In traditional journalism, reporters are supposed to be objective, to maintain the style of an omniscient, invisible presence. This objectivity is an essential component of journalistic integrity. But writers like Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, proponents of New Journalism, rejected this notion; instead, they and other writers accepted as necessary the presence, personality and perceptions of the author. New Journalism—the blend of reportage, reflection and literary technique that began in the 1960s and was a precursor to creative nonfiction—acknowledges and even celebrates the writer’s presence. The author/narrator interacts with other characters, comments upon events and self-reflectively explores his or her personality in response to the developing story. Creative nonfiction—whether it’s memoir, literary journalism or any other subgenre—is complexly structured by narrative voice, and the effectiveness of the piece depends, to a large extent, on the author’s narrative presence.
For instance, in her classic essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion examines 1967 San Francisco with a voice that is precise and emotionally detached. Instead of relying on her own reflections to convey meaning, she carefully chooses scenes and details that pack an emotional wallop. In the essay’s last page and a half, she describes two young children ravaged by the drug scene. The only clue to her personal take on these children occurs in a single phrase: “I start to ask if any of the other children in High Kindergarten get stoned, but I falter at the key words.”
Writers who, like Didion, choose to take a more distanced stance can, to an extent, enhance the authority and implied objectivity of their narrators. The writer’s position as an outsider to the events of the story can potentially improve the story’s credibility and grant greater freedom with respect to structure and point of view. Writers employing this strategy attempt to become camera lenses, points of perception that give enough details to allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions.
Other writers inhabit their stories more fully. In the essay “Looking at Emmett Till,” John Edgar Wideman explores his gut-wrenching involvement with his subject. Till was a 14-year-old black boy who, in 1955, was abducted from his bed, beaten and killed in Money, Miss., for flirting with a white woman. Wideman recounts a recurring nightmare he has had about Till and chides himself for his inability to look at the boy’s mutilated face. At the essay’s end, this nightmare of self recrimination is replaced by another dream: “I’m marching with many, many men, a multitude, a million men of all colors in Washington, D.C., marching past the bier on which the body of Emmett Till rests. The casket, as his mother demanded, is open. I want the world to see what they did to my baby. …Then the awful face, patched together with string and wire, awaits each mourner. …My turn is coming soon. I’m grateful. Will not shy away this time. Will look hard this time. … What I say when I lean over and speak one last time to Emmett Till is I love you. I’m sorry. I won’t allow it to happen ever again.”
In a similar way, Ernest Hemingway’s deeply personal perceptions of bullfighting pervade “Death in the Afternoon,” his revered 1932 tome on the sport. Like Wideman, Hemingway implicates himself, by admitting that he finds the goring of horses to be humorous. His confession allows him and the reader to get to the heart of the bullfighting ritual. “This is the sort of thing you should not admit,” Hemingway writes.“[B]ut it is because such things have never been admitted that the bullfight has never been explained.” Hemingway’s willingness to explore his own reactions to the spectacle and to present himself as a sort of antihero helps to give readers a more vivid and complete picture of the spectacle.
Writers like Wideman and Hemingway, who cast themselves as protagonists, allow their subjective experiences to compel their stories. As narrator/protagonist, the writer can speak directly to the reader, comment on action and characters, interrupt the narrative flow with detailed descriptions or asides and engage in philosophical reflection. On the other hand, first-person narrations are bound by the same limitations that we suffer in the world: It’s more difficult to convey convincingly the thoughts and feelings of other characters.
The amount of subjectivity a writer grants him- or herself may be a matter of personal comfort, or it may depend upon the writer’s relationship to the subject at hand. Unquestionably, however, the acknowledgment of writers’ subjectivity adds depth to stories, and evidence of a writer’s investment in a subject, far from distancing readers, can often add to a story’s power to draw them in.