Ed Driscoll

NEW, NEW JOURNALISM AND THE EVER-CLEVER FIELDING DODGE

In his nifty mid-1970s anthology, The New Journalism (now sadly out of print, but readily available used) Tom Wolfe wrote that in the mid-1960s:

When Truman Capote insisted that In Cold Blood was not journalism but a new literary genre he had invented, “the nonfiction novel,” a flash went through my mind. It was the familiar “Aha!” flash. In this case: “Aha! the ever-clever Fielding dodge!” When Henry Fielding published his first novel, Joseph Andrews, in 1742, he kept protesting that his book was not a novel–it was a new literary genre he had invented, “the comic epic poem in prose. He made the same claim for Torn Jones. He compared his books to the Margites, which was believed to be a lost comic epic of ancient Greece (by Homer, some said). What he was doing, of course–and what Capote would be doing 223 years later–was trying to give his work the cachet of the reigning literary genre of his time, so that literary people would take it seriously. The reigning genre in Fielding’s time was epic poetry and verse-drama of the classical sort. The status of the novel was so low–well, it was as low as the status of magazine journalism in 1965 when Capote started publishing In Cold Blood in The New Yorker.

Thanks to this initial “Aha!” flash, I began to notice a curious thing. The early days of this new journalism were beginning to look like an absolute rerun of the early days of the realistic novel in England. A slice of literary history was repeating itself. I don’t mean repetition in the vague sense of “there’s nothing new under the sun.” I mean exact repetition, deja vu, finicky details.

The very same objections that greeted the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were starting to greet the New Journalism. In each case the new form is seen as “superficial,” “ephemeral,” “mere entertainment,” “morally irresponsible.” Some of the arguments were so similar it was uncanny.

Flashforward from the 1960s and ’70s to today (literally), when Roger Simon (not the Blogosphere’s numero ono Roger Simon–but you probably know that already), said, on Meet The Press:

MR. RUSSERT: But you’re a blogger.
MR. SIMON: I am a blogger sort of. I mean, the difference between–look, a true blog is I woke up this morning, I decided to skip chem class, now I want to write about the last episode of “Friends.” That’s what blogs are. You know, it’s people talking to each other. My site is actually written columns. There’s a difference between writing and typing basically. [Emphasis mine.]

So Meet The Press, to talk about blogs, interviews a guy who says he’s doesn’t blog! It’s the ever-clever Fielding dodge tarted up for the 21st century’s equivalent of the New Journalism: Not me! Don’t lump me in with that rabble proletariat who blogs. I don’t blog–I write columns. I’m old school. I’m one of you fellows. (And just to bring things full circle, notice Simon’s updating of Capote’s famous bon mot, “that’s not writing, that’s typing“. (Which isn’t to say that Blogs–even the blogs of both Roger Simons–are the equivilent of Capote’s In Cold Blood, of course. But I think both Simons understand that.)

Maybe, if it wanted to talk about blogs, Meet The Press would be better served if it had on somebody who actually will admit to, you know…blogging! The other Roger Simon would be perfect–a guy who has written novels and screenplays, and now blogs–and admits to it. And understands the medium. Or Virginia Postrel, who blogs, has edited magazines, and writes for The New York Times. Or Andrew Sullivan (although to be fair, he’s got the flu this weekend.) Or maybe (say, here’s a thought), the man, the myth, the legend, Glenn Reynolds.

Or does that make too much sense?