The Art of Fact
This review originally appeared on the Barnes & Noble website.
At a time when journalists are frequently described as content providers, and when many publishers seem more interested in backroom efficiencies than front-page epiphanies, it's easy to cast The Art of Fact, a new anthology of literary journalism, as an antidote to, or at least a declaration against, the more mercenary trends of the news business, circa 1997.
But the book, in fact, has a premise that is both subtler and more ambitious than that - it aims to show the evolution of what its two editors, Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, designate as "literary journalism," and to connect the forbears of this discipline with its current practitioners. "Literary journalism," of course, is a term that's broad enough to encompass many possible definitions. For the purposes of their anthology, Kerrane and Yagoda choose three: reporting that uses the devices of drama and the novel to impart information in a narrative fashion; reporting that replaces objectivity with "unabashed subjectivity" in the pursuit of a more candid rendering of a story; and finally, reporting written with such style that it has the effect of "making facts dance."
The editors present sixty-one pieces spanning the last two and a half centuries; some of the pieces are reprinted in whole, others are excerpted from longer works. Those featured include reformers like W.T. Stead, documentarians like John McPhee, and tale-spinners like A.J. Liebling - and there isn't a mere content provider in the bunch. Whether it's John Hersey trying to make sense of Hiroshima or Tom Wolfe reveling in the overamplified nonsense of '60s pop culture, the writers collected in this anthology all aspire to more than the utilitarian recitation of the events they witness; they write with the kind of close attention to the moment that paradoxically makes work timeless, and with a facility that belies tight deadlines and the exigencies of filling the appropriate number of column inches.
In choosing selections from such a wide chronological range - the earliest is Daniel Defoe's description of a hanging in 1725, the most recent is Dennis Covington's 1995 account of fundamentalist snake-handlers - Kerrane and Yagoda avoid the trap of designating any one period as a Golden Era that is then consecrated and mourned; instead, they show how certain techniques have existed and developed over time. To do this, the editors use their definitions of literary journalism as the basis for the three sections into which they group selections: Telling Tales, The Reporter Takes the Stage, and Style as Substance. Within each section, the selections proceed chronologically; there's also a section, Pioneers, that includes pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries that display the sort of literary techniques that subsequent journalists would go on to refine.
Thus, while it may appear to today's journalism critics that few innovations have graced the field in over 30 years, when Tom Wolfe first started hemorrhaging adjectives and exclamation points and Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson began finding themselves at the center of every story they set out to pursue, what The Art of Fact reveals is that even The New Journalism wasn't really new. Over 130 years ago, Henry Mayhew was using the vernacular of his subjects to tell their stories, much as Wolfe (and Studs Terkel) would later do. At the turn of the century, Jack London, in documenting the slums of London's East End, made himself the center of his story by disguising himself as a member of the lower classes and reporting from a first-person perspective.
That there may be nothing new left to invent in the pursuit of literary journalism could, of course, be taken as a sign of its imminent demise - the virtue of The Art of Fact is that it leads one to the opposite conclusion: with so many time-proven techniques at their disposal, today's journalists are well-equipped to engage their readers. As if to offer an implicit proof of this concept, several of the anthology's best pieces, like Bill Buford's account of marauding English soccer fans or David Simon's explanation of the necessarily duplicitous interrogation techniques homocide detectives have had to adopt in the wake of Miranda, are of fairly recent vintage.
But, ultimately, the pleasures of this collection come from
all eras: there's Ernest Hemingway, honing the style that
he would later use in his fiction while reporting on a
Japanese earthquake; there's Hunter S. Thompson writing
an elegy for Nixon that is in turn an elegy for his own
career as a journalist. (With Nixon gone, what did he have
to fear and loathe?) While the pieces included in The Art
of Fact have lost currency over time, the urgency and
import that made them great journalism in the first place
remains, transforming them into literature, or as Ezra Pound
would have it, "news that stays news."
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