Reflecting on the Birth of New Journalism

“The standard non-fiction writer’s voice was like the standard announcer’s voice… a drag, a droning…”

“There was no ‘movement.’ There were no manifestos, clubs, salons, cliques; not even a saloon where the faithful gathered, since there was no faith and no creed. At the time, the mid-Sixties, one was aware only that all of a sudden there was some sort of artistic excitement in journalism, and that was a new thing in itself.”

In the introduction to his book The New Journalism, Tom Wolfe discusses how New Journalism came about, and how it overall frustrated the literary world at the time. The thought to include voice, setting, dialogue in non-fiction, let alone in journalism, was simply not an avenue of thought that had been pursued before the 1960’s; journalism was journalism and novels were the peak of literary excellence. The idea of non-fiction and, by proxy, truth, as anything symbolic or captivating lead to resistance in the literary world, and the first few to utilize New Journalism were often accused of making up the details they’d noted, making up the dialogue they included.

While sticklers for accuracy and truth would still push this issue and would claim that fabricated dialogue or setting description moves a piece straight into the realm of fiction, I personally wouldn’t agree. The truth is important, especially if the label of non-fiction is to be placed on a piece, and events should absolutely not be fabricated lest you lose the reader’s trust. However, if there’s a way to make the reading easier, or a way to make a scene stick in the reader’s mind without diminishing the truth in any way (i.e. adding bits of dialogue to facilitate the movement of the piece better or changing setting details for the same sort of reason), then there is no harm in pursuing that form of reporting. It makes the content more easily digestible, more impactful, and avoids the pitfall of a “droning” voice. Above all, it gives the writer more freedom to express their observations and does away with the often paralyzing fear of misremembering slight particulars, and that sort of freedom tends to result in great, fresh writing.

A Reflection on Excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s “The New Journalism”

Returning to Albany for a job interview this past Friday put me in the unfortunate position of having to miss Kate Daloz’s reading. This blog post, reflecting on excerpts from Tom Wolfe’s The New Journalism, seeks to compensate for that absence.

The first text to grab my attention was that of Hunter S. Thomspon, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. I loved this piece. It’s funny, self-aware, informal, and still somehow falls under the category of journalism, albeit gonzo. In this work, Thompson conjures a rich story which follows his actions as he attends and reports on the Kentucky Derby, largely carried through dialogue and the sharp wit and humor of Thompson, which serve as a lens through which we see the events at hand. We follow Thompson from playing head games with various strangers he encounters upon arrival to bullshitting his way into a press pass for the race. Thompson is admittedly drunk for the vast majority of the time he spends in Kentucky, due to the fact that he didn’t bring any “strange illegal drugs”. Additionally, Thompson offers us bits of scathing political commentary, particularly calling out then-President Nixon. Accompanying Thompson at this event is an English artist by the name of Steadman, who sketches unfortunately bad portraits of the many people they encounter over the course of the weekend, adding evermore to the comedic nature of the piece and the tensions the two of them face. The piece ends with Steadman ceding, “You know–I’ve been thinking about that. We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…” followed immediately by a scene of Thompson pepper spraying and verbally berating Steadman as he drives him back to the airport for his flight back to England.

The second text to pique my interest was Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss”. I liked this piece for similar reasons, as it is also carried by a satirical author’s jaded perceptions and plentiful dialogue. Southern even misspells many of the words within dialogue to reflect the accents of those speaking in the same way Thompson does. Surrounded by a racist Mississippi culture, Southern keeps himself liquored up for much of the story, and is repeatedly disillusioned by the evidently inherent hatred in the people all around him. Upon speaking with two graduate students who are obvious racists and end the conversation by simultaneously singing a racist jingle, Southern writes, “despite a terrific effort at steely Zen detachment, the incident left me somewhat depressed, so I retired early, to my cozy room in the Alumni House, where I sipped the white corn and watched television.” (White corn refers to the moonshine he bought upon his arrival, Mississippi was a dry state at the time) When Southern finally gets to interviewing the Baton twirlers to whom the piece owes its name, the dialogue is sparse. He only talks briefly to one about the tassels on her skirt, and to another about  In both texts, the author’s opinions and perceptions of the world come to shape the events at hand, adding a particular flavor which, in my opinion, greatly enriches the reading experience.

Truth and Memoir

Lauren’s Slater’s memoir, “Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir”(2000), is probably the most frustrating piece of creative non-fiction I have read to date. But has Slater effectively toed the line between fact and fiction carefully enough not to send her book to the other side of Barnes and Noble? The truth is slippery for all of us, maybe we can’t remember exactly what our parent’s said to us on our fifth birthday party, or what color our sheets were–how much embellishment ejects us from the very genre of memoir? Are we thrown away when we lie about our corpus callosum being severed by a doctor that we invented? Personally, I think that as long as the author relays to the reader, in some way that is recognizable, the parameters of their own unique conception of fact and fiction, then the factual integrity of the details becomes sort of irrelevant. I think the conception of hard and fast truth becomes even more slippery when dealing with mental and physical illness that touch the author in question. I think Slater herself is critiquing creative non-fiction itself when she forces her readers to actively sleuth her words for evidence that maybe she never had epilepsy at all, or maybe it’s been Munchausen’s the whole time? This memoir tests the very range of embellishment in order to capture the fluidity of truth in her mind and body. Ultimately, we come away with the idea that truth is a device and a character, rather than a prerequisite for Slater.

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First Week Responses

In Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” we read a powerful character who has reckoned with her environment in a rather unique matter.  In outlining the many sickening acts of racism she has faced throughout her entire life, Hurston writes “I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” and “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me I am the granddaughter of slaves.  It fails to register depression with me.”   Both of these lines serve to create Hurston as a vivid character, simultaneously outlining her quirks and captivating readers, effectively convincing them of her worth.

In Lopate’s “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character” we are told at length of the various angles from which a writer must consider his or herself in order to become a captivating character in their own writing.   A large part of this is his reinforcement of the necessity to be a complex character, one who is equally self-aware of both strengths and flaws, who can laugh at oneself in times of great sorrow, who can paint an overall honest picture.  To me, Lopate’s line, “And it’s in having made the wrong choice, curiously enough, that we are made all the more aware of our freedom and potential for humanity.” perhaps most eloquently outlines the benefit of being a fallible character on paper, something which I am unsure I’d fully accepted prior to my reading.

Fact v Fiction: The Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ The Zahir plays with fact and fiction in very interesting ways. First of all, the story is written from the first person, and the narrator identifies himself as Borges. Herein lies the first question of fact and fiction in the story. Is the story supposed to be read as the narrator actually being Borges, or is the narrator merely a fictionalization of him? The narrator provides an enigmatic answer with “I am still, albeit only partially, Borges.” This could be read as Borges acknowledging the fictionalization of himself but asserting that this fictionalization in the piece still adequately refers to actual aspects of himself.

 

The next question that this story might raise then, is how fictional exactly is the story supposed to be? Borges already implied that fiction and nonfiction lie on a spectrum with his own insertion into the piece. The answer to this question might be found in a transition the piece makes. The piece begins with describing Teodolina Villar and her recent death. She is placed in the story with allusions to reality such as the occupation of Paris by Germany, among others. The narrator goes as far as to say, “I was in love with her, and that her death actually brought tears to my eyes? Perhaps the reader has already suspected that”. This address to the reader implies a factual element to this character and her impact on Borges, however, shortly afterwards the story picks up a far more mystical tone.

 

The titular “zahir” is described in the text as “beings or things which have the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad”. This description, along with many references in Borges’ work is questionable in its authenticity. Borges lists many actual works but among them also references ones that do not exist, and despite Zahir’s description being based in truth about it being one of 99 names of God, it is most likely this is a fictional creation of Borges. For the narrator of the story, his zahir is a coin which he finds almost immediately after the funeral, and from then on the story becomes clearly fictional (with the inclusion of magical elements).
However, it is most likely the case that the narrator’s obsession is supposed to be connected to his love of Teodolina. A meta reading of “Until the end of June I distracted myself by composing a tale of fantasy. The tale contains two or three enigmatic circumlocutions: “water of the sword”, it says, instead of blood, and “bed of the serpent”, for gold, and is written in the first person. “ lends some credence to this view since his obsession with the coin is paralleled with the gold in the story. This suggests that the coin being the object of the narrator’s obsession is merely sublimation of his obsession of the late Teodolina. However, if Teodolina’s existence is put into question, the narrator also asserts that the zahir is interchangeable with anything and everything in the world. In this way The Zahir sugests that there is fact in all fiction, since it is always connected to our reality in some way, even if not entirely sublimation.

Fact v Fiction: A Girl by Ezra Pound

Ezra Pound’s “In A Station Of The Metro” was my introduction to imagist poetry, and it really captured my imagination, so I sought out more of his work and found “A Girl”. The poem’s title is not directly referred to in any way in the piece. However, its use of the word “you” could be interpreted as a call to the titular girl. The image that most easily invokes this connection is found in “You are violets with wind above them.” This is an incredibly minimalist sentence, but it manages to paint a vivid picture of flowers caressed by the wind, and relate it to a you. This relation creates a romantic sentiment not overtly seen anywhere before in the piece, and it is this sentiment that implies a connection between the girl and the “you”.

 

This sentiment is subverted almost immediately by the next line, “A child – so high –  you are,” when the romantic connotation is implied towards a child, which fits the title of “A Girl”. The two readings of “girl” are being very skillfully used by Pound, in that they take advantage of the connotation of a child and a possible romantic interest, and this perhaps is referred to in the closing line “And all this is folly to the world.”, which implies some sort of taboo or improper line being crossed. In my reading I saw two strong possibilities for what this folly is, it is either the folly of romantic intentions toward a child, or the folly of having a childlike nature as a sexual and romanticized woman in the world.

 

So far however, I have focused entirely on the second stanza of the poem. I have omitted the first because without the reading of the second it reads purely as images. However, with romantic and sexual connotations present, lines such as “The branches grow out of me, like arms.” and “The sap has ascended my arms,” become highly sexual images. This sexuality is communicated in minimalist and vivid images, and finally I am ready to think about them in terms of the theme of fact and fiction.
The sexual reading of this piece wherein the girl is a child is disturbing and it calls into question the aspect of “fact”, in that it beckons the reader to ask if there is some reality to it. However, the only absolute facts in this poem are its images. Every image that Pound conjures is a fact of the poem, outside of its relevance to reality, each image exists in itself. These images are the backbone of any reading of the poem, and compose its fiction status, whatever it may be.

Fact and Fiction in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea”

“Children of the Sea” by Edwidge Danticat is a short story that I read last semester in Maria Lima’s 203, Reading Transnationally. It is a fictional piece about the experience of two teenage lovers who are separated during the violence of “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s despotic dictatorship in 1950s-70s Haiti—one has fled from Port-au-Prince to a small town, and the other is on a small boat headed to Florida. In this braided narrative based on exchanged letters, the balance between elements of fiction and nonfiction are what make this piece so striking. Danticat is Haitian, and she herself was not around during the regime, but her fiction is based on true historical events of this horrific time in Haitian history, making this piece a real blend of “fact” and fiction.

It’s quite apparent that this piece does a lot of work with “fact”, being that it is a historical piece based on the experiences of Haitians during this time. Having learned about the regime in a history class, with my limited knowledge I can confirm that state terror and rape as a means of control were tactics widely utilized in the twentieth-century military regimes of the Caribbean and Latin America. The story goes into the tactics of the “Tonton Macoutes”, or the police force that would terrorize citizens in order to maintain control, often by forcing family to rape each other as others watch. Although horrific, these are the realities of state violence. These jarring and vivid scenes are illustrated throughout the piece, such as when female narrator describes why her uncle sometimes sleeps at her house:

“they have this thing now that they do. if they come into a house and there is a son and mother there, they hold a gun to their heads. they make the son sleep with his mother. if it is a daughter and a father, they do the same thing. Some night papa sleeps at his brother’s, uncle pressoir’s house. uncle pressoir sleeps at our house, just in case they come. that way papa will never be forced to lay down in bed with me, uncle pressoir would be forced to, but that would not be so bad.”

Fictionally, I found that the braided narrative was one of the most striking aspects of this piece. The use of the braiding brings a very personal aspect to the fiction, showing characters in their true raw thoughts. The narratives of the two lovers are artfully executed in the way that they are each characterized so carefully, even when it comes to the style of the prose—the girl’s narrative lacks punctuation and capitalization, giving a sense that she is rushed and nervous. This makes sense because she is the one that has fled to a small town, still in Haiti and reeling from the recent rapes and murders of her neighbors. The boy’s narrative differs starkly—his is meditative and paced, which relates to the fact that he is writing these letters on a boat with no sense of time or direction, and he is eager to do anything to pass the time in limbo. As the male speaker comes closer and closer to the realization that the boat will sink and that everyone on it probably will die, his writing only increases in its concentration and somber pace, starkly contrasting the nervous writing of his lover who is so eager to know if he still alive.

Fact and Fiction in Nate Pritts’ Poetry

This analysis is based on the second poem from “Pattern Exhaustion” (on page 12 of Post Human, if you have the book handy.)

After attending the Nate Pritts reading and buying his book, I began to notice in his writing the mixed elements of reality and dream, something that Pritts interweaves together wonderfully in his honest and post-modern poetry. I know from his reading that his poems are based on his own thoughts and experiences, making them largely nonfiction—but of course in poetry, elements of fiction and the unreal seep in to make the real more poignant.

In this poem, I see four spaces—looking at photographs online, envisioning a camera flashing, and the street outside. The action of looking at the photos hints of nonfiction because it is a mundane, daily activity that one would do everyday. And since so much of Pritts’ poetry is about the intersection of humans with technology, and he often relies on scenes of him being on his phone or computer, I get the feeling of “fact.” I was struck by the usage of “high resolution American hush” to describe this action, and could feel, hear, and see the din of the LED screen—packed into this line are images of high advanced technology, the notion of a nation (a nation, like an image being on the screen, something that is intangible and living in the imaginary), stopped with the action of a hush, creating a sense of hiding and secrets.

Then the most fictional element comes in—the moment when the photograph from computer screen is taken; an action that took place in the past. Of course, this is a fictional creation because I doubt Nate was there to witness whoever was taking this photograph and knows the exact time and method in which it was taken. The action of taking the photo is described as so:

 

“seeing the dynamic

moments stopped                 the camera

 

singling out only one thing

that happened to keep forever”

 

What’s captivating about these four lines interspersed in two stanzas is how well the form is able to manifest the action. Of course, one is immediately drawn to the spacing between “stopped” and “the camera”, a pause that reminds me of the moment in which a camera shutter makes that satisfactory, half-second click before the photograph is recorded. In the second stanza, the juxtaposition between “singling” and “forever” is an immense one—the taking of the photo is at the same time single and local while also being a cosmic event, a small but extremely important blip in the universe when something was being created and recorded for all time.

 

The last line of this poem is one I’ll never forget:

 

“I forget how to be solid.”

 

This statement itself is a real emotion that I think will resonate with anyone who can relate to Pritts’ poems—the feeling of emptiness, of floating, of confusion in the modern internet-driven world. Yet it is also a statement of fiction in that it implies that the state of being solid is something that human thought can control; it relies on extraordinary metaphor and the contemplation of the metaphysical. Being most literal, it must be fictional since our bodies are made of mostly liquid, and so implying that you could be solid would be especially presumptuous. But besides all that—I think we all forget to be solid sometimes, and it’s nice to be reminded that that’s okay.

Response to “Every Season Starts at Dicks”

“Every Season Starts at Dicks” is a nonfiction piece that I found in the Gandy Dancer archives. It details the experience of working a retail job at Dick’s Sporting Goods during holiday season, something I can personally relate to having spent much of my own time working retail jobs. In this short story, a customer is attempting to return a pair of pants the day after Christmas. With all the hectic-ness that is going on around her, the cashier/narrator misplaces the pair of pants and has to deal with the rude customer as she deals with his return. At the end of the piece, she visits Target on her break to do a return of her own and sympathizes with the other retail worker who is completing her transaction.

The humor is definitely a strength of this piece. Especially for those who have worked retail before, every description of the customers and things those customers say are extremely accurate. Even if the events of the story didn’t play out exactly as they are told in the piece, it can still be considered nonfiction because any small alterations that were made did not drastically alter what the piece was trying to accomplish.

Beyond that, the writer is very good at evoking the feelings of frustration that the narrator is feeling within the reader as well. Perhaps it is just because I can relate on a personal level, but I found myself wanting to yell at the rude customer myself. If writing is realistic enough to actually make the reader want to scream through a computer screen, I think that demonstrates real effectiveness, especially in nonfiction pieces.

The language and voice and descriptions in this piece transported me right to a Dick’s Sporting Goods during the holiday season. I could feel the chaos and hear the beeping of the security tag scanner. Although the piece definitely does take place in a Dick’s, I don’t think the piece is limited to that particular store, so it is therefore not limited to people who have only worked with sporting goods. This story could be broadly understood by anyone who has ever worked a retail job, and even those who have not. This is achieved through the voice of the narrator and the descriptions of the chaos ensuing in the store itself. This story made me understand how effective actually invoking real feelings in the reader can be. Perhaps everyone should strive to write pieces that have the reader screaming into their computer screen.

Response to Ethan Keeley’s “Straight Lines”

I looked on Gandy Dancer for both of my nonfiction/fiction pieces. I came across Ethan Keeley’s piece entitled “Straight Lines” and was immediately engaged by the sense of voice in the piece. It felt very natural and there was no point where I felt the story was forced or untrue. I must not have been paying very close attention to what I was doing, because I read the whole story before I realized that it was definitely not a nonfiction piece, however, it did make me reconsider a lot of my feelings and ideas about what separates fiction and nonfiction and fact.

I know that this is a fiction piece, because I found it in the fiction section of the archives, and because it takes place in Mississippi. It seems highly unlikely that someone from Mississippi would come to SUNY Geneseo for college. However, without these details, I’m not sure I would be able to so clearly pinpoint this piece as fiction. It does read as a fiction piece, as opposed to an essay. It is plot based with sections of dialogue, it is told in first person point-of-view, and includes a lot of inner monologue from the narrator. Normally, these traits would automatically make me lean towards a fiction piece. In this circumstance, though, I think it actually almost makes me rethink how automatically we may classify pieces as nonfiction or fiction based on these. Yes, generally, these are good guidelines. But who is to say that they must be so?

I tend to enjoy pieces that have a strong voice and focalized narration through the speaker. I am more engaged by these stories, and I think I understand them better. To me, that is the greatest strength within this piece. It is so short, but despite its length, I can understand each character with a decent amount of depth. When each character speaks, their pieces of dialogue vary in language in a way that doesn’t make me confused about who is speaking. Their quotes act as a method of characterization just as much as the narrator’s (a thirteen year old boy) insights about those people.

There doesn’t seem to be anything within this piece that isn’t serving a purpose. Each word and thought is carefully chosen and is doing the work it should be doing. I am also impressed by the balance of this piece. It doesn’t rely too heavily on any one technique, and it isn’t missing too much of anything either. There is just enough imagery and description of setting to transport the reader to that place and time without become overbearing. There is just enough dialogue to enhance the characters and plot, without becoming reliant. All of these techniques working together create an extremely realistic world and a very realistic tale, that it’s almost difficult to believe that it isn’t real. These are things that I think any writer of realistic fiction should consider when writing a piece. Fiction may be fiction, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be real.