Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 339 pp., $5.50

A new kind of journalism is being born, or spawned. It might be called “parajournalism,” from the Greek para, “beside” or “against”: something similar in form but different in function. As in parody, from the parodia, or counter-ode, the satyr play of Athenian drama that was performed after the tragedy by the same actors in grotesque costumes. Or paranoia (“against beside thought”) in which rational forms are used to express delusions. Parajournalism seems to be journalism—“the collection and dissemination of current news”—but the appearance is deceptive. It is a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction. Entertainment rather than information is the aim of its producers, and the hope of its consumers.

Parajournalism has an ancestry, from Daniel Defoe, one of the fathers of modern journalism, whose Journal of the Plague Year was a hoax so convincingly circumstantial that it was long taken for a historical record, to the gossip columnists, sob sisters, fashion writers, and Hollywood reporters of this century. What is new is the pretension of our current parajournalists to be writing not hoaxes or publicity chitchat but the real thing; and the willingness of the public to accept this pretense. We convert everything into entertainment. The New Yorker recently quoted from a toy catalogue:

WATER PISTOL & “BLEEDING” TARGETS! Bang! Bang! I got ‘cha! Now the kids can know for sure who’s [sic] turn it is to play “dead”! New self-adhesive ‘stick-on” water wounds TURN RED WHEN WATER HITS THEM! Don’t worry, Mom! Won’t stain clothing! “Automatic” pistol is a copy of a famous gun. SHOOTS 30 FT. Water Pistol & Wounds…59c. 40 Extra Wounds…29c.

And there was the ninety-minute TV, pop music and dance spectacular put on at Sargent Shriver’s official request, a disc jockey who calls himself Murray the K, in the hope of “getting through” to high school dropouts about what Mr. Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity could do for them. Some Republican Senators objected on grounds of taste and dignity—the message was delivered by Murray the K jigging up and down in a funny hat as the big beat frugged on—but the program did stimulate a great many teenage inquiries. It “worked” in the same sense that parajournalism does.

The genre originated in Esquire but it now appears most flamboyantly in the New York Herald Tribune, which used to be a staidly respectable newspaper but has been driven by chronic deficits—and by a competitive squeeze between the respectable, and profitable, Times, and the less substantial but also profitable News—into some very unstaid antics. Dick Schaap is one of the Trib’s parajournalists. “David Dubinsky began yelling, which means he was happy,” he begins an account of a recent political meeting. Another is Jimmy Breslin, the tough-guy-with-heart-of-schmalz bard of the little man and the big celeb:

Richard Burton, who had just driven in from Quogue…went straight for the ice-cubes when he …

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