Monday, 25 September 2006

New New Journalism book cover, Vintage BooksReview: The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, Robert S. Boynton (2005)

Covering a swag of nineteen writers born between 1932 and 1963, three of them women (Jane Kramer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean), this is a useful reference work as well as a genuine source of inspiration. It covers a lot of ground that is familiar to a journalism student.

It’s a veritable font of interesting facts about how literary journalists work. Detailed information about their habits and the approaches they take to their craft helps the reader assess, in a new light, his or her own work practices.

Two of the writers — Gay Talese and Susan Orlean — are well-known outside the United States but the rest are new acquaintances for me. I quickly found one of the books talked about, in BookMooch, and mooched it from a woman in the U.S. who cheekily asked me, before she would agree to send it all the way to Australia, why I wanted it (“I WILL consider it if you twist my arm a little and tell me why you want to read it”). Eventually she agreed to post it (“Thanks for indulging me.”), and I look forward to becoming much better acquainted with Richard Ben Cramer when it arrives.

His book, titled What It Takes: The Way to the White House (1992), Boynton describes as “an epic chronicle of the 1988 [U.S. federal] election, a group portrait of presidential candidates (George Bush, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart, and Richard Gephardt) as multidimensional people, rather than as ‘personalities’ or stand-ins for various ideologies or policies.”

As you can see from the dates shown for that book, it took some time to put together. This is a constant among those interviewed. They practise something that might best be described as ‘saturation journalism’, where they turn into the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, digging and delving for more facts, more detail, more that will be of interest to the reader. “How do you know when you’ve found a genuine story?” Boynton asks Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (born 1963):

I know I’ve found a good story when I’m absorbed by it almost to the point of obsession.

And when asked what kinds of people he likes writing about, Gay Talese says:

People with whom I have an emotional affiliation. We spend so much time together that we have a kind of affair. I get so close to them that I can write about them as I would write about my kin or my spouse, or a long-lost lover.

In Australia, the best-known exponent of literary journalism would have to be Helen Garner, born in Geelong in 1942. I recently read and reviewed her 2004 non-fiction work Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which she worked on for four years: from 1999 to 2003. And now my esteemed colleague has lent me her copy of Garner’s 1995 book, The First Stone, which I will read and review anon.

Boynton’s book touches frequently on method and practice. Questions such as ‘Where do you like to write?’, ‘Do you use outlines?’, ‘Where do you most like interviewing?’, ‘Do you use a tape recorder or take notes?’ lead us on a journey toward a place where we can glimpse the environment in which the writers work every day. We peek over their shoulders, sample with them the first coffee of the morning, tut-tut at their tendency to procrastinate, sympathise with their efforts to get the best possible information from their sources.

Cramer, born in 1950, for example, doesn’t like interviewing his subjects in living rooms. “People don’t talk well in living rooms. The living room is the place where you sit with your hands folded in your lap.” He prefers the more relaxed setting of the kitchen.

He managed to get access to George Bush through George W. Bush:

My researcher and I went to see Lee Atwater, who was the campaign manager. And because we tell him we want to know about Bush’s personal/family side, Atwater shows us into George Jr.’s office. George is on the phone with his cowboy boots up on the desk, and a plug of tobacco tucked in his lip. Atwater introduces us, says, “Boys, just don’t fuck me over,” and leaves. George looks us over slowly. We looked pretty raggedy and I had a lot more hair. And he says, “Well, you certainly don’t look like a bunch of young Republicans.” And we all have a laugh.
  He and I got off on the right foot. Junior just took me in. So every time I found myself in Washington and didn‘t have anything scheduled, I’d stroll over to Junior’s office and sit around. It was the only place you could smoke cigars, so we’d smoke together.

Another common question refers to precedents and the words the writers use to describe what they do. Typical is Cramer’s response to the question “Do you consider yourself a ‘literary journalist’?”:

No, I’m a smith. I occupy the position in our society that a good wheelwright would have occupied in his. Making wheels is a highly specialized skill. I don’t consider myself to be an artist, I consider myself to be a skilled workman.

And Ron Rosenbaum, who was born in 1946, says:

I have some problems with the term. It sounds self-consciously highfalutin. And it is misleading because it suggests that literary journalism is about rhetorical flourishes and elevated wordplay. That it requires a consciously elevated style.
  A better way to put it is that literary journalism is journalism that asks the same questions that literature asks. Questions about God and man, fate, human nature, etc. And these questions don’t have to be asked in a particularly ornate style.

Susan Orlean thinks it’s “a good time” for literary journalism:

We’ve passed through this spasm of people feeling that print is dead. The curiosity about the world, and the appetite for books that explore it in a literary way, is stronger than ever. If you look at the books that have sold well in the last five years, a remarkable number of them have been works of literary nonfiction.

Lawrence Weschler sounds interesting. I just ordered three of his books via Abebooks. Weschler calls the tradition ‘writerly nonfiction’ and is pessimistic. He says the prospects of this kind of writing are:

Not good. I tell my students, “Nothing in this class will be of the slightest practical value to you. It’s over. And it’s worse than that because by the time I finish with you this is all you’ll want to do. But it’s over.” And they laugh, and I say, “You’re laughing now, but I guarantee that before the semester finishes four or five of you will be in my office crying hot tears because this is all you want to do.”
  Having said that, I am still trying to “save civilization,” twelve people at a time.


Anonymous said...

Dean, thanks for that interesting review. A blog about a book about writers & writing - perhaps all a lot of writers do is write about other writers, in one way or another?

Have you heard that Helen Garner has been attending the Glebe Coroner's Court to hear the Dianne Brimble case? That sad affair was almost made for Garner, don't you think?

Matthew da Silva said...

I've been avoiding articles in the broadsheets about the Brimble case like the plague. But I did buy The Monthly which has a longer piece by Malcolm Knox (prev. books editor at the Herald) which was very good. He did a bit of saturation journalism -- he went on a cruise, got the flavour of the ship and shipboard activities.

But I'll definitely read the book if Garner covers it. She's a great writer.