Posts Tagged ‘new journalism’

The Heart That Bleeds

September 17, 2011

From the works of Daniel Defoe to online violation with anarchic cult youth magazines, a pattern emerges from a ripple created by great writers such as George Orwell, Charles Dickens, John Hershey, W.T. Stead, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemmingway. Although the grounds for literary journalism  are constantly shifting like the Earth`s tectonic plates, there are areas of recognition; the collection of facts, but no longer with little attempt at analysis or interpretation. Literary journalism is innovative and groundbreaking; the writer uses their own style and violation of past restrictions in order to peer down his or her looking glass onto the social landscape of mankind. The historical process that brought about this literary revolution can be traced from pre-modern times through to our present postmodernist society. A response to the patriarchal hierarchy and the idealogical state apparatus used to control societies in pre-modern times, (witchcraft, religion, civil law), helped facilitate a change within these social hierarchies. Writers and journalists literally pulled us out of the dark ages into the advanced and diverse cultural whirlpool we have today. History therefore shows that it is within the reaches of the media itself, that change within social values has come about. This enormous responsibility has been placed upon the shoulders of journalists and writers of the 21st century. Whether they choose to accept this role of prophet or patriot will be the basis for this discussion. The question of `civilian suffering’  or `the soft sewage of human interest`, becomes the seed of the critique within literary journalism. Of course these criticisms always depend on the individual and his or her perception of the world around them. What is important to you; war protests, assassinations, race riots and countercultural challenges or a fashion faupax on Milan`s catwalk?  Let this idea formulated by Ben Yagoda sit with you for a moment: ´By stepping out from the shadows and laying bare his or her prejudices, anxieties, or thought processes, the reporter gives us something firmer and truer to hold on to as we come to our own conclusions.´ If you read the majority of British newspapers in print at the moment you won´t have the faintest idea what he is on about.

 Let us first deal with the `soft sewage of human interest` as a means of understanding the criticisms of a literary journalistic technique. As already established, literary journalism is engaging with the reader in his or her present time, therefore it is inevitable the journalist will be faced with a moral dilemma; to chose between a web of sensationalist journalism understood as  `Yellow Journalism`  (name and shame, the royal family, `who framed Roger Rabbit?`) or whether to represent the `manners and opinions of [a] civilized society` in order to finance his or her career. There is a high demand from the target audience of today`s journalism for commercial news and celebrity sensationalism. If we can afford the luxury of reading our news on a PC or laptop or fork out the money for half a Redwood forrest`s worth of sunday supplement, then there is a large possibility one is living in a Capitalist society. Capitalism breeds consumerism, which in tail provides advertising and multimedia conglomerates a foot hold. The key phrase here is supply and demand; as society surrounds itself with more cars, more clothes and more commercial crap, the newspapers and journalists respond like robots. For many readers out there, a centre spread article on Lady Gaga is just what they are looking for on a Sunday afternoon, otherwise it would not reach the newsroom of the Sunday Times; `When she left school, she got quite heavily into drugs. She says she`s glad she did all that so young … it`s like this exorcism. ` The mere mention of `drugs` and `celebrity` has become so popular, journalists are predicting morbid fascinations `shadowed by dark appetites` before there is any conclusive evidence of any foul play. This predictive text is a sign of the times; paying massive salaries, drawing in readers and keeping the state apparatus (economics, media, politics, law, education), ticking along nicely.

 Along with celebrity culture dominating the headlines, consumer products are now becoming essential in the ebb and flow of literary journalism. Daddy has bought himself the new BMW M6 convertible, but doesn`t quite know how to drive the thing. All of as sudden the papers have a need for Jeremy Clarkson to become a literary journalist. Within this realm another subculture is born and a gap soon to be filled by literary journalists, who believe their point of view will enlighten the prospective reader.

 This process of `crafting a brand identity` with football, cars, television and stereotypical, sexist attitudes, has gradually squeezed out the element of individualism, atmosphere and substance within literary journalism. We seem to have gone full circle since the explosion of talent seen in New Journalism to produce a commercial mutation of Tom Wolfe`s criteria. Nietzsche was not so far from the truth when he envisioned this nightmare as `the rabble vomit their bile and call it a newspaper`.

 A critique of this `gutter press` was once allocated to the tabloids. One need only choose from a number of broadsheets today and this watered down `gaga` can be seen sitting proudly next to an advert for The Florida Keys. There is now a demand for this type of journalism amongst the educated classes. The Sunday Times seems to have no problem with publishing a journalist`s delusionary, sexual conquests. Is this the level of human interest we have reduced the readers to after many years of commercial exploitation, royal mishaps and political scandal? I see no reason for financially supporting a nationwide newspaper, if the only debate becomes a Neanderthal comic strip.

The influx of weak narrative and self infatuation within literary journalism, is a result of the lack of guidelines or a benchmark stating a specific code of conduct in journalism. There is an immediate assumption within this style of literature, that the readers are all going to respond to whatever primal classification one is placed under; father figure, Victorian mother, compulsive charity shopper or racing car driver. Each article in its own way playing to the reader`s narcissistic personality disorder.  Freedom of the press enables the writer to decide what is on the agenda for the week and what takes priority after the headlines. Going back to the definition of literary journalism; there are no commandments set in stone, the publication is always based on the individual point of view and what he or she classifies as world news. There will always be journalists who will consider the easiest way to justify their wages without pushing boundaries or risking liable action.

 This brings us into the current trend of autobiographical journalism. When writing about your own trivial experiences in life; whether that becomes test driving the new Ferrrari or the first time you had to change a nappy, we immediately remove the ethical code and the risk factor. Certain literary journalists have decided that the tried and tested formula of creative nonfiction will guarantee bums on seats. We are not talking about undercover reconnaissance into the malaria-infested jungles of Siam, sweating it out with the natives in order to produce an indigenous investigation into the evolution of a lost tribe. What we are dealing with is closer to George Orwell`s characterization of this watered down genre; 

 Autobiographers seemed perfectly comfortable retailing their sins and crimes, their swindles, drug abuses, betrayals, debauches, their pelvic saddle convulsions and loin spasms, even rape, murder, looting and pillaging, since all give off whiffs of excitement and bravado – whereas […] they never mention “the humiliations that make up seventy-five percent of life”.

 Or simply follow the yellow brick road, as Bernie Drew of The Sunday Times has with Confessions of a Tourist, relying on a basic Benny Hill sketch; ´It`s not often you get welcomed aboard a plane by the woman you were having wild sex with the night before.´ Perhaps even slightly embellishing upon the truth in order to avoid the real humiliation of actually being sub-division in the sack. No longer are the facts or narrative style important. As far as the reader is concerned, the embellished story could have came out of Penthouse magazine. What we are dealing with here is a simple knee-jerk reaction to the demands of a society that looks for love online. There is a thirst for broadsheet tease and a percentage of journalists pipe to this tune. As the journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, said in The Heart That Bleeds; `and then there are the rats.`

 On the opposite end of the pendulum, there are still literary journalists who continue to inform the reader, challenging authority with factual investigative journalism. Still rejecting the limitations of objective journalism and following in the footsteps of Gonzo Journalism, innovative and experimental magazine and online warlords, Vice have taken the rule book to the incinerator and held a machine gun up to the corporate businesses dictating the future of literary journalism. This breed of ´anarchists with insight´ were described by Bono as the `punk rock for the 21st century`. The original aim for co-founders, Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavin McInnes was to take the readers into a world unknown to most. Its target audience were not corporate businessmen but the youth of today. The original magazine was distributed for free in skateboard and record shops relying upon advertising for financial support. The company grew in popularity as an underground outlet for subcultures, drug issues, promiscuity, the criminal underworld and independent music. Amateur journalists and photographers were recruited to report on areas of depravation and murder going to countries and cultures previously shunned by mainstream journalists. As Hunter S. Thompson had shown in post- 1960s American journalism, Vice magazine began to reveal more about contemporary culture than any of its other rival magazines or newspapers.

This form of literary journalism continues to ´open new horizons` criticizing corporate quick sand and exposing power, economics and politics. As a representative of the `universality of youth culture` and social issues, Vice magazine has grown in popularity and is now distributed in eighteen different countries. A reflection of the public demand for this form of New Journalism has forced the expansion of the Vice empire into a multi-media conglomerate. is the online outlet, Vice recordings have released Block Party, The Streets and Charlotte Gainsbourg and in 2008 Vice Films released the full length documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad. This casual acceptance of the inevitable expansion of a small independent magazine is perhaps a peep hole into the future of literary journalism. 

 Vice magazine is the antithesis to Yellow Journalism and sensationalism, providing a glimmer of hope for literary journalism today. Refusing to operate on the editors terms and taking up the pen and camera in a Do-It-Yourself ethos, has nurtured hidden talent just as punk rock did back in the seventies. If we are to believe Tom Wolfe in that `the newspaper will soon be extinct`, then journalism has to move with the matrix that expands within media technology. If the new trend exposed by Vice continues then perhaps we will continue to see literary journalism as a palate of diversity, truth and innovation. As explained by Andy Capper, editor of Vice UK, on their recent report on Swansea`s current unemployment and heroin problem;

Our style is to go and live somewhere for a couple of weeks, meet as many people as we can and tell their stories very subjectively […] It`s immersion journalism. You go right to the heart of the story.