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How Tom Wolfe’s perspective changed magazines

His 1973 essay The New Journalism changed the way non-fiction was written till then, which was largely boring and uninteresting

opinion Updated: May 18, 2018 12:13 IST
A file photo of Tom Wolfe at a book signing for his novel Back to Blood, New York
A file photo of Tom Wolfe at a book signing for his novel Back to Blood, New York(Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

In the summer of 1973, as I was preparing to enter my junior year in college, Harper & Row published The New Journalism, an anthology of articles and book excerpts by the likes of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson. Most important, it included a lengthy introduction by the man who was claiming to have largely invented New Journalism, Tom Wolfe. I bought it the minute I saw it on the bookshelf.

New Journalism was a term that meant using the techniques of a novelist to write non-fiction. Literary journalism, you might call it. It meant bringing to a story an eye for the telling detail, a psychological acuity, an ability to get inside the characters’ thoughts, and a willingness to hide the ball, at least for a while, leaving the reader in giddy suspense. Although Wolfe was primarily known for his pyrotechnic prose, he had mastered those crucial techniques. As a result, his magazine work in that era was unputdownable.

When Wolfe’s death, at the age of 88, was announced late Tuesday morning, the work of his I immediately searched out was not The Right Stuff or The Bonfire of the Vanities, but that 45-year-old essay that begins The New Journalism. I did so because I remember it having a powerful effect on my formative self, more powerful, really, than anything I learned in my two years in journalism school.

In truth, reading the essay today made me feel a little sheepish. I can see now, in a way I couldn’t then, the degree to which Wolfe is preening, something that characterised him his entire career.

There are two things he says in that essay that were absolutely true. The first was that non-fiction in earlier eras was far too often boring. His point is that one had to find ways to take any subject and make it come to vivid life — something non-fiction writers have taken to heart ever since. To cite just one example: a potentially dreary book about the creation of mortgage backed securities became a hilarious romp revolving around a game called “liar’s poker”.

Wolfe’s second big point was that, because non-fiction writers couldn’t make things up the way a novelist could, they had to do more work to be able to write with the same authority. They had to ask more questions, do more reporting, observe more scenes, which they could then render omnisciently. “We were moving beyond the conventional limits of journalism, but not merely in terms of technique,” he writes.

In The New Journalism, Wolfe put himself at the centre of “his” movement in a way that was probably overstated; writers like Talese and Michael Herr and many others were just as important. A new deeper kind of non-fiction writing would likely have emerged even without Wolfe.

But he was its joyous propagandist, and his willingness to explain what he was doing, and how he was doing it, caused the next generation of magazine writers, my generation, to yearn to do what he was doing. Although no one could replicate him exactly, we all learned from him, consciously adapting the techniques he was teaching for our own purposes.

Today, there is an entirely new generation of non-fiction writers, people like Rachel Aviv at the New Yorker and Taffy Brodesser-Akner of the New York Times. And they don’t call it New Journalism anymore, or even literary journalism. Now it’s long form. I doubt many of these younger writers have ever read the essay that helped shaped me and my generation of magazine writers. But they don’t have to. The things Wolfe once so consciously taught are now taken for granted, instinctively understood by every ambitious non-fiction writer.

That’s what Tom Wolfe did for journalists. And for readers.

(Bloomberg Opinion)

The views expressed are personal