By Theia Griffin • March 22, 2021
A group of writers never fail to capture my interest. They fall within a specific genre of writers now loosely deemed literary nonfiction essayists, journalists, and authors. In 1973, Tom Wolfe co-edited an anthology titled The New Journalism published by Harper & Row. The anthology included twenty or so examples of a newly defined genre coined "New Journalism," and included pieces by Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joe Eszterhas, Gay Talese, and Terry Southern. Wolfe invited readers to identify and contemplate how—in terms of technique—these writers had made New Journalism as "gripping" and as "absorbing" as the novel and the short story. And at a time of social upheaval in America, he also invited readers to invest in the notion that realism was, in fact, not just a literary approach—it was part and parcel.
In terms of technique, the writers employed devices. They intentionally placed themselves central to action, incorporated complete dialogues, introduced third-person characterizations, and relied upon the enhancements of surrounding details. As a result, their pieces read like scene-by-scene stories vs. the hard-edged, impersonal, and triple-fact-checked journalism. Lines between objectivity and subjectivity crossed to varying degrees; the writers often injected passion, sarcasm, and commentary unlike their staid counterparts who were writing features for mainstream newspapers. And in embracing the "tell it like it is" approach and anchoring content in social realism, the New Journalists veritably upended the literary and journalistic status quo from the 1960s through the '80s.
Magazines such as The New Yorker, New York, and Esquire helped usher in the trend of New Journalism by publishing long-form pieces, and the writers, editors, and publishers realized instantaneous audience and appeal. And in the case of Rolling Stone, the writers were instrumental in expanding the magazine's focus past that of music criticism. In 1972, Rolling Stone's mercurial editor, Jann Wenner, assigned Tom Wolfe to cover the launch of Apollo-17, NASA's last moon mission, which became a four-part series titled "Post-Orbital Remorse." Seven years later, after Wolfe decided to report on the space program in its entirety, his book The Right Stuff was published.
And in 1971, after Sports Illustrated "aggressively rejected" Hunter S. Thompson's manuscript, Rolling Stone published a two-part series of Thompson's infamous first-person account of a trip to Las Vegas by a journalist named Raoul Duke and his attorney. One year later, the serial was published as Thompson's most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson's own version of New Journalism, coined "Gonzo" by fellow writer Bill Cardozo, stands out in the genre, as lines between fiction and nonfiction were routinely and effectively blurred. Wolfe described Thompson's style as "part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention and wilder rhetoric." Thompson believed that objectivity in journalism was a myth and based his style on William Faulkner's notion that "fiction is often the best fact."
Many New Journalists, like Thompson and Wolfe, found their long- form pieces published as nonfiction "novels." Truman Capote's In Cold Blood; Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night—subtitled History as a Novel, the Novel as History; and Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem serve as early examples. As all contributed uniquely to the genre with subjects ranging from national politics to local crime, motorcycle gangs to abandoned buildings, and Ava Gardner to the cocoa trade, their pieces also stylistically ranged from literary (Tom Wolfe) to journalistic (Gay Talese) nonfiction. Their body of work remains highly acclaimed, many having won literature's top awards, namely Pulitzers and National Book Awards.
The group of New Journalists certainly did not invent the form as Wolfe's arguments may suggest, as an earlier generation of nineteenth-century publishers and editors, writers Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane, and publishers Charles Dana and Joseph Pulitzer also sought to elevate news stories to veritable art forms by employing distinct, myriad styles which heavily relied upon literary techniques of fiction. The New Journalists were aided in that by the early twentieth century, newspapers had veered toward strict objectivity and writers had turned their focus to the "Great American Novel," a focus that lasted well through the early 1960s when writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike veritably penned the final chapters of the form.
Today, we are quite familiar with a host of nonfiction writers who, like the New Journalists of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, seek to "tell it like it is." These writers (The New, New Journalists), the likes of Michael Lewis (Moneyball), Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild), and Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), and others, have taken up the torch of New Journalism with their own methodologies, delving deeper into their stories in ways the writers of the genre in the '60s were only beginning to explore.
In part, the notion of the "Great American Novel" was extinguished when Wolfe successfully argued and demonstrated that nonfiction had become "the most important literature being written in America today," and as the New Journalists laid claim to a "literature of the everyday," it is not surprising that their success in letters holds much of the same appeal today as when it was originally published. Timely as ever, and described as the literary event of 2021, Joan Didion's newly published book Let Me Tell You What I Mean includes twelve uncollected pieces dating to Didion's early years as an essayist, novelist, and journalist, and affords us a unique opportunity and open invitation to revisit a literary genre as it once emerged in a form that Tom Wolfe undoubtedly would have identified as "stylistically perfect."