‘What a pity she’s quoted more than she’s read’

The headline writer for the 2015 article “From literary heavyweight to lifestyle brand: exploring the cult of Joan Didion” added the following subhead: “The pioneer of New Journalism is used to sell biker jackets and clutch bags. What a pity she’s quoted more than she’s read.”

The White Album: Essays by [Joan Didion]I  hope the subhead for her December 23rd obituary in The Guardian more accurately describes how she will be remembered: “Detached observer of American society and political life through her collections of journalism, novels and screenwriting.”

Yet, the fact that the proponent of the New Jounalism wrote more “I-was-there” nonfiction than fiction may be the reason I seldom saw any gushing statements on the social media from her fans about reading her latest article or book, or breathlessly waiting for her next one.

Even those who simply scanned her work and then quoted from it thought her prose–and the no-nonsence focus behind it–was the best in the business.

If you have neither read her nor quoted her, I hardly know where to start in recommending a place to start learning who she was. Perhaps, the novel A Book of Common Prayer and perhaps the collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

If you truly get this quote from A Book of Common Prayer, then you understand (a fraction, perhaps) of herself and her focus: “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.”

But then I’m biased. I’ve followed her work from the day she started. If a cult surrounds her, I’m a member. And when I think of prose and want to show others examples of what prose can do, I turn to her books before all others.


Florida Folk Magic Stories: Novels 1-4 by [Malcolm R. Campbell]Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the four-book Florida Folk Magic Series, available in one Kindle, money-saving volume. It’s about the place I don’t walk away from.

Is today’s news giving us ‘truth actual’?

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby is the title of Tom Wolfe’s first collected book of essays, published in 1965. The book is named for one of the stories in the collection that was originally published in Esquire magazine in 1963 under the title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” Wolfe’s essay for Esquire and this, his first book, are frequently heralded as early examples of New Journalism. – Wikipedia

Those of us steeped in traditional journalism looked askance at the so-called “new journalism” of the 1960s. It was perpetrated (or lovingly brought into the world–depending on your feelings about it) by Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and others who–while they had newspaper reporting experience–wrote their new stuff primarily for magazines like “Esquire” and “Atlantic”?

As you might guess from the title “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”, it focused on the immersion of the reporter into the subject matter and often used techniques common to fiction when they wrote their stories.

Truth Actual

Fiction writers, especially those of us who write and/or like stream of consciousness, magical realism, fairy tales, myth-based fiction, and other forms that are often called “literary fiction,” often call the result of our stories “truth actual” instead of “truth literal.”

This view comes from the theory that the knowledge, feelings, impressions, and intuition within the reader’s mind after reading a “truth actual” novel will be more accurate than what results from reading straight realism. We might say that we’re speaking here of “more important” truths than “how to fix your dishwasher” or “how do I get from Yellow Knife to Key West.”

At any rate, the new journalism reporters thought that’s what they were doing and, I think, when they wrote longer, quasi-commentary, creative nonfiction magazine pieces, they succeeded. The technique works less well for front-page news.

Opinion Journalism

New journalism, however, seems to have spawned a black sheep. Some call it fake news. Basically, it’s the warping of a story to fit ones personal opinion and/or the political agenda of the publication. I don’t think this kind of “reporting” provides us with any real truth at all, and I see it practiced with equal fervor on Fox News, CNN, and The New York Times. In the old days, we would say this approach was pure arrogance, the notion being that the facts of the world don’t revolve like planets around the sun of your opinion about them.

This is new journalism gone too far and the flip side of what all of us were taught in journalism school and on our first jobs in the field.