December 6, 2005


'New Journalists': They gave readers more, not less,: a review of The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution By Marc Weingarten (Carlin Romano, 12/04/05, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Marc Weingarten, a smooth newspaper and magazine writer, tells the tale here of the main outlets and heroes of what Tom Wolfe christened, in a 1973 anthology he coedited, "The New Journalism": Esquire, Rolling Stone, the New York Herald Tribune, New York magazine, editors such as Harold Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner, and the star writers everyone knows now, such as Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Michael Herr.

Weingarten's approach appeals. While his biographies of writers and editors remain necessarily compact, they explain how New Journalists individually grasped what journalistic bosses ignore today: that more - more detail, more nerve, more reporting, more style, more voice - convinces readers they're getting more for their money, so they buy.

Weingarten starts out with the still-hilarious tale of how Wolfe, then the Herald Tribune's hot feature writer, took off in 1965 after the New Yorker in his bristly two-part piece, "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!"

William Shawn, the New Yorker's venerable longtime editor, a man with a profile so low he might have been in a "witness protection program," had declined an interview request from Wolfe and asked the aggressive young reporter to back off. "If we tell someone we want to do a profile and that person doesn't want to cooperate," Shawn explained to Wolfe, "we don't do the profile. We would expect you to extend us the same courtesy."

Instead, Wolfe extended his portrait to thousands of words, including stinging detail gathered from New Yorker insiders, about Shawn's office with its "horsehair-stuffing atmosphere of old carpeting... and happy-shabby, baked-apple gentility." Manhattan's chattering classes could talk about little else for weeks.

The impulse shared by Weingarten's New Journalist revolutionaries - he labels their convergence "the greatest literary movement since the American fiction renaissance of the 1920s" - was to begin "to think like novelists," to aim at "journalism that reads like fiction" but still "rings with the truth of reported fact." [...]

Weingarten stresses that the freedom the evolving New Journalism stars received from editors and publishers to stretch further, to report peripheries, to let loose with perspective and voice, came at a price. The cost of ambition and achievement was space.

"You have to have a mission when you're publishing," Time cofounder Henry Luce told a young Clay Felker, "otherwise you have nothing." Weingarten's back-to-the-past tour leaves one with the impression that the folks with SAS today are editors and publishers who can't remember that long-form journalism excited sophisticated readers as short-form journalism never has.

A couple years ago, Esquire put some of their best long pieces on-line, including: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold by Gay Talese; What Do You Think of Ted Williams Now? by Richard Ben Cramer; and The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes! by Tom Wolfe. It was enough to make you wonder why no one even bothers trying to publish a good general interest magazine today.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2005 1:48 PM

Tom Wolfe can write as well anyone who's ever lived.

Posted by: erp at December 6, 2005 5:20 PM