Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A New Blog That's Worth A Look

My beloved New York Review of Books was founded nearly 50 years ago out of a concern that a long New York newspaper strike was preventing readers from learning about important new books. For decades, it was lovingly tended by a pair of publishing dynamos. The NYRB, contrary to its fussy intellectual reputation in some quarters, was among the first major pubs to use the web smartly to expand its reach. It puts much of its content online for free, adding in regular podcasts. And it famously has one of the world's great destinations for personal ads, for discerning readers who are searching for love or perhaps just companionship. Now, it's also just launched an interesting new blog. I recommend to you this entire intellectual feast.

26 Comments:

At 7:33 AM, Anonymous Kristine said...

Thanks for the info John. I will have to check that out. My husband and I were just lamenting how the Sunday PD has become smaller and smaller. Where are the days when you can unwind with a thick Sunday paper? Looks like we need to turn to the blogs?

 
At 7:36 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The poor PD. Nothing much left of it, is there? If you feel like investing $6 in the Sunday New York Times, that's still chock full of great stuff that takes a couple hours to go through. I recommend it highly. And I figure that forgoing just a couple of Starbucks visits a week for their overpriced coffee will pay for a much more nutritious intellectual meal on Sunday.

 
At 12:35 PM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

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At 12:38 PM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

Oh, the poor PD. I miss the way it used to be. I loved spreading out the Sunday paper, and reading the Sunday Magazine, especially - that's how I was introduced to Michael Heaton's writing, which I really like.

Reading online or even printing out the news is just so, ohhh, unromantically practical. I just like my whole Sunday paper routine, even the faint smell of its newsprint and the fresh, coldness of it from awaiting me out on the front porch in the morning. *sigh* But there's not much substance behind that romance. Hmmm...sounds eerily familiar to me right now.....

 
At 12:44 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Online reading will never replace the Sunday newspaper experience for most people, but it certainly has more than begun to replace it during the rest of the week. The latest top-25 newspaper circulation figures came out this week, and it showed further disastrous erosion of the audience. The PD was down a stunning (or perhaps not-so-stunning) 11% in the latest reporting period, which comes on top of years of earlier declines. It appears no end is in sight. Details in the link below.

http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1004030296

 
At 1:29 PM, Blogger Kasscho said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have been reading Frederick Seidel poems all morning because of the review (I refer to one in today's post).

 
At 1:30 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Very glad to hear that. They just have some uniquely wonderful stuff, and regularly.

 
At 4:50 PM, Blogger Britta said...

John: Great recommendation! I find I am turning more and more to nonfiction books as meaty journalism disappears from the broadsheets. My latest nightstand resident: Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu. Recent tenants: The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe (a former colleague), Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. I like these things where the writers set out a quest for themselves and chronicle that quest in the book.

 
At 4:57 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Glad to hear it, Britta. for some of the reasons you've mentioned, we happen to be living in what will one day be called a golden age for literary journalism, or narrative journalism, or whatever phrase one cares to give it. There's an astounding array of great serious longform nonfiction writing going on now. I hope you'll come back and let us know how these books were, as well as other books you'll read after those.

 
At 12:07 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Just been re-reading Barry Lopez's "About This Life: Journeys on the threshold of memory." Creative nonfiction, or whatever we want to call it, is some of the most interesting writing of all, right now.

The venerable NYRB is also the last bastion of liberal (liberal in the largest sense) Anglophilia, one might add. As pointed out by Joseph Epstein in his essay collection "Narcissus Leaves the Pool." Of course, that's one reason to appreciate the NYRB all the more.

Thanks for the links. The podcasts are very interesting so far.

 
At 3:43 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Glad you found value in it, Art. And Epstein is one of our favorites, despite his political conservatism.

 
At 1:25 PM, Anonymous Kristine said...

Someone mentioned creative nonfiction, which I love reading and writing. But I'm wondering--isn't that an oxymoron? If it's creative, i.e. embellishing, then is it truly non-fiction?
What really is creative non-fiction? I'm unclear on it, can anyone enlighten me?

 
At 1:34 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

As defined by John McPhee, one of the greatest writers in the genre, and who also teaches it at Princeton, it's literary non-fiction. That is, non-fiction writing that uses literary devices, means, and techniques—as well as subject matters—applied to non-fiction writing. You can think of it as "creative writing" in the non-fiction mode, as opposed to fiction.

Certainly invention, interpolation, and embellishment were used by Tom Wolfe and others in the "New Journalism," in which they used literary invention to fill out the facts of a story. How that truly differs from memoir or history writing is open to debate. Wolfe got his facts straight, then tried to get inside the heads of his protagonists. Other writers stopped short of inventing internal monologue, but did try to understand and speculate using literary devices.

Somebody once quipped that the difference pure journalism and literary non-fiction is that reporting is fact-based, while literary forms of non-fiction (by whatever name we call them) are truth-based.

I'm sure John probably has a better definition, or more to add.

 
At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Kristine said...

Thank you Art, that was actually very helpful! So if I'm writing of a conversation I had, and I don't want the reader to be bored with the "ums" and the long pauses in conversation and the interruptions, etc., and I speed it up and delete some things to get to the point, that would be creative non-fiction?

 
At 4:02 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, thanks for addressing this before I could get to it, and doing your usual good job of it. I'd only amplify what you've said, and bring it a little more up to date.

McPhee is indeed one of the reigning godfathers of this niche, which was pioneered by Tom Wolfe and also Truman Capote, especially in Cold Blood, which took an actual horrific crime and told it in a novelistic format, with character development, plot and (this is the main element, I think) narrative drive, and other devices used in fiction. But as you note, it's all built on heavy reporting of the actual facts. Alas, some later devotees of this format have abused the license, and went a lot lighter on facts and heavier on the fiction.

In recent years, there's been something of what you might call an echo baby boom, populated by a writerly cohort that has not only honored this tradition, but gone it a little better. These writers (most of whom publish in both books and quality magazines) have come to be called the new new journalists, in part to signal that they're the next generation following in Wolfe and Capote's footsteps, and in part because they've been packaged as such by a very smart writer, editor and now academic, Robert Boynton.

His book, The New New Journalism, is a fabulous examination of many of these writers, and it includes some eye-opening verbatim conversations with them about their approach (link below). I'd recommend it highly, and have long ago set it aside to pull excerpts from, but just haven't yet gotten around to that yet. This conversation will no doubt prompt me to do so soon, for which I thank you all.
http://www.newnewjournalism.com/about.htm

 
At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Kristine said...

I am definitely going to look into that book. Sounds intriguing. Thanks for the recommendation!

 
At 4:56 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Let us know what you think when and if you do, K.

 
At 6:46 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the additional history, John.

In terms of creative nonfiction, as a literary and creative genre, there is a lot that comes from science, especially natural sciences such as paleontology and science history. I'm thinking of great writers such as Loren Eiseley, Barry Lopez, Stephan Jay Gould, Lyall Watson, as well as McPhee, of course. In fact, a lot of the best natural history writing of the past 50 years is literary nonfiction. If we include natural history and travel, we'd have to add Peter Matthiessen, and Pico Iyer. In the history of science, I'd definitely include Henry Petroski, who is an amazing nonfiction writer.

I also want to mention that there's another direction in writing that brings something to the table, and that's metafiction. This literary direction accounts for some of the fiction writing that has some of the style and tone of literary nonfiction.

Most often associated with writers like Jorge Luis Borges, metafiction is sometimes apparent nonfiction, apparent history or memoir or essay, although it's all made up. Borges is a past master of this. Another writer who does this very well is Barry Lopez; his short story collections are remarkable.

Metafiction sort of meets literary nonfiction halfway. It's fiction, but it has some of the tone and style of nonfiction.

I have also come to view memoir and autobiography as genres of literary nonfiction. Memoir and biography are particularly prone to problems with authentication, and verification. Who do you trust?

 
At 10:02 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Good point about the natural sciences. I'd add in authors like Lewis Thomas to that list. Henry Petroski somehow makes engineering not only understandable but fascinating for the average reader, which is no small feat. I did indeed have memoirs in mind when I mentioned that some authors have taken liberty with the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction.

 
At 12:16 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Petroski has written a 300 page book about the history of the pencil, another 300 page book about the history of the bookshelf, and so forth—and they are all compelling, fascinating reading. Very enjoyable.

My favorite book by Petroski remains "To Engineer Is Human," which is about failure analysis, sometimes also called forensic engineering: in other words, studying why built structures fail, and sometimes fail catastrophically. It's very interesting stuff, and the book reads like a thriller of a mystery novel.

 
At 1:54 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

In terms of the New New Journalism, let's not forget Studs Terkel, whose many books of oral history are both truthful and literary. Studs was one of our greatest interviewers, but his interviews were often the result of his brilliant research and reporting.

 
At 8:41 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

It's that pencil book that looms largest when I think of him. Imagine the brilliance it takes to write an entire compelling book about that subject. And including Studs in that lineup would only emphasize the idea that what's new and good merely is a reprise of what's old and good. He'll never be replaced.

 
At 11:16 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

"what's new and good merely is a reprise of what's old and good"

Actually, I love that idea. (Not just because of the irreplaceable Studs, which I fully agree with you about.) What I love about that idea is that new -isms, such as the New New Journalism, have the potential to revitalize as well as reform the existing (stale?) structures. It's a shot in the arm, in a positive way.

When existing -isms become old -isms and no longer serve us, it's time to toss them out, and find new ways of working.

I think the entire literary nonfiction trend is a part of revitalization. It is certainly much fresher writing than one finds in most mainstream fiction writing: more readable, AND more lively.

 
At 11:20 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You're right on. To me, literary non-fiction (and I hate that second word, because it's derivative of its opposite, which makes no sense) has won the battle simply because it's way more vital, and seems to attracts more writing talent these days than fiction. It takes the best of both traditions and blends them in interesting ways.

 
At 11:33 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, I feel exactly the same way about "post-modernism." That the "post" is in that definition means that they haven't really come to terms with Modernism, even if they try to define themselves as what comes after Modernism. I tend to think of them as very Late Modernists, rather than as a separate and unique -ism.

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Maybe it's just that when you get to a certain age, you begin noticing that there's little new under the sun, only better or lesser adaptations of what's come before.

 

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