“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, ladies and gentlemen! Our thing!…. For weeks the editors of The New Yorker have been circulating a warning among their employes saying that some one is out to write an article about The New Yorker. This warning tells them, remember: Omerta. Your vow of silence….
One wouldn’t even have known about the warning…except that they put it in writing, in memos. They have a compulsion in The New Yorker offices, at 25 West 43rd Street, to put everything in writing. They have boys over there on the 19th and 20th floors, the editorial offices, practically caroming off each other…because of the fantastic traffic in memos. They just call them boys. “Boy, will you take this, please….” Actually, a lot of them are old men with starched white collars…[who] were boys when they started on the job, but the thing is, The New Yorker is 40 years old…[and] they all have seniority, like Pennsylvania Railroad conductors.
The paper the thousands of messages are on is a terrific rag-fiber paper…. Manuscripts are typed on maize-yellow bond, bud green is for blah-blah-blah, fuchsia demure is for blah-blah-blah, Newboy blue is for blah-blah-blah, and this great cerise, a kind of mild cherry red, is for urgent messages…
The name and address are correct. The rest is parajournalism.
No warning, verbal or written, reached me, nor do I recall any such warning in the fifteen years I’ve had an office as a staff writer, nor has inquiry turned up any one else who does. If Wolfe saw a copy of this (alleged) memo, it is odd, or would be in real journalism, that he doesn’t quote from it. Odder was an admission he made, a few days after his first New Yorker piece appeared, when he and Clay Felker, his editor at the Sunday Tribune, were interviewed on Tex McCrary’s radio program. On the whole, it was a gemütlich session. McCrary: “I felt that Tom Wolfe…used the feather end of the quill rather gently, and tried to tickle.” Wolfe: “That’s right, we were just funning.” Felker: “The New Yorker has pretty much always bored me. It is not my kind of journalism.” McCrary: “Yeah, I’ve got to confess to me it’s the late afternoon of a faun.” But there was one awkward moment. McCrary: “You said in your piece, and I couldn’t tell whether you were writing with tongue in cheek or not, that Mr. Shawn put out a notice that everybody who works for The New Yorker don’t…talk to anybody from the Trib, in effect. Was that true or were you just kidding?” Wolfe: “Well, there were plenty of warnings going around over there. I’m sure he never actually wrote a warning that specific, but I think as the 40th anniversary of the magazine came up this year…they began to reinforce quite heavily their long-standing policy of discouraging articles about themselves.” Tex should have kept his big square mouth shut. Asking a writer like Wolfe to distinguish between what is “true” and what is “just kidding” is looking for trouble. If Shawn didn’t write a warning “that specific,” then how specific? Did he write anything? Does Wolfe know anything, really, beyond his inference (“I think”) from the undeniable fact that 1965 is the 40th anniversary of The New Yorker?
If the editors have any compulsion about putting “everything in writing,” it is negative; they avoid memos with neurotic consistency and are addicted to vocal communication, by phone or face to face. In the six years I was a staff writer on Fortune, two or three front-office memos came to my desk every week; Luce rather prided himself on his inter-office style—“Let neophyte X remember the log-cabin spirit that founded this enterprise,” he once wrote, denying the petition of a newly hired writer for a desk of his own. But it’s dull here, maybe two or three memos a year and on matters like group insurance, no cosa nostra stuff.
Wolfe is comical about those aged office “boys” with their “kindly old elder bison shuffles shoop-shooping along” as they deliver stacks of phantom memos. But in fact all but one of the office boys are in or just out of their teens. (Nobody ever calls them “Boy!”—he must have seen The Front Page on the Late Show.) The exception, who doesn’t wear starched collars, came here not in 1925 or 1935 or 1945 but in 1953, after retiring from service at the University Club. He collects the mail efficiently and, pace the author’s geriatric obsession, without any visible shoop-shuffling.
That “terrific rag-fiber paper” is not used for memos or anything else, useful as such a detail is for creating Wolfe’s atmosphere of prissy elegance. Manuscript paper used to be “maize-yellow” (or orange) but was changed to white a year before Wolfe’s articles appeared. Those other precious color distinctions don’t exist. “Blah-blah-blah” is what journalists, real ones, put in their first drafts meaning look it up. Wolfe lets it go at that, his motto being Si non è vero, è ben trovato—If it isn’t true, it should be. That “unit tasks” are as mythical as the nutty colors he invented for them—“Newboy blue,” “fuchsia demure”—is immaterial in this kind of parajournalism. He is for once right about cerise being used for Rush messages but since all messages for some reason are cerise-Rush this morsel of actuality proves to be a distinction without a difference. And why is “cerise” italicised and why is it “great”? Everything has to be some color.
I apologize for dwelling on trivia but I see no other way of dealing with a rhetoric that builds up, with many little “knowing” factual touches, a general impression which only those with some acquaintance with the subject can detect as unknowing and unfactual. Such readers are always in a negligible minority, else how could our big circulation press exist? Also working for the parajournalist is the tendency of the uninformed, or almost everybody, to accept as truth whatever is boldly asserted as such. Hitler observed that most demagogues are timid and so venture only small lies which are found out because the masses, also petty-minded, can see through the retail lying they do themselves; but the masses will accept “the big lie” because they cannot imagine any one daring enough to try it. The late Senator McCarthy showed this weakness is not limited to Germans. The difference between Tom Wolfe and such types is that he doesn’t tell lies, big or small, since lying is a conscious process, recognizing the distinction between what is and what it would be convenient to assume is. He seems to be honestly unaware of the distinction between fact and fabrication. You might call him a sincere demagogue.
His style uses devices of suggestion, powerful as they are crude, which transform the subject so violently as to make it impossible to tell what it looked like in its pristine, or unparajournalized, state. These devices range from exclamation marks, italics, and pregnant dots in the epistolary style of Queen Victoria and our own debutantes (what he can….suggest with a few well-placed….….’s!) through a vivid terminology of invented terms like “aluminicron suits” and “‘big lunch’ ties” combined with obscure anatomical words like “ischium” to the grand finale—everybody on stage, please!—which has Shawn musing over the 40th anniversary:
One can envision William Shawn patting the arm of one of his beautifully, not obscenely, beautifully stuffed chairs in his Fifth Avenue apartment, pat pat pat pat pat pat. Pat, he can keep time with one of these…Dixieland records there on the hi-fi…. Bix is right in the middle there, in the middle of “I Can’t Get Started”…. And—the final brick in the indestructible structure!—one can afford an exclamation point in the privacy of certitude!—his successor, it is said, is Roger Angell. Heritage! Genes! Harmony! Ross! Roger Angell is managing editor under Shawn just as Shawn was managing editor under Ross….and—the Ross cachet that man has. Angell is the son of Katherine Angell and the stepson of E. B. White. Katherine Angell was one of the original staff members…It all locks, assured, into place, the future, and….toot toot boopy clap City Lights pat pat pat Bix! Bix hits that incredible high one, the one he died on, popping a vessel in his temporal fossa, bleeding into his squash, drowning on the bandstand, like Caruso. That was the music of Harold Ross’ lifetime, the palmy days….and here, on that phonograph, those days are preserved…. Done and done! Preserved! Shawn, God bless you! Pat pat pat pat pat pat.