Literary journalism may not be dead, but it's certainly been quiet over the past decade or so. A glance at the winners of recent national magazine awards, or even a gander at the top-notch glossies, supplies plenty of evidence that the watchword for journalists has gone from "literary" to "service," as in catering -- to advertisers, special interest groups, corporate owners and, somewhere down the list, after the cultural common denominators and demographics have been determined, the reader.
A more pleasing way of soaking up this stark and obvious fact can be found in reading The Art of Fact, a wonderful anthology of literary journalism edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. The 61 pieces collected here, dating from 1725 to this decade, enrich rather than cater. Chestnuts abound -- there's Jimmy Breslin interviewing JFK's gravedigger, Ron Rosenbaum uncovering Yale's Skull and Bones club 20 years ago (he never got better than this) and Tom Wolfe's magnificently nonsensical profile of 1964's "Girl of the Year," the now-forgotten Jane Holzer. It is impossible to imagine that last piece being considered by any of the more careful magazines today -- just witness the first sentence: "Bangs manes bouffants beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes ... aren't they super-marvelous?"
John Hersey's searing account of the survivors in Hiroshima is also included, along with an equally devastating piece on Tiananmen Square by John Simon (he saves one soldier from being ripped to shreds by an angry mob and recounts the fate of two others). A real find is Ernest Hemingway on a Japanese earthquake, written when he was 24 for the Toronto Daily News. Flip a few pages and compare that with Lilian Ross' devastating profile of Hemingway written for the New Yorker 25 years later. The wealth of talent and ability on display is such that the table of contents alone is enough to urge one to pick this book up. Among those included: Bill Buford, Tracy Kidder, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, George Orwell, Jack London and Steven Crane.
There are some curious omissions -- notably work from gifted young writers such as David Foster Wallace, Martin Amis, Tom Junod, David Remnick and, most surprisingly, Alec Wilkinson. Jeffrey Bernard, whose "Low Life" column for the British Spectator has to be the most literate column going, doesn't appear either. Older work is unearthed such as Boswell, Dafoe and Dickens, but no mention is made of Oscar Wilde's quite wonderful interview with himself in the St. James Gazette in 1895. There are one too many novel excerpts and certain selections smack of careless PC scouring -- witness Lawrence Otis Graham's 1993 piece for New York magazine on being a yuppie in Harlem, a tidy enough story idea the execution of which simply pales next to the work of Tim O'Brien, Ben Hecht or Joseph Mitchell (all included).
Both editors make stabs at defining literary journalism. The two phrases that leap off the page are "making facts dance" and Ezra Pound's definition of literature, "news that stays news." A more satisfying definition, of course, lies in the work itself and in the curious irony that Yagoda and Kerrane, in turning their backs on the current vogue for service, have offered a true service. Yagoda states his mission as an attempt to "make the case that literary journalism exists, and is not an oxymoron." Happily, he and his colleague have succeeded. -- Salon