In this important and subtle study Phyllis Frus offers insight into the generic features of journalistic narrative, as well as into its historical development in the U. S. over the past hundred years. The Politics and Poetics of Journalistic Narrative is also, however, a polemical interrogation of the politics of reading and understanding: for Frus, the epistemological is the ideological, and vice versa.
Frus’s readings of key texts both illustrate the historical course of modern journalistic narrative and limn her theoretical argument. In a brilliant discussion of the relationship between Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” and his magazine article “Stephen Crane’s Own Story,” Frus demonstrates the necessity for reading the famous tale “reflexively”-that is, by means of “a dynamic method of putting form in the place of content and reading with attention to the text’s process of production” (32). While critics have routinely imposed upon the story a view of “literature” as timeless and universal, Frus points out the centrality of historical specificity-Crane’s ambivalence [End Page 344] about his work as a war-mongering “yellow journalist,” his and the other survivors’ guilt at having refused aid to drowning men, the continuance of class hierarchy in the lifeboat-to the tale’s interpretation. Naturalism’s famous irony, Frus argues, is inseparable from its aestheticizing “naturalization” of social inequality.
Hemingway’s reportage and fiction reveal the deepening divide between fiction and journalism in the early twentieth century. Taking issue with critics who contend that Hemingway’s minimalist style is traceable to his telegraphic “cablese,” Frus argues that Hemingway’s famous laconic style derives more from literary modernism’s fetishization of concreteness. His Spanish Civil War narrative “Old Man at the Bridge”-first published as a magazine article, later as a short story-reveals how Hemingway’s emerging conception of “literariness” entails decontextualization and ahistoricity. As her comments on John Hersey’s Hiroshima reveal, however, Frus does not fault “literature” alone for reproducing reification: the flip side of the ideology of the aesthetic is the spurious positivist “objectivity” increasingly accompanying “journalism.” By embedding his narrative of events at Hiroshima in an understated voice that suppresses its own origins, Hersey creates not only “those heroic Japanese who suffer without unnecessary fuss” but also a “passive reader” (94–95).
Frus is ambivalent about the achievement of the hybrid genres growing out of the 1960s-the New Journalism and the nonfiction novel. On the one hand, she refutes the clichéd notion that 1960s reality was so “incredible” that inherited notions of fact and fiction fell by the wayside. Writers like Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff), in Frus’s view, ended up supplanting the authority of traditional novelistic realism with the authority of an invisible “ultimate insider” (219). The ostensibly oppositional character of these texts’ querying of inherited narrative form was “coopted,” and they “firm[ed] up the boundary between fiction and journalism” (122). On the other hand, the tendency of much New Journalism to “deemphasiz[e] unity in favor of contradiction, complexity, and open-endedness” made it a threat to the cultural hierarchy (133). Even when their propositional content conformed to dominant values, works of this hybrid mode were dismissed as “parajournalism,” just as the 1960s as a whole were “othered” as deviant and therefore illegitimate. [End Page 345]
My only quarrel with Frus’s illuminating and incisive study centers on her valorization of “reflexivity” as a privileged way of “resist[ing] hegemonic values and recover[ing] almost any text for political use by relating works of literature to social conditions and working to break down the distinctions which perpetuate literature as an elitist domain” (167). For what this means is that texts which problematize their own truth-claims and direct attention to their own conditions of production are intrinsically those best equipped to challenge, and break down, reification. Frus’s “heroes” in this regard are Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night, The Executioner’s...