Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Conflating the punchlines

New Journalism was a style of cultural journalism that favored using fictional techniques to tell fact-based stories, with writers such as Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Peter Matthisen each becoming the omniscient narrator observing, cataloguing and characterizing each telling detail of the events under review. The approach faded as something one claims as current, but the flashy prose style and application of novel-like strategies remains influential. The method has left a trace that seeps upward through the soil and is absorbed, as an influence, by a generation of journalists nee bloggers, historians and social loud mouths who may well be unaware that loud mouthed application of fictional narrative structure to actual events isn’t something that was always with us.

The New Journalist were post modern in their coverage of events-- whether the writers themselves were modernists in sensibility is irrelevant to work they did. The style defined, in the usual quarters, as the eclectic jumbling of categories and styles, the blurring of distinctions of generic distinctions, and transgressive of boundaries that were formerly considered sacrosanct, immutable, unyielding. Some years ago that sounded revolutionary and seemed a lethal theoretical blow to the constructs of the vaguely described ruling class controlling the conversation and the terms. There are masterpieces in the genre, yes, but a good amount of it reads agitated and shrill, written by writers drunk on adjectives and cheesy effects who tried mightily to goose a number of ordinary stories.

The work evident in Armies of the Night, The White Album, In Cold Blood, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas, and other sublime and less-sublime examples of the approach fulfill what's come to be the givens, and even clichés of post-modern writing. It's not unreasonable to think that writers normally considered Modernists would take what's thought to be a post modern strategy in order to achieve perspective that normally form would make more difficult. Carrying about the matters involved in a story hardly disqualifies a work, or a writer, from being a post modernists. The cool, ironic stance that is supposed to problematize the conditions of narrative formation seems more as a pose critics who have a curious aversion for writing that is meant to illicit a galvanizing reader response: it sounds more like a good rap than good reasoning. The conflation of the irrational of fictional dynamics and the reasonable presentation of vetted facts is exactly the kind of writing literature ought to be engaged in, whatever slippery pronoun you desire to append it with. Being neither philosophy, nor science of any stripe, fiction is perfectly suited for writers to mix and match their tones, their attitudes, their angles of attack on a narrative schema in order to pursue as broad, or as narrow, as maximal or minimal a story they think needs to be accomplished. New Journalism seemed, for many, not just history in a hurry but Philosophy on the fly.

The attack on modernism's' assumption that it was the light to the "real" beneath the fabrications that compose our cosmology, is grossly over stated, it seems: Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Stein, arguably literary modernism's Gang-Of-Four, did not, I think, tell us in any specified terms exactly what that true reality was, or what it was supposed to be, but only that the by dicing up, challenging, making it strange and making it new could we challenge ourselves, as artists, and as readers that new perceptions, and new ideas about the nature of the world could be had. Individually , each writer had a different idea of heaven that they wanted the world to become--Pound was ultimately a befuddled, albeit fascist sympathizer, and Eliot became a conservative Royalist (and their anti-Semitism is problematic for anyone looking for real-time heroes)-- but so far as the principle thrust of their work, which was away from the straight jacket of accumulated literary history and toward something new and different that renewed the possibility of art to engage the times in an aesthetically relevant manner, is scarcely diminished in power merely because it came before.

New Journalists never never referred to themselves as "post modernists", and the style, now faded some what, has been absorbed by the culture as an accepted style for very mainstream consumption. The news story-literary-narrative scarcely raises an eyebrow today. But the judgment of history has these writers, nominal modernists perhaps, performing the post modern gesture, interrogating the margins of genre definitions, and making impossible to regard news reporting quite the same again.


  1. Pound and Eliot seemed to favor dissolving individual perspective into a collective pre-Enlightenment ubermind of Tradition. P&E were profoundly anti-democratic, haters of the mob. The New Journalists WERE the mob, or at least the loudest among them. For all their faults, they bucked consensus in the best American style. Reality IS an individual, rather than a collective thing -- or would you disagree, Ted?

  2. Eliot and Pound weren't friends of democracy, of course, but they did their own style of the mash up --classical and pop styles and a preferring a diffusion of coherence rather than writing a series of unifying metaphors--in ways that would better express their idea of the fracturing of reality and the destruction of purpose in culture. The New Journalists weren't really the mob--mobs cannot , by nature, be democratic nor fair nor be able to devise a fair and just politics. I'd say they were more the guys at the end of the bar who stopped opining about the way things ought to be and got off the bar seat to enter an argument that started without them; they were going to straighten folks out. As it goes, they did provide an interesting altnerative narrative line to what gets called the Movement of History, a choice , up close view of the insanity, the ugliness and the egomania that was chewing at the margins of the Great Society and it's aftershock. Realty is both an indvidual and a collective endeavor, yes; whatever it may in fact be in God's mind, we , as a species, cannot concieve of reality without a narrative line, a script. We are all stars in our own movie and everyone else is from central casting; reality is close to being a multiplex theatre with very thin walls between the auditoriums. Dialogue and sound effects bleed into each other's plot lines.

  3. Fair enough. I would add that I find it fascinating that Pound and especially Eliot used the dynamite of fractured perspective (and, in Eliot's case, the cacophony of Jazz Age pop culture) to blow up modernity in the service of returning to the High Church theocratic-cultural dominance of the pre-modern era. A sweet paradox, no? Also -- I might not choose to parse the difference between the mob and the guys at the bar, other than to add that some of my favorite NJ exponents like Hunter S. Thompson really had no great erudition or wide perspective to offer beyond their immediate impressions and "street smarts" -- just what you might expect from a rather bright member of the common rabble. As HST used to say, Selah.

  4. Pound and Eliot are interesting contrasts, one a windbag, a blowhard,a buttinski, a motor-mouthing gab-bag who happened to have some brilliant notions of how poetry can be made aesthetically and personally viable again, the other being a depressed, crabby, self conciously rigid individual who's view of the cracked surface of culture gave us some haunting images that perfectly convey the despair and longing decades after they were written. Both were closet autocrats, of course, and very conservative--neither was a fan of corporations nor capitalism, and it wouldn't be so hard to imagine the current strains of the right wing characterizing these fellows as left wingers. A strange set of long-view bed fellows; two anti-semetic, totalitarian inclined poets who wind up writing stuff that dovetail comfortably with a Marxist analysis on the effect of capital on human relationships. Everyone brings their own dynamite to this party, blowing up the same thing for the same reason, but with each with a Jesus of a different name.

    You're right about Thompson, he was not an intellectual , nor a particularly sharp analysis of what he was covering, but his strengths were in noticing things people did and characterizing them in a critical, sarcastic light that revealed an ongoing quest for power, naked and virulent under all his subject's noble rhetoric. I


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