serious literary journalism.
           With their muckraking and 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 that neither its 19th or late 20th century predecessors ever imagined. The debates between "journalism" and "literature"–between "subjective" and "objective" reporting–weigh less heavily on this generation, freeing them to combine the best of both genres. Having done so without manifestos or public debates, the New New Journalism has assumed its rightful place in American literature.



2. The story of The New New Journalism

           I had neither studied nor taught journalism when I came to NYU. After a decade writing for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine and many other periodicals, I had plenty of experiences to share with my students. But I was always acutely aware that these were simply my methods–not the best and (I hope) not the worst, but methods that were, for good or for ill, a reflection of me. Why should I assume they would work for anyone else? And if–as I believe–the only possessions a writer has are his talent and idiosyncrasies, was it even wise to recommend my hodge-podge of journalistic methods to my students?
           I resolved my moral quandary by beginning each semester by explaining that isn't important for a writer to use one particular method rather than another (although some are inherently superior). What is crucial, is that every writer have a method of some kind: routines to cling to when everything goes wrong, rules to follow when you're blocked or frustrated. After all, there are an infinite number of ways to organize one's writing life. I had my methods and knew other writers did, too. What were they? This book is my answer to that question.
           The book grew out of my classes, during which I would invite a journalist to discuss his work. What followed were conversations–extended interviews, really–on the process of writing: developing "beats," coming up with ideas, interviewing, research, writing, rewriting.
           The results were often fascinating–both for my class and for myself (and for our visiters, who all confessed they, too, had no idea how their colleagues operated). Ren Weschler described playing with children's blocks to organize his thoughts. Ron Rosenbaum explained why he (manually) typed and retyped each draft. Jane Kramer told of the elaborate meals she cooks while writing, her ideas simmering along with the ingredients. The arc of each conversation is roughly the same, and follows a hypothetical work from conception to publication. The goal of this project is to find a way of talking about writing–as opposed to the idea of writing–that is at once de-mystifying and edifying; to make an often baffling process more tangible and, perhaps, more manageable.


© Robert S. Boynton