Tom Wolfe’s School of New Journalism
There’s an essay by Zadie Smith called “Dead Men Talking,” in which she suggests that every writer has an ideal reader. Smith, to her embarrassment, identifies herself as the ideal reader of E. M. Forster. “I would much prefer to be Gustave Flaubert’s or William Gaddis’s or Franz Kafka’s or Borges’,” she writes. Every reader, she continues, will have “three or four writers like this in your life, and likely as not you’ll meet them when you’re very young.”
I saw Smith read this essay as a lecture in 2003, in Central Park, in the summer. She wore a flower in her hair. I was twenty-two. I found the writing for which I was the ideal reader a few months later, when my roommate lent me a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1973 anthology, “The New Journalism.” Can you be the ideal reader of an anthology? I was.
“The New Journalism” was edited by Wolfe, who included an excerpt from “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and his essay “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” He also wrote a polemical and hubristic three-part introduction and an appendix. Wolfe made fun of contemporary novelists and made fun of newspaper writing and then described the development, starting around 1960, of a group of people who were writing journalism—fact-based reportage—that read like novels, journalists who, in Wolfe’s words, “wanted to dress up like novelists.”
These journalists, Wolfe wrote, used four devices: scene-by-scene construction, realistic dialogue, a third-person point of view (where the reader feels as if he or she is inside a character’s mind), and then, in contrast to traditional newspaper journalism, a descriptive eye, in which a subject’s clothing, manners, eating, and living room are as important for the writer to document as the subject’s words. “The basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene, since most of the sophisticated strategies of prose depend upon scenes,” he wrote. He called the process Saturation Reporting: “Often you feel as if you’ve put your whole central nervous system on red alert and turned it into a receiving set with your head panning the molten tableau like a radar dish, with you saying, ‘Come in, world,’ since you only want . . . all of it . . . ”