NEAL CONAN, host:
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Traditional news stories leave you knowing nothing more about their author than the name in the byline, an absent, invisible voice concerned only with information. For decades now, an upstart point of view has taken an increasingly prominent place on the page: first-person journalism, stories where the reporter is a character along with their subjects, and their thoughts and feelings form part of the story.
A new anthology gathers examples of this form: "The Beholder's Eye: A Collection of America's Finest Personal Journalism." If you like your journalism first-person or third-person, if you have a preference, give us a phone call. When a reporter takes a role in the story as a character, does that make you believe more in what he's talking about, or she is talking about, or less? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
Joining us now is the editor of "The Beholder's Eye," University of Illinois journalism professor Walt Harrington. He's at the studios of WILL, a member station in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor WALT HARRINGTON (University of Illinois): Oh, nice to be here.
CONAN: You use the term `personal journalism.' There are others: `non-fiction,' `narrative,' `first-person journalism.' Is there a distinction?
Prof. HARRINGTON: The distinctions all blur, to be perfectly honest about it. But when you talk about non-fiction narrative, it's probably more often thought of in terms of a third person telling, where the author goes out, uses the devices and techniques of storytelling to bring someone else's story to life. Personal journalism, I would say, is simply a type of narrative journalism where the journalists themselves become a character in the story, either more or less, depending upon the nature of the story and the insight one's trying to garner.
CONAN: We're having a little bit of a technical problem. Could I ask you, Walt, just to move back from the microphone just a hair, and that would help us out?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Certainly.
CONAN: OK. There you go. That's an improvement. Appreciate that. I did want to ask you--there's an example in your book about the incomprehension that a lot of people in journalism have about first-person journalism, and that's a story that you include in the book about a reporter who goes in search of Marlon Brando on Tahiti.
Prof. HARRINGTON: (Laughs) It's a famous little story at The Washington Post. Years ago when Mike Sager, who was a former Washington Post reporter who was asked by an editor to go and find Marlon Brando, who at the time was famous for not having anything to do with the press. And Mike went out and spent, I'm sure, a huge amount of money and a couple of months traipsing around the country and Tahiti, for that matter, since Marlon has an island in Tahiti, and never did meet Marlon Brando in person but managed to write a 10,000-word piece about his adventure. And the outrage in the Post newsroom--I was in the Post newsroom at the time as a writer at The Washington Post Magazine, where the piece appeared. The outrage in the newsroom was stunning to me, the sense that `Why would we ever write a piece like this? What's the news here? He was sent out to find Marlon Brando and he never found him, so why did he write a story?' Of course...
CONAN: Yeah. Would Livingston have written a story about not finding Stanley?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Exactly. But if you've read, you know, any of Livingston, you understand that much of his work was really travelogue journalism, which gave you a sense of the ambience of the place and the culture and the times, and also his personal experience. And, indeed, Mike's piece was an odd piece about how a journalist can so easily become obsessed and self-justify the pursuit of a celebrity, and in the end become something that he despised in himself, which was a kind of scoop, slob kind of journalism. And in an odd way, the piece was a ringing critique of a certain form of journalism, although I think that obviously was missed on the part of many journalists.
CONAN: And, curiously, you write that Mike Sager went on to a very rewarding career after leaving The Washington Post.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, he was--already left at the time...
Prof. HARRINGTON: ...but yes, that's--that story ended up on--getting him noticed in New York City at the glossies, and the dynamic in journalism is that this form has been much more perpetuated in magazines than it has in newspapers. Newspapers came to it later than magazines did. As you know, New York Magazine, Esquire, GQ were pioneering in this years and years ago.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Here's Phil. Phil's calling us from Bend, Oregon.
PHIL (Caller): Hi. I--in the context of this conversation, I think we should all remember Dr. Thompson, who was kind of one of the pioneers of that subjective-point-of-view journalism.
CONAN: You're talking, of course, about Hunter Thompson, who died earlier this year.
PHIL: That's right. And I remember a quote attributed to Frank Mankiewicz, who was the McGovern campaign manager in '72 who wrote about Thompson's accounts of that campaign, that it was the least factually accurate but certainly the most true account of that particular campaign.
(Soundbite of chuckling)
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yeah. Thompson--the accuracy of Hunter's work is always something that people debate, in terms of his technical documentary accuracy. My belief is that you can pursue this form of journalism and still stick to the kind of documentary accuracy that is involved in traditional journalism, yet at the same time, there is room for abuse in this, as there is in anything else.
CONAN: You point...
Prof. HARRINGTON: And his book "Hell's Angels" is probably, I think, the one that stands up and stands the test of time in terms of a remarkable book that gives us insight about his subjects, as it also uses himself as part of the story as a kind of guinea pig for understanding and helping us understand the Hell's Angels.
CONAN: You also talk about how one of the progenitors of this style, George Orwell, in "Road to Wigan Pier" and other books--he, it turned out, fictionalized some of his stories.
Prof. HARRINGTON: That's right. There was certainly a time in this form of journalism when people didn't really have rules yet. They were pioneering. They were mixing forms. They were trying to figure out exactly what this was. They were thinking of themselves as essayists as much as they were journalists at the time. And as I say in the introduction to this, when I was young, reading Orwell's work, I didn't have any idea that he had actually sometimes messed with the facts and the scenes and meshed them together. I believed that it all happened as it did, and as a reporter I read it and see no reason why one couldn't stick to things, actually, as they happened and still have an equally compelling story.
I mean, we have, you know, wonderful--I mean, if you look at Bob Woodward's work on the Supreme Court of the United States or on, you know, any number of other books, it's clear that you can do sourcing journalism and still have a strong sense of story and a strong sense of story line.
CONAN: Phil, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
PHIL: You're welcome. Bye.
CONAN: And let's talk now with Caroline, Caroline in Anchorage, Alaska.
CAROLINE (Caller): Yes, hi. This is Caroline. Thank you very much for taking my call and good morning from way west of where you folks are.
CONAN: Good morning.
CAROLINE: I wanted to put in the voice of an old-school type here. I believe that if the reporter is there at the time the event occurs, then they would--might have some justification in inserting themselves if they were part of the action. Otherwise, they are there to report what occurred, and I see it as very ego-driven to involve themselves in the story.
CONAN: Caroline's criticism is--she's not the only one with that opinion.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, of course not. And one of the premises of this sort of reporting is, of course, that you are there and that you have immersed yourself or put yourself in the situation where you're there to see what's going on and what's happening. There's really very little reconstruction in this form. But the truth is that most personal journalism is a blend of memoir, of reporting and essay, and it is a blending of all those legitimate forms into a single form, in and of itself.
And so, you know, in "The Beholder's Eye," we have war reporter Scott Anderson writing a wonderful piece about, essentially, what he has learned from his own wartime reporting experiences, and he uses as a vehicle his own immersion in a particular setting, and there's a lot of digression around that, or covering other years of reporting experiences. A wonderful piece called Missing Alice by journalist Pete Earley, where he essentially goes back 20 years later, trying to understand his sister's death on his motorbike when he was only 13 years old, and trying to unravel the meaning and purpose of her life, and he goes back and essentially reports out her life and his life in relation to it. I mean, that...
CONAN: But you're talking about exemplars. Caroline is certainly right that there are moments when this can become an ego trip.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Well, that's the--trying to draw the distinction, when it is or when it isn't. The question is, is the person--is the reporter or the journalist--using themselves in a way that it is contributing insight to the subject that he or she is actually trying to shed light on? And that's the question. Is it simply...
CAROLINE: Would that not be better stated in either an essay or a novel?
Prof. HARRINGTON: It would be differently stated in an essay or a novel. The point is, if it's in a novel, you read it with a point of view that says, `Well, this isn't really happening.' When you read a piece like this, you read it with the point of view and the understanding that, `My goodness, this actually is happening. This actually is real. This is documentarily confirmable.'
CONAN: Caroline, thanks very much for the phone call.
CAROLINE: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
One of the contributors to "The Beholder's Eye" collection joins us now. In her contribution, Mary Kay Blakely wrote about getting to know autistic author Donna Williams. Mary Kay Blakely teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism and joins us now from the studios of member station KBIA in Columbia, Missouri.
It's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ms. MARY KAY BLAKELY (Contributor, "The Beholder's Eye"): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Your essay in this book focuses on a very unusual person and her very unusual way of seeing the world, her and her husband. Why did you decide to write this first person, as opposed to a profile, straight profile?
Ms. BLAKELY: I actually had done a straight profile in an earlier piece I had done on Donna Williams, and it worked well for that one first publication. The reason I decided to do first person this time was because I had four more years of knowing her that provided deep background, and I also knew, writing this for a magazine audience, that my biggest question was: How do you understand an autistic person? And I really regarded myself as sort of the reader's way of getting into this. So all of the questions that I had I assumed would be questions that the reader would have.
So going back to Caroline's comment, which was interesting to me--the story, while it does include a first-person character, it's still about the subject. it would probably be inappropriate for me to have woven in my stories or a lot of my reactions, but I did want the reader to know what it feels like to be with some autistic persons for three days.
CONAN: We're talking with Mary Kay Blakely and with Walt Harrington, both contributors to a new book called "The Beholder's Eye: A Collection of America's Finest Personal Journalism." Walt Harrington also edited it. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let me ask you both: There is a moment when somebody sits down to write a, you know, first-person narrative, first-person journalism, when you become--the writer themselves becomes a character on the page. And I wonder, did you have difficulty? First of all, it is quite peculiar to create a character out of yourself. It's not quite you; it's somebody very close to being you, but it's not quite you, and it's also easy to manipulate that character, to some degree, to become either more amusing or more pathetic, or whatever it is, to make a point. Mary Kay, did you have that experience?
Ms. BLAKELY: Oh, absolutely. I'm always more amusing on the page than I am in person.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BLAKELY: People are always saying, `Oh, you must have had so much fun writing that,' and I thought, `No, it was not fun writing it. It was--I hope it was more fun reading it.' But that's true. You do, certainly, keep parts of yourself out of the story that are inappropriate to the story, but in a way I think even when we're doing third-person reporting, we're always shaping a story, shaping a narrative. We're electing which facets of this personality should go into this story and which stay on the cutting room floor, as it were.
CONAN: Walt Harrington, did you have that problem, or that phenomenon?
Prof. HARRINGTON: Yes, and I think Mary's right. It's true for when you're doing third-person pieces, also, the question of what do you put in, what do you leave out, about the people that you're writing about. And the same thing is true when you're using yourself in the story. The question, I think, I always ask is: If the reader knew this thing that I'm not telling them, would it alter their interpretation of this story that I am telling them? It's a subjective way that I use to try and figure out what has to be or demands to be in a story, and that's a very commonsense kind of take on it, and there's not a completely right or a wrong answer.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get listeners back in on the conversation. This is Barb, and Barb is calling from Belleville, Michigan.
BARB (Caller): Yes. Thank you for taking my call.
BARB: I took--I am a journalism major, and the one thing that they really stressed with the journalism classes and in the journalism books is that a first-person narrative is almost considered a feature article, not something that's a hard, biting story.
BARB: Is that--so, I mean, is that still going to be the same case? Are we looking at changing the front page or the first section of a newspaper into first-person narratives, or are they still going to be staying--those hard news stories?
CONAN: Walt Harrison...
BARB: That's what the feature stories are for. And...
CONAN: Walt Harrison, first-person stories in The Washington Post end up primarily in the Style section, not on the front page.
Prof. HARRINGTON: We're not in any danger of seeing newspapers on the front page taken over by first-person narrative, nor should we be. But, as was just mentioned, these are considered, quote, "feature" stories, but feature stories are still considered journalism. And feature stories do appear on the front page of America's newspapers all the time, and this is simply a variation on what we think of as a feature story. And I think that if the journalists of America take the time to actually read collections and works like this, they'll begin to be able to understand that it's not a threat to what it is they do, nor is it a violation of their rules and standards. It is a melding of various approaches into something that can be more compelling, more interesting and more insightful than what it is they're used to giving readers.
BARB: You're still creating a character, and a character would be considered, in some cases, fictional. Even though it's a part of your personality, it's still fictional. It's not a real person.
CONAN: Mary Kay Blakely?
Ms. BLAKELY: Well, I don't think so because, again, echoing what Walt said, you have to have your facts exactly right. And I think all kinds of journalism, again, do this. You'll see stories where it will say, `The reporter wondered if' or `The reporter asked,' and you know the reporter is the writer, but it's...
CONAN: Yeah, `told this reporter'--yeah.
Ms. BLAKELY: Right. But it's almost, you know, a form we've adopted and readers have come to expect. And we're always having to ask, `Is this objective? Is this fair? Should it be?' And I think the first-person journalist is right out there, willing and able to take any criticism because it's very firmly attached to the `I.'
CONAN: Barb, good luck with your studies.
BARB: Thank you. Well, actually, I graduated. So...
CONAN: Oh, well, good luck finding a job, then.
BARB: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Mary Kay Blakely, thank you for being with us today.
Ms. BLAKELY: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Mary Kay Blakely's article, To Seem is Not to Be, appears in the new anthology "The Beholder's Eye." She joined us from KBIA, our member station in Columbia, Missouri. And we'd also like to thank Walt Harrington for his time today.
Walt, thank you.
Prof. HARRINGTON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Walt Harrington edited the recently released edition called "The Beholder's Eye," and he was at the studios of member station WILL in Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches journalism at the University of Illinois.
I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.