A book review from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight
Wolfe, Thompson, Didion
and the New Journalism Revolution
By Marc Weingarten

Crown. 325 pp. $25

Long-form journalism keeps taking punches to the gut.

Newspaper editors now chant a mantra of “short, short, short” to their reporters. (Hey, jerko, can you cut that to “short”?) Time and Newsweek serve up bite-sized capsules that used to be restricted to People, their down-market cousin. Nightline’s devotion to one textured story vanished last week, post-Ted Koppel, into the tired old TV-mag format: three quickies.

The explanation from bosses who make these decisions? Short attention spans, especially among “young-uns.” Problem is, there’s no credible research to support the SAS myth. Just corporate-purchased research.

The data that exist come from people with short attention spans, the kind who participate in focus groups and telephone surveys relied on by corporate research. Guess what? SAS in, SAS out. Well-educated, successful people with good incomes and long attention spans don’t waste time on focus groups or telephone marketing surveys. They’re too busy reading books, serious magazines, and long-form journalism.

The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight takes us back to an era – roughly 1965 to the late ’70s – when iconoclastic American journalists resisted false inferences about modern life’s impact on reading. They excited paying customers with more, deeper, wilder, sexier and smarter instead of less, thinner, tamer, primmer and dumber.

Marc Weingarten, a smooth newspaper and magazine writer, tells the tale here of the main outlets and heroes of what Tom Wolfe christened, in a 1973 anthology he coedited, “The New Journalism”: Esquire, Rolling Stone, the New York Herald Tribune, New York magazine, editors such as Harold Hayes, Clay Felker and Jann Wenner, and the star writers everyone knows now, such as Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Michael Herr.

Weingarten’s approach appeals. While his biographies of writers and editors remain necessarily compact, they explain how New Journalists individually grasped what journalistic bosses ignore today: that more – more detail, more nerve, more reporting, more style, more voice – convinces readers they’re getting more for their money, so they buy.

Weingarten starts out with the still-hilarious tale of how Wolfe, then the Herald Tribune’s hot feature writer, took off in 1965 after the New Yorker in his bristly two-part piece, “Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street’s Land of the Walking Dead!”

William Shawn, the New Yorker’s venerable longtime editor, a man with a profile so low he might have been in a “witness protection program,” had declined an interview request from Wolfe and asked the aggressive young reporter to back off. “If we tell someone we want to do a profile and that person doesn’t want to cooperate,” Shawn explained to Wolfe, “we don’t do the profile. We would expect you to extend us the same courtesy.”

Instead, Wolfe extended his portrait to thousands of words, including stinging detail gathered from New Yorker insiders, about Shawn’s office with its “horsehair-stuffing atmosphere of old carpeting… and happy-shabby, baked-apple gentility.” Manhattan’s chattering classes could talk about little else for weeks.

The impulse shared by Weingarten’s New Journalist revolutionaries – he labels their convergence “the greatest literary movement since the American fiction renaissance of the 1920s” – was to begin “to think like novelists,” to aim at “journalism that reads like fiction” but still “rings with the truth of reported fact.”

The stories Weingarten recounts show how New Journalists implemented that strategy. Wolfe insisted on time to “hang out” with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, to gather the little things that let an interloper get a story right. The idea, Wolfe remarked, was “to do more reporting than anyone had ever done before.”

Breslin’s credo that “the loser is always more important than the winner” in any situation also required putting in time, visiting regular haunts of the less fortunate, having room to report the downbeat details. Norman Mailer, in an early magazine article on John F. Kennedy, demanded that his word choices, his imagery, stay.

Today a space-crunched editor might cut Mailer’s throwaway line that Los Angeles looked as if built “by television sets giving orders to men.” Yet such lines stick in the mind, and bring a reader back for more.

Weingarten stresses that the freedom the evolving New Journalism stars received from editors and publishers to stretch further, to report peripheries, to let loose with perspective and voice, came at a price. The cost of ambition and achievement was space.

“You have to have a mission when you’re publishing,” Time cofounder Henry Luce told a young Clay Felker, “otherwise you have nothing.” Weingarten’s back-to-the-past tour leaves one with the impression that the folks with SAS today are editors and publishers who can’t remember that long-form journalism excited sophisticated readers as short-form journalism never has.

A prediction. After today’s blogging hype fades for a tried-and-true historical reason – serious readers have never paid more than a pittance for ephemera – the Internet’s identification with blogging will give way to exploitation of its truly novel capacity: limitless cheap space for substantive, long-form writing. That development will only expand as the last print generation that hates to read off screens dies off.

When publishers grasp that economic model – so far only Google and Yahoo see it coming – the heirs of Wolfe, Thompson and their peers will start punching back.