Fall 2000

Literary Nonfiction Constructs a Narrative Foundation

In college classes, students read great storytellers and learn how to tell a story.

By Madeleine Blais
Just about every fall, I teach a course called “Readings in Journalism” to sophomore pre-journalism majors at the University of Massachusetts and to My hope is that the narrative style these authors employ will resonate with the students as they move along in their preparation to be journalists.visiting students from Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges. Similar courses with titles such as “Creative Nonfiction,” “The Literature of Fact,” “The Writer in Society,” and “Writing in the Documentary Tradition” are taught at colleges throughout the country.

My students often have only the vaguest notion of what has drawn them to this subject matter, and questionnaires that I have them fill out on the first day always confirm that I have my work cut out for me. Some choice responses from over the years: Philip Caputo: “a famous sportscaster.” Homer Bigart: “old time movie star.” The New Yorker: “a magazine my aunt gets, about, I think, New York.”

From this unpromising beginning, it would be tempting to create a syllabus that rectifies such wholesale ignorance from the ground up and to include every worthy work of nonfiction I can think of, but no one course could possibly take on the burden of so much prose. My hope is that the narrative style these authors employ will resonate with the students as they move along in their preparation to be journalists. Although many of them might end up recognizing that such sustained projects are not for them, at least they will have developed a taste and admiration for the best in this burgeoning tradition.

It’s easy enough to create a wish list of all the books I’d like to expose my students to during a given semester so I ensure that they emerge from the class with a sense of this wonderful hybrid form. My hardest job is winnowing selections down to a meaningful assortment that produces conversation among the students about the ways in which these authors approached writing and a discussion about the larger cultural context of their work, as well.

Literary nonfiction has a deep American backbone, fixed in the democratic notion that real stories about real people are worth telling. Literary nonfiction not only honors all the shibboleths of classical storytelling, but it also welcomes the best of other disciplines into the mix, giving it melting pot inclusiveness. Consider the great workhorses of the genre, books such as “Common Ground” and “Hiroshima,” “In Cold Blood,” “The Executioner’s Song,” “Dispatches,” “A Rumor of War,” and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Then, contemplate how these authors broke apart the boundaries between history and biography and sociology to create a whole new coinage.

This fall I will teach Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” It’s long, more than 1,000 pages, but accessible. I find the story of Gary Gilmore, the two-bit two-time killer who demanded that the state live up to its obligation to execute him, is as compelling now as it was 20 years ago when the book was published. One of the most fascinating exercises would-be journalists can do while reading this book is look at the stunning variety of ways in which information is obtained to piece together the narrative. This work should have particular appeal in the fall of 2000, thanks to a presidential election in which the wanton use of the death penalty is the unspoken running mate of one of the candidates. My students will also read the essay “The Hanging” by George Orwell as part of the course and, I hope, get some sense of Mailer’s other writings along the way, in particular his political reporting with its icon-smashing brilliance.

Although I don’t want to make crime and punishment the overwhelming focus of the course, Ted Conover’s “Newjack,” in which the author posed as a prison guard at Sing Sing for a year, will be required reading. An Amherst college alum, Conover is going to be in the area for guest lectures and classroom appearances in October, and nothing makes a book more vivid than the opportunity to meet its author. In all of his work, Conover relies on a certain kind of immersion journalism, often going undercover. For “Newjack,” he got a job as a corrections officer. He has also passed himself off as a hobo, a caterer and an illegal immigrant. What are the ethics of such subterfuge? Does it always yield the best story?

I especially enjoy teaching when the examination of one book leads gracefully to the examination of another, and the Mailer/Conover dyad should yield a nifty one-two punch. When “The Executioner’s Song” was published, Joan Didion’s review of it was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. The students will read that, as well as an essay or two from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” before taking on Didion’s book “Miami,” which will have added urgency thanks to the Elian crisis. This discussion will be supplemented by our reading Tim Golden’s first-rate piece in The New York Times in April about the extended Gonzalez family. Perhaps I’ll add some video snippets from “The Buena Vista Social Club.” (“Videocillin,” we call it in the classroom, a wonder drug that wakes up even the sleepiest students).

I worked in Miami for many years, arriving there when it was still a pastel backwater brimming with retirees who lived for their early-bird specials. The Cubans in the mid-70’s were still considered a quaint subculture, what with their piñata shops, their thick high-octane coffee, and their elaborate coming out parties called “quinzes” for their 15-year-old daughters. It was assumed that they would be returning any minute to their island paradise. Didion’s “Miami” documents the thwarted efforts of Cuban-Americans to reclaim their homeland. An interesting companion piece is an essay James Agee wrote for Fortune in the fall of 1937; it is called “Havana Cruise,” and in it he describes the journey of a group of middle class tourists to Cuba.

Most of the students appreciate a book or two that speaks to or about their age group. “Remembering Denny” by Calvin Trillin is one of my all-time favorites in this regard. It is the author’s very middle-aged recollection of a golden boy from Yale in the 50’s who was twice the subject of major adulatory pieces in Life magazine, but who led a shadowed life that not only fell short of its glittering early promise but ended in a mostly unhailed suicide. Trillin’s evocation of his Yale, of that time and place, is oddly captivating for students, leading them inevitably to thoughts about how they would capture their collegiate experience and to queasy conjecture about whether there exists someone they know now about whom they might write a similar book in 30 years.

“Our Guys,” about the rape of a retarded girl by a group of athletes in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, also holds their attention, but the writing is a bit cumbersome. Sports is always an easy sell, especially Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Wait Till Next Year.”

Last year, the University of Chicago Press published a terrific collection of Mike Royko’s greatest hits called “One More Time.” The students love his punch and honesty and any discussion of his work leads inevitably to columnists Patricia Smith, Mike Barnicle, and now Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe and the shared fate of their chastisement for not living up to standards of journalistic practice. Would Rokyo make it at the Globe today?

Just as the four sisters in “Little Women” believed that Christmas without presents isn’t Christmas, a course in literary journalism without the heavy-duty presence of The New Yorker would be fatally flawed. The short character studies in “In the Old Hotel” by Joseph Mitchell provide a perfect starting point. Lillian Ross’s collection, “Reporting,” is also brilliant, especially the portrait on the high school kids from the Midwest on a field trip to New York City and the profile of Hemingway. I am also thinking of requiring Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” as a primary example of how a writer can take a small subject and make it sing.

In our short time together, there is not time for us to read and talk about many of the great narrative writers. But they are out there, waiting to be discovered by this next generation. And perhaps, as some of them begin careers as journalists, voices from the pages of these books will echo in ways that inspire them to mesh what is best about the narrative tradition with what is the essential mission of journalism.

Madeleine Blais, 1986 Nieman Fellow, teaches at the University of Massachusetts. She is the author of several books, including the forthcoming “Uphill Walkers: Biography of a Family,” to be published by Grove Atlantic in the spring.

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