Reply to Tom Wolfe
The Chronicle of Higher Education
To the Editor:
It seems that Tom Wolfe is a victim of identity theft.
Someone using his name published a letter ("Tom Wolfe Replies to
Robert S. Boynton on 'The New New Journalism,'" The Chronicle
Review, April 15) responding to an article I wrote ("Drilling Into the Bedrock of Ordinary Experience," The Chronicle Review, March 4). In short, "Tom Wolfe" wrote a parody, deftly employing some of the signature stylistic flourishes of the real Tom Wolfe: hysterical narration, outlandish hyperbole, deliberate misreading, false rhetorical questions, baseless hypotheticals, etc. In fact, "Tom Wolfe" did such a good job that he had me going for a while. Until, that is, I realized that "Wolfe" had made so many errors that the letter couldn't possibly have been crafted by the famously fastidious writer.
The first clue to this deception is that in his search for
anything that might discredit my argument, "Tom Wolfe" distorts the meaning of the last line of a long paragraph introducing a few of the writers I discuss in my book, The New New Journalism. He reads the line "Michael Lewis --Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (W.W. Norton, 2003) --chronicles big business" to mean that I am identifying Lewis's most recent book, rather than its author, with the subject of "big business."(Moneyball is, however, a book about the business of a game, the business of baseball -- and Lewis is a writer who has, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to the baseball diamond, chronicled the world of American business.) Whoever this "Wolfe" is, his reading skills are abysmal. It isn't an enormous error, but poor "Tom Wolfe" prattles on about it for four paragraphs, slipping in an obvious parody of the real Wolfe's style -- "gibber-gibber ape-shrieking" -- so dated and awkward that it couldn't possibly have been written by him.
It gets worse. "Tom Wolfe" continues in this vein, screeching
about the way "he" uses Weber's notion of "status," when it would be clear to any reader -- even the addled, fictional graduate student "Wolfe" employs as a rhetorical device -- that it is not Tom Wolfe's definition of status I take issue with, but the way he employs it in his work. Of course, status can mean "the entire range of ways in which human beings rank one another," as he puts it, but my point is that Wolfe (and here I mean the real Tom Wolfe) tends to focus his considerable reporting skills only on the status details of those who are wealthy and white (ethnic minorities and the poor are usually relegated to caricatures).
Finally, "Tom Wolfe" makes an elementary factual error when he
questions my statement that Wolfe considers "ethnic and ideological
subcultures" to be "terra incognita" -- an assertion I drew
directly from a 1974 interview with the real Tom Wolfe ("I've completely relished this terra incognita, these subcultures, these areas of life that nobody wanted to write about," Conversations With Tom Wolfe, Page 39). For reasons known only to him, "Wolfe" then launches into a free-associating discussion of neuroscience ("Whose hookah has the elf been smoking?"). Perhaps a CAT scan is in order.
And on it goes. Anyway, as you can see from the above, there is little danger that any student of Wolfe’s would mistake the letter for his work. Tom Wolfe couldn’t possibly have written such an unworthy epistle. Could he?
Robert S. Boynton
New York University
Wolfe on The New New Journalism
The Chronicle of Higher Education
The New York Times Book Review
Boynton, the director of New York University's magazine journalism program, wants to reveal the methods of his modern masters rather than extract their views on the state of feature journalism. Fans of the Paris Review interview will recognize his questions: What does your ideal day look like? How do you get your story ideas? These predictable queries pay off. Like a building contractor interviewing carpenters for a job, Boynton assesses his subjects based on what sort of tools he finds in their toolboxes.
Columbia Journalism Review
Julia M. Klein
Dedication seems far too pallid a word for the feats of obsession chronicled in Robert S. Boynton’s The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. What it takes to belong to this elite company is the ardor to burrow inside a subject, the skill to win confidences, and the stamina to persist through inevitable setbacks — as well as to transform voluminous raw material into graceful, compelling prose. These journalists all care about accuracy and fairness. But by and large, they have transcended the profession’s shibboleths about objectivity. While their style is sometimes cool and dispassionate, their sympathies are usually clear. In fact, each writer’s sensibility — Michael Lewis’s ironic worldview, Eric Schlosser’s muckraking zeal, Alex Kotlowitz’s empathy for the unfortunate — is part of what he (or, in rare instances, she) is selling.
"If there has ever been a better book of author interviews, it has escaped my attention. Boynton's enormous labors show in the insightful introductions he writes about each of the 19 authors, in the perceptiveness of his questions, in his determination to discover how the muckrakers of 100 years ago and the first wave of New Journalists 40 years ago left their mark on these 19 contemporaries, in the subtle ways he both instructs and entertains through the interviews he conducts."
Haverford Alumni Magazine
The Denver Post
Robert Boynton has written a trade sensation with his new book "The New New Journalism." A must-read for any aspiring or experienced writer, "The New New Journalism" gives nothing less than a recipe for better storytelling, fact or fiction... Boynton offers a journalism education bar none - except perhaps only more condensed (and cheaper) than what he presents to his journalism students at New York University... To journalists, this book is crucial. To writing students, undoubtedly next year's required reading. To avid readers of this genre, a light to illuminate the mystery of their best pleasure.
In interviews with 19 new new journalists, Boynton delivers a compelling guide to the craft.
A great compilation of astute interviews with a group of reporters who are both masterful story tellers and brilliant writers.
Building on the tradition of literary journalism--from nineteenth-century writers Lincoln Steffens and Stephen Crane through Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer--the latest practitioners continue to apply keen skills of social observation and to enjoy public acclaim that promises continued support for this predominantly American craft. Boynton offers interviews with 19 writers who detail how and why they produce their work: Alex Kotlowitz tends to stumble onto his subjects, Jon Krakauer hates interviewing people in restaurants, Leon Dash refuses to become emotionally involved with his subjects, Jane Kramer appreciates the stylistic prose of literary nonfiction writers, Richard Preston is mechanically inept and prefers to take notes rather than use a tape recorder, and Ron Rosenbaum prefers the typewriter to the computer. Interviews also include Gay Talese, William Finnegan, Susan Orlean, and Lawrence Weschler. Boynton asks the writers how they get their ideas, conduct their research and interviews, and begin the writing process, as well as their takes on the future prospects for literary journalism. A fascinating book that makes the reader want to go out and get every book the writers have written as well as those mentioned as sources of inspiration.
Boynton uses the clunky moniker "new new journalism" to describe a group of
reporters today who write article- and book-length examinations of their
subjects, often pioneering new reporting techniques (such as Adrian Nicole
Leblanc's trick of leaving her tape recorder with her subjects when she
went home as a way of getting them to open up without her around--a method
that worked to wonderful effect in her Random Family). Yet, Boynton points
out, these writers also stay true to strict journalistic standards, unlike
Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists, whose creative narrative methods broke
all the rules. Many of the reporters Boynton highlights are also motivated
by an activist impulse that informs but never overpowers their work.
Boynton, the director of New York University's magazine journalism program,
offers a nuts-and-bolts approach to understanding the way these reporters
write, interviewing them on the smallest of details, such as how they
organize their notes, what color pens they use and how they set ground
rules with sources who aren't media savvy. Featuring lengthy discussions
with star scribes such as William Langewiesche (American Ground) and
Michael Lewis (Moneyball), this batch of discussions is a gold mine of
technique, approach and philosophy for journalists, writers and close
The Brooklyn Rail
Boynton's method offers a rare and quite nice example of asking simple questions about the complex task of good reporting and writing... for any journalist, "new" or otherwise, this book serves as a necessary reminder that what we do is both an art and a craft.
The Austin Chronicle
After an engrossing introduction retracing Wolfe's seminal essay, as well as precursors to Wolfe and the new journalism vanguard, Boynton turns his attention to craft... Given the current fascination for reality programming, the growth of blogs, and diminishing readership for print media, Boynton offers a valuable primer for how strong journalism and the attention to craft practiced by his featured writers have created a "literature of the everyday." The New New Journalism compels readers to seek alternatives to the current infotainment-soaked culture.
The Village Voice
Getting Inspired by Jacob Riis's Pieces: Who's Afraid of Tom Wolfe?
The Boston Globe
In the introduction to ''The New Journalism'' (1973), Tom Wolfe's epochal anthology of writerly reporters like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and himself, Wolfe boasted that the literary journalism of the day was not only unprecedented but the ''main event'' of contemporary literature. ''Wolfe's claims were brilliant salesmanship,'' says reporter and NYU magazine journalism professor Robert S. Boynton. ''But literary journalism has a long history in America-and Wolfe was anxious about his place in the world of letters.''
The Fifth Street Review
The New New Journalism is both a splendid introduction to a uniquely American school of journalism and a detailed compendium of techniques, methods, and theories, for those who’ve long been practitioners of this style of nonfiction. Boynton at once surveys this increasingly relevant and vibrant form and provides a forum for the larger philosophies at play between society and the media.
PRAISE FOR THE NEW NEW JOURNALISM
"Fascinating and revealing insights into how writers really write."
"A beautifully crafted book that works in many different ways - as
instruction, profile, literary criticism, and history."
author of A Beautiful Mind
"In these enthralling interviews, a group of gifted reporters tell how they
dream into life, and turn facts into art. Robert Boynton has given a name
to this practice, and thus has created a valuable new field of study as
well as a first rate book."
"Robert S. Boynton has given us two essential books on literary journalism,
entwined. In one, a group of the art's working masters explicate the
methods that give their writing its power. In the other, the interviews
that provide that explication serve as models of interrogatory technique.
While his subjects tell us how they do it, Boynton shows us how it's done."
Columnist for The New Republic and author of Lush Life and Positively 4th Street
"An important contribution on contemporary writers for which I can think of
no other similar book. The introductory overviews on each writer are lucid,
probing and nuanced. Students of literary journalism will benefit immensely
from it...When the literary history is written on the post-new journalism,
I think The New New Journalism will be central to that effort. I have no
doubt that it will become a standard in the field."
Author of the award-winning A History of Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form
"I remember hunkering down ages ago with the Paris Review collection of
interviews with authors from --gulp!--a bygone era, and it was a delight to
see how or why the authorial mind works its creative magic, making it eventually onto
the printed page. Now we have a worthy successor in Robert Boynton's new
collection of interviews with nearly two-dozen of America's top-drawer
magazine journalists. The names are familiar to those who care about writing. No,
make that who really care! Reading the interviews was like eavesdropping on a
literary dinner party held in honor of these accomplished non-fiction
writers. Boynton, as host, certainly asked the right questions. And each "guest"
performed as expected--their answers were as fully-formed, interesting, and intriguing
as their writing. They report. They decide. And we are grateful as readers."
co-author of Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq