Wolfe’s Secret

Tom Wolfe is, if not the father, then at least the funky uncle of narrative journalism. His essay “The New Journalism” was the manifesto for a new style designed to fill the cultural vacuum that he said novelists had left by abandoning realistic fiction.

So he wrote that journalists ought to appropriate the traditional tools of novelists: dialogue, socioeconomic details, scene descriptions, and point of view.

But Nick Lemann, the new dean of the Columbia j-school, thinks there’s another tool in Wolfe’s toolbox, one that isn’t listed in “The New Journalism.”

Lemann says that much of Wolfe’s work has an “idea track,” a stream of “constructs and rubrics”—mental organizing devices—that runs concurrent with the flow of novelistic details and dialogue.

For instance: Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” seems to be the story of a bunch of tough test pilots. Not so, Lemann says. It’s actually a very smart public policy analysis of NASA and the human spaceflight program.

The title is the give-away. Wolfe isn't just describing the test pilots; he's defining The Right Stuff as an abstract macho mystique that was central to the status of 60s astronauts as Cold Warriors first, scientists second. Or maybe that's public relations representatives first, Cold Warriors second, and scientists last.

If you listen for the idea track, Lemann says, “The Right Stuff” is “way deep.”

The verb “listen” is apt. Here’s the analogy: If a piece of narrative journalism was a movie, the scenes and details would be the frames of film, the pictures that everyone focuses on. The ideas would be the soundtrack—subtler, but no less finely constructed, and no less important. (Try watching a movie on mute some time if you don’t think the sound is important. And try closing your eyes if you don’t think the soundtrack is incredibly complex, especially on modern movies.)

And sometimes, Lemann says, in movies as in narrative journalism, the soundtrack rises up to meet the visuals. Think of Jack Black picking up the guitar in “School of Rock”: you suddenly become aware of the music because it’s made visible. He calls moments like these “marriage moments,” and says they’re the prime time to make a big point—when the world of ideas pokes up into the world of actions, when a policymaker makes a big decision, when a nation launches a man into space.

Robin Sloan works for The Poynter Institute.

Posted in speakers.Nick Lemann, theme, idea, point on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink

Lemann to Nieman: How 'Bout Some Rules?

By Robin Sloan

During Saturday's Ethics Keynote Panel, Nick Lemann made a suggestion to the assembled attendees of the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism: Set some standards.

Lemann is a member of the Society of American Historians, a group of "historians who can write" and journalists interested in serious history. He proposed a code of ethics to the group -- something that would go beyond plagiarism to address issues such as scene reconstruction and quotes that an author didn't witness him- or herself. But, he says, "I've had absolutely no luck with this."

He said it was especially important for the book industry, because -- and this was a big surprise to me -- non-fiction books are not fact-checked. So standards and norms matter a lot.

He encouraged the Nieman Foundation or some other group to take up the task. He thinks it would be very useful -- just a short statement that declares what is and isn't ethical. "Of course," he says, tongue in cheek, "the result of all this is that people love us, trust us, revere us even more than they already do."

Robin Sloan works at The Poynter Institute.

Posted in attribution & sourcing, book-length narratives, ethical reporting, scene reconstructions, sessions.Keynote Panel: What's a True Story?, speakers.Nick Lemann on December 12, 2003 at 05:14 PM | Permalink