It must be coming on 15 years ago that I had a student named Todd in my “Feature and Magazine Writing” class. One of Todd’s stories for the class was about the engineering behind take-out coffee-cup lids, a field then entering an extremely robust and sophisticated phase. That’s what I call a feature idea. I believe it remains one of my three all-time favorite articles written by students in that class. The second was about the then-new trend of students wearing both straps of their backpacks over their shoulders, instead of just one. For the third, the student went to at least a portion of every event taking place at the University of Delaware on a single day, and reported on what he saw and heard.
Todd, whose last name is Frankel, went into journalism after graduation and is now an award-winning reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I was happy to see that he’s represented in Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, edited by Walt Harrington and Mike Sager, an anthology that was published over the winter but that I’ve only just gotten around to. His story, originally published in the Post-Dispatch, is about a man who thinks he has found a million-dollar bill. It is also about the nature of hope.
That might be as good a place as any to get into the question of what literary journalism is, anyway. My colleague Kevin Kerrane and I grappled with it when we published our own anthology, The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. (I guess using the term in the subtitle forced our hand a little bit.) A characteristic of much of it—including Todd’s piece—is an attention to big themes, as opposed to coffee-cup lids and backpack-wearing fashions. When it comes to prose, journalism can be called “literary” to the extent it tells true stories not with the formulas and clichés so prevalent in the field–nut grafs, quotes from usual suspects, journalese–but with artful, innovative, and fresh language and style, just as we would expect from a first-rate novelist or poet.
The stuff collectively known as the New Journalism represented a flowering of this kind of work. Starting in the early 1960s, such writers as Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion shook the scene up. They used all kinds of narrative and rhetorical techniques, united only by the way they blew their nose in the general direction of traditionally fetishized “objectivity”; they editorialized like mad, and even made themselves characters in their own stories! For years, these codgers have been the all-star team of journalism anthologies, including ours. Robert Boynton showcased their spiritual children—people like Susan Orlean and Jon Krakauer—in The New New Journalism, a collection of interviews published in 2005. Now, Harrington and Sager properly feel that it’s time to pay some attention to the best of what the next generation is up to. (They considered only writers who were under 40 at a cutoff date they set when they were putting the book together, a couple of years ago.)
The lineup is solid, no doubt about it, and speaks to the health of and the prospects for what’s come to be called “long-form journalism.” (Why long-form instead of just “long,” I couldn’t tell you. But, as long as I’m in a parenthesis, I can say that another positive development is the arrival of several Web sites devoted to this kind of work—notably Longform, The Atavist, Longreads, and Byliner.) However, one of the main things that struck me in reading Next Wave–which I recommend to anyone interested in outstanding journalism–is that these young’uns don’t seem to be that interested in advancing the literary innovations of the foreparents. On the whole, the pieces are calm, measured … you might even say “objective.” The very first one, Pamela Colloff’s “Hannah and Andrew,” begins:
What little is known about Andrew Burd’s early life is contained in a slim Child Protective Services case file that chronicles the boy’s descent into the child welfare system. His mother was just sixteen, the file shows, when she gave birth to him in Corpus Christi on July 28, 2002. She would later admit, according to one report, “to using alcohol, methamphetamines, cocaine and crack cocaine, LSD, marijuana, cigarettes, and taking prescription Xanax.” His father was seventeen and worked for a traveling carnival. CPS launched its initial investigation into Andrew’s well-being shortly after his first birthday, when his mother took him to a local hospital with a broken arm.
There’s nothing especially literary about that, or the rest of the article: It’s solid, traditional investigative reporting. If the words, paragraphs, and entire article were just a bit shorter, it wouldn’t be out of place in a big-city newspaper. Five pages in, Colloff says that Andrew died—of salt poisoning—at the age of 4, and it turns out that the biggest subset of articles in Next Wave is about people who suddenly, mysteriously, or intriguingly lost their lives: Jason Zengerle’s story about a brilliant Boston anesthesiologist who OD’d; Thomas Lake’s on one of the shocking number of high-school football players who die during games or practices; Michael Kruse’s on a Florida woman who went off the grid—in her own house; and Luke Dittrich’s “Tonight on Dateline This Man Will Die,” about a “To Catch a Predator” episode in Texas that went terribly wrong.
Only the last of those has a style that’s other than just-the-facts sobriety. There’s irony and foreshadowing and present-tense scenes and interior monologues: what people in the field sometimes call “a lot of voice.” Dittrich’s reporting is impressive, but part of what makes the piece a classic, I think, is that he understands something that informs the work of Tom Wolfe (and of such followers as Richard Ben Cramer, Gary Smith, and Sager himself): It is passing strange to purport to truthfully represent life and death and human consciousness, and you should reflect the audacity of the enterprise in the register of your prose.
This kind of thing is out there today more than Last Wave would suggest. A lot of strong work isn’t represented in the anthology because the editors decided to save heavily first-person journalism for a second collection somewhere down the road. This has been one of the strongest strains of recent endeavors in literary journalism, starting with the work of David Foster Wallace, collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, and continuing on up to Michael Paterniti’s just-published The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese.
There are a few other pieces in Next Wave that snatch the brass ring of “literature.” It’s no coincidence that they are about people who lived rather than died. Strong narratives are based on strong reporting, and you just can’t do a lot of interviewing or observing of dead people. Brian Mockenhaupt’s “Sgt. Wells’s New Skull,” is a story of war and recovery that sometimes calls to mind Michael Herr’s New-Journalism classic Dispatches, and Chris Jones’s “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” is a beautiful profile of someone with an idiosyncratic and inspiring kind of courage. (Ebert has since passed away, of course.) For my money, the best piece in the collection is Justin Heckert’s “Lost in the Waves.” It’s written with such skill, insight, and voice that it would be unfair to quote a brief excerpt, so here’s the editors’ summary:
Swept out to sea by a riptide, a father and his 12-year-old autistic son struggle to stay alive. As night falls miles from shore, with no rescue imminent, the dad comes to a devastating realization: If they remain together, they’ll drown together.
That promises a lot. The story delivers.
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