“I read the newspapers with lively interest. It is seldom that they are absolutely, point-blank wrong. That is the popular belief, but those who are in the know can usually discern an embryo of truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament.”
– Evelyn Waugh, ‘Scoop’
When we (or at least I) think of journalism in the former half of the twentieth century, it’s all marble floors and stiff black coffees in lofty New York high-rises. It’s brassy young writers tapping furiously on their typewriters in a cloud of cigarette smoke and cologne, pausing occasionally to wipe the sweat from their brow with an impeccably tailored jacket sleeve. “I’ve got it!” they shout, stubbing out that cigarette and tearing the final page of a story from their typewriter. “This one’s really gonna shake ’em up.”
Okay, so that’s probably a fantasy exclusive to myself, and it’s easy to ignore the undercurrent of misogyny and racism which was a symptom of the entire era – easily discernible in the Capote excerpt included in a couple of paragraphs’ time – but there’s still a literary elegance in earlier journalism which is easy to miss today, when quoting a single sentence from the Mail Online that will probably require several insertions of ‘[sic]’. An article about Girls Aloud singer Nadine Coyle, for example, enjoyed the following errors:
Sarah and Kimberly ventured into acting, with the later starring as Princess Fiona on the West End production of Shrek.
Nadine’s has been keeping a low profile in the U.S. since her debut album bombed.
Journalism wasn’t always about celebrity weight-loss, Kardashian break-ups and Shrek. There was a time when the ‘little grit of fact’ around which an entire article is based could never be Emma Watson saying that her next movie ‘will not be Fifty Shades of Grey.’ There was a time when Vogue mixed fashion photography with academic articles by writers such as Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf, Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Rolling Stone, and Truman Capote, the man who brought us Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and, indirectly, that nasty mass-produced Audrey Hepburn canvas which adorns tween bedroom walls the world over), interviewed Marlon Brando for The New Yorker:
‘My guide tapped at Brando’s door, shrieked “Marron!,” and fled away along the corridor, her kimono sleeves fluttering like the wings of a parakeet. The door was opened by another doll-delicate Miyako maid, who at once succumbed to her own fit of quaint hysteria. From an inner room, Brando called, “What is it, honey?” But the girl, her eyes squeezed shut with mirth and her fat little hands jammed into her mouth, like a bawling baby’s, was incapable of reply. “Hey, honey, what is it?” Brando again inquired, and appeared in the doorway. “Oh, hi,” he said when he saw me. “It’s seven, huh?” We’d made a seven-o’clock date for dinner; I was nearly twenty minutes late. “Well, take off your shoes and come on in. I’m just finishing up here. And, hey, honey,” he told the maid, “bring us some ice.” Then, looking after the girl as she scurried off, he cocked his hands on his hips and, grinning, declared, “They kill me. They really kill me. The kids, too. Don’t you think they’re wonderful, don’t you love them—Japanese kids?”‘
In the early 1930s Virginia Woolf wrote a series of essays, collectively titled London Scenes, for Good Housekeeping magazine (a publication whose recent cover stars have included Gwenyth Paltrow in a mauve turtleneck and a grinning Julie Walters beside the headline ‘Financially fabulous at every age’). On the subject of the filthy banks of the Thames, Woolf wrote:
‘Barges heaped with old buckets, razor blades, fish tails, newspapers and ashes-whatever we leave on our plates and throw into our dust bins-are discharging their cargoes upon the most desolate land in the world. The long mounds have been fuming and smoking and harbouring innumerable rats and growing a rank coarse grass and giving off a gritty, acrid air for fifty years. The dumps get higher and higher, and thicker and thicker, their sides more precipitous with tin cans, their pinnacles more angular with ashes year by year.’
As brilliant as this stuff is, there’s always a problem with gilding any past era as a ‘golden age’. Every generation in the history of the Western world has done it, thinking that they’re the first. Perhaps it provides us with the comforting belief that life was once better, and the hope that it might be again, someday. Even Homer’s epics were set a thousand or two years before his lifetime, nostalgic for a time when rape and murder were social norms and a host of bisexual deities rushed down from the heavens to give us a hand at warfare. Needless to say, he based everything on reliable factual research – just like all those Daily Mail articles about cancer causes.
In light of all this, I’m now going to completely disprove everything which I’ve written so far – probably a symptom of my lazy 21st century journalistic skills, or lack thereof.
Firstly, there’s always been a thirst for the gritty details of public figures’ private lives. Celebrity culture rose from the ashes of high society culture, in which debutante balls, socialite weddings and party outfits were top news. The entertainment news of today is similar material, but the rise of television, the internet and instant communication has spawned a new generation of public figures; the socialites have become the celebrities.
And, amongst the splurge of inane paparazzi shots and rapper feuds which make the headlines, there’s still great journalism being published. Take Exetera, for example, a magazine of uncompromising quality and ambitious scope, changing the face of the creative and intellectual world one page at a… just kidding. But you need only skim the pages of the more respected magazines and newspapers to see, nestled between paraphrased press releases and photoshop-skinny models, big names with big ideas. To mention just a few examples, Pop magazine recently published an interview by art critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, the New York Times published a sports piece by David Foster Wallace in 2006, and McSweeney’s magazine brings us a satirical monologue by novelist Teddy Wayne, ‘I’m an English Professor in a Movie’:
‘Good morning, and welcome to Advanced English Literature—I’m Professor Anglosoundingname. As you can see, I have a mane of silver hair and wear a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches stitched with corduroy threads that have their own leather thread-patches, and pace briskly into this lecture hall from the New England autumn just as class starts.
I’m waiting sternly as the laggards straggle in like Leopold Bloom wearily climbing into his bed in the “Penelope” episode ofUlysses… yes, I expected you all to laugh at that impromptu erudite quip, with the exception of one newcomer, that Midwestern freshman in the middle row looking around anxiously with her neatly arranged panoply of multicolored pens, wondering if she’s out of her depth because she can’t understand an offhand literary joke at this elite institution which is, once again, in New England—take a quick, establishing gander at the outside foliage.’
When faced with writing like this, it’s hard to believe that the golden age ever really ended. Sure, there’s a lot more rushed, grammatically-flawed hack journalism to sift through – and if we’re to tie the various strands of this article together into a satisfying conclusion, we might compare it to the acrid detritus of Woolf’s Thames – but there’s also plenty of quality writing which can easily go unnoticed. The golden age is a permanent fixture; it’s happening right under our noses (and now I’m going to really blow your mind by looping all the way back to that opening quotation from Evelyn Waugh), but you need to open a lot of oysters before you can find a pearl.