Tom, Joan, Norman & I
The confessions of a self-proclaimed Canadian Tom (saturation! ...liberated! ...dramatic!) Wolfe groupie
The only thing I can say with certainty about the New Journalism is that it changed my life. I was introduced to it in the late sixties, mostly through the works of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. They had very different-in some respects, totally opposed-approaches to the writing of journalism, but they made an equivalent impact with the style, the unmistakable, individual voice, they brought to their reportage.
As an English student at the University of Toronto in this period I had written a few articles for The Mike, the student publication of St. Michael’s College. Some of these articles were fairly conventional efforts at journalism, others ponderous essays on the great issues of the day. A fellow student -who later became a distinguished Canadian poet-seriously warned me that if I kept writing these articles I might end up doing that kind of stuff for the rest of my life. I knew what he meant. If one was going to do any sort of writing, one should do real writing-and real writing was not journalism but poetry or fiction or drama.
I attempted fiction while still at university. Later, as a reader for McClelland & Stewart, reporting on manuscripts sent the firm by hopeful novelists and poets, I saw my own fatal weaknesses as a fiction writer reflected in the work of others. These hopeful authors might have been perfectly intelligent; they might have had a genuine sensitivity to language, perhaps even a flair for imagery, and for small and large perceptions about life. But there was something airless in their work. One could sense how proud they were of their metaphors and their apercus, studded throughout narratives which never came alive. Myown short stories, often featuring a protagonist bearing a striking resemblance to myself, laden with existential despair, were no different.
After I was fired by McClelland & Stewart I had leisure to explore existential despair more thoroughly. But it was also in this period of unemployment that I came across an article in Life magazine about the “Jesus Freaks,” as they were then known, and decided to try my hand at writing about them in the manner of Wolfe and Mailer. As a subject, they were perfect for a new journalistic approach. These born-again ex-hippies, it was clear, lived a rather colorful life, following Jesus and fighting Satan amidst apocalyptic visions and the squalor of Toronto street life. Following them around would, I figured, afford many opportunities for catching dramatic moments, confrontations between believers and non-believers, revelations of doubt and despair within their own ranks. Whether they were deluded or not, these people were playing for high stakes, and that always makes for good journalism.
With a great deal of nervousness, I showed up at their commune at Roch-dale College in the spring of 1971.They ~ received me enthusiastically. The man ‘who appeared to be their leader warned me they were interested in my soul, but no serious efforts were made to convert me and I felt reasonably comfortable in the following weeks following them around. The result was a lengthy piece, influenced stylistically more by Mailer than Wolfe-apocalypse, after all, was then Mailer’s specialty. Eventually Saturday Night, at that point a quirky, almost amateurish operation, but very hospitable to new talent, published the first third of it. My poet-friend’s warning proved justified – I was on my way to a career foreshadowed by all those Mike articles.
The New Journalism, however, made it seem very different. The New Journalism made it possible to be a writer as literary as any good novelist and yet never get stuck in lifeless narratives about young, overly sensitive protagonists wondering what their place was in this absurd universe. The New Journalism struck me then as an immensely liberating force. It liberated in me something I had never quite realized was there, a love of observing the world and the way humans lived in it. Sometimes it seemed to me worth being alive just to notice, for example, the way high school students dressed. I had made boring fiction out of my inner psychological conflicts, conflicts which bored even myself. I thought I could write some decent journalism out of all the things I noticed that had nothing to do with myself.
For a few years in the early seventies I wrote several articles for Saturday Night which ‘”,ere obviously New Journalistic. By then, I had switched from Mailer to Wolfe. Mailer’s style was an invitation to verbosity and high seriousness, vices I was too much prone to anyway. Wolfe’s prose was sharper, livelier and more dependent for its effect on sheer observation, an activity always wholesome for a writer. In the early seventies, Wolfe’s prose was much imitated by younger journalists in Canada. I modestly make the claim that I wrote the best imitation Tom Wolfe prose in Canada, perhaps in North America.
Later, as a magazine journalist, I dropped that style and wrote much more conventional profiles. For one thing, in my Wolfean pieces I often bent the rules-the characters I wrote about were anonymous, and sometimes “comp05ite.” This technique, based on reportage and associated, perhaps unjustly, with the New Journalism, lowered the repute of the New Journalism. And it represented a serious weakness in those pieces.
Nevertheless, for many years I kept alive in my mind the notion of writing that definitive knock-’em-dead article based on the techniques of the New Journalism. These techniques, quite independent of the particular prose styles of Mailer, Wolfe, Didion or any of the other exemplars of the New Journalism, really were based, as Wolfe pointed out, on saturation reportage. One immersed oneself in whatever scene one was covering, to be there for the spontaneous moments of revelation, the snatches of conversation, the gestures not made with the thought of the press in mind. One looked for the same things a novelist looked for: action and dialogue with a dramatic shape that somehow summed up people’s characters. Was the subject of one’s profile insincere or not forthcoming during interviews? Well, then, one hung out with that subject long enough to be there when he chewed out the waitress, and that’s what showed up in the article.
As the American writer Roy Blount once put it wryly, you hung out with your subject until you found out what kind of fool he really was. And of course all these techniques lent themselves to abuse. Nor was it always possible to use them. But it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, that the marrying of literary techniques with reportage produces the best form of journalism.
I never wrote that knock-’em-dead article, or any article that really satisfied me. And eventually I turned to other things, to literary biography and then to my present occupation, literary criticism. (Canadian magazine editors, for one thing, became less and less interested in the New Journalism in the eighties, but that’s another story.) What I write now bears more resemblance, in a way, to my first articles for The Mike than it does to the New Journalism. But I am still challenged by the notion of the New Journalism, I still feel that the intensive reporting and the eye for revealing details of dress, speech and gesture which it calls for are the proudest accomplishments of a journalist. A man or woman, it seems to me, who writes a good piece of New Journalism has demonstrated not only literary ability but a certain nerve-he or she has gotten further into other people’s lives than anyone has a right to.
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.