Something More About “New Journalism, Tom Wolfe, etc.

I’ve been hung up in cyberspace traffic for about three weeks now.

Son Ron, contracted with Microsoft as a Web producer and designer, tells me that WordPress is a good (what is the term? “Engine”?) for doing some blogging.  So, convince me.

Now that I’ve gotten to the end goal of being able to “post” once again  I want to continue a bit more about what I said a while back about the writing coda that is called “New Journalism.”

I want to remind us that when Truman Capote maintained that his story about the Clutter murders and the two murderers was a “nonfiction novel,” he really did perhaps not invent the form, but he certainly did provide a gunny sack into which one could stuff all manner of long narratives.  “In Cold Blood” (1966) would be the first in a long line of greatly varied contemporary works, such as “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,”  “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” “Chang and Eng,” “Libra,” and so on, that can readily be also called “nonfiction novels.” 

In an interview in the “10 Questions” feature of “Time” last week, Tom Wolfe has a couple of answers to relevant questions that we have touched on in passing: (1) Andrew Herald of Johannesburg asked Wolfe,  “What are your feelings on the current state of fiction?”  [Keep in mind here that Wolfe in his and Johnson’s “New Journalism” had referred to the novel as a “depleted” genre.]  Wolfe answers:  “There’s so little of it now that it’s pathetic, and it’s pathetic all over.  Writers come from master-of-fine-arts programs now.  If you add up the college education of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Faulkner, you get to spring break of freshman year.”         (2) Thabo Jijana of Port Elizabeth,l South Africa asks Wolfe, “Is New Journalism still alive?  If so, is it any better than in the pioneering ’60s, or has it just become old journalism?”  Wolfe answers with a laugh:  “Well, the problem is, when you call any kind of movement new, you’ve already doomed it to an early death.  There is some of it now, and it usually comes out in books.  Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” is an example of it and a very good one.  I don’t see it that much in magazines.”

Food for thought.

Here is more of what I wrote in an E-mail to the Raleigh lawyer turned writer who wanted a critique of his writing (I was not kind, I regret to say, in my earlier remarks which you may remember):

     “As regards my own writing,  I have not consciously sought to deploy any of these [characteristics of the ‘fictional realism’  that the “New Journalists” Johnson and Wolfe asserted could be or should be part of “New Journalism”]–save to an extent in the Op-Ed essays I have written for the local newspaper,  What has affected my writing in recent years more than anything else has been my reading and rereading and in some cases reading yet again the work of Joseph Mitchell.  It was no happenstance that that teacher at CCNY(I suspect it was Alice Trillin [Calvin Trillin’s wife]) described him as ‘the greatest living master of the English declarative sentence.’  Thus I find myself at times using a series of parallel, concrete adjectives (at least three, maybe as many as five), using the techniques of ‘catalogue’ at times rhetorically, and always seeking to be aware of the broad types of sentence structures in the rhetorical sense: periodic or balanced or antithetical and so on.  I always find truth in what Sam Ragan once said in a visit with aspiring students on our campus many years ago: “I have found good readers who were not good writers, but I have never found a good writer who was not a good reader.’  How do you like that for an antithetical sentence?”

I must needs close down this workshop for the nonce.



9 Responses to “Something More About “New Journalism, Tom Wolfe, etc.”

  1. Marena Groll Says:

    “Thus I find myself at times using a series of parallel, concrete adjectives (at least three, maybe as many as five), using the techniques of ‘catalogue’ at times rhetorically, and always seeking to be aware of the broad types of sentence structures in the rhetorical sense: periodic or balanced or antithetical and so on.”

    I don’t understand what any of these types of techniques are. Can you me some give examples?

    “I must needs close down this workshop for the nonce.”

    Is this one of those ‘writing in code-a’ things?

  2. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    I have not yet digested the above opening salvo, and I want to thoroughly digest it before I attempt to comment. I do hope you can give Marena a satisfactory and challenging answer as she has been a very thoughtful and intelligent contributor to some of the other blogs.

    If you throw me in with Steinbeck, et al, we would have barely made it to the final exam in terms of my liberal arts studies. I majored in accounting which caused me to avoid any elective that required extensive reading or writing. My true educational reading has been done as an adult.

    Thanks for your kind answer to my question in the previous thread where I asked whether you thought ‘Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf and their ilk’ could survive in today’s environment. My underlying motivation for the question is: What novelists of today should we be reading? (i.e., what will students of great literature be talking about a century from now?)

    By the way, I am pleased to accept your generous offer!

  3. Raymond Rundus Says:

    Marena Groll/Marshall Faircloth:

    I will reply to Ms. Groll’s queries right now. My closing sentence, “I must needs close down my workshop for the nonce” needs some explanation.
    I was mainly trying to be cute by (1) using “needs” as an adverb and (2) using a largely archaic prepositional phrase. (Retired English professors tend to be playful with language as they have little better to do.)
    Fowler in Gowers’ 1967 Second Edition of this invaluable reference notes that “needs must” or “must needs” is an archaic phrase which today is “mostly used ironically, expressing contempt for some gratuitously foolish or annoying action.” ” for the nonce” is a modern version of the Middle English “for the nones,” meaning “for this particular occasion.”
    And, again while trying to be playful and partially ignorant as well, I did misuse the Musical term “coda” for what really ought to have been “code.” In this case the several specific indicators common to “New Journalism” that Johnson and Wolfe set out in their book on the topic. (These indicators or characteristics were set out in my initial “blog” posting several weeks ago. I am sure it still may be resurrected and read, but I do not as yet have the “code” to know how to do so.)

    In relation to the rhetorical/stylistic devices I had mentioned, maybe the following will help (I am using examples that appear in my “Joseph Mitchell: A Reader’s and Writer’s Guide.”)
    A “catalogue” is a compilation, a list, of items. Here, for example, is what Mitchell used to describe what he and Louis Morino found on a marble top table in the long-closed “Old Hotel”: “. . . three seltzer bottles with corroded spouts, a tin water cooler painted to resemble brown marble, a cracked bell of the kind used to cover clocks and stuffed birds, and four sugar bowls whose metal flap lids had been eaten away from their hinges by rust.” By using “catalogues,” a writer builds confidence in his reader that he knows the scene he is describing and engages the senses of his reader via such imagery.

    By using “parallelism,” especially with adjectives and adjectival phrases, the writer adds a savory texture to his writing and sensory appeal. Here is Mitchell’s description of the Brown rat, or “Rattus Norvegicus,” from “Rats on the Waterfront”: “Its nose is blunt, and its ears are small and alert, and its eyes are sharp and shiny and joyless and resentful and accusing.”

    Alec Wilkinson, among Mitchell’s many admirers still tied to “The New Yorker,” is especially keen about the appeals Mitchell’s writing has. I won’t say much more about that. Alec and I have exchanged E-mails about a number of matters, and I interviewed him early by telephone when I began the writing of my first book about Mr. Mitchell.

    I needs must again close down for the nonce. Cheers!


  4. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    I think that ‘needs must’ sounds more grammatically correct to the modern reader.

    However, if one has read much Shakespeare, he has seen the now archaic constuction ‘must needs’ often. No doubt it was in the vernacular of the Elizabethans and had been around for at least a century before the Bard. (or Bards, but that’s another thread!)

    I seem to remember Jesus quoted as saying, “I must needs go to Jericho.” (I don’t have the chapter and verse reference). This was a late 15th or early 16th century translation from the Aramaic.

  5. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    This thread is thought-provoking to a would-be avid reader.

    I read Tom Wolfe’s ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ when it was new. It was a page-turner of a story told by an omniscient narrator who whisked the reader through simultaneous events and characters that you knew were on an inexorable collision course. The book was given to me by a friend who I ran into in Waldenbooks. He saw me looking at finance-type books and wanted me to read a terrific work of fiction. Just this week, that same friend knew I was reading Hemingway’s ‘Islands in the Stream’ and sent me an original first-run edition of ‘To Have and To Have Not.’ (He wanted to get ‘The Sun also Rises’ but the dealer told him to count on spending about $3000 IF he could locate one!)

    Wolfe was certainly not the first to pronounce the novel’s death knell. I recall my freshman English instructor mentioning something about a (then) recent article in a magazine proclaiming the death of the novel. 40+ years later, there is plenty still out there. Whether it’s worth the time of busy people is another matter. Hence my earlier question about what should we be reading today?

  6. Raymond Rundus Says:


    Thanks again for your interesting and lively responses to my postings.

    I will say this much about Tom Wolfe: I got pretty much halfway through “A Man in Full” before I gave it up out of, mostly sheer exhaustion.
    The man is a writing machine. I think he does much better work in nonfiction than he does in fiction.

    And I think the current popularity of the “memoir” will continue to grow as readers become increasingly hungry for “real life” stories (look at television serials), even when they are to an extent, obviously–and that is good when we are aware of the “obvious” techniques–made up. We get into more trouble, as Joe McGinniss did both with his account of the Jeffrey McDonald murder case and more blatantly with the license taken in his “unauthorized” biography of Edward Kennedy, when we make up dialogue and descriptions that are outright or near-outright fabrications.

  7. Marshall Faircloth Says:

    I read “A Man in Full” from cover to cover, because (a) I so thoroughly enjoyed “Bonfire of the Vanities”, and (b) it reminded me of my brother-in-law. He was not on the scale of owning a Gulfstream 5, but he knew how to enjoy his success!

    I have not attempted “I Am Charlotte Simmons” yet but have certainly thought about it. Reviews I have read describe it as something of an “experiment” for a middle-age man (in the sense that we too, are!) to write a novel about a college coed. And, if I’m not mistaken, it is a first-person narrative.

    Maybe Wolfe will be thought of as the Joyce or Faulkner of our time, eh? He is, of course, much more readable.

  8. Nick Says:

    I also really enjoyed “A man in Full” the book ends by resolving the point that the entire book led up too. The ending is not disappointing and you won’t be let down. Every loose end might not get the attention you think it deserves, but I give Wolfe the benefit of the doubt and accept this as the story he wanted to tell.

    A good post Raymond, I particularly liked the references to the interview with Tom.

  9. Noble Says:

    Hi! The babes are here! This is my favorite site to visit. I make sure I am alone in case I get too hot. Post your favorite link here.

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