Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The New New Journalism

For the first time in the last five years I find I'm more interested in nonfiction than fiction. That goes for reading and writing, and covers a time period when I was in fact paid to focus on nonfiction as a journalist. Perhaps it's just another chapter in the story of how I've let my novel languish, or perhaps I'm just enjoying travel literature and literary journalism more than anything else these days. I don't know. But it came on quick and sudden, because the last class I took before leaving UC Davis this spring was a creative nonfiction workshop, and I hated it. But then again, it was treated largely like a fiction workshop, and so it's only now that I'm embracing the differences of nonfiction that I'm being drawn toward it in such a strong way.

The latest book I'm into is The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft, which is like a university between two covers. If you're interested in writing creative nonfiction, you simply have to buy it. Among the heavy-weights interviewed are Fast Food Nation's Eric Schlosser, Moneyball's Michael Lewis, along with Lawrence Weschler, Susan Orlean, and Jon Krakauer. Each tells you how they find stories, how they research, how they conduct interviews, and how they gain trust, among many other things.

One exchange I read this morning from Schlosser's interview speaks to my fiction side:

What do you think of the prospects for this kind of writing (literary journalism)?

I'm optimistic. The success of Fast Food Nation has been incredibly gratifying, and I hope it paves the way for other writers to do similar kinds of investigations. Right now the nonfiction writers are getting involved with the events of the day in a way that fiction writers aren't. There is a sense of engagement with the big issues, of writers taking real risks. But, having said that, you never know when the next Zola or Steinbeck or Dos Passos is going to come along and write fiction that is equally connected to the moment.

A couple things struck me about that: First, with this being the Information Age, it makes sense that people are more interested in "information" than "stories."

Second, Fast Food Nation was a touchstone book, something that had the whole culture talking. It wouldn't even be an exaggeration to say it changed my life -- it was the inspiration for my (languishing) novel-in-progress, and completely reshaped my already particular way of thinking about food. Schlosser drove my thinking to a new level. Before reading "Why the fries taste so good," which is longer in book-form, I hadn't thought about artificial flavors and what they meant. All of a sudden, it seemed like a mind-body debate. Am I eating food, or only the flavor of food?

I can't recall a work of fiction that has led my thinking in new directions like that. Then again, fiction has moved me emotionally (where non-fiction often hasn't) and helped me better understand the world in that way, so maybe the one supplies what the other cannot give.

I wish I could quantify this with numbers, but I'd say Fast Food Nation sold far more copies than the nearest comparable book of fiction. What recent novel or short story collection had the country talking as much as Fast Food Nation? Maybe I'm not remembering one where I should. Do I have to go back to Catch-22? Or perhaps The Corrections, though the thing with that book is, the buzz was just as much about Oprah and scandal as it was about the novel's (wonderful) content.

Third, Schlosser mentioned Zola, Steinbeck and Dos Passos. They're all realists (though Dos Passos certainly had a bag of tricks). Which brings me to another quote from The New New Journalism, this from the preface, in which the author talks about Tom Wolfe (whose fiction I find unreadable) "inventing" New Journalism in the 60s:

He argued that the New Journalism (and its practitioners, such as Michael Herr, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, John Sack, and Gay Talese) was not a new stage in American journalism, but instead a revival of the European tradition of literary realism--a tradition unjustly ignored by a generation of callow, navel-gazing MFAs ... In one fell swoop, Wolfe simultaneously "dethroned" the novel, broke from American journalism, and claimed the mantle of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European novel. Literary realism--particularly the work of Fielding, Sterne, Smollet, Dickens, Zola, and Balzac--became his cri de guerre.

Considering everything, I'd gather the courage to say the mass reading public either wants the truth, the sensationalized truth (the seriousness of nonfiction is measured by its distance from the check-out counter), or the truth taken to the level of absurdity. The public wants to be brought into a story and know how to read it. They either want to say, Okay, this is real, or understand that it's so over the top -- I'm thinking of Catch-22 again -- that it's okay to laugh. Let me in on the joke, they say.

I don't know. It seems I'm always caught between two choices, two projects, two ideas, and now it's the novel and my book about Ukraine, so this is all probably just a writer thinking out loud, wondering why he's not working on one thing while he's working on another. My thinking will probably go back and forth, ad infinitum, because just a few days ago, while reading that "Truth is Stronger than Fiction" in The Times, I thought the author had it all wrong, and that fiction was still king.

1 Comment:

Alicia said...

Great post, enlightening and inspiring, so much that I'm considering a class in experimental CNF at UCLA next quarter.