JOE NOCERA: Farewell Tom Wolfe, inventor of the New Journalism
'His finest work was “The Right Stuff,” his extraordinary history of America’s earliest attempts to send a man into space'
In the summer of 1973, as I was preparing to enter my junior year in college, Harper & Row published “The New Journalism,” an anthology of articles and book excerpts by the likes of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson. Most important, it included a lengthy introduction by the man who was claiming to have largely invented the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe. I bought it the minute I saw it on the bookshelf.
I had entered Boston University fully expecting to be a math major, only to discover I wasn’t very good at high-level mathematics. But I had become a voracious, intoxicated reader of magazines — it really was the golden age of magazine journalism! — and had decided that summer to switch to BU’s journalism school. Most young would-be journalists of that era wanted to be Woodward and Bernstein; I wanted to be Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe.
To boil it down to its essence, the New Journalism was a term that meant using the techniques of a novelist to write nonfiction. Literary journalism, you might call it (and probably should have). It meant bringing to a story an eye for the telling detail, a psychological acuity, an ability to get inside the characters’ thoughts, and a willingness to hide the ball, at least for a while, leaving the reader in giddy suspense. Although Wolfe was primarily known — then and always — for his pyrotechnic prose (he once started a story with two long lines of “Hai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai …”), he had mastered those crucial techniques. As a result, his magazine work in that era was un-put-down-able. Or at least it was for me.
When Wolfe’s death, at the age of 88, was announced late Tuesday morning, the work of his I immediately searched out was not “The Right Stuff” or “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” but that 45-year-old essay that begins “The New Journalism.” I did so because I remember it having a powerful effect on my formative self, more powerful, really, than anything I learned in my two years in journalism school.
In truth, reading the essay today, all these years later, made me feel a little sheepish. I can see now, in a way I couldn’t then, the degree to which Wolfe is preening, something that characterized him his entire career.
He goes on and on about the wonders of his over-the-top prose, which no one could ever replicate and which really had little to do with crafting a new kind of journalism. He fails to give credit to important predecessors, like John Hersey, whose 1946 New Yorker article, “Hiroshima,” remains one of the greatest examples of literary journalism every written. He needs to raise the specter of “critics,” so that he can then counterattack them. And, this being Wolfe, he can’t help but cast himself as being in competition with the great novelists of the age, like Saul Bellow and even Philip Roth. And he’s winning!
But there are two things he says in that essay that were absolutely true. The first was that nonfiction in earlier eras was far too often boring — though of course the way he makes this point is insanely over the top:
When [readers] came upon that pale beige tone it began to signal to them, unconsciously, that a well-known bore was here again, “the journalist,” a pedestrian mind, a phlegmatic spirit, a faded personality, and there was no way to get rid of the pallid little troll, short of ceasing to read.
He adds, “To avoid this, I would try anything.” And so he did, which explains much of his rationale for that sometimes crazy prose of his. But his point is that one had to find ways to take any subject and make it come to vivid life — something nonfiction writers have taken to heart ever since. To cite just one example: a potentially dreary book about the creation of mortgage backed securities became a hilarious romp revolving around a game called “liar’s poker.”
Wolfe’s second big point was that, because nonfiction writers couldn’t make things up the way a novelist could, they had to do more work to be able to write with the same authority. They had to ask more questions, do more reporting, observe more scenes, which they could then render omnisciently. “We were moving beyond the conventional limits of journalism, but not merely in terms of technique,” he writes.
The kind of reporting we were doing struck us as far more ambitious, too. It was more intense, more detailed, and certainly more time-consuming than anything that newspaper or magazine reporters, including investigative reporters, were accustomed to. We developed the habit of staying with the people we were writing about for days at a time, weeks in some cases. We had to gather all the material the conventional journalist was after — and then keep going. It seemed all-important to be there when dramatic scenes took place, to get the dialogue, the gestures, the facial expressions, the details of the environment. The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stores for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.
This too was something that became de rigueur for magazine writers ever after.
I was always a little sad when Wolfe morphed into a novelist (“A Man in Full”) and contrarian polemicist (“The Painted Word”), because his best and highest use on this earth was clearly as a nonfiction writer. His finest work was “The Right Stuff,” his extraordinary history of America’s earliest attempts to send a man into space. That book takes us deep inside the heads of the astronauts and their wives and NASA officials — and after a few chapters, the pyrotechnic writing largely fades away, and it doesn’t matter! The book is so filled with novelistic details that you can’t put it down. The reporting is simply amazing.
In essays like “The New Journalism,” Wolfe put himself at the center of “his” movement in a way that was probably overstated; writers like Talese and Michael Herr and many others were just as important. A new deeper kind of nonfiction writing would likely have emerged even without Wolfe.
But he was its joyous propagandist, and his willingness to explain what he was doing, and how he was doing it, caused the next generation of magazine writers, my generation, to yearn to do what he was doing. Although no one could replicate him exactly, we all learned from him, consciously adapting the techniques he was teaching for our own purposes.
Today, there is an entirely new generation of nonfiction writers, people like Rachel Aviv at the New Yorker andTaffy Brodesser-Akner of the New York Times (and formerly GQ). And they don’t call it New Journalism anymore, or even literary journalism. Now it’s “longform.” I doubt many of these younger writers have ever read the essay that helped shaped me and my generation of magazine writers. But they don’t have to. The things Wolfe once so consciously taught are now taken for granted, instinctively understood by every ambitious nonfiction writer.
That’s what Tom Wolfe did for journalists. And for readers.