In 1957, an expatriate Irish newspaperman struggling to make a buck after his most recent employer went under began making the rounds of magazine editors and book publishers, hoping to get someone to help foot the bill for a hazily formed idea about a fifteenth-anniversary retelling of the events of June 6, 1944: D-Day. Here was the true, humble, and all-but-forgotten beginning to the modern age of Journalism as Literature.
Over the years the trade had produced occasional flashes of inspiration in which a writer—Daniel Defoe, Rebecca West, Joseph Mitchell, W. C. Heinz, John Hersey—took a turn at bringing to a true story the qualities of fiction. But those moments came, and always went, and did not much alter the journalistic landscape. That began to change in 1957, when Cornelius Ryan, staked by the least hip of all magazines, Reader’s Digest, began placing ads in newspapers and trade publications, searching for men and women who had been in Normandy that day. From those ads sprung a great journalistic enterprise that would culminate, two years later, with the publication of The Longest Day.
The book was a triumph, earning rave reviews and sales that, within a few years, would stretch into the tens of millions in eighteen different languages. And yet, in latter-day journalistic circles, The Longest Day is an afterthought—a book recalled not for spawning a revolution but for its big-screen adaptation of the same name, which seems to appear on cable early every June.
Conventional wisdom has it that the uprising that continues to define how so much journalism reads, and how so many journalists prefer to think of themselves, began, like so much else that feels transformative about American culture, in the 1960s. It was then that such icons as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson began producing so much terrific work that by 1972, Wolfe would look back and proclaim that a “new journalism” had been born. Wolfe took it a step further. He argued that New Journalism—now a decade into its full-blown adolescence—was not only trampling on the flower gardens of the craft’s more sober practices but stomping upon the topiary gem of American letters: the Big Novel.
Wolfe’s essays in New York magazine were followed a year later by the publication of the Scouts Handbook for young journalists, his co-edited New Journalism anthology. By then, legions of eager reporters had shoved aside the he-said-she-said-can-you-spell-it-for-me ways of the past and embraced the idea that they could bring to their work the sensibilities and techniques of fiction. Novelists, too, had taken up the call, abandoning the garret and loading up on #2 pencils and steno pads before heading out across the land to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. Truman Capote, celebrated as a very hot novelist at twenty-two before finding himself in a creative trough, returned to New York from Holcomb, Kansas, in 1965 proclaiming that with In Cold Blood, he had invented an entirely new literary form: the nonfiction novel.
Wolfe had presented a template for the many ways a writer could make a name for himself. And perhaps the combination of that collected work and the pyrotechnics of his prose obscured the larger lesson he preached. Yes, the New Journalism was about attaining in nonfiction the realism that novelists had abandoned, or ignored. But to achieve what Talese and Thompson had accomplished meant performing the very act that Norman Mailer, whose best work was arguably his nonfiction, had dismissed as “chores”: reporting.
Wolfe extolled the virtues of immersion, a school of gathering information in which “the basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene. . . .” To report, he went on, meant hanging out, watching, listening, taking it all in to achieve a novelistic effect. But his enthusiasm for the thrill of the hunt came with a warning, offered in the simplest and most sadly overlooked words in his essay: “Reporting never becomes any easier because you have done it many times.”
It was easier, then, to focus on the writing. After all, it was in the writing where you could show how you’d sweated. To be regarded merely as a good reporter was to be dismissed as the sort of person in whom the object of one’s desire sees only a friend.