This semester, as I’ve mentioned a few times, I’m taking a class on literary journalism. The first part of the semester has been devoted to understanding the development of literary journalism through two books I really enjoyed–True Stories by Norman Sims and The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight by Marc Weingarten. I was going to review these separately, but as I started to write I realized I liked them both for similar reasons and think that they complement each other as texts.
True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism is a history of the literary journalism movement, all the way from Mark Twain in the 1800s to current stories like “The Long Flight of One-Eleven Heavy” by Michael Paterniti or Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. The first chapter takes a long look at various literary journalism definitions and features, and the remainder of the book creates a winding history of the movement.
I researched literary journalism for my senior project last year, but couldn’t find any books that did as good of a job summarizing and explaining the movement as this book. True Stories takes what is an incredibly diverse and thought-provoking movement and manages to distill it down to its most salient points. Sims uses good examples and passages from famous texts to make each of his points, and profiles authors to explained larger social trends. The book walks a line between storytelling and textbook, but I think Sims’ voice is friendly enough that the book doesn’t get dry like many “history of a genre” books can be.
The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight is a history of just the New Journalism movement, focusing from the early 1950s through the mid 1970s. Similar to True Stories, Weingarten profiles many of the major writers–Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer–by focusing on their work and their impact. He uses a ton of details, but I felt like those details were always relevant to what he was trying to describe. I actually gained more respect for Hunter S. Thompson as a journalist after reading about his work reporting for his book Hell’s Angels, something I didn’t think was possible.
Weingarten also did a lot of interviews for this book, getting face time with a ton of the most famous new journalist. I’m incredibly jealous of that, but also really impressed. The moments when authors reflect on their work or the impact of their work is very interesting to read.
Sometimes The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight gets a little name-heavy, talking about editors and founders and competitors and critics, which gets tough to follow. There were times when I just wanted Weingarten to get on with it and get back to the names I could recognize and would remember, not the ones that aren’t important to me. The book also peters out near the end, finishing more with a whisper than a bang. In some ways this makes sense–New Journalism never really ended, just sort of went out of vogue and lost the momentum it had during the heyday of the 1960s.
In any case, the combination of these two books is a good overview of an diverse movement in journalism. I enjoyed both of them in terms of their writing style and subject matter, and would recommend one or both for people interested in literary journalism.
Links to Enjoy:
- An interview with Norman Sims at Poynter Online
- A review of The Gang that Wouldn’t Write Straight from the New York Review of Books
- A Q&A with Marc Weingarten from metabistro.com
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!