It’s probably easier than it should be to dismiss the articles which appeared recently in New York magazine on the subject of “The New Journalism.” In the first place, the articles, which were by Tom Wolfe (himself a founding member of New York and author of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby), had most of the defects of the form he was extollingthe pop sociology, the easy cultural generalitieswith few of the compensating attractionsthe dramatic scene-setting, the impressionistic color (such as had made, for instance, his own piece on the stock-car racer Junior Johnson so vivid and fascinating to read). “The voice of the narrator, in fact, was one of the great problems in non-fiction writing,“ Dr. Wolfe now intoned. Also: “The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one … “ etc. Also: “Queen Victoria’s childhood diaries are, in fact, quite readable.“ Also: “Literary people were oblivious to this side of the New Journalism, because it is one of the unconscious assumptions of modern criticism that the raw material is simply ‘there.’” And so forth. In the second place, although it must have been fun to work at the Herald Tribune in its last few years of existencewhen and where, according to Wolfe, the birth of New Journalism mostly occurredhe manages to describe this great moment in Western cultural life with a school-boy reverence which somehow doesn’t leave anyone else much breathing room, a combination of Stalky & Co. and The Day That Curie Discovered Radium. In Tom Wolfe’s world, in fact (as he might say), there is perpetual struggle between a large and snooty army of crumbs, known as the Literary People, who are the bad guys, and Tom’s own band of good guys: rough-and-tumble fellows like Jimmy Breslin, dashing reporters such as Dick Schaap, the savvy nonintellectuals, the aces, the journalistic guerrilla fighters, the good old boys who “never guessed for a minute that the work they would do over the next ten years, as journalists, would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.”
It’s easy enough to fault this sort of treatment of a complicated subject. A bit too simpleminded. Too in-groupish. Me and My Pals Forge History Together. All the same, it seems to me that beneath, or despite, the blather, Tom Wolfe is right about a lot of it. And very wrong too. And journalism is perhaps in the kind of muddle it’s in today not, lord knows, because Tom Wolfe sat down at his bench one day and invented a new art form, but because people in general, editors as well as writers as well as readers, have had trouble figuring out how to deal with this terrain that he and many, many other journalists have steadily been pushing their way into over a period of a good many years.