Introduction: The New Masters
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.” –Mark Twain
We’re here to prove that the naysayers who predicted the end of literary journalism — compelling, long-form, nonfiction stories distinguished by in-depth reporting, artful writing and unique authorial point of view—were greatly mistaken.
Next Wave is a collection of articles written in recent years by literary journalists under forty, members of a new generation who have come of age during the Internet boom. Despite the changes wrought by digital media, and the widespread fear that fine and lively nonfiction writing was in eclipse, these journalists are still pursuing the genre Tom Wolfe dubbed “The New Journalism.” Building on work by the likes of Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, John Hersey, Lillian Ross, Gay Talese, David Halberstam, Jane Kramer, John McPhee, Robert Caro, Susan Sheehan and Hunter S. Thompson… and on the later work by the likes of Tracy Kidder, Richard Ben Cramer, Ted Conover, Jon Franklin, Susan Orlean, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Gary Smith, Tom Junod, David Remnick, Katherine Boo and David Finkel… this new generation of masters continues the lineage into the present.
In their hands, the craft of journalism is raised to art.
It’s not as if we weren’t worried. For the last decade, publishers have been wringing
their hands, trying to figure out ways to harness their new mistress Internet—and having
a rough go of it. All thoughts—and budgets—turned to websites, Facebook, smartphone
apps, crowd-sourcing, and data, data, data. Editorial ranks were thinned and thinned
again; budgets for reporting, photography and art were slashed. The almighty freelancer’s
dollar-a-word fee plunged to five cents a word for writing website news. Nobody seemed
to care anymore about actual content. It was as if the suits couldn’t wrap their minds
around the idea that something substantive needed to be placed between the ads. Hell,
they couldn’t even figure out how to get paid for the ads. Everything became a chase for
page hits: How many unique eyes? With whom can we partner to get more unique eyes?
Meanwhile, we were sitting at our respective keyboards—Walt in his professor’s
office at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and Mike in his converted pool
house office in San Diego. We had met in the Washington Post newsroom in 1980 and
remained friends and colleagues. Between us we have seventy-three years in the trenches
pursuing what has been variously called feature writing, narrative journalism, literary
journalism, creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, and intimate journalism. Whatever
the label, we’re talking about a journalism rooted in scene, setting, characters, dialogue
and point of view.
Was it really possible that we were witnessing the death rattle of our beloved
Thankfully, the answer is no.
Even as the business of journalism contracted, we kept hearing from people devoted
to the literary journalism form. A veteran of the Post, Rolling Stone and Esquire, Mike
continued to hear from college students, alternative weekly and newspaper staffers, and
magazine freelancers who tracked him down for advice. At Illinois, Walt continued to
find a strong cadre of students who wanted to take his literary journalism class. Bored
with journalism’s daily diet of news and superficial features, they yearned to do deeply
human, complex, textured stories written with personal flair and voice, as Mike and Walt
had yearned to do when they were kids. Around the country, Walt’s book, Intimate
Journalism, continued to be used liberally in college classes.
Surprisingly, as it stands today, more opportunities exist for young writers to study
and learn the craft of literary journalism than ever before. The country’s fine journalism
schools and writing programs–many with respected nonfiction writers on their faculties–
continue to graduate talented hopefuls. Niemanstoryboard.org, maintained by Harvard
University’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism, is collecting fine narrative
articles from newspapers and magazines and conducting regular author interviews, giving
sophisticated guidance to aspiring narrative journalists nationwide. The International
Association for Literary Journalism Studies has established the form as a subject for
academic study and launched annual conferences in exotic locales such as London, Paris
and Brussels. Literary Journalism has even taken off in Scandinavia, Slovenia, Romania,
Argentina, Spain and Belgium.
And a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral for long-form journalism: The
source of its supposed demise—the Internet—may well turn out to save it by bringing an
unexpected renaissance of opportunity for practitioners and readers alike. New websites
such as Byliner.com, Longform.org, Atavist.com, and LongStories.net are collecting
literary journalism from all around the world, making it more easily available to readers
than ever. Some of these sites are taking on the role of traditional publications—
assigning original stories for pay. (And sharing the back-end profits with the writers, who
have to ante up their own expenses.) The Huffington Post web operation even won a
Pulitzer Prize for its 10-part series on wounded war veterans. The websites of individual
magazines are just a net search away. And eBooks give anyone the ability to become a
publisher. Just ask Mike. Next Wave is being released as an eBook (with on-demand
paper publishing available) by The Sager Group, a boutique cooperative of artists and
writers who want more creative control over the disposition of their work.
Given this dichotomy—an army of aspiring young reporter-writers in contracting
economic times— it has been hard to know what to tell the hopeful. Weeklies, dailies,
glossies, book publishing: They’re all under duress. How does a young man or woman
begin to tell Mom and Dad, who are spending the cost of a house on a college degree,
that he or she wants to be a … literary journalist?
As it happened, without consulting, we were both giving the same advice.
Becoming a writer—any kind of writer—has always been a long shot. It defies all
cost-benefit analyses. You have to be willing to hear no and keep going back. You often
have to do it on the side around your day job. There never has been a defined career path
for doing this kind of work—there’s no exit on the occupational highway of life marked
“Literary Journalist.” To become one you have to want it more than anything. More than
job security or predictable career trajectory. More than always being home for your
partner’s birthdays. More than your fear of personal bodily harm or the threat of arrest in
some cases. More than great wealth in almost all cases—although there’s always the
small chance that honest hard work will pay off with a lucrative book contract or movie
For all the uncertainties, there is beauty in our writers’ meritocracy: Good work
speaks for itself.
As they like to say in our field: Show it, don’t tell it.
That’s what Next Wave does.
The stories here are the result of more than a year of searching, reading, culling, and
mild argument between Walt and Mike, with the help of enthusiastic students from the
University of Illinois and Goucher College. Notices were posted on nonfiction websites,
writers nominated themselves and their peers. Our student researchers pored through the
last decade of National Magazine Award, Pulitzer Prize and Society of Professional
Journalists feature award winners, as well as the Nieman Storyboard collection. The
stories come from glossy New York magazines, city and regional magazines, and
newspapers. Some are award winners; others are secret gems that got little attention,
except from other writers. Some of these amazing stories seemingly tell themselves—
meaning that a good writer was crafty enough to get him or herself out of the way. Some
stories are what folks in the country call a silk purse from a sow’s ear—stories that
wouldn’t exist without the artful execution of the writer.
We have collected only stories written fundamentally in third person. Mike believes
that deeply first-person journalism is a different genre; Walt believes it less so. Following
the example of Walt’s previous anthology of first person journalism, The Beholder’s Eye,
we plan to collect a second volume dedicated to the amazing first-person work of this
new generation, which is flourishing in this age of self-confession. The other arbitrary
factor in this effort is the age limit—people under age forty in 2011, when we started
assembling the potential selectees. As a result, we missed the work of some excellent
literary journalists born a bit too soon. For that we are sorry, but we had to cut it off
somewhere. In the end, our choices came down to taste—our taste. If we missed someone
deserving, we are sorry. It was nothing personal. But we do promise that what we’ve
chosen is some really amazing work.
It’s heartening that a few of the stories included in this collection come from grubby
old newspapers, where the art of storytelling—and the medium itself—seems comatose.
Yet if you look around the country at the papers still working hard to stay alive, many are
moving toward more feature or news feature coverage because they know they can’t
compete with the breaking news advantages of the Web. We hope so. Newspapers were
our training ground. We also believe quality storytelling is one of the keys to newspaper
survival. At the end of the daisy chain of cross marketing and linking of brands, maybe
the answer is this: Giving people something beautifully enjoyable to read.
That’s what we hope we’ve done here. A poor man who discovers a $1 million bill
and his quest to have it authenticated. The tragedy of a beloved pet chimp run amok. The
sad yet hopeful tale of a first-year teacher in an impoverished school. The Florida woman
who died in her house—and nobody noticed. The confusing issues over the genetic sex of
one of the world’s greatest athletes. The minutes before and after the Washington, D.C.,
subway crash that took nine lives. The prosecutor, caught in a sting by Dateline’s “To
Catch a Predator,” who takes his own life. A father and his autistic son, enjoying a swim,
swept out to sea. The brilliant doctor who succumbed tragically to the temptations of of
his own occupation. A woman who legally abandons her child. An unthinkable crime in
the French vineyard that produces Burgundy’s finest wine. The last days of a mentally ill
basketball player alone in a distant land. The horse-track veterinarian who ends the lives
of beautiful creatures. The fortitude of a shrimp boat captain trying to maintain his
family’s long tradition in a changing world. A reluctant high-school football player who
died on the practice field. A good woman who may have been wrongly convicted of
killing her adopted, troubled child. A wounded soldier given a new skull. And profiles of
movie critic Roger Ebert and pop diva Britney Spears that offer rare and substantial
glimpses behind the curtain of celebrity.
The common denominators these stories share are humanity, compassion and
poignancy. They take us beyond accepted wisdom and inside human experience in a way
that often feels like a movie, short story or novel—in a way that feels real. They blend
deep reporting of hard facts with the reporting of sensation, emotion and, importantly,
ambiguity. In a world where it seems everybody has a strong opinion about everything,
these stories remind us to be humble about what we think we know. They illustrate how
literary journalism can unlock the inner workings of human experience in ways that
traditional news, investigative and feature journalism can’t. As in all journalism, the work
demands literal, verifiable fact. That’s the heart of the craft, the start of the art. Yet the
form also honors the facts of human frailty and failing, human emotion, struggle, hope,
confusion, fear and wisdom. It is factual storytelling with head, heart and soul. Like no
other form of journalism, it allows us to go behind the exterior world around us and
explore the interior of real lives in all their complexity.
The journalists who do this work love it and it shows: The deep time spent with real
people, the weird places they visit, the joy of practicing junkyard anthropology, the
chance to leave their own heads and enter the psyches of their subjects and come away
wiser, the time spent mastering the turning of a good phrase or a nice simile, collecting
the telling details others miss, finding meaning in the jumble of facts, quotes and events
they have witnessed. As you will see when you read their personal essays, they have a lot
in common; though their styles are different, their hearts are very much the same. One
thing writers agree about: we love to share our work. Especially with discerning readers,
people who love the form as much as we do. We write for ourselves, dear readers, but we
are nothing without you.
Walt Harrington and Mike Sager