Monday, September 29, 2014

J. C. Hallman: Journalism in Winter

Journalism in Winter

J.C. Hallman



Not long ago, I became quite agitated by a paragraph in New York Times reporter Dave Itzkoff’s book, Mad as Hell, about Paddy Chayefsky and the making of the film Network, which I had picked up with the hope of reading something in the same league as Geoff Dyer’s Zona and Salman Rushdie’s “The Wizard of Oz.” In the offending section, Itzkoff is describing the casting of William Holden as grizzled newsman Max Schumacher:
But as Holden was often reminded and frequently to his face, he was not in his heyday anymore. A journalist taking stock of the actor in the 1970s commended him for possessing a jawline every bit as strong as it had been four decades prior, but added that “the hairline is receding, the skin has leathered, and basset-hound bags droop under mellow eyes.” Another appraisal from this period described Holden as speaking in “commanding tones and well-enunciated repose, a whisky baritone buried by a coffee table carton of Carleton cigarettes,” while still another called him “world-weary” and said, as casually as if it were reporting the weather, that his “face started to deteriorate” some years ago and was now “old” and “shopworn.”
     What irks me here is the quotations, the “taking stock” and “appraisal.” Mad as Hell has other problems with quotations—not least among them the fact that its very first quote is from another book about Network from 1994 that was also titled Mad as Hell (and this earlier Mad as Hell goes on to be quoted at least fifteen more times in Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell, a maddening experience for its author, I’m sure)—but what this paragraph unwittingly does is illustrate something important about the difference between journalism and literary journalism, which over the years I’ve thought about quite a bit.
     It seems to me that the quotations in Itzkoff’s paragraph—quotes that characterize Holden’s middle-aged mien—are similar to the quotations you find in really hard news stories, quotes of people who have witnessed a tragedy or have had some kind of rarefied experience of a newsworthy event. Reporters quote them because those witnesses stood close to the news, and to get close to them is to get as close to the news as is possible, which is the goal. This kind of quotation is distinct from quotations of experts or politicians, say, persons who get quoted not because they have had a newsworthy experience, but because they have authority. They know something about a newsworthy event, or they have some kind of specialized knowledge, so quoting them offers an informed perspective even if they didn’t experience anything newsworthy themselves. There are surely many other kinds of journalistic quotation as well, but these two suffice for what I’m trying to home in on here.
     Now it might seem at first that Itzkoff’s paragraph is full of that second kind of quotation, that he consulted experts, and that Holden is the sort of subject that requires a level of authority that a reporter can’t be expected to acquire just for the sake of his or her story. But that’s wrong. The first clue is in the notes section of Mad as Hell, where we discover that the experts that Itzkoff consulted were not experts at all, but simply other reporters: the “taking stock” comes from Arthur Bell in the Village Voice; the “appraisal” is Jan Hodenfield in the New York Post; and the paragraph’s last set of quotes, too short for inclusion in the notes section, is attributed to only the paragraph’s impersonal “it” (which is sort of the problem in a nutshell – more on this later).
     So if we instead allow that Itzkoff’s paragraph is full of the hard news type of quotation, that is, that these sources are being quoted not because they have authority but because they somehow got close to Holden and could therefore offer appraisals of him, then I think you can begin to see why I started to get riled up. How is William Holden a newsworthy event? How did the reporters get close to him? The short answers: he’s not, and they didn’t. What those old reporters are taking stock of is not William Holden himself—there’s no indication that Bell or Hodenfield actually encountered him—but, rather, the version of him that had been appearing on screen of late, and which was immediately available to them, and, importantly, to Itzkoff as well. Having noted this, it’s perfectly reasonable to wonder why Itzkoff, if what he’s trying to do is take stock of Holden in the seventies, didn’t just watch a bunch of Holden films himself and take some stock of his own rather than rely on others’. In other words, Itzkoff, a reporter, in making the move from writing news stories to writing a kind of hybrid biography/history/criticism of Chayefsky and Network, made no significant change in his methodology. And that’s weird. Mad as Hell is actually full of all kinds of interesting facts, but having read it I actually can’t tell you anything at all about why Itzkoff wrote it. It may just be my temperament as a reader of books—as opposed to a reader of news—but the author’s perspective, even if it remains a vague and amorphous (but undeniable) presence (rather than an overt proclaimer of motives and conclusions), is pretty much the only reason I read. And Itzkoff’s paragraph is the sort of moment when my kind of reader expects a writer to become his own witness, and to bear that witness. To provide something quotable rather than quote. Itzkoff just couldn’t do it. To be sure, there are certain kinds of subjects that call for ongoing journalistic distance and stoicism, but I think it’s safe to say that Network, a theatrical satire about journalism, is not one of them. In short, then, what Itzkoff did not do—or could not bring himself to do—was make the leap from journalism to literary journalism.


Now one could argue that Network itself is an apocalyptic vision of what might happen if subjective expressions of belief were permitted to run amok. Sure, the film depicts the power of dispassionate journalism to inject so much anxiety into the world that a great suicidal purge of emotion becomes inevitable, but is the alternative—the commodification of ranting sermons and the first hints of the mediocrity celebrated by reality television—any better? That’s not clear, and this is why some people are made uneasy by the phrase “literary journalism” or “reported essay,” or any other term that gets used to describe the process of combining media that some think shouldn’t be combined at all.
     When I think about journalism and literature and how the two can influence, contradict, and complement each other, I always think of two essays: Cynthia Ozick’s “Drugstore in Winter” and Charles D’Ambrosio’s “Loitering.”
     Ozick’s has one of the more memorable first lines in the history of essay-writing:
This is about reading; a drugstore in winter; the gold leaf on the dome of the Boston State House; also loss, panic, and dread.
     There’s a good deal that’s peculiar here, given the fact that “Drugstore in Winter” (which first appeared in The New York Times Book Review and was reprinted in Ozick’s Art & Ardor and The Best American Essays of the Century) goes on to be a fairly straightforward account of Ozick’s literary coming of age. What stands out of course is the way the sentence defies the show-don’t-tell mantra of creative writing. It is an act of telling, and a preemptive one at that. Ozick tells us what her essay will be about before it begins. “Drugstore in Winter” will not be driven by the cheap drama of withheld information—that is, plot. And before you, the reader, start to have any ideas as to what her story might add up to, here’s Ozick telling you not to bother because it’s about loss, panic, and dread. At first glance, “Drugstore in Winter” would seem to leave little for the reader to do, and isn’t literature more or less defined by an active reader’s imagination co-creating the story along with the author? Isn’t Ozick spilling the beans?
     Not really. But our tendency to think that is exactly why “Drugstore in Winter,” before it returns to Ozick’s literary womb, her father’s pharmacy near the corner of Continental Avenue and Westchester Avenue in the Bronx (how exciting: on a recent jaunt to Pelham Bay Park at the end of the 6, I walked unknowingly past just this corner, though of course Park View Pharmacy no longer exists…), tells the story of Ozick’s brief career in journalism. This amounts to two “articles,” one published, one not.
     The first is the gold leaf dome of her opening. Ozick reports, so to speak, that she had gone to the library—“not out of curiosity,” she specifies—to discover how the Boston State House got its gold dome. Paul Revere is the obvious answer, and an obvious article nets a tidy fifteen dollars. “Ah, joy of Homer, joy of Milton! Grub Street bliss!”
     The next week she stumbles across something even better: a department store storeroom full of naked manikins. This article, however, is frowned upon, and never gets published. “Thus ended my life in journalism.”
     A great deal would seem to hinge on the difference between these two stories.
     The first, as I’ve already suggested, has the appeal of obvious newsworthiness—a prominent public edifice, a historical figure, etc. The storeroom is the opposite of this—it’s hidden, and there’s no one there. So why did Ozick think “Paul Revere’s gold dome paled beside this gold mine!”? In short, because it fired her imagination, triggered the same “curiosity” that the dome failed to engage. “It was a dumbstruck nudist colony up there,” “Drugstore in Winter” remembers, “a mob of naked frozen enigmatic manikins, tall enameled ladies with bald breasts and skulls, and legs and wrists and necks that horribly unscrewed.” This isn’t a description only of the storeroom—it also describes Ozick’s enthusiasm, the way the image has grabbed hold of her consciousness and shaken out of her a protracted stream of details and elaborations. The Boston State House is never described with this level of intimacy. We see it only from afar, whereas the manikins draw Ozick, and us, closer and closer in. The real subject of her article, then, and of “Drugstore in Winter,” for that matter, is herself. Put another way, the Boston State House story is journalism, and the unpublished manikin story is literary journalism, in which the perspective of a reporter is as much the subject of an article as whatever the ostensible subject of the article happens to be. From there, “Drugstore in Winter” returns to some of Ozick’s earliest memories as a reader, and reveals how she was fated for this literary life, even though it offers few rewards—not even fifteen dollars for a gold mine of a story—and requires one to suffer, among other things, “the spite of the private haters of the poetry side of life.”
     Emphasis on the perspective of the self in literary journalism is even more pronounced in D’Ambrosio’s “Loitering” (“Loitering” first appeared as “The Crime That Never Was” in Seattle’s The Stranger and in D’Ambrosio’s practically secret essay collection, Orphans, but will soon reappear as the title essay of a new and selected collection of D’Ambrosio’s nonfiction from Tin House Books, Loitering), in which the author, having recently returned from an Alaskan fishing trip with a nasty full-body skin problem that gets described at length but is decried as “unnecessarily preambular,” spends a number of hours lurking on the edges of an ongoing hostage crisis in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. The police have responded to a domestic violence call, and a gaggle of local journalists have responded to several blocks of the city being cordoned off with yellow tape, and even before D’Ambrosio shows up on the scene it has all deteriorated to an “unholy intersection of anomie and big-time news.” Armed with three-by five cards and a tape recorder, D’Ambrosio is something of a reporter himself, but by his own account he’s no match for the tech-wonky talking heads of television news. And though an attentive reader suspects it from the very beginning, D’Ambrosio’s tendency to associate himself with the hostage-taker (“in the hierarchy of things I suspect I’m just as clueless as the Bad Guy”), and to meditate at length on the contrast between his ailing skin and that of the news reporters (“the way I look…I might just be a piece of news myself”), makes it clear that “Loitering” is about the difference between journalism and literary journalism, even its title suggesting that if what regular journalists do is cultivate a habit of aggressive intrusiveness, not to say rudeness (though that’s exactly what it seems like when you see it in action), then what literary journalists do is just kind of hang around to get at what Orwell once called “the moral atmosphere of a particular moment in time.”
     The difference between Ozick’s manikin room and D’Ambrosio’s hostage crisis is of course the fact that the latter really is a piece of news. Ozick shows us what’s news and what’s not, and emphasizes that literary sensibilities are excited and aroused by images and ideas that perhaps no one else regards as newsworthy or interesting (D’Ambrosio: “My main problem vis-à-vis journalism is I just don’t have an instinct for what’s important”), and that’s largely what Pound was trying to get at, I think, when he famously said, “Literature is news that STAYS news.” By way of contrast, D’ambrosio shows us that even an actual piece of news can become arousing in that peculiar literary manner, and what this establishes is that a newsworthy event can be looked at in the way that John Berger looks at art, or Annie Dillard looks at nature. Another “way of seeing” can train its gaze on anything at all.
     Late in “Loitering,” after the hostage crisis has wrapped up, D’Ambrosio admits to considering calling on the “love angle” to figure out how to wrap up his own tangential narrative. He’s looking for a big theme to tie the story together, and he finds “love,” which is surely big enough, but it’s the “angle” that interests me here, that scrap of language shared between creative writing and journalism. It would almost seem to go without saying that journalism and creative writing each are forms of storytelling in which a writer seeks out a particular perch so as to get the best possible shot on a target of some kind. There’s an obvious metaphor here—the writer as sniper, or perhaps the writer as his or her own sort of hostage taker, the characters who will be released only when they’ve served the writer’s purposes—but I don’t really want to go that far with it. It’s enough to suggest that at least part of a writer’s job is to find that spot from which a dynamic, multi-dimensional event may rendered in a way that reveals something essential and representative about it. Hence, “angle,” and the real metaphor lurking there is probably the eye of the painter peering past his thumb at some pretty lady or landscape.
     But that doesn’t reveal whatever the difference between journalism and literary journalism might be. The hints of that come much earlier in D’Ambrosio’s essay, before he even heads for the crime scene:
Before leaving the apartment I put a pen in my pocket, along with a stack of three-by-five cards and a tape recorder, thinking that if this thing got real hairy, if there was some actual shooting, then I might jot a few notes and make of an otherwise blank night a bona fide journalistic story, full of who, what, where, when. Like a lot of my aspirations, this one, too, was internally doomed and hopeless long before I realized it.
     The answer lies in this passage’s silent omission. If you hum the notes of a scale to yourself—do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti…—you feel in your bones the way that ti pulls up to what should be the second do, the octave that completes the scale, without which the whole thing feels incomplete and unsatisfying. The same disappointment attends D’Ambrosio’s list of the requirements of the traditional journalistic lede: the who, what, where, and when, all pulling toward a why that never comes. Journalism, by its nature, avoids overt expressions of why, though the angle a journalist chooses on a story may suggest one. By contrast, literary journalism makes why an overt driving force, and the essays that result offer up plaintive answers to the unanswerable. You ask not what happened, but what it meant that whatever happened happened. You become a critic of your own experience. Why did a hostage crisis ensue on a particular night in Belltown? Love. Why does a roomful of manikins on the top floor of Filene’s capture the eye? Panic and dread. Why did Dave Itzkoff feel compelled to write a whole book about Network? I have no idea.  
     I realize now that the anger I felt at Itzkoff’s paragraph was a version of Howard Beale’s mad-as-hell rage in the film. If it’s safe to say that in order to write a book you have to get a little ginned up yourself, then shouldn’t one, in order to write a book about Network, maybe feel a bit inspired by Beale’s revelation, as though you too just can’t take it anymore? But where is that in Itzkoff’s book? Where’s his rage? When he reduces a fellow reporter to an impersonal “it”—to avoid, I assume, some grammatical awkwardness created by the problem of citation—he participates in the culture-wide tendency toward dehumanization that leaves Beale screaming, “I’m a human being, god-damnit! My life has value!”
     What’s that value? I don’t know exactly. But I do know that it’s the human value of the writer that distinguishes literary journalism from journalism, grants it its essential component, and invests it with a heft and life and passion without which our world would be maddening indeed.


J. C. Hallman is the author of a number of books, including In Utopia and Wm & H'ry. In February, he will publish B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal with Simon & Schuster. He lives in New York City.


  1. This is brilliant in its human noticing and its attempt to understand an old subject that has driven journalists of both types mad for years. Decades ago, the journalism educator and scholar John Calhoun Merrill promoted the category of existential journalism—he even titled one book that—in an attempt to attack the soullessness and dishonesty of the objective style.

    The so-called objective approach can instill a certain rigor; it has surely led to some good, crusading journalism and a lot of bad, weaselly journalism. The latter, as in the example cited, grows out of the stance that implicitly and explicitly denies that a human being wrote the thing. Instead, a process was discharged which resulted in a supposedly unassailable artifact. Hence Merrill's attempt to finger exactly what's meant by "literary": a human taking responsibility.

  2. As long as you're offering up mean-spirited, churlish critique, it's worth pointing out: you misspelled Paddy CHAYEFSKY's name in your very first sentence.