Interesting talk last night at Cody’s Book in Berkeley between journalist Eric Schlosser and Robert Boynton, who had come to promote his book, The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. The straight-to-paperback book features interviews with 19 reporters who have produced some of the best immersion journalism in the past few years.
Schlosser, who became nationally known with the release of Fast Food Nation, did the interviewing of Boynton, who directs the graduate magazine journalism program at New York University. Schlosser argued that narrative non-fiction, not fiction, is now the center of American literary life. He bemoaned the fact that few fiction writers grapple with the meaty topics of the day. Instead, most fiction books are small slices-of-life, offering narrow perspectives of the world. Some exceptions are the works of Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, Michael Crichton, and interestingly, John Grisham
“What happened to American fiction?” asked Schlosser. “Part of the success of this nonfiction is there is a hunger of readers to engage with larger issues and novelists by and large aren’t doing this right now. It’s one of the reasons I think journalism has moved to the center of American literature.”
In contrast, the stories told by reporters featured in the book, like Ted Conover, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Richard Preston, shed light on pressing social problems such as poverty, abuse of power, environmental degradation
Tom Wolfe coined the term “The New Journalism,” to describe the kind of reporting done in the 1970s by himself, Hunter Thompson and others. The new approach broke through old rigid forms of reporting the world by using novelistic techniques to create scene and craft dialogue, said Boynton. But Wolfe and Hunter wrote more about people of the moment or cultural slices of life, while today’s new new journalists focus more on social issues.
“One of the arguments I make in this book is this group is simultaneously borrowing and using the literary license Wolfe and others won for journalism writers – creating scene, expanding dialogue -- and reaching back to an earlier generation of early 20th century muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair. They blend the literary license of the 1970s with issues of social justice, poverty and discrimination”
I have to agree with this analysis. Some of my favorite books in recent years have been narrative nonfiction books such as Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, and Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, among others.
Narrative non-fiction may be compelling, but not all of it sells well. Check out this depressing (again) article about a new book detailing the 2000 sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine. (via Bookslut)