Saturday, 10 March 2012

New Journalism - Seminar Summary

America in the 1960's and 70's was a country experiencing political and social upheaval. As the war in Vietnam raged on, military threats were building, and from this period rose 'New Journalism'. It was a time of sexual revolution, free love and ongoing student movements. No longer were writers limited to following strict, formulaic conventions. Instead, they could produce work that would encourage readers to think and feel, putting themselves deep in the minds of the characters within the pieces.

New Journalism was a way of bringing together the world of fiction and non-fiction, hooking readers with cryptic dialogue, fascinating characters and revealing description.


Tom Wolfe is a key figure associated with New Journalism. Wolfe was a supporter of Zola, who wrote 'J'Accuse!',  the article which eventually freed Alfred Dreyfus from Devil's Island. More on that HERE. Wolfe was fascinated with the idea of status, seeing us as nothing but parts of a wider social structure. He arrived at the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, with multiple roles. 


Wolfe explained that the world of journalism and the fictional world were coming together

Two days a week Wolfe served as a city desk reporter, which was a fairly standard procedure at a newspaper. Three days a week, however, he would write a 1500 word feature piece. It was here that Wolfe could really change his readers perceptions of Journalism. It showed him 'the possibility of there being something new In Journalism'. As Wolfe said himself, the 1960's revealed 'a discovery that showed it might be possible to write Journalism like a novel'. Wolfe states in his book that his first article contained 'anything that came to mind. Much of it was thrown together in a rough and awkward way'. This, in my opinion, is one of the advantages of this style of writing. There's no set writing style or pattern. Typical writing styles are put aside to leave behind pieces that are unique and refreshing.

New Journalism in the 1960's saw journalists learning the techniques of realism. By means of trial and error, they began to discover devices that gave the realistic novel its power. In 'New Journalism', Tom Wolfe outlines these devices:

1) Scene by Scene Construction

Wolfe defines this as telling the story from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative. If a writer were to use scene by scene construction, he/she would be describing a series of events rather than writing a concluding piece with no background information. This style of writing is idea for giving a piece context.

2) Dialogue

Recording dialogue in full is a window into the mind of a character. Wolfe explained that realistic dialogue involves the reader more completely than any other single device. With the arrival of New Journalism, writers began to use dialogue in a more cryptic and abstract fashion. This is truly what set it apart from conventional pieces. Often, readers were left to draw their own conclusions based on the descriptive nature of the writing and the characters personalities. These signs were based on what they were saying and how it was delivered.

3) Point of View

Presenting the scene to the reader through the eyes of a character will give the reader a feeling of being in the mind of that character. Wolfe points out a habit of some journalists at the time. He explains that when one says 'I was there', this is a limited means of writing a piece. If a writer is presenting their ideas from their own direct point of view, the reader will only be aware of the writers thoughts, not who the writer is describing or talking about. Not only is this irrelevant to the story, it's irritating for readers. The Journalist can get inside the mind of another person through an interview about thoughts and emotions. Nothing is more telling that an individuals answers in such a situation.

4) The Recording of Everyday Gestures

An advantage of using such long burst of description is that it serves as a 'social autopsy', says Wolfe. The recording of such habits can reveal alot about a character. In his book, Wolfe uses the work of Balzac as a teaching point. Balzac introduces the Marneffe's in 'Cousin Bette' by bringing the reader into their drawing room and conducting a 'social autopsy'. The clothes and possessions of an individual help paint a picture of their character. Before these people even appear in Balzac's book, the readers already have an idea of who they are because of the description of the drawing room.

POV in writing was something that interested Wolfe greatly. "Sometimes I enter directly into the mind of a character", he said. Often, Wolfe would shift the POV in the middle of a paragraph as a unique way of keeping readers engaged. He writes: "I switched back and fourth between points of view continually, and often abruptly, in many articles I wrote in 1963, 64 and 65". A reviewer once referred to Wolfe as a 'chameleon'. In response to this, Wolfe claimed: "[The reportermeant it negatively. I took it as a great compliment". The likeness to the creature the reviewer had mentioned clearly came from Wolfe's ability to take on the colouration of whoever he was writing about, a skill vital to one who wishes to represent the style of New Journalism.

In 'The New Journalism', Wolfe explained that most non fiction writers, without realising, were writing in 'a century-old British tradition'. Wolfe strove to be something more than just a 'reporter', instead being interested in what he referred to as the 'interpretive truth'. Traditional Journalism's limited concept of the importance of facts sometimes gave an incomplete story.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is based upon a novel by Hunter S. Thompson

To me, New Journalism seems freeing. It was a means of writing about anything in any form. The typical conventions of writing before it were formulaic and somewhat limited, not allowing for true creativity from the writer. Hard journalism is based entirely on fact, yet New Journalism strayed away from this, exploring abstract concepts in a style more similar to that of a novel.

I watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas leading up to the seminar and thoroughly enjoyed the film. The film follows Raoul Duke, a gonzo Journalist sent to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race for his magazine. Raoul is accompanied by a lawyer by the name of Dr Gonzo, an unpredictable and often confrontational friend. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, the pair go in search of what they call 'The American Dream'.

During the seminar we discussed the links between the existentialists and New Journalism. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas clearly has existential undertones. The fact that the two main characters use drugs and alcohol as a means of escaping the realities of the world around them shows this. The characters have no interest in how their actions will impact others, instead choosing to live in the moment and regret nothing of what comes of their actions. It's not about the past or future, it's about the present.

In the film, the winner of the race that Raoul arrives in Las Vegas to report on is never actually revealed. For an existentialist, the result of the event is not important. Instead, the description of the people at the event and the sights and sounds the characters experience take priority and become the key focus. Things that would instinctively seem interesting to the majority would be ignored by existentialists.

As I was watching the film, I felt a great sense of freedom from the characters. This, in my mind, is what New Journalism is all about - The ability to do as you wish and how you wish.

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