Joan Didion emerged as part of the “New Journalism” movement in the 1960s, a literary genre which blended journalistic facts with techniques readers usually found in novels: condensed events, rearranged dialogue, and composite characters. Although this marked a fascinating development for the field of journalism, this writing was criticised as “parajournalism” by publishers. Traditional outlets condemned novelistic techniques as prone to inaccuracy. With New Journalist writers immersing themselves in stories for months or years at a time, the loss of an objective narrator was also feared.
The release of Joan Didion’s Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a collection of pieces spanning the writer’s five-decade career, has come during a period of profound reflection on truth and the media. Disinformation is a major challenge around the world. Last month, thousands of rioters stormed the United States Capitol, encouraged by false claims of voter fraud. Facts are important, but news outlets are treated with increasing scepticism by the public.
Though establishment media did not believe the writing could succeed, New Journalists often arrived at a “greater truth” about American life than the traditional press. This fresh and dynamic genre, which included writers Didion, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe, proved subjectivity could foster credibility. What can media learn from them now?
“She blended into the scene; she internalized its confusions.”
– Louis Menand on Joan Didion’s New Journalism
Didion’s famous essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) describes her experience in California during the 1960s, an era defined by societal and cultural upheaval. In 1967, Didion began work on a research piece about the hippie phenomenon and travelled to Haight, San Francisco. This was the scene of the famous “Summer of Love”.
Far from being objective, cultural historian Louis Menand writes that “the mainstream press” was “conflicted about the hippie phenomenon” of the 1960s and chose to run articles on the movement based on its “journalistic sex appeal”. Providing statistics (e.g. that drug consumption was much lower amongst “non-conformist” youth than perceived), he reveals that the “hippie counterculture was small”.
Didion dismissed the objective approach traditionally taken by reporters and instead built authentic relationships with the hippies. She “blended into the scene” writes Menand, and “internalized its confusions”. Didion paints a portrait of a teenage hippie who runs away from home because her “father thought [she] was cheap and he told [her] so”. This raw and emotional piece examines the “larger reality” of the movement, rather than the “sexy” establishment reading, and only succeeds because of Didion’s immersive approach.
“My book isn’t a crime story. It’s the story of a town.”
– Truman Capote on In Cold Blood
Truman Capote believed he had created a new genre with his “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. After learning about a brutal murder case in Holcomb, Kansas, Capote set about researching the story. Gay, with eccentric clothing and affected speech, the rural locals did not respond well to Capote initially, though he ultimately collected 8,000 pages of research.
The book was published in 1966 and tells the story of the Clutter family and their killers, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Unlike Hickock, who received a good upbringing from his farmworker parents, Perry Smith’s early life was marked by abuse and neglect. Cherokee on his mother’s side, Smith stood out as an outcast throughout his life.
Though the book received plaudits from the literary community, questions arose over the truth of the text. After learning that he would receive the death penalty for his part in the murders, Perry cries out to the wife of County Undersheriff Wendle Meier, Josephine:
I turned on the radio. Not to hear him. But I could. Crying like a child. He’d never broke down before, showed any sign of it. Well, I went to him. […] He reached out his hand. He wanted me to hold his hand, and I did, I held his hand, and all he said was “I’m embraced by shame.”
Josephine denied this happened, but the scene allows Capote to create a complicated character from the murderer. Capote uses his portrait of Perry to tackle privilege, social injustice, and race in America. “My book isn’t a crime story”, said Capote, “It’s the story of a town”. Indeed, it’s the story of all those who passed through it. If establishment journalism moved “horizontally” across facts, Capote felt his novel moved “horizontally and vertically” into the lives of his subjects, to devastating effect.
Immersing themselves in a story often afforded writers a greater understanding of their subject. This reporting, without claims of objectivity, later gave way to “gonzo journalism”, the 1970s movement pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson. New Journalists took news event and let them to speak to the deeper traumas beneath them; the murder of a white, nuclear family by an indigenous man could tell the story of another American violence. Though establishment media did not believe New Journalists could succeed in their reporting, these writers often arrived at greater truths about American life.
You can find Joan Didion on Facebook.
Words by Jack Whitfield
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