Parajournalism II: Wolfe and The New Yorker

“Newspapers are only as good as the ideas and information they succeed in conveying. And this means not only putting facts down on paper, but doing so in such a way that they get off the paper and, in a meaningful and orderly fashion, into the minds of the readers.” When I read these admirable sentiments in an editorial in the New York Herald-Tribune of April 19th last, I was puzzled because the day before the Tribune’s Sunday magazine had published the second of two articles on The New Yorker by Tom Wolfe which seemed to me extreme examples of the opposite: their ideas bogus, their information largely misinformation, their facts often non-facts and the style in which they were communicated to the reader neither orderly nor meaningful.

Was this an Aesopian apology by some of the Tribune’s editors, I wondered, for what their colleagues on the Sunday edition had just been up to? Or was the emphasis on getting facts “off the paper and into the minds of the readers”—or rather into their cortical reflexes, for Wolfe’s bazooka aims lower than the cerebrum—a justification of his kind of reportage, so much more readable and, hopefully, sellable than the fact-bound approach of the Tribune’s great solid successful competitor. Whatever its intent, the editorial suggests the Tribune’s dilemma, caught between deficits and respectability. “Who Says a Good Newspaper Has to be Dull?” its ads used to ask, with a sideglance at the Times. Dropping the first adjective isn’t the answer.

Reviewing a collection of Tom Wolfe’s articles in this paper last August, I considered them as examples of a new kind of reporting that has become widespread, namely, “parajournalism,” a bastard form that has it both ways, “exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction.” The articles on The New Yorker, which were not in the book, carry the genre to its ultimate of illegitimacy, or what I hope is such: the free-form shaping of an Image in the manner of a press agent with fewer inhibitions about accuracy than obtains in the more reputable public relations firms. I think it worth examining them in some detail.

The first article is headed: “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”—a jocose echo of Bernarr MacFaddea’s Daily Graphic, whose “bogusity” and “aesthetique du schlock” Wolfe admires: “But by god the whole thing had style.” Or of the extant National Enquirer (“Jimmy Cagney Admits: I HATE GUNS”). Some interpret the whole thing as a spoof—the author when pressed on humdrum matters of fact edges in this direction—but the theory breaks down because there are distinct traces of research. A parodist is licensed to invent and Tom Wolfe is not the man to turn down any poetic licentiousness that is going. He takes the middle course, shifting gears between fact and fantasy, spoof and reportage, until nobody knows which end is, at the moment, up.

Omerta! [he begins] Sealed lips! Sealed lips,…

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