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Whatever Happened to the New Journalism? (Part 1)

By Bill Beuttler (Master’s project, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1984; advisor: Professor Luther P. Jackson)

Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff, 1979), Gay Talese (Thy Neighbor’s Wife, 1980), and Hunter S. Thompson (The Curse of Lono, 1983) still use fiction techniques in their nonfiction books. But younger writers in Esquire and Rolling Stone magazines, where the style flourished in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, have shifted away from what was called the New Journalism. Fiction techniques have not been abandoned by these writers, but they are being used sparingly and less flamboyantly.

Writers and editors offered several reasons for the New Journalism’s decline in a recent series of interviews. Talese said that young journalists entering the profession in the late ‘60s were more interested in television and advocacy journalism than in stylish writing, and that both of these deemphasized the thorough reporting required by the New Journalism. “I don’t think they young people who came out of journalism schools, or any kind of schools, in the 1960s had the faintest idea of what reporting is,” he said. “You can see that in the magazines. There’s no replacement for a Tom Wolfe, and his style, or a Hunter Thompson, and his style, or a Gay Talese, and his style. … We were the best magazine writers going in the 1960s. They should be better than us in the 1980s. Nobody is even half as good.”

Others blamed the absence of talented writers. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well and a number of non-New Journalism magazine articles, said that “sloppy” Wolfe-imitators wore out the New Journalism’s welcome. Adam Moss, an associate editor at Esquire, said that during the ‘70s magazine journalism became unfashionable among many of the more capable writers, who found that there was more money to be made from novels and screenplays.

Financial concerns also affected magazine editors, who found that their readers preferred short, streamlined writing to the heavily detailed New Journalism. “Journalistic tastes have changed,” said Bob Greene, syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune and contributor of the monthly “American Beat” column in Esquire. “You have a hard time finding the space for the long, 10,000-word takeout anymore. If a writer comes in with a 10,000-word piece the editor thinks, ‘The reader is not going to get through this.’”

Hunter Thompson said that the conservative mood of the country in the ‘80s is preventing his personal style of politically slanted New Journalism from being published, because editors fear that challenging the mainstream will cost them advertising and readership. “Now is not the time, in terms of journalism, to take on the Establishment in tandem with equally committed editors and an equally committed publisher. We’re talking about the death of rock and roll.”

Thompson’s editor, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, disagreed. He said that there are few events or personalities in the ‘80s that lend themselves to New Journalism treatments. “There’s not much that writers like Tom Wolfe or Hunter really want to write 20,000 words about anymore, or 10,000 words,” he said, “and there aren’t many subjects that the reader wants to read about.” Others, including Wolfe, argued that there will always be plenty of subject matter for would-be New Journalists who bother to look for it.

The New Journalism, as defined by Wolfe, applied to factual reporting four narrative devices used mainly in fiction: scene-setting, dialogue, status detail, and point-of-view. The style appealed to writers, many of them novelists or would-be novelists, who felt constrained by traditional magazine nonfiction. Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, The New Journalism, included nonfiction by Talese, Thompson, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Michael Herr, and George Plimpton, among others. These writers had distinctive styles and emerged independently of one another, but Wolfe said that they each used the New Journalism’s characteristic devices to write nonfiction as “absorbing” and “gripping” as novels and short stories.

Few writers identified themselves as New Journalists. George Plimpton, for example, did not think his 1966 book, Paper Lion, in which he describes training as the Detroit Lions’ “last string” quarterback, qualified, though Wolfe included an excerpt from it in his anthology. “I never thought that I was one,” Plimpton explained. “My class of journalism was participatory journalism. It was highly personalized, true, and I wrote it as a novel – so it might apply on those two counts. But stylistically, I don’t think my writing is something you’d look at and say, ‘Aha, there’s a stylistic innovator.’ Because, after all, I was writing for Sports Illustrated. You can’t really be too adventuresome when you’re writing for a commercial magazine of that sort.”

Harold Hayes, an Esquire editor during the New Journalism’s peak years there, said that the New Journalism is actually “literary journalism” – stylized nonfiction writing – which dates at least as far back as Mark Twain. Hayes called Wolfe’s list of New Journalism devices “bullshit on Wolfe’s part,” arguing that writing cannot be broken into arbitrary categories based on mechanical devices. “I don’t think there’s any system that unlocks distinctive writing,” he said. “Wolfe has a unique, original voice, and he’s found devices he’s managed to carry off, often by breaking a number of systematic and mechanical rules.” As an example, Hayes mentioned Wolfe’s frequent changes of point-of-view. “Now, that doesn’t mean he can say to me, ‘Hey, you want to be a great writer? Go out there and start changing points-of-view.’ That doesn’t say a goddamn thing to me.”

Still, “literary journalism” using Wolfe’s fiction devices thrived at Esquire in the ‘60s, and the New Journalism was the name that caught on. Wolfe cited Gay Talese’s profile of ex-heavyweight champ Joe Louis at age 50, which appeared in the magazine in 1962, as an early example of the New Journalism in Esquire/. The piece opened as a short story might, with a dialogue-filled scene showing Louis’s third wife welcoming him back to Los Angeles after a three-day trip to New York:

”Hi, sweetheart!” Joe Louis called to his wife, spotting her waiting for him at the Los Angeles airport.

She smiled, walked toward him, and was about to stretch up on her toes and kiss him – but suddenly stopped.

“Joe,” she said, “where’s your tie?”

“Aw, sweetie,” he said, shrugging, “I stayed out all night in New York and didn’t have time –”

night!” she cut in. “When you’re out here all you do is sleep, sleep, sleep.”

“Sweetie,” Joe Louis said, with a tired grin, “I’m an ole man.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “but when you go to New York you try to be young again.”

The profile conclude with a scene from the Harlem home of Louis’s second wife, who is shown watching a film of an old Louis fight with her new husband and a roomful of guests, including Talese:

When the Louis combinations began to land, Rose went, “Mummmm, mummmm,”and then the pale body of Conn began to collapse against the canvas.

Billy Conn slowly began to rise. The referee counted over him. Conn had one leg up, then two, then was standing – but the referee forced him back. It was too late.

But Rose’s husband in the back of the room disagreed.

“I thought Conn got up in time,” he said, “but the referee wouldn’t let him go on.”

Rose Morgan said nothing – just swallowed the rest of her drink.

Talese has since described the Louis piece as an early effort to bring the tone of Irwin Shaw and John O’Hara short stories to factual reporting. Between the opening and closing scenes, most of the Louis piece read like a conventional magazine profile. But Talese increased his use of fiction-like scenes in subsequent articles for Esquire. In the mid-1960s, Talese switched to lengthier projects: The Kingdom and the Power, which profiled his former employer, the New York Times; Honor Thy Father, which profiled the Bonanno Mafia family; and Thy Neighbor’s Wife, which explored changing sexual mores.

These books were written from the point-of-view of an omniscient narrator. Talese achieved this “omniscience” through the legwork of a zealous reporter, spending years researching scenes he had not witnessed or the thoughts of other people, practices his critics distrusted. In his book on the Times, for example, Talese reconstructs the thoughts of several reporters and editors. “It’s a very good book,” said William Zinsser. “Nevertheless, it’s got to be ultimately suspect. And nobody is ever going to suspect something that someone like, say, Joseph Mitchell [the great New Yorker writer] writes. So it depends on how you want to be judged. Talese is pushing back the boundaries of reality, or, it could be argued, fair play. But he wrote very, very powerfully.”

Wolfe’s first New Journalism piece was “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” which ran in Esquire in 1963. He wrote it in stream-of-consciousness fashion. The ramble on custom car collecting, unconventional as its title, was written as a memo to Esquire’s then-managing editor, Byron Dobell, after Wolfe failed to produced a conventional piece on deadline. Wolfe, who had earned a Ph.D. in American studies at Yale and reported for the Washington Post before becoming a New York Herald Tribune reporter, continued developing his New Journalism in numerous articles for Esquire and the Herald Tribune’s Sunday supplement, which later became New York magazine. Many of these articles are collected in his books The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and The Pump House Gane Like Talese, Wolfe later switched to book-length New Journalism: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, an account of novelist Ken Kesey’s LSD-influenced lifestyle; Radical Chic Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers, humorous looks at two racial confrontations; and The Right Stuff, an account of the early days of America’s space program.

Wolfe shared Talese’s willingness to reconstruct scenes and explore the minds of his characters. He occasionally described scenes through the eyes of his characters, and altered his own narrative voice to fit the personalities of the people he was writing about. He was also a master of what he called status detail, as in this passage from “Radical Chic,” which describes a Black Panther fundraiser held by conductor Leonard Bernstein at his Upper East Side apartment:

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons … The butler will bring them their drinks … Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. …

The New Journalism was first called by that name in the mid-1960s. Seymour Krim, an author and writing instructor at Columbia University, said that the term was coined by Pete Hamill in 1965. During a newspaper strike that year, Hamill, then a New York Post columnist, phoned Krim about doing an article called “The New Journalism,” which would have been about Wolfe, Talese, and Jimmy Breslin, a New York Herald Tribune columnist and New York contributor. The magazine Krim edited, Nugget, folded before the article ran, but Hamill’s name stuck.

The most enduring condemnation of New Journalism occurred the same year. The critic Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New York Review of Books, described The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby as an example of “parajournalism,” a new genre “spawned” at Esquire and New York. He said that the New Journalists had created “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” (Macdonald was later parajournalized himself by Norman Mailer in The Armies of the Night.)

The New Journalism’s rise was spurred by the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in 1965, which first appeared in The New Yorker the same year. Capote’s “nonfiction novel” was a factual account of the murder of a Kansas farm family and the capture and execution of the two drifters who murdered them, based on exhaustive interviews with people involved in the case, including the two murderers. The book’s critical success, coupled with the decision of an established novelist like Capote to write nonfiction, lent prestige to the New Journalism.

It was also in 1965 that Carey McWilliams, the editor of The Nation, offered an obscure, San Francisco-based freelancer $100 to do a piece on outlaw motorcycle gangs in California. Hunter Thompson, whose previous writing consisted largely of two unpublished novels and some South American correspondence for the National Observer, accepted the assignment, which led to his book Hell’s Angels. The book was based on more than a year of close association with the Angels, which ended with Thompson being badly beaten by a group of them.

In Hell’s Angels Thompson describes a number of scenes in which he participated. Later, Thompson increasingly used himself as a character, injecting drug-inspired humor and creating a unique style he called “gonzo journalism.” His first gonzo effort was “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” a wildly impressionistic look at the 1970 Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly, which centered on the problems Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman had covering the story. Thompson’s best-known book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was first published in Rolling Stone in 1971. Vegas is a semi-fictional account of Thompson and his attorney abusing drugs in Las Vegas, where Thompson had been sent to cover a motorcycle race. The book’s manic humor earned it favorable reviews, and Thompson continued his drug-inspired humor in his subsequent writing for Rolling Stone, including what became his 1972 presidential campaign book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

In the campaign book, Thompson intersperses behind-the-scenes reporting, hyperbolic political commentary, and humorous fantasy. In the following example, Thompson has just told a group of young Nixon volunteers that NBC commentator John Chancellor is a user of LSD:

By this time I was having a hard time keeping a straight face. These poor, ignorant young waterheads. Would they pass this weird revelation on to their parents when they got home to Middletown, Shaker Heights, and Orange County? Probably so, I thought. And then their parents would write letters to NBC, saying that they’d learned from reliable sources that Chancellor was addicted to LSD-25 – supplied to him in great quantities, no doubt, by Communist agents – and demanding that he be jerked off the air immediately and locked up.

Clay Felker, a seminal New Journalism figure as an editor at Esquire and New York magazines, said that Thompson’s fantasies disqualified him as a New Journalist. “He was making things up,” said Felker. “Wolfe never makes anything up. Hunter Thompson was kind of an out-of-control buffoon in many ways, who managed to capture a crazy moment in American history, which is past, and as a result he passed.”

Others disagree, including Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, who argued that Thompson’s fantasies and jokes are easily distinguishable from his factual reporting. “In anybody thinks Frank Mankiewicz has three thumbs, fine, let them think that,” said Wenner. “Thompson did a better job covering that election in ’72 than anybody else. He got the story right more of the time. He made better predictions. He influenced everybody else. So he said Nixon and his people were a gang of thugs and Nazis. Well, it turned out to be right, didn’t it?”

Norman Mailer, like Thompson, cast himself as a central character in his political reporting for Harper’s Magazine, later published in his 1968 books The Armies of the Night , a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his participation, with Dwight Macdonald and the poet Robert Lowell, in the 1967 march on the Pentagon; and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, an account of the 1968 presidential conventions. Mailer won a second Pulitzer, this time in fiction, for his 1979 book The Executioner’s Song. Mailer called this book fiction, despite, as he wrote in its afterword, its doing “its best to be a factual account of the activities of Gary Gilmore and the men and women associated with him in the period from April 9, 1976, when he was released from the United States Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, until his execution a little more than nine months later in Utah State Prison.

Clay Felker said that the New Journalism responded to Esquire’s need to compete with the immediacy of television and newspapers. It found writers who could bring verve and style to their treatment of dated events. To obtain its unique coverage, the magazine turned to novelists, or writers who wrote like novelists. The results included Vietnam reporting by Michael Herr and John Sack; an account of Martin Luther King’s funeral by Garry Wills; and a series of four impressionistic pieces on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago by Sack and novelists Terry Southern, Jean Genet, and William S. Burroughs.

Herr’s Vietnam reporting for Esquire in the late 1960s was later incorporated into his 1977 book, Dispatches, which many regard an outstanding example of the New Journalism. It provides and excellent example of magazine journalism as visual as fiction. The following is from his 1969 article about the siege of Khesanh:

I see a road. It is full of ruts made by truck and jeep tires, but in the passing rain they never harden, and along the road there is a two-dollar piece of issue, a poncho which had just been used to cover a dead Marine, a blood-puddled, mud-wet poncho going stiff in the wind. It has reared up there by the road in a horrible, streaked ball. The wind doesn’t move it, only setting the pools of water and blood in the dents shimmering. I’m walking along this road with two black Grunts, and one of them gives the poncho a vicious, helpless kick. “Go easy, man,” the other one says, nothing changing in his face, not even looking back. “That’s the American flag you gettin’ your foot into.”

The desire to cover breaking news in monthly publications was not the only reason for the New Journalism’s rise. Wolfe said that increased affluence resulted in bizarre lifestyles – like California surfers, stock car racers, and custom car collectors – that he often explored in his articles. The ’60s was also a time of artistic experimentation, particularly in popular music. In jazz, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman pushed toward dissonance and atonality at the same time Miles Davis and John McLaughlin were fusing jazz and rock. Rock also changed dramatically in the ’60s, when drugs and politics affected the music of people like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.

It was the rock culture that gave rise in 1967 to Rolling Stone. Much of Hunter Thompson’s writing was done for that magazine, which also featured the work of young, New Journalism-influenced writers like Timothy Crouse, Tim Cahill, and Joe Eszterhas. In 1971 the magazine won a National Magazine Award, and in 1973 Rolling Stone published Tom Wolfe’s series of articles about the space program, which led to his astronaut book, The Right Stuff.

In the mid-1970s, however, as gas shortages, inflation, and unemployment replaced Vietnam, Watergate, and Civil Rights as central public issues, the New Journalism faded from view. The best New Journalists, despite the presence of some of them on the Esquire and Rolling Stone mastheads, stopped writing for magazines. Wolfe and Talese were writing books, others were doing likewise or writing screenplays, and Hunter Thompson, until recently, was not writing at all. The writers replacing them in the magazines use the New Journalism’s fiction devices conservatively, or as Esquire associate editor Adam Moss puts it, “more carefully and more responsibly.”

Assorted abuses of the New Journalism contributed to its decline. Lillian Ross, who did narrative reporting for The New Yorker before the New Journalism was talked about, said that people eventually began to view its practitioners as self-promotion artists. Ross objects to the celebrity status accorded New Journalists – Tom Wolfe as white-suited dandy, Hunter Thompson as Doonesbury’s Uncle Duke – which she thinks misled young writers. She said that she would rather not discuss what New Journalists have done, “except to sum it up in one four-letter word: H-A-R-M.”

The journalist-as-celebrity syndrome led to overuse of first-person reporting, which most editors consider self-indulgent. Few writers can write first-person reporting as effectively as Norman Mailer or Hunter Thompson, whose personalities are central to their power as writers. “Inevitably, the person you’re writing about is going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than you the reporter are,” said Mary Knoblauch, assistant features editor for the Chicago Tribune. “The reason reporters go into the business is because they’re all voyeurs. They do not have a sense of participation in life, and this is their way of looking at what life is really about. I think that’s true of how an awful lot of people get into the business. So why on earth would you ever think that you’d be more interesting than the person who’s actually living life and doing something? I find that strange and incomprehensible.”

Some writers took shortcuts to their pursuit of “good reads,” undermining the New Journalism’s credibility. Gail Sheehy, for example, who has since written the best-sellers Passages and Pathfinders, said that her 1971 New York article “Redpants and Sugarman” featured a prostitute that was actually based on a “composite” of several women. More recently, Janet Cooke was fired from the Washington Post in 1981 for fabricating her Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. The boy, it turned out, never existed. A month later, Michael Daly resigned as a columnist for the New York Daily News after admitting that the name of his source for a story about a teenager being wounded by a British soldier during fighting in Northern Ireland was a pseudonym. Several other details in Daly’s story proved inaccurate, including the boy’s name and age, and the story gave the false impression that Daly had witnessed the shooting.

These and other scandals heightened distrust of the New Journalism among newspaper editors, who reasoned that fiction techniques led to fiction. “There is the danger of, to make you story better you fudge the facts,” said Knoblauch. “You build your scenes not quite the way they happened, but the way you wish they’d happened.” Bernard Judge, general manager of the City News Bureau of Chicago and a former Tribune city editor, agreed. “Unless the individual who’s doing the writing has a reputation for veracity and for quality writing, you start to think a lot of these [writers] aren’t doing the work of good reporting,” he said. “They’re good with a typewriter, but they’re no good when it comes to factual information.” The New Journalism “was discredited.”

Both editors think that the New Journalism is better suited for magazines than newspapers. “The people who were really good at it, like Wolfe, didn’t write that often,” said Knoblauch. “You have to understand that we put out a newspaper 365 days a year, and there isn’t time, even on a newspaper magazine, to do the kind of thing he does – even if you were good enough to do it. The best practitioners were in magazines, where they had the luxury of that kind of time.”

“The other thing bad about New Journalism,” added Judge, “was that after you got over being entertained, assuming the fella’s a hell of a writer, you’d ask your question, ‘Well, what have I learned?’ Usually you didn’t learn anything. You were just entertained, that’s all.” Judge said that the main function of newspapers is to present factual information, not New Journalistic “slices of life.”

Not every New Journalist was “a hell of a writer.” Self-indulgent writing was another abuse that gave New Journalism a bad name. Not many writers are talented enough to write New Journalism well, but that did not keep a number of bad writers from trying. William Zinsser said that the proliferation of unskilled Wolfe and Mailer imitators produced “sloppy” writing, “killing the goose” for the New Journalism.

“My interest in the New Journalism is really an interest in how certain real stars, people like Wolfe and Mailer, Talese to a certain extent, kind of pushed out some boundaries, did things that were high-wire acts that were enormously exciting,” Zinsser said, the green print of a word processor glowing over his shoulder as he sat in the Book-of-the-Month Club’s Lexington Avenue office, where he now serves as editor. “The danger is that so many people who were not Tom Wolfe and Mailer, whose egos were not as secure and whose personalities were not as interesting, thought that the person was the substitute for the craft. And I think that sort of wore out everybody’s welcome.”

Some of the worst New Journalism imitations may have occurred in the nation’s classrooms. In 1977, a college and high school textbook called The Student Journalist and Writing New Journalism was published by Joseph M. Webb, a journalism instructor at Southern Illinois University. On one page is a photograph of a bearded undergraduate swinging at a paper wad with what looks like a ruler. Its caption reads: “Strange things go on in classrooms – we all know that. Learn to be conscious of your school surroundings, those ‘strange’ things that go on – like this makeshift ball game. There are stories to be written from just such things.” Webb’s book provides several examples of badly done, self-indulgent New Journalism:

”Studebaker Hoch, he’s really out of sight.”

Studebaker Hoch stroked into “The Mill,” for indeed Studebaker neither walked nor strolled, he stroked – his thin legs represented two-thirds of his height, which surpassed 6’2” with the help of “antistomper boots.”

The two guys preparing the mock-up of Friday’s edition pretended to return to their work, but continued singing:

“Studebaker Hoch, he’s never found up-tight.”

“Studebaker Hoch, he does it every night.”

Keit3h Childs (exactly like he signs his name – the three is silent), alias Studebaker Hoch of the Frank Zappa recording, confronted the two singers.

“Either one o’ you dudes got a dime? I got to use the public telefung. Got to call a friend in Duluth.”

Neither one of them wanted to supplement Keit3th’s personal lunch fund.

“Sure you can reach Duluth with only 10 cents?” asked Duck.

“Duluth!? Bucko, you can get Tierra Del Fuego!”


Interested in Part 2? E-mail bill@billbeuttler.com, and he will e-mail you a copy of it.

© Bill Beuttler