New Kings of Nonfiction

Ira Glass ("This American Life") is editor of a recently-published book called The New Kings of Nonfiction, which has essays from writers like M. Gladwell, M. Lewis, D. Wallace – writers who immerse themselves in their subjects, write entertaining stories about the environment they find themselves in, and then, crucially, draw greater meaning out of the experience. It’s what Robert Boyton calls "New New Journalism" (a worthwhile book, by the way). I love this kind of essay: informed by true reporting, delivered with the energy and entertainment value of good fiction. I find a certain amount of recklessness endearing – I like people who put themselves out there and try to figure stuff out, people who involve themselves in a way that destroys the idea of objectivity. Under the banner of infinite curiosity, they sympathize, they criticize, they call bullshit on questionable claims, they never stop digging.

Glass’s introduction to the book is on the Penguin web site. Very much worth reading for anyone interested in writing.

On the transparency of the reporting and the excitement of trying to make sense of things, via Bill Buford:

Part of what’s exciting about Among the Thugs is that Buford is so honest about what happens between him and his interviewees, especially the awkwardness he feels as an outsider in the midst of this tribe of drunk, violent men. They hate him, and they don’t trust him, and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. There’s a transparency to the reporting. Most of the book is Buford putting himself into one situation after another, and simply describing all the chance encounters he has along the way. It’s an inspiring book to read if you want to try your hand at reporting, because it makes the job seem so damned straightforward, and I can’t count the number of copies I’ve given away over the years to beginning journalists. Buford makes it clear how much of reporting is simply wandering from one place to another, talking to people and writing down what they say and trying to think of something, anything, that’ll shed some light on what’s happening in front of your face.

On the components of this kind of writing:

When you’re writing stories like these, I think you’ve really only got two basic building blocks. You’ve got the plot of the story, and you’ve got the ideas the story is driving at. Usually the plot is the easy part. You do whatever research you can, you talk to lots of people, and you figure out what happened. It’s the ideas that kill you. What’s the story mean? What bigger truth about all of us does it point to? You can knock your head against a wall for days thinking that through.

Glass excerpts several awesome paragraphs. I just loved this from Susan Orlean, italics are Glass:

She tries to think through what it means to be ten years old. She’s profiling a random suburban kid named Colin Duffy. I could almost pick any three sentences from the story at random and they’ll make my point, but this passage just kills me:

The girls in Colin’s class are named Cortnerd, Terror, Spacey, Lizard, Maggot, and Diarrhea. “They do have other names, but that’s what we call them,” Colin told me. “The girls aren’t very popular.”

“They are about as popular as a piece of dirt,” Japeth [Colin’s friend] said. “Or you know that couch in the classroom? That couch is more popular than any girl. A thousand times more.”

That is a very efficient way to explain a ten-year-old boy’s attitude toward girls. I love the overall tone she invents to write this story. It’s a voice that’s halfway between hers and his.

If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. . . We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal. All the while, Colin would be working in law enforcement—probably the FBI. Our favorite movie star, Morgan Freeman, would visit us occasionally. We would listen to the same Eurythmics song (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) over and over again and watch two hours of television every Friday night. We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals. We would hang out a lot with Colin’s dad. For fun, we would load a slingshot with dog food and shoot it at my butt. We would have a very good life.

OK, that is a fucking brilliant way to describe her relationship with a ten year old. I’m definitely going to pick up the book and chew my way through more of these kinds of excerpts.

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