Gonzos for the 21 Century

The New New Journalism: Conversations With America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft by Robert S. Boynton, 456 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. $13.95.

In the three decades since Tom Wolfe anthologized a group of writers under the rubric "New Journalism" and identified them as rivals to the best novelists of their time, a next wave has been gathering. Robert S. Boynton calls this movement the New New Journalism, and he interviews 19 of its leading practitioners in his book of the same name.

New Journalism became synonymous with Wolfe's literary sizzle and deep-dish reporting, but the founding father denies coining the label. "I've never even liked the term," Wolfe wrote in his anthology The New Journalism (1973). "Any movement, group, party, program, philosophy or theory that goes under a name with 'New' in it is just begging for trouble." Despite these misgivings, he categorized writers as varied as Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer as fellow New Journalists.

If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism's calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism's distinguishing mark, Boynton insists. Many New News are ultramarathoners who live with their stories for years, as Leon Dash did to report the life of Rosa Lee Cunningham for The Washington Post and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc did for her book, Random Family. Other taxonomic points made by Boynton: the New News draw on their predecessors' literary innovations but tend more toward the muckraking tradition of Jacob Riis and Lincoln Steffens, preferring to tell the stories of the "disenfranchised" and chronicle "ordinary experience" instead of chasing "outlandish scenarios" and making the writer a major character in the story.

The New Yorker writer John McPhee influenced many of the New News through both his work and his famous "Literature of Fact" class at Princeton. "The informal, declaratory, almost deliberately inelegant tone one hears among many of the New New journalists comes straight from McPhee," Boynton writes, casting the great antistylist as the anti-Wolfe.

"McPhee taught us to shape words and sentences precisely. He taught us absolute respect for facts, and to go to extreme lengths to make sure we got everything right," says Richard Preston, the author of The Hot Zone. "I would not be a writer had I not taken that class," says Eric Schlosser, who wrote Fast Food Nation. Although they're not interviewed here, other accomplished "McPhinos" (as they jokingly call themselves) include The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick; the Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach; and Robert Wright, author of The Moral Animal."

If McPhee is the New News' exemplar, then the editors of The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic Monthly are the movement's Medicis. Magazines in other nations rarely publish detailed narrative journalism. The editors of these magazines deserve a bow.

It seems obvious that the distinctions between Boynton's species and that of Wolfe, whom he finds intellectually slippery and transparently self-promotional, are somewhat imaginary. And there can't be all that much "New New" about Gay Talese, Calvin Trillin and Jane Kramer, all of whom have been writing feature journalism since the early 1960's.

Evidence that the two schools span a shared literary continuum resides in the fact that Talese appears in both Boynton and Wolfe's pantheons. Several of Wolfe's writers (Garry Wills, James Mills, Joe McGinniss) fit the New New journalism mold, and several of Boynton's writers (reporter-artists Ron Rosenbaum, Richard Ben Cramer and Michael Lewis) wouldn't be arrested for loitering if they appeared in a revised edition of Wolfe's anthology. One suspects that had Rosenbaum, Cramer and Lewis taken McPhee's class, he'd have tossed them out for having too much Wolfean flash.

Boynton, the director of New York University's magazine journalism program, wants to reveal the methods of his modern masters rather than extract their views on the state of feature journalism. Fans of the Paris Review interview will recognize his questions: What does your ideal day look like? How do you get your story ideas? These predictable queries pay off. Like a building contractor interviewing carpenters for a job, Boynton assesses his subjects based on what sort of tools he finds in their toolboxes.

The New New journalist Richard Ben Cramer, whose 1,047-page book about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes, arrived as the 1992 campaign peaked, views his sources and subjects as collaborators, a gonzo notion when you think about it. "My goal is for them to understand my project as well as I do. Because we are going to build the boat together," he says. He'll often let an interview go for hours without taking down a quotation or turning on a tape recorder, only to call later and ask the source to repeat that great story. The process builds trust, Cramer claims. "By the time I hang around for a while, they can see that I'm just not capable of duping them."

Michael Lewis, the author of Liar's Poker and Moneyball, relies on immersion, too, asking his subjects if he can travel with them. "Characters are always so much more interesting when they are moving through space than they are when they are at rest," he tells Boynton. The strategy works only if the subject doesn't know Lewis intends to tag along for months. "Nobody would ever agree, up front, to the kind of relationship I require. Hey, I wouldn't either!" Yet playing the pest or chasing every lead to the ends of the earth doesn't account for the successes of a Lewis, a Schlosser or a Ted Conover. These writers benefit more from their pattern recognition skills, which allow them to see the story and pursue it, than they do from wearing down their sources.

In a book teeming with advice for the novice, William Langewiesche, the author of American Ground, offers the best counsel. "There is a feeling on the outside that this world of writing and publishing is some kind of a closed club," he says. "There are no real barriers to access in this field, no secret passwords for getting in." The only thing that matters, he says, is "the quality of the work."

The New New category turns out to be not much more than a loose net to trap a bunch of writers Boynton happens to admire. Still, these interviews deepen our understanding of "literary journalism," a more inclusive tag than either New or New New Journalism. Did New Journalism knock the novel off its pedestal, as Wolfe promised? Not really. Perhaps Wolfe interpreted the journalistic experiments of novelists like Mailer, Capote, Terry Southern and Joan Didion as defections presaging a revolution. Although many New journalists continue to be read, they haven't exactly displaced Bellow and Roth. Even Wolfe seemed to concede defeat when he abandoned the form to write novels of his own.

Yet the rumble between fact and fiction isn't over. As Michael Lewis puts it here: "We now live in an age in which the novelist lives in a state of anxiety about nonfiction. You see it most clearly with films in the lust to be able to put at the end of the film, 'This is a true story.' "

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