The New King of Nonfiction [Buy Now]
Edited by Ira Glass
Riverhead, 464 pages, $15
The title is quite an audacious one: The New Kings of Nonfiction.
Like something you’d see in bold, luminous letters on the marquee of a Broadway show, but emceed by Spike Lee instead of a public radio personality.
The sprawling stage show that editor Ira Glass has put together in this anthology heralds — according to his exuberant introduction — the past two decades or so (the time period is not quite clear) as nothing less than a golden age of “nonfiction storytelling.”
He proclaims joyfully, “Giants walk among us … They’re trying new things and doing pirouettes with the form. But nobody talks about it that way.”
Glass, of course, is best known as the host and producer of the popular, long running NPR show This American Life. It’s also, as of last year, a new television program on Showtime. If anybody knows anything about great writing, if anybody should be able to judge the state of journalism and the vitality of storytelling today, certainly Glass would be a candidate.
Eschewing the term “literary nonfiction” as “boring” and “pretentious,” what Glass means by nonfiction storytelling — as the focus of this anthology — is journalistic writing based on original reporting.
More importantly, though, this is the kind of reporting in which writers are part of — and sometimes active participants in — the story itself. The authors, unafraid to get their knees and elbows dirty in pursuit of a story, consider it their duty to entertain as much as to inform.
Glass argues that what makes this form of journalism so riveting and unique is that readers get to share with the author the “pleasure of discovery, the pleasure of trying to make sense of the world.”
Though Glass doesn’t mention it, this style of writing was pioneered in the 1960s and ’70s by so-called New Journalists like Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in ’72) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), who were certainly no slouches.
Where traditional journalism holds that the journalist be objective and keep out of the story, the New Journalists jumped feet first into their stories, biases and all in plain view. Certainly this time period was pretty spectacular for nonfiction storytelling as well.
The question becomes, then, is this also a golden age of this kind of writing?
The case can certainly be made using any of the stellar pieces included in this collection. The big name writers — Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Orlean, Chuck Klosterman, David Foster Wallace, and even Charleston native Jack Hitt — are all here, and the writing is uniformly first-rate throughout.
But, as Glass later admits in the introduction, the book as a whole is not really meant to answer that giant historical question. Instead, backing off on the bold title’s premise quite a bit, Glass qualifies the book, calling it simply a collection of great writing he has collected over the years in order to inspire other writers.
What you end up with are pieces as diverse as can be contained in one volume, from the economics of raising a cow in Michael Pollan’s “Power Steer,” to the group mentality of soccer hooligans in an excerpt from Bill Buford’s book Among the Thugs. While some topics might seem less palatable to curious readers, they are all gracefully and skillfully rendered into captivating stories.
Whether this is a golden age of nonfiction storytelling, it’s certainly a golden age of “crap journalism,” Glass writes. When the majority of our daily news media makes the world seem “smaller and stupider,” the greatness of nonfiction storytelling shines through in the spirit of pure curiosity. What Glass argues passionately and most effectively for — and for which The New Kings of Nonfiction provides the best evidence — is a desperate need for this kind of writing.