Getting Inspired by Jacob Riis’s Pieces: Who’s Afraid of Tom Wolfe?


Thirty-three years after Tom Wolfe’s seminal manifesto-cum-anthology The New Journalism, Robert S. Boynton responds with
The New New Journalism, an assembly of interviews with 19 of the finest contemporary narrative nonfiction writers. Most balk at attempts like Wolfe’s to establish a movement. A consensus emerges that “literary journalism” sounds pretentious and “creative nonfiction” untrustworthy, though Lawrence Weschler comes closest to something plausible with the unwieldy “writerly nonfiction.” In the end almost all concede that despite their personal feelings about Wolfe and his manic sensibility, their writing—however one describes it—is indebted to his experimentations.

Few, however, identify themselves as New Journalists, and most find Wolfe’s preeningly self-conscious transgressions passé. As Susan Orlean bluntly summarizes his legacy, “I feel completely free to use any formal technique (other than untruths) whatsoever.” Wolfe and the movement’s other figures (Thompson, Capote, Mailer) have obviously influenced these writers, but it’s a deliberate irony of Boynton’s tongue-in-cheek “New New” appellation that the greater shadows have been cast from further back. Practically every interview is an encomium to
New Yorker writers such as Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling, whose sterling prose and wide-ranging interests anticipated the movement Wolfe trumpeted as sui generis. Further complicating the issue of New vs. New New vs. plain old sociopolitically engaged, writers like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc talk about being inspired by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis.

Though the interviews focus on craft, the book develops a broader sweep as the writers articulate their individual senses of the NNJ’s relationship to our historical moment. Several refer to the Great American Novelistic ambition as an antiquated ideal, supplanted by the different promises of rigorously reported, expansively imagined nonfiction. It was a hubristic and provocative claim when Wolfe first made it, and it’s no less so now. This New New generation may have inherited more of his defiant posturing than they care to admit.