One Book, One Chicago Fall 2008
Wolfe and the New Journalism
“The New Journalism was the term that caught on eventually… At the time… 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.”
— Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism
Tom Wolfe didn’t invent the “new journalism,” nor did he provide this name with which it was, in his opinion, “ungracefully” saddled. Yet in the mid-1960s, writing like Wolfe’s carefully researched, stylistically daring articles for New York and Esquire was exactly what critics and readers were referring to when debating the merits of the “new journalism.”
In an influential 1973 essay, “The New Journalism” (which introduces an anthology of the same name, co-edited by Wolfe and E.W. Johnson), Wolfe gives a brief history of the genre as he recalls its development by newspaper and magazine feature writers like Gay Talese and Jimmy Breslin in the early 1960s. Wolfe describes the new genre as journalism that reads “like a novel” because it utilizes four techniques used by novelists: setting the story in specific scenes instead of in dislocated “historical” trends; extensive use of realistic dialogue; point-of-view narration from the perspective of characters; and an eye for the everyday “status” details that reveal the characters’ social reality.
Wolfe explains that putting these literary devices to use in journalism goes against traditional rules of objectivity and neutrality in journalism; but the new genre differs from other literary forms of nonfiction precisely in what it takes from journalism—factual reporting based on “legwork,” extensive interviews, verifiable facts and observable details. Indeed, Wolfe’s style of new journalism “depended upon a depth of information that had never been demanded in newspaper work. Only through the most searching forms of reporting was it possible, in nonfiction, to use whole scenes, extended dialogue, point-of-view and interior monologue.”
Wolfe also argues that the use of these literary devices by nonfiction writers is made possible by fiction writers who had turned away from social realism. “Fiction writers [gave] up this unique power in the quest for a more sophisticated kind of fiction… Journalists now enjoy a tremendous technical advantage. They have all the juice… The work done in journalism over the past 10 years easily outdazzles the work done in fiction… The techniques are now available, and the time is right.”
Wolfe continued to practice this style of journalism through the 1960s and 1970s, and with the 1979 publication of The Right Stuff enjoyed one of the genre’s most critical and popular successes. Beginning with 1987’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Wolfe turned his talents toward writing the kind of fiction he claimed that novelists of the 1950s and 1960s had abandoned.
- Wolfe, Tom. The New Journalism. Harper & Row, 1973.
- “Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale, 2004.
- Weingarten, Marc. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, Capote & the New Journalism Revolution. Crown Publishers, 2005.
Further Works from the “New Journalism”
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History
By Norman Mailer
The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & Encounters
By Gay Talese
Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga
By Hunter S. Thompson
Honor Thy Father
By Gay Talese
By George Plimpton
The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy
By Ronald Weber
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
By Joan Didion
Up in the Old Hotel, and Other Stories
By Joseph Mitchell
The World According to Breslin
By Jimmy Breslin