The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft

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A Note on Literary Nonfiction

Though I'm a little late in getting around to it, I wanted note Scott's recent essay on literary nonfiction at Conversational Reading. Inspired by the recent discussion of Ryszard Kapuscinski following his death, Scott highlights three notable practitioners of the form: Lawrence Weschler, Jonathan Raban, and Geoff Dyer. I am a huge fan of literary non-fiction (or long-form journalism), so I enjoyed Scott's in depth look at these three writers.Those who are interested in this form and who are looking to fill out a "to be read" pile with some literary non-fiction should take a look at couple of fairly comprehensive booklists that have been posted here in the past. The first is a list inspired by Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism a collection of interviews of some of the top names in literary non-fiction. Ours is a companion reading list of the books by the writers featured in Boynton's book. We also have a reading list from a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler. Millions contributor Garth took the class a couple of years ago and jotted down titles and names that the class delved into or just touched upon. It's a terrific resource.

Newjack by Ted Conover: A Review

When officials at the New York State Department of Correctional Services turned down Ted Conover's request to profile a new recruit in the Albany Training Academy, they did not suspect that the author would apply himself. If they had, Conover's application to become a CO - correctional officer - probably would not have gone through.In March 1997, three years after he put in his application, Conover reported to the Academy and began his training, and subsequent career, as a CO. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing recounts the author's experiences and observations, beginning with the drill instructors at the Academy, continuing with becoming an OJT - On the Job [Trainee], and ending with the completion of his one-year stint as a newjack in the infamous Sing Sing prison.Conover is a keen journalist. I first learned about him through The New New Journalism by Robert Boynton. Then I read his March 2006 article in The Atlantic, "The Checkpoint." Ever since, I yearned to read something by the author, who, it seemed, could objectively place himself in situations and relate extraordinary situations through an informative perspective.Newjack shows the extent of Conover's skills as a journalist, as well as his soft, humane composure. He describes the Academy with grave seriousness and in great detail. By the time Conover graduates, the reader is familiar with the army-like drills involved in a CO's training: tightly made beds, impeccable uniforms, roll calls, shooting practice, the painful tear gas training, and the brainwashing. All to break down the soon-to-be COs and to make sure they do not go soft guarding a prison.Next comes adjusting to prison. Conover dispels some of the popular myths surrounding COs. They are not "prison guards" for one, they work in correctional facilities, i.e., they are part of an inmate's rehabilitation. Most of them do not continually resort to violence or rape inmates, as The Shawshank Redemption or Cool Hand Luke will have you believe. And, maybe most striking among all the myths, a CO's life sucks; it is almost as hard as an inmate's. Conover quotes one CO as describing his work as "serving a life sentence in eight-hour shifts."Conover is not supposed to be friendly with inmates - at least those are the instructions. But he discovers that rules, as in many places, are frequently broken in Sing Sing. He talks with some inmates and he is constantly harassed by others. Conover is a newjack, after all. But then again, inmates sometimes prove more friendly, helpful, and philosophical than fellow COs. Conover is quick to learn that attitude matters, both among COs and inmates. A CO cannot be indebted to an inmate, but being straightforward and accommodating helps, occasionally more so than adhering to official procedures.Newjack also discusses the development of American prisons at length and provides a good historical insight to the U.S. penal system. Some moments, such as the birth of electrocution, are terrifying. Life in Sing Sing eventually affects Conover's, and other COs', emotional well being. The pressures of working in a maximum-security prison apparently makes it impossible to "leave work behind" after passing through the gates to go home.One of the most interesting parts of Newjack is the Afterword of the paperback edition, where Conover discusses reactions to the book. He goes to a Q&A-book signing event in Ossining, N.Y., where the prison is located (interestingly enough the town used to be called Sing Sing. But because items manufactured at the prison bore the tag "Made in Sing Sing," and had an adverse effect on the town's trade, they changed the name to Ossining). A bunch of his CO friends - and adversaries - show up at the event. The library calls the local police, because they are afraid the COs will beat Conover for the bad publicity his book has caused.Read the rest yourself, I am positive that you will fly through the pages and get to the end to discover what happened in two to three days, tops. That was my experience, in spite of, and at the expense of, all the work I had to do for school (I know, school doesn't sound like much, but trust me, it's more difficult than my military service).Bonus Link: The New New Journalists

A reading journal continued (Part 3)

Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist's matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor's love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks - 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship's power fails - hence annulling the compass and the radar - or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl's biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: "The Visitor" and "Bitch" (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), "Madame Rosette," "Death of an Old Man," "Vengeance is Mine Inc.," and "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life." I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4

A reading journal continued (Part 2)

In the meantime I received William Boynton's The New New Journalism from my old roommate Ayse and started reading it. Boynton's carefully structured questions provide for a similar flow for each author he interviews, thus highlighting the differences in style, discipline, and inspiration in each author. The New New Journalism is a great look into the minds of some amazing authors of our time, providing interesting information as to how they pick their topics, as well as quirky information about how they go about getting their work done. Another great side of Boynton's book is that it ties the New Journalists of Tom Wolfe to today, and provides a great reading list. I already added Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Coyotes by Ted Conover, There are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and American Ground by William Langewiesche to my already long reading list. Another advantage is that you can pick up the book and read about any author included for a brief period and then rest the book a little.I wanted to take a break from The New New Journalism and turned to The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which had been sitting on my shelf since my birthday. Nancy, who presented me with the novel, was upset that the hard cover edition she bought had an unremoveable Oprah's Book Club sticker on it, which I promised to cover with an It was in Nancy's Book Club First sticker, but I did not get around to that yet. Regardless, The Corrections blew my mind. The main reasons I wanted to read the novel were the discussions on The Millions and the fact that almost everyone I know in my age group had laid hands on it fairly recently. So, I turned to it on a hot sticky New York evening, cranked my AC and sat in my room all night reading. The next day was a Friday, and I was so stuck to the story that all I could do at work was sit at my desk and keep reading, pretty much non-stop, until I finished the novel on Sunday night. At about 4 AM on Monday morning, I emailed my boss and let her know that I would not be able to attend work because of the severe depression that The Corrections caused in me. Here is why: I loved the novel and Franzen's style, and although Enid comes across as a very stereotypical bickering mother, and Alfred's dementia - with it's stark contrast to his past - is a common disease in our times, and Chip is readily accessible, lovable, and charismatic, and Denise is righteously immoral in her actions, and Gary is a self-pitying bastard, and that every piece of the story seems banal when looked at from this perspective, the mere reality of The Corrections moved me deeply. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Franzen organized the book and related the individual stories of each character, and how, that, in the very end, reaches a lukewarm resolve. Finishing The Corrections I felt as if I should be happy about the outcome, but the price that was paid, the thought that this story could take place in my life, and that some of the characters - though maybe through different relations - might exist around me caused an inexplicable sadness. All the sobbing aside, I discovered soon upon finishing The Corrections that discussing the cast of a probable Hollywood movie based on the novel makes for a great conversation. I remember reading with great interest when the discussion took place on The Millions and at this point the only person I can contribute to the fray is Sam Rockwell as Chip. That said, The Corrections is probably better off left alone by Hollywood, and a wonderful read for all those who want to glimpse into a bit of Americana, as well as a bit of themselves.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4

A Lawrence Weschler Reading List

Back in March after hearing about Robert Boynton's book of interviews with journalists called The New New Journalism, I put together a post that listed some of the books by this select group of writers. At the time, my friend Garth was taking a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler (himself a "New New Journalist"), and felt that we had only scratched the surface. Weschler had introduced Garth and his fellow students to a wealth of "creative nonfiction." Garth wrote to share his experience with the class and the marvelous list of books that was at its heart. This is long, but it's worth it.As alluded to earlier, here's a slightly more in-depth summary of the Weschler Literary Nonfiction Class. This was a ridiculous class, in the best sense of the word. The reading list was incredible, handouts of poems were constantly circulating, and every five minutes we were treated to a "you've got to read this" digression. Highly recommended; for a quick summation of the ideas treated in the class, check out the Weschler interview in Robert Boynton's new The New New Journalism.I kept careful notes on what was being mentioned and read, and in the end, I probably had twice this many names on my list. In order not to divulge Weschler's trade secrets, I cut a lot of stuff out, but I wanted to share with you some of my amazing discoveries from this class. The top 10 list is my actual top 10 list, though, in general, I tried to omit what we actually read, because with some of these guys - [Joseph] Mitchell, [Ryszard] Kapuscinski, [John] McPhee - it's all amazing. What's in parentheses may be stuff on the syllabus, or may be something that was mentioned in class that sounded fantastic, or excerpted on a handout - stuff definitely to check out. We also read maybe 25 others, but many of them ([Susan] Orlean, etc.), you'll be familiar with. I included the four Of Note because they were relatively new to me, except for [Christopher] Hitchens, whom I loathe, but who apparently used to write pretty compelling essays. The second part of this list compiles allusions that came up in class and handouts that we received. Again, this is less than half of what we got in class, but I've included only stuff I couldn't bear not to share, or stuff I had never heard of before. Divided up by genre. Hopefully, to the degree that syllabi and course materials are the instructor's intellectual property, I've managed to obscure what the actual syllabus looked like, while still managing to convey a fraction of the stimulating panoply of material we were exposed to. I never knew I liked journalism so much.I. Top 10 Writers We Read, In My Humble Opinion:Joseph Mitchell (Everything This Man Ever Wrote. My Ears Are Bent (recently republished), Up in the Old Hotel)Ian Frazier (see esp. "Canal Street" (New Yorker, April 30, 1990), and the book Family)Ryszard KapuscinskiSusan Sheehan (Is There No Place On Earth for Me?)George Orwell ("Reflections on Ghandi")David Foster WallaceJohn McPhee (Oranges, Annals of the Former World)William Finnegan (see esp. "Playing Doc's Games," (New Yorker, Aug. 24 and 31, 1992)Jamaica Kincaid (A Small Place)Lawrence Weschler (I especially like Calamities of Exile, Boggs, Vermeer in Bosnia)Other Writers of Note Whom We Read:Christopher Hitchens (before he became a right-winger, e.g. Prepared for the Worst)Alastair Reid (Oases)Jane Kramer (someone in class mentioned The Last Cowboy)Diane AckermanGo Look This Up:Columbia Journalism Review symposium, July 1989Transom.org (resources for radio journalists)Omnivore prototype issue at mjt.orgII. Mentioned in Passing, Piqued My InterestA. Nonfiction (Roughly in order of Interest)A.J. LieblingWalter Murch (In The Blink of An Eye, The Conversations (w/ Michael Ondaatje))John Berger (Ways of Seeing)Jonathan Schell (Observing the Nixon Years)Rebecca Solnit (River of Shadows)Susan Sontag (on Abu Ghraib in NY Times Magazine)Wendy Lesser (Nothing Remains The Same)Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt)Vijay Seshadri (essays in The Long Meadow)Norman Mailer (Executioner's Song)Neil Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie)Dave Hickey (Air Guitar)Jonathan Raban (Passage to Juneau)Mark Salzman (True Notebooks)Adam Menendes (80s reportage on Central America)Adam Michnik (Letters from Prison and Other Essays)B. PhilosophyNicholas of Cusa (Of Learned Ignorance)H. Vaihinger (The Philosophy of As If)C. Poetry[The Poles:]Wislawa SzymborskaCzeslaw MiloszStanislaw BaranczakeZbigniaw Herbert (Mr. Cogito)Tadeusz Rosewicz[The Rest:]Nazim HikmetChristopher Logue (translations of Homer)III. Drama/Film:Harold Pinter (A Kind of Alaska)Wallace Shawn (The Fever)Roberto Rossellini (The Rise of Louis XIV)IV. Fiction:Grace PaleyNorman MacLean (A River Runs Through It)Jose Saramago (Blindness)Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger)Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)Joseph Heller (Something Happened)Nicholas Mosely (Hopeful Monsters)Stanislaw Lem (A Perfect Vacuum)Bruce Duffy (The World As I Found It)Wow, a tremendous list. There's a lot to mine here.

The New New Journalists

Robert Boynton, a journalism professor at NYU, has taken a look at the journalism landscape and determined that the craft has moved an iteration beyond Thomas Wolfe's anointing of a New Journalism in 1973. Boynton's book, which he has titled The New New Journalism looks at the more recent crop of in depth journalists - well-known for their long pieces in magazines like the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and for their bestselling books. A review in the New York Times describes the destinction Boynton is making this way: "If literary experimentation and artistic ambition were the New Journalism's calling cards, reportorial depth is the New New Journalism's distinguishing mark, Boynton insists." Though the boundaries of this "new new journalism" may be fuzzy, it's exciting to me that someone is assessing these books critically as group. My feeling is that these days books of in depth journalism tend to be more readable than most new literary fiction, and, perhaps more importantly, this "new new journalism" is able to deliver more of an impact.Boynton's book is a collection of interviews in which he encourages the writers to discuss their methods (The New York Times review likens them to the Paris Review "Art of..." interviews.) Included in the book are interviews with writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, William Langewiesche, Eric Schlosser and Michael Lewis. Here's an excerpt of his interview with Ted Conover. The collection is also well-received in the Columbia Journalism Review, which, however, expresses a wish that the book had come with a companion anthology. I agree that this would be nice, but, failing that, I though it might be worthwhile to list some of the books that these journalists have written (if only because I would like to refer back to it myself next time I have a hankering for some of the "new new" stuff.) So, here are the interviewees from The New New Journalism and some of the books they have written:Gay TaleseThe Gay Talese Reader: Portraits & EncountersThe BridgeThy Neighbor's WifeJane KramerLone Patriot: The Short Career of an American MilitiamanHonor to the BrideThe Last CowboyCalvin TrillinThe Tummy TrilogyFeeding a YenToo Soon to TellRichard Ben CramerWhat It Takes: The Way to the White HouseHow Israel Lost: The Four QuestionsTed ConoverNewjack: Guarding Sing SingCoyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal AliensRolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's HoboesAlex KotlowitzThere Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other AmericaThe Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death, and America's DilemmaNever a City So Real: A Walk in ChicagoRichard PrestonThe Hot ZoneThe Demon in the FreezerFirst Light: The Search for the Edge of the UniverseWilliam LangewiescheThe Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and CrimeAmerican Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade CenterSahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the DesertEric SchlosserFast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American MealReefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black MarketLeon DashRosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban AmericaWhen Children Want Children: The Urban Crisis of Teenage ChildbearingWilliam FinneganCold New World: Growing Up in Harder CountryA Complicated War: The Harrowing of MozambiqueCrossing the Line: A Year in the Land of ApartheidJonathan HarrA Civil ActionThe Lost PaintingJon KrakauerInto Thin AirInto the WildUnder the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent FaithAdrian Nicole LeBlancRandom Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the BronxMichael LewisMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair GameThe New New Thing: A Silicon Valley StoryLiar's Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall StreetSusan OrleanThe Orchid ThiefThe Bullfighter Checks Her MakeupMy Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who's Been EverywhereRon RosenbaumThe Secret Parts of Fortune: Three Decades of Intense Investigations and Edgy EnthusiasmsTravels With Dr. Death and Other Unusual InvestigationsExplaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His EvilLawrence WeschlerMr. Wilson's Cabinet Of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic TechnologySeeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert IrwinVermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political TragediesLawrence WrightRemembering SatanTwins: And What They Tell Us About Who We AreIn the New WorldUpdate: Jessa at Bookslut compiles a set of links to articles by the New New Journalists.
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