English 255b
A. Boone
TTH 2:30-4
HU III

 

New Journalism and the Novel

Diagnosing the literary climate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tom Wolfe proclaimed that New Journalism had cannibalized its influences from popular culture and literature to create a new kind of reporting and writing. “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore” was his manifesto for the new form of writing would experiment with subjects that had not been covered in mainstream journalism, critical reportorial perspectives on objectivity and subjectivity, attention to details that took precedence over truth claims, and play with narrative and non-narrative forms. Wolfe and other practitioners of the form would go on a cross-fertilize novels, films, non-fiction, and other genres with these techniques. Thus the situation was not so much that no one was writing novels anymore; rather, the lines of generic differentiation had become fuzzier. Forty years later, the practitioners of New Journalism—Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, George Plimpton, Michael Herr, and Hunter S. Thompson, among others—have been canonized as writers who changed the field of journalism. Contemporary writers use them as touchstones to make arguments about the future of the field in a media-saturated society. They privilege “long-form” journalism in a sea of blog posts, compare immersive war reporting then and now, and continuously declare the death of reading or the death of the novel—just as Wolfe did, to make his own argument about the need for innovation.
This class will read some of the classic articles and books of New Journalism-- among them, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Herr’s Dispatches—and then reflect on what happens when these once-radical forms become domesticated in the American literary canon. What happens when novelists re-appropriate those techniques that the New Journalists had initially taken, as Didion herself did in her political novels from the 1970s? What happens when a contemporary novelist retells a story of the 1960s, with obvious debts to the stories as they were recorded in such radical detail, as Dana Spiotta does in her National Book Award-winning novel, Eat the Document? How do these forms compare to new media reporting about social activism, pop culture, technology, and public life?

Course requirements:
Students will write three essays in the class and participate in the class discussion board on Moodle. Assignment #1 is a 3-4 pp. close reading of the narrative techniques of one of the essays or books from the syllabus. Assignment #2 is a 4-6 pp. comparison between two of the texts on the syllabus, in which students will make an argument about how the techniques changed over time. Assignment #3 is a 6-8 pp. discussion of how contemporary writers have turned to one of the texts on the syllabus: what have they highlighted and what have they obscured in making the comparison between the 1960s experiments and contemporary media culture? The class will be asking this particular question throughout the semester on the class discussion board, where we will share and discuss examples of the afterlife of New Journalism in new media.