Friday, June 22, 2007

Unused Syllabus, 2007

I've been teaching narrative nonfiction to grad students in NYU's Department of Journalism for 2 1/2 years, and it finally paid off: not one tenure-track job offer, but two, one of them here at NYU. Decent pay for nine months of work, very interesting colleagues, lifetime job security -- of course, I turned both jobs down. I'm going to write full-time. There are books to write, I hope. One of the things I'll miss about teaching, though, is writing syllabi. It's like making a mix tape -- pick your favorite writers and hit shuffle. Here are a few that ended up on more syllabi than not:

Garry Wills' Nixon Agonistes; Roy Mottahedeh's Mantle of the Prophet; Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer; various essays by JoAnn Wypijewski, Jack Hitt, Ellen Willis, Michael Lesy. I discovered that Dennis Covington's Salvation on Sand Mountain, a flawed but compelling book, is a great teaching text, while James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a flawed but absolutely genius book, is a bomb in the classroom. I tried teaching novels to journalists -- James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain, Tomas Eloy Martinez' Santa Evita -- with mixed results. Tony Kushner's fantasia Angels in America, though, ends up making perfect sense. Three anthropologists proved so effective that I taught them over and over: Susan Friend Harding's The Book of Jerry Falwell, the best book about fundamentalism I know of; Barbara Myerhoff's Number Our Days, a book that redeems the word "schmaltz"; and Michael Taussig's trippy Colonialism, Shamanism, and the Wild Man, a text closer to the heart of darkness than Joseph Conrad.

For the coming semester, I made up a recommended extra reading list. Nothing but a procrastination, which is why I'll post it on this blog instead of giving it to the students who I now won't be teaching:


Here are some names every literary journalist should know: Agee, Mitchell, Didion, Orwell, Mailer, etc. Following are some texts that won’t show up on many syllabi of literary journalism. And yet I found them coming up in conversations with other journalists over the years. Consider these titles the ghost canon of our mutant genre.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Yes, the whale. The hack cliché about this book is that it’s a great adventure story if you skip the whale description chapters. That may be true; but if you read them, it’s one long meditation on the problem of documentation, which is to say, the problem of writing some kind of truth. There’s a Harper’s editor who tells his writers to approach every story as if they’re going to write the Moby-Dick of their given subject. One really did – an epic, brilliant meditation on rubber duckies called "Moby Duck."

Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire. It’s a movie about angels who fly around Berlin taking notes on the life of the city, gathering not news but small revelations of character and perception. Nice work if you can get it.

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. Borges was a fiction writer, poet, and essayist whose name has become a touchstone for many literary journalists. His stories are lots of fun to read – so much so that that you might go too fast and forget to think about the subtle arguments about narrative contained within them. Consider the most fantastical of his stories as nonfiction, and imagine how they were researched and reported.

Jane Kramer, The Last Cowboy. Kramer, a working New Yorker writer, is hardly an unknown, but much of her best work is unjustly out of print. You could start anywhere – with Unsettling Europe, or What is Art?, but this one may be the most useful to the young writer, a near-perfect book-length profile in the third person.

Rosemary Mahoney, Whoredom in Kimmage. Journalist walks into a bar is the basic set-up not of a joke but of half the hack would-be workingman’s poets in literature. More often than not, it’s no more than the first step into soggy sentimentalism, but Mahoney, who set off to write a book about Irish women, perfects the form amongst a pub full of brilliant bullshit artists in the Irish countryside. (Here's a link to Rosemary Mahoney's place in a peculiar little experiment called a literature map. Nick Hornby, Alex Garland -- looks like she's in a bad neighborhood. This book, at least, deserves better; maybe this list is a step in the right direction.)

Melissa Faye Greene, Praying for Sheetrock. This probably does show up on a lot of syllabi, but not mine, and I don’t want you to miss it. It’s gripping, as they say, technically true crime but truly literature in every sense of the word, worth studying for Greene’s full, third person reconstruction of incidents she wasn’t present for.

John Dos Passos, USA trilogy. One of the great modernist documentary experiments of the early 20th century, fiction that inspired much of the “new journalism” of the’ 60s.

Studs Terkel, Hard Times. The gold standard for oral history, Terkel has probably inspired more awful imitators than any writer alive. Don’t be one of them. Read his oral histories closely and figure out how they’re structured – Terkel doesn’t just turn on a tape recorder and walk away. (Here's a great Terkel site w/ excerpts from his Chicago radio program.)

Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons. An early 20th century example of muckraking as scripture. Like many of his contemporaries, Josephson wanted to write about the bastards who’d ripped off a nation; but unlike less imaginative writers, he fell in love with his subjects, and the result is this Dante-eque tour of the history of American greed by a writer who knows that Hell is more interesting than Heaven.

Barbara Kopple, Harlan County, USA. Why this documentary more than others? Because Kopple resolves a problem literary journalists often face, that of narrating a conflict within a community. The conventional method is to pick a character, maybe two; Kopple gets that the crowd is the character.

Wallace Shawn, My Dinner With Andre. May all your sit-down interviews be this engrossing.

Spalding Gray, Swimming to Cambodia. As good as My Dinner With Andre, but there’s only one man talking. Journalists have a lot to earn from the art of the monologue.

Charles Bowden, Blues for Cannibals. I used to assign this, but it infuriated 2/3 of every semester’s class. It’s hard going, dense, circular, often overwrought, in need of editing, and absolutely brilliant. Makes the phrase “dark lyricism” meaningful. Sort of like James Agee’s best work; study it, but beware of trying it at home.

Don DeLillo, Libra. “Every plot is a conspiracy of armed men,” writes DeLillo in this novel that uses an assassination as an excuse for a meditation on narrative structure and the construction of truths. Historical fiction shouldn’t be confused with history, but literary journalists will do well to read the best of the genre for insight into how facts shape stories.

Joe Sacco, Safe Area: Gorazde and Palestine. Sacco is one of the best narrative journalists working today, which is saying something given that he draws all his stories.

Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking. Learn how to write essays and bury people at the same time, from a poet who runs a funeral home. Build a collection of collections by contemporary essayists like Lynch, Annie Dillard, Judith Moore, Vivian Gornick, etc. Practitioners of the “reported essay” ought to study the pure form.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

James Marsh, The King, 2006; Edward Norton, Down in the Valley, 2006

Down in the Valley stars Edward Norton as Harlan, folksy innocent roiling with secret malice -- the same kind of role that made Norton famous 11 years ago in Primal Fear -- and Evan Rachel Wood as Tobe, a teenage girl that the older Harlan, a wannabe cowboy, falls in love with, seduces, stalks, shoots, and flees from. Norton can almost carry the movie with his Jimmy Stewart charm, made all the more effective by our knowledge that menace lies ahead, but the plot was that of a clever 17-year-old's imagination. That's better than the plots conceived of by stupid adults, but Valley is still a pale imitation of James Marsh’s The King, starring William Hurt as Pastor David Sandow, a Texas exurban preacher, and Gael Bernal as his bastard son, Elvis Valderaz, returned to haunt the father he never knew. I make the comparison because James’ wife, Anne-Mette, told me that Down in the Valley, released shortly after The King, drove the latter film out of theaters. Apparently, there isn't room in this town for two independent films about angry youths with patricide on the mind. In both movies, a strangely blank prodigal son sets up shop in a fleabag motel and then seduces a too-young girl. In both cases, the seduction is meant to hurt the prodigal son's father, not the girl. Both movies result in surprisingly extreme violence.

And for whatever it’s worth, both movies feature a white horse. In The King, the white horse is, I think, a subconscious echo of Michael Lesy’s 1973 book Wisconsin Death Trip -- a movie of which Marsh also made -- and thus a more evocative but less easily translatable symbol. In Valley, the white horse on which Harlan rides is plain ol’ inverted irony. Beware a man in the modern age who rides a white horse, for he is surely wicked.

Valley is a pastiche of such symbolism, so leaden that it dishonors the sources to which it alludes. Norton quickdraws in the mirror, a la De Niro in Taxi Driver (Bernal practices rifle drill in the mirror, but he has an audience in his girl, and so the scene becomes something new), and teaches a wan little boy spunk by kidnapping him, a la Kevin Costner’s superior A Perfect World. Yes -- Down in the Valley makes a Kevin Costner movie look smart. In the end, David Morse, as the girl’s father, hunts Norton down, gets shot, keeps coming, and kills the son-of-a-bitch, a la every Charles Bronson movie ever made. Morse even wears black. Get it? He wears black, but he's the good guy. Father really does know best. That’s the message.

It’s the father who gets it in the end of The King -- even though he’s accepted his bastard son, confessed to his church, and, really, been everything a Christian preacher is supposed to be. But violence still visits him, and despite his repentance, he is no more innocent of the violence than the bastard son who perpetrates it. Norton’s character becomes more obvious and ridiculous as we learn his motives -- he’s secretly Jewish rebelling against his hasidic father by playing cowboy -- whereas Bernal’s character becomes more blank and yet more subtly drawn. What we thought we understood, we realize, we don’t. And we only see how wrong we are –- how hard it is to understand the past, to recognize sin, to interpret a white horse -- around the same time William Hurt does, as his life is burning down around him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Jim Webb's Never-Ending War," 2007

From my latest story in Rolling Stone: "As night settles between the two mountain ridges that rise on either side of Lebanon, Virginia, a rough little strip of a town in the state’s southwestern corner, Senator Jim Webb’s people assemble in the Russell County Courthouse. They’re coal miners and coal miners’ wives, a third of them in the camouflage strike gear of the United Mine Workers, many of them wearing ball caps declaring them veterans of Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. A leather-skinned veteran named Eldridge tells me in a raspy whisper that he voted for Jim Webb because Webb, a novelist and historian, had gotten these people, mountain people, right in his most recent book, a bestselling history of the Scots-Irish in America called Born Fighting. 'We’ve got our own ghosts and goblins,' Eldridge says, and he thinks Webb sees them. 'He has the Second Sight.'

"He’s the third person this evening to cite the supernatural—a kind of cultural memory, maybe—as a reason for supporting Webb, a fact that doesn’t surprise Virginia’s new Democratic senator. 'My grandmother taught me my ghosts,' he tells me, his voice a low, considered rumble."

Rolling Stone doesn't post many whole stories online, but for those who want to read it -- and willing to endure a slow download -- I've posted a pdf of "Jim Webb's Never-Ending War."