John Hersey’s “The Legend on the License”, a piece from The Yale Review, winter edition, 1986, shows an interesting – passive – attack on the New Journalism of the 80s, springing of course from the New Journalism of the mid-60s. Not so much an outright attack, as a critical dissection of the confounding issue of combining journalism (or facts) with creative writing (or fiction), Hersey’s essay concludes with his statement that we must redraw the line from the blurring of fact and fiction.
“All we need do”, he insists, “is insist on two rules: The writer of fiction must invent. The Journalist must not invent”.
This (simple?) denouement comes after some 10,000 words pointing out the flaws in three examples of, at the time, current – fact/fiction blurs. The three examples selected happen to be from, arguably, three of the most celebrated, instantly recognizable literary ‘blur-artists’. Truman Capote (Handcarved Coffins), Tom Wolfe (The Right Stuff) and Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song).
These books were written containing (at various points) hard facts, but we’re not talking about television or newspaper news, we’re talking about intentionally novelised non-fiction statements – written well after any strict journalistic story had been broken. It just seems that Hersey forgets all that, forgetting also that such writers paved the way for the continually developing – in book form – social statements of our current day.
In the end if becomes hard to see exactly where John Hersey’s piece is going. Is it a thinly veiled attack on Wolfe (as Scapegoat for this literary movement) due to the fact that in the Wolfe-selected New Journalism anthology, Hersey is referred to as creating “the ancestry” of a movement he clearly wishes to relinquish?
Is it nitpicking in the wake of being passed over as the wings of said movement took full flight a generation after Hersey’s heyday?
And before anyone starts to wonder where this particular piece is going (!) – I’ll conclude my list of charges with the possibility that Hersey is attempting merely to keep genres separate for the sake of reader’s ease; out of responsibility to the public, so the people know what they’re getting. So, if that’s the specific target of Hersey’s hearsay, the price – so many years on – of such literary philanthropy, is skepticism. The role of any writer should never be so definitely defined. Distortion of fact is one thing (already dealt with, since we’re not dealing with Hard News), but raising concern merely because a member of the public might miss the point, totally belies the educational enlightenment – and more specifically – the entertainment – of the range of writing available.
We’re now in an age that put paid to that, thank you internet and reality TV.
Australian film Chopper, based on the book by famed Aussie outlaw-turned-writer Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read, was marketed under the premise “never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn” – a direct quote from its prime source.
Point is, we’re a society – a culture – based on storytelling. It’s one thing (as far as we’re aware) that sets us apart from other animals; our capacity for abstract thought, our ability for interpretative representations of set ideas
Centuries of re-telling stories have given many of us the base to believe everything – but trust nothing. This was long before ‘alternative truths’ entered the wedding, drunk and uninvited.
Academics do not question the dual role of the poet, filmmaker or critic as social commentator. I’m not saying the license for journalist should read anything like add fiction liberally, stir in the truth. What I am saying, in terms of the written word in book form is – so long as the intention is in entertainment over deception (or blatant deviation) – then roll on and across the palette with a painter’s flair, adding colour in airing truth.
Or, recontextualising Hersey in order to agree with him, let the part of the writer that’s journalist make way as he starts to sink, for the novelist to soar away on wings of art, far above it all. The word’s too small when there’s just fact. And just fiction. But this current world has become a mess because of the blur. So Hersey had something in his gripe. Too rigid at the time. Not rigid enough now?
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