Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Creepy Creepazoid as New Journalist



Truman on the cover of his own non-fiction book


New Journalism was a revolutionary style of non-fiction writing from the late 60s and 1970s associated with writers like Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and the one who named it, Tom Wolfe. It combined many novelistic techniques such as writing in the first person, removal of a wall between the writer and the subject, and less emphasis towards imparting facts, and more towards describing a milieu and personal behavior. As Wolfe wrote in his essay which described how new journalist departs from traditional journalism:
The essential difference between the new nonfiction and conventional reporting is, he said, that the basic unit of reporting was no longer the datum or piece of information but the scene. Scene is what underlies “the sophisticated strategies of prose."
Often considered a milestone in what would later be called new journalism was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, often considered to be a "non-fiction novel." In the book, Capote literally becomes a kind of unseen character, placing himself in Kansas and into the lives of the townspeople and mass murderer subjects. As pointed out in the two recent films about Capote, and Infamous, Capote was not only obsessed with his subjects but had an intense crush on one of the killers. Moreover, Tom Wolfe in his 1976 essay decontructing In Cold Blood and exploitation films wrote,
In the absence of mystery and the unpredictable, Capote's book retains the audience's attention with the promise of disclosing gruesome details about the true crime it discusses, thus degenerating the work to the level of sadistic sensationalism, or, indeed, pornoviolence.
Wolfe uses the term "pornoviolence" to describe any work which uses voyeurism as a way of keeping the reader or viewer interested.

New Journalism was featured in bestseller novel-length works like In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's book about murderer Gary Gilmore called The Executioner's Song (featuring Mailer's bromance with Gilmore), the works of Hunter Thompson like his groundbreaking piece for The Nation magazine about the Hell's Angels, and especially in magazines like Esquire and New York Magazine, which featured and fostered many pieces by New Journalist writers.


Gay Talese bemoaning how hard it is to be a New Journalist

One of the most famous writers for these publications was Gay Talese, who literally put himself into the non-fiction pieces he wrote. In his 1966 article about Frank Sinatra for Esquire, Talese not only writes about Sinatra (in fairly lurid terms) but also about Talese's attempts to even meet with Sinatra, dealing with Sinatra's large entourage,etc. His ultimate non-fiction work (starring himself) was the book Thy Neighbor's Wife, about the "swinger's lifestyle" in which Talese literally has a an affair with his neighbor's wife and writes about it in detail.

The lowest common denominator... you!
Ultimately, New Journalism filtered into publications like Rolling Stone (with it's numerous Hunter Thompson pieces) and eventually, newspapers like The Village Voice and its much-imitated rock critic, Robert Cristgau. To this day, aspects of New Journalism dominate feature writing in women's magazines, Vanity Fair, men's magazines like Maxxum, and even sports publications like Sports Illustrated. One could make a case Michael Moore, much of what's on Fox News and Frontline are forms of New Journalism. And, of course, it's largely filtered down to the Internet. Most blog writing incorporates some parts of New Journalism. The idea of "my (the author's) experience is news" is total New Journalism.

Instant expertise! (AKA I know what I know)
One of the liberating aspects of New Journalism is that one really doesn't have to be any kind of expert to write about a subject because you're writing about your experience of the subject matter. Facts are altogether secondary and, of course, subject to interpretation. In addition, New Journalism liberates the concept of subject matter, since the mundane, sordid and even trashy are considered just as important to report on as what used to be deemed highly esteemed, cultured or of major import. Moreover, macho writers like Mailer, Thompson and Talese often traded on their reputations of "the writer as crazy adventurer/wild man," a tradition which lives on in the writing of authors like William T. Vollman who places himself into a number of his works (including one about his part in rescuing sex slaves). In his novel Butterfly Stories, he turns New Journalism iconography back into fiction in writing about a "New Journalist" (bascially Vollman) writing about Asian sex workers who then loses himself in that world.


Vollman (left) and his 'butterfles'

So, what does this have to do with trans people? Well, a number of wannabe Gay Taleses have dipped *ahem* parts of their bodies into the world of tranny porn and sexwork. Vollman, in his book Kissing the Mask (mostly about the Japanese Noh Theater) also involves forays into LAs trans community including side trips to one of Vollman's big fascinations... trans sex workers. Another writer who's very out front with his transsexual obsession is humor writer Jonathan Ames. He goes so far as to write a piece in his book Sexual Metamorphosis about how he had an airport quickie leading to an affair with iconic trans woman actress and writer Aleisha Brevard (fulfilling both his MILF and transsexual obsessions).

New Journalism as Social Science
New Journalism has also found its way into pop social science books. Don Kulick's somewhat sensationalism and very New Journalism work, Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, like Gay Talese, is not only a study of these women, but how Kulick lived among them and sat with them while they pumped silicone. He uses this intimacy to make some rather unscientific sweeping theories about their identities. Equally lurid is Michael Bailey's supposed social science book The Man Who Would Be Queen, which uses a Chicago bar frequented by trans women as a core setting for the book. There are parts of the book which seem to obsessively dwell on both the bar and its customers. One of the tenets of these books is proximity breeds understanding (an important concept in many works of New Journalism). What they don't tend to honestly discuss is the author's own assumptions and even fetishistic fascinations which drove them to place themselves in these settings in the first place. They will freely admit to the obsession, but will not question what fuels the obsession.


What Gay Talese and Hunter Thompson hath wrought.

Wanna Read About My 'Dirty' Experience? Sure you do.
Ultimately, just as couture is copied ad infinitum and eventually becomes bargain knock-offs in discount stores, so In Cold Blood eventually leads to pieces like this one in the New York Press. It's by Will Johnson and called Of Trannies and Trepidation. It's a first person account of the (straight-identified) writer's visit to a trans sex worker.

He starts his piece with, "STRAIGHT MEN DESIRE trannies. It’s true. Her name was Rita and I found her on AdultFriendFinder". They wrote to one another, "She got right to the point: So, how big is your cock she asked?” “Um, 8 inches.” “Ooh! That sounds nice!” she said. “How big is yours?” I asked her. “About 6.” “That sounds nice,” I said, "figuring I should say something."

He's on his way to see her and writes, "I wanted to talk first and feel out the situation. I have always been paranoid of STDs, and I wanted to make sure that Rita would respect my limits." As soon as he comes through the door, (she shares the place with a roomate) she asks to suck his balls. In short order she takes off his pants (but not without him asking to see her penis as well and commenting on its size). They mutually masturbate one another but then, she does something beyond the author's comfort level and says, "“Come on, papi,” she moaned. “Stick that dick in my ass.” I was not ready. Things were moving too fast."

She offers to show him her HIV test but he demurs, he doesn't want to have sex, just, maybe suck her off again. She's turned off and asks him to leave. When he offers to call her again she replies, "whatever." He then writes, "I arrived home and inspected my fingers (he had one up her anus) for any unknown lesions." He finishes his little tale by imparting:
Why can’t there be a happy medium, I wondered. Some people move too slowly and others too fast. Why can’t everyone be as sane as I am?

After I calmed down I was still glad I did not have sex with Rita. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Especially when going to the apartment of a tranny stranger.
This is doubtless meant to be a humorous piece about a neurotic nerd trying to taste the supposedly forbidden delights (sic) of sex with a trans woman and, in some ways, a takeoff of the "wild man writer myth" (personified by Hunter Thompson or William Vollman). But it's also interesting how the writer doesn't really confront his own homophobia/transphobia and masks it with his obsessions concerning health and cleanliness. While he might be a loser, he also makes sure we know Rita is viewed by him as "unclean" and obsessed with sex (he never thinks that she's just trying to get him out of there as fast as she can... pretty much the modus of most sex workers).

It's true, I have this friend who...
Again, he's using New Journalism's dictum proximity bestows a right to make observations and judgments about the subject matter because it's really all about the writer not the subject matter ostensibly being discussed. In so many contentious discussions about trans people, cissexual participants (non-trans people) will trot out their proximity to a trans person (I have this friend who's a tranny...) and then proceed to make statements about trans people based on those qualifications. In a way, non-trans people become their own New Journalists when discussing the trans community, using their own first person sense of the world and placing themselves squarely in the middle of someplace sordid (us), including the typical New Journalist devices featured by "In Cold Blood"... voyeurism, broad social judgements, repulsion/attraction and sometimes overstepping forced intimacies (discussions of our bodies and identities) without culpability of what the writer (and central character) brings to the experience other than "I'm writing this, I'm fascinated by it and I'm, ultimately, in control."

8 comments:

  1. Very interesting post!

    In my blog, I try to write only from my own point of view and experience and not generalize it to other trans people or indeed other people. I'm sure I've stepped over that line at times, but I do try not to. My experience might not be the same as anyone else's, so I can't say anything about what it's like to be a woman born transsexual except as I experience it.

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  2. I read the "Flavor of the Week" and it totally read like he went to an escort who was trying to get him out as fast as she could. On one hand, chasers are such a notoriously closeted lot so it's nice that one of them talks about it...

    On the other the "I'M NOT A GAY - REALLY!!!" intro with creepy objectification peppered throughout was, well, creepy and objectifying.

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  3. Veronique - I think someone talking about their own culture/identity is great and empowering. My concern is when people play "writer-seeker tourist of illicit subcultures" and then make wild assumptions about about those "forbidden" fruits that I have issues.

    LaughingRiot: Vollman and Ames are out and out chasers. Other writers, like Augusten Burroughs (who's gay) are extremely trans woman obsessed, but not perhaps not sexually. I wish I had links to numerous other pieces like this I've seen over the last couple of years, but I've seen an entire series of confessional narratives appearing in free 'alternative' newspapers. One was how he offended a transsexual at a party, another was going out with a friend whose date was trans (but his friend didn't know) and the writer was turned on by her, and, of course, several with the old standby, "we made out, and the tranny tricked me." There was one (I've tried to locate again but can't find it) written by a lesbian who went out with a trans woman, found her attractiv, but was then repulsed by her "guy smell."

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  5. I think these kinds of writers really ought to go back to see how James Agee and Walker Evans approached things in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, one of the prototypes of the form. Agee--the writing half of the team--was under no illusions as to what their book intended to be, and he described what they were doing as "obscene" and "impossible." I think that attitude is what takes that book out of the realm of exploitation. But then, I get the feeling that a writer like Will Johnson might not understand this.

    Good piece.

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  6. @Dr M: I can't even imagine what sharecroppers were feeling having James Agee tromping around their shacks... maybe even weirder than people in Kansas felt suddenly talking to Truman Capote?

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  7. Your view of so-called New Journalism is interesting, but it misses something: it's not true, as you state, that in NJ facts are secondary. Difference between NJ and some blogs is that in NJ facts are primary and sacred data, building on them a story which includes views and feelings as a part of the reality (some key aspects of the facts). Most blogs (not all of them) are mainly a set of views and comments from the inside of the author, reporting about himself and his relation to the environement. Jornalists tell stories about other ones, although might include themselves in the scene, and never invent a thing; they do a chronicle or report about what they see, and tell: "look, this is the way people live and act". Bloggers (that means, everyone doing a personal diary) tell us: "look, this is how I live, what I feel and what I think". Results may be similar or even the same, but the approach is totally different.

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  8. Ardi, thanks for your comment. I agree that blogging and NJ aren't equivalents (although there's a lot of crossover and much blogging is greatly influenced by NJ. I disagree, however that NJ facts are "primary and sacred data." (sacred to whom?) The largest portion of NJ is 'facts' assumed from the author's perception as filtered through that author's cultural assumptions. Unless a thorough examination of one's own cultural bias frames this, then it's not journalism (that I respect, anyway). I would suggest the reason we accept mainstream journalism as "objective" is because it overwhelmingly isn't about issues which are experienced as personal to us. When it gets close to the bone, then the flaws and bias start showing their ragged edges.

    Another issue you bring up which I must disagree with is that blogging is always about first person experiences. Yes, some bloggers do write the classic "I got up this morning and brushed my teeth, and then I..." but many other blog are essays which have nothing to do with first person experience and are only considered "blogs" by virtue of their publishing platform. At this point in time, the term blog is really more about how information is delivered and not a specific viewpoint or style of that content.

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