Tom Wolfe's Revenge
New Journalism, once vilified by critics, is enjoying a renaissance as "literary journalism."
By Chris Harvey
Harvey, a former AJR managing editor and a former associate editor at
washingtonpost.com, teaches Web writing and publishing at the University of Maryland.
A few decades ago, feature Óriter Tom Wolfe was pilloried in print for having "the social conscience of an ant" and a "remarkable unconcern" for the facts. Only a visionary could have predicted his impact on journalism would be lasting.
Yet today, elements of the New Journalism that Wolfe so tirelessly promoted have become as commonplace as the pie chart in many newspapers, ranging from the New York Times to the Oregonian to the weekly Washington City Paper.
Practitioners don't call it New Journalism any more. They prefer the terms "literary" or "intimate" journalism or "creative nonfiction." But their stories are marked by the same characteristics that distinguished Wolfe's work at Esquire and the New York Herald Tribune: They're written in narrative form, with a heavy emphasis on dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details.
Jon Franklin, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes at the Evening Sun in Baltimore, says the growing interest in literary journalism can be explained as easily as a pendulum swing. Now a journalism professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, he says that just as the 1980s ushered in USA Today and its emphasis on the "news bite, the info-bit [and] the nonsense statistic" as tools to lure readers back to newspapers, the 1990s are being marked by a renewed interest in narrative.
"Suddenly this light bulb seems to be going off all over..that people want more than USA Today provides," Franklin told journalists in Spokane in May.
It didn't hurt, Franklin and others say, that a 1993 study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors confirmed what many of Wolfe's adherents had already come to believe. When stacked up against other types of newspaper stories, including the traditional inverted pyramid, the narrative was generally better read and better at communicating information.
But the renewed interest in the narrative is resurrecting old concerns about sourcing and accuracy. Some question whether newspapers should encourage the literary techniques, which critics argue have the potential to distort history and sow mistrust among readers.
Wolfe-like narrative stories are often told from the perspective of one or more of the main characters. Readers become privy to a character's thoughts but are not told how the thoughts were discerned by the reporter.
Sometimes, as in Bob Woodward's recent book about the Clinton administration, "The Agenda," entire meetings or scenes are reconstructed, with no clues given about the source of the information.
"One of the big problems our profession has is people questioning the validity..of what we're writing," says Francis Coombs, assistant managing editor of the Washington Times. "The minute you get to the point where the reader can't see where Bob Dole said it or Tom Foley said it..you're getting into a murky area."
Even advocates concede there is tremendous potential for abuse in the narrative form. "These are real sophisticated techniques," Franklin says. "If you're going to use them dishonestly you're going to use them powerfully."
Adds Norman Sims, a former wire service reporter who is now a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, "You cannot verify characterization. You frequently cannot verify dialogue. So forms of literary journalism that depend on those kinds of storytelling present more of an unknown factor."
But Franklin and others argue that most literary journalists are no more likely to falsify quotes or stray from the truth than their colleagues writing in the inverted pyramid style. In fact, some say that because journalists writing the long story are more likely to be veterans, they are less likely to fudge quotes or embellish a story. They have hard-won reputations to safeguard.
"The temptations of narrative aren't like the temptations of heroin," says Mark Kramer, a journalism professor at Boston University who has collaborated with Sims on a new edition of an anthology of literary journalists. "Once you taste them, you don't lose all sensibilities."
The narrative form has been controversial for at least as long as Wolfe has been associated with it. But despite his pronouncements that New Journalism burst forth simultaneously from a few magazines and newspapers in the early 1960s, many say the form was around long before that.
"I can point you to two dozen writers in this century who were using the same techniques in effective nonfiction," says Sims. Among them would be Lillian Ross, Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, John Hersey, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway.
Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, traces the roots a bit deeper. "Any historical study of journalism will reveal the existence of powerful narrative forms of writing, going back not generations, but centuries," Clark says.
He says what distinguished Wolfe and his colleagues in the 1960s and early '70s – writers such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin and Hunter S. Thompson – was not "a matter of doing it differently," but rather "doing more of it" and "doing it much more self-consciously than it was done in the past."
Sims agrees. "The other two dozen writers were separated by time," he says. The New Journalists "were working at the same time, looking at what each other was doing..and innovating."
Wolfe, in particular, was prolific, writing four narratives for Esquire and 20 for the New York Herald Tribune's Sunday supplement in late 1963 and early 1964.
The Herald Tribune was willing to give him latitude, the paper's editor, Jim Bellows, recalled recently, because it was trying to create a niche for itself in a competitive New York market. "We had to do something to make a character or personality for the newspaper," Bellows says. "That [New Journalism] was a help."
The goal, Wolfe wrote in "The New Journalism," was to intellectually and emotionally involve the reader – to "show the reader real life." To say: "Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do!"
In his works, Wolfe chronicled subcultures – such as the hippie drug scene and the Black Panther movement – with the eye of a novelist. He toyed with extended dialogue, point of view and interior monologue. He even played with ellipses, dots, dashes and exclamation points – attempting, he wrote, to leave the illusion of people thinking.
Eugene L. Roberts Jr., managing editor of the New York Times, says Wolfe's outlook, not his punctuation, was key. "The important thing he did was bring an American studies outlook to journalism," Roberts says. "Most newspapers today take a look at subcultures in a way they never did before and I think Wolfe is responsible for that."
Wolfe and other New Journalists also "loosened things up," says Don Fry, an independent writing coach. In the 1950s, he points out, "it was very much 'nothing but the facts, ma'am.' "
Most important, Clark says, Wolfe described what he was doing in such a way that it served as a blueprint for future generations of journalists.
In decades past, however, many were not so complimentary. Wolfe "is a gifted, original writer, but he has the social conscience of an ant," wrote Jack Newfield, formerly an associate editor of the Village Voice, in a 1972 issue of Columbia Journalism Review.
Journalism reviews warned of the possibility that more than the structures of the New Journalism stories were borrowed from fiction.
Writer Dwight Macdonald was quoted as calling the form "parajournalism,..a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction."
A 1966 issue of CJR contained an article and letter to the editor condemning Wolfe. They criticized two articles he had written for New York magazine, then the Herald Tribune's Sunday supplement.
The first article, "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of The Walking Dead!" was an attack on William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker. It characterized Shawn as an embalmer of a dead institution. The second article, "Lost in the Whichy Thicket," began as a critique on the magazine's writing style and editorial values, "but developed into another atmospheric reconstruction..of the New Yorker as a smug, fusty, ingrown private club," the CJR article said.
CJR noted that many journalists were condemning Wolfe for being "irresponsibly malicious and cruel" and for allegedly describing doings at the New Yorker inaccurately. The story quoted the New Yorker's longtime Washington correspondent, Richard Rovere, as saying, "In no important respect is [the New Yorker's office] the one described by Tom Wolfe. Physically and atmospherically [it] is a place I have never visited. The editor of the magazine described by him is a man I have never known."
Repeated calls to Wolfe's home in New York were not returned. But Clay Felker, Wolfe's editor at New York, denies that the writer's pieces were full of mistakes. "These are people who are yelling and screaming because we'd insulted them... The only people who got angry were the people on the payroll," says Felker, who now alternates between consulting in New York and teaching at the University of California at Berkeley.
Felker says the pieces were controversial because of their theme or point of view. "If somebody doesn't agree with the theme, they say it's inaccurate," Felker says. But, he says, "history has shown Tom was right. What they were doing [at the New Yorker] was embalmed stuff."
The criticisms of Wolfe's 1966 pieces were only the beginning of the attacks on New Journalism.
In 1981, when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing – after it was discovered the eight-year-old drug user in her lead paragraphs was not a real person, but a composite – a whole new round of criticisms was fired.
Writing in the December 1981 issue of this magazine, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw said Cooke had fallen into a typical New Journalism trap: She had spent too much time searching for "flashy metaphors" and not enough time digging up "verifiable facts and legitimate news."
Shaw added: "Janet Cooke wrote very well. Too well. She forgot she was a journalist, not a storyteller – a reporter, not a creator."
Narrative advocates say the Cooke case is a poor measure of the craft's ethics or potential. "Janet Cooke is an interesting example. You never see her name mentioned as a New Journalist until she writes a feature story in the Post and it's exposed as a fraud," says Sims. "She had no characterization [in her story]. She had no elaborate structure. She had no dialogue."
Her story was "inaccurate, standard newspaper writing," Sims says. "Why didn't people jump up and down and say standard newspaper people lie to us?"
More recently, Bob Woodward, assistant managing editor for investigations at the Washington Post, and author Joe McGinniss have been attacked for their narratives.
"Bob Woodward is the problem," Fry says when asked about the bad-boy reputation narrative writing has earned with some reporters and editors. "He doesn't bother to cite sources and he reads minds... One of the problems with Woodward is he doesn't tell you where he got it," Fry says. "All the information just floats by."
Woodward responds that he is not a literary journalist but a reporter. He says readers should be more trusting of his work, which includes the books "Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA," "The Final Days" and "All the President's Men."
"My books are scrupulously reported," Woodward said recently, noting that more than 250 people were interviewed for his recent book on the Clinton administration. "All that's missing is who said it, whose diary it's in, what memo it's in."
He says he follows the same standards when reporting his books as those at the Washington Post. He points out that his books have been excerpted in the newspaper, with accompanying explanations of his techniques.
In the introduction to "The Agenda," Woodward wrote that reconstructed dialogue and quotes came from at least one participant, from memos, or from notes or diaries of a participant in a discussion. When someone is said to have thought or felt something, that description came either from the source or from someone to whom the source said it directly.
Critics have been harsher with McGinniss, accusing him of reporting and writing practices that would be unacceptable at many American newspapers.
In his 1993 rumination on the life of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, "The Last Brother," McGinniss often speculates on what Kennedy thought or felt, yet he has said his repeated attempts to interview the senator were unsuccessful. Critics have also charged that McGinniss embroidered quotes and borrowed freely from other works on Kennedy.
McGinniss did not return phone calls. In a note at the end of the book, he acknowledges using articles and books as a "verifiable source" from which he "distilled an essence." He says quotations in the book "represent in substance what I believe to have been spoken."
McGinniss argued that the book should be accepted for what it is: "an author's highly personal and interpretive view of his subject." He said that "when an individual is as encrusted with fable and lore as is Teddy Kennedy (and his brothers), a writer must attempt an approach that transcends that of traditional journalism or even, perhaps, of conventional biography."
Journalists writing in the narrative form will tell you they usually spend much more time reporting a story than a typical news reporter would. Three and four and five times as much.
And they say they take great pains to make sure facts, scenes and dialogue are accurate. "I personally don't believe in making up quotes or putting words in people's mouths or making up facts," says Patsy Sims, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, which offers a master's degree in fine arts in creative nonfiction.
"I'm very strict with my students," says Sims, who has worked at newspapers in New Orleans, San Francisco and Philadelphia. "If you say somebody had on a red dress, they better have had on a red dress."
Walt Harrington, a Washington Post Magazine staff writer, says, "The basic premise is that you have to live up to all the standards of straight-ahead journalism." A single tale may take months or even years of reporting. "There are layers and layers of reporting," he says. "You have to be in a setting with your subject when not a lot is happening," he says. You "play the fly-on-the-wall role."
Techniques and standards vary from reporter to reporter. Harrington, for instance, says he won't "say somebody is thinking something," unless they "have told you that's what they're thinking."
It's a technique that the New York Times' Roberts says he approves of, adding, "You'd need to explain sometime in the story that this is where it came from."
Fry agrees. "You owe the reader an attribution."
Others say they sometimes go to greater lengths to accurately portray what a source is thinking or feeling.
Cynthia Gorney, a Washington Post Style section writer on leave to write a book about abortion, says that when trying to explain a Catholic obstetrician's beliefs, she immersed herself in his world.
"I did lengthy, multiple interviews with him," says Gorney. "I read much of the literature he would have been reading," including ethics texts written in the time he would have been in college and a journal written for Catholic physicians.
"I learned as much as I could about growing up in Catholic schools," Gorney says. Then she read her description to him. "He made a couple of tiny changes, but said I got it right."
Thomas French, a St. Petersburg Times feature writer, spent a year in a Florida high school and another year reporting and writing a seven-part narrative series that ran in the paper in 1991. To get inside sources' heads, the reporter says, he too would ask them what they were thinking "and try not to telegraph stuff you hope they were thinking. You don't want them to be making stuff up."
Like Gorney, French says he sometimes goes over his descriptions "word for word with the people involved." He explains: "I'm not 16. I've never been a girl. You're trying to write from their point of view." He says he's not handing over control of the piece to the sources, "but I want them to tell me if it's wrong."
Woodward says he sometimes relies on others to tell him what an individual might be thinking. Referring to "The Brethren," the book he and Scott Armstrong wrote about the Supreme Court, Woodward points out, "We say we never talked to Chief Justice [Warren] Burger. And [yet] we'll have things saying,..'He was determined to get control of the building.' "
How, as reporters, could they confidently write what Burger was thinking? "There were only 16 people he told that to," Woodward says. They talked to 15 or 16 of them, he says, adding, "All of his actions supported that."
Reconstructing dialogue from scenes the reporter didn't witness can be trickier. But, says Franklin, if you've got several people from the scene who are willing to talk and a working knowledge of psychology, it's possible. People can remember surprising amounts of detail from traumatic or emotional occasions, he says. "A person can often remember quite a lot of detail about a wedding day or a day he buried a parent. If you were in a serious accident, you can remember the bug smears on a truck."
To gauge the accuracy of their memories, Franklin asks the sources details he can check. "If it's a funeral, ask about the day and the weather, and go back and check. If they're accurate in those kinds of details, it certainly makes me feel better, and suspicious if they're not."
But Shaw, the Los Angeles Times media critic, says it's not enough to talk with most of the sources. If a reporter is recreating a private scene – such as a conversation between two people in their bedroom – he says the reporter must speak to both people. The reporter must also make it clear in the story who the sources are and that this is their recollection of the conversation, Shaw says. "I'm opposed to reconstructing dialogue without sources."
Memories are imperfect, Shaw adds. For instance, he says he and his friends had a "completely different take" on a conversation they had the previous evening. Shaw says he heard what one person said, while the man's wife "heard what he meant."
Roberts believes higher standards should apply to nonfiction in newspapers than in books. "I think there's a sharp dividing line between newspaper journalism and book journalism," he says. "When you're buying a book you're buying a product of one individual, and it purports to be nothing more or less than that. But when you're picking up a newspaper you're picking up a product of not just individuals, but an institution, with a past, present and hopefully a future. And the institutional integrity is all tied up in it."
Despite the apprehensions of some, »nterest in the narrative form is growing. The University of Oregon's journalism school and its creative writing program are launching a master's degree in creative nonfiction this fall.
Scripps Howard's California television production company is working on a newsmagazine its executive producer, Craig Leake, says will display the artistry and intimacy of New Journalism. "Every week we would hope to have a reporter who had a really special passion about a story tell that story," says Leake, adding he hopes to find a spot for his show by mid-season.
Meanwhile, the 13th Annual Key West Literary Seminar in Florida this January will focus on journalism for the first time, featuring literary journalists such as Pulitzer Prize winners David Halberstam, Madeleine Blais and Anna Quindlen.
And newspapers such as the Oregonian in Portland are explaining narrative techniques in an in-house newsletter.
Fry, who is affiliated with the Poynter Institute, says he understands the interest. He says editors "are looking for anything that might get people to read." They should be. The Newspaper Association of America reports that the percentage of adults reading daily newspapers on weekdays has dropped from 78 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 1993.
"Our competitors are masters of this," says Oregonian senior editor and writing coach Jack Hart of the narrative. "Television. Hollywood movies. [Even] the computer game is interactive storytelling. It has a protagonist and challengers and story structure and rising action and..a denouement. It's one reason kids are so addicted to this form."
ýhe form is compelling, advocates say, because unlike the inverted pyramid style, it gives readers a reward for making it through a story. "The pleasure and knowledge that come from reading come from making predictions of what will happen in a story," Clark f the Poynter Institute says.
The form is also easily recognized by readers, because "people in general, in their own memories, use narrative all the time," Clark says. "They use it to learn, to understand, to remember and find meaning."
Many journalists say the narrative form Wolfe, Talese and Capote helped popularize will be only one of the forms in newspapers of the future. They also predict more diversity of story formats and sizes, based on what suits a particular event best.
The short, inverted pyramid form will continue to be needed for some stories written on deadline. "But it's hopefully going to be one perspective in our quiver, instead of our whole ball of wax," Roberts says. "We ran..off the cliff with translating USA Today journalism into our whole paper" during the 1980s.
Tom McNamara, managing editor for news at USA Today, says even his paper is evolving. "It's dramatically different" than when it first rolled off the presses in September 1982, when stories averaged eight to 14 inches, he says. Although the average story now runs about 15 inches, "it's not unusual to see 25- or 30-[inch stories], and every once in a while 50 or 60."
The articles have gone from "cookie cutter to individual voices," McNamara adds, noting the paper has even printed "first-person stories."
Clark says he hopes to see "a greater reconciliation" of forms such as the narrative and the inverted pyramid. "I'm kind of eclectic, in terms of my tastes and also in my understanding of how these forms can be used," he says. "I think people are wrong when they talk about forms being inherently good or bad. The forms are a frame. What's more important is the execution."
Kramer of Boston University says an even greater reliance by newspapers on literary journalism would help readers sort out the complexities of life. "The thing that's wrong with most newspaper stories is they're missing the human context," he says. "You wonder what kind of person was that robber."
Sims at the University of Massachusetts agrees. Traditionally, he says, newspapers have not valued "the report on the ordinary life and everyday culture of their own towns." They haven't covered ordinary lives. They have covered "extraordinary foul-ups."
Narrative stories, on the other hand, often bring the ordinary to life. If newspapers valued "local culture and local community more highly," Sims says, they would invest more in narrative nonfiction. l ###