The Future Has Arrived

“Besides being excellent reading for nonfiction enthusiasts, Next Wave will undoubtedly
serve as a resource for students, teachers, and practitioners of literary journalism.”

Walt Harrington and Mike Sager’s edited collection, Next Wave: America’s New Generation of Great Literary Journalists, promises to quell those
rumors that the death of literary journalism is nigh.
The book’s cover, introduction, and advance praise
excerpts all invoke the same anxiety surrounding the
future of the form, even if only to assert the opposite—
that literary journalism is alive and kicking,
and is the choice form for some of the most promising
talents working in journalism today. The editors
write: “We’re here to prove that the naysayers who
predicted the end of literary journalism—compelling,
long-form, nonfiction stories distinguished by
in-depth reporting, artful writing and unique authorial point of view—were greatly
mistaken”.

And without a doubt, the collection of journalism assembled by Harrington and
Sager does just that. With topics ranging from celebrity profiles to crime stories to
disaster reconstructions, a reader’s interest is easily maintained through the nineteen
stories collected. To limit the collection, the editors chose stories written primarily in
third person from writers who as of 2011 were under the age of forty. Other than these
restrictions, the editors were guided by taste alone, leading to an impressive variety of
work from magazines and newspapers across the country, both national and regional.

Stories that embrace ambiguity and complexity are harder to tell, and often fall
between the cracks of mainstream journalism. It is the contribution of literary journalism
to tell the difficult story—one that involves complicated characters rather
than simply heroes and villains, with no easy answers in sight. The strongest of the
pieces included in Next Wave do just this, showing that more consideration, more research,
and more empathy can lead to a completely different story than has previously
been told. Indeed, many of the stories in the collection come from what Dan P. Lee
refers to as “scorched earth from the mainstream” (193), or material that has already
been thoroughly (and at times gleefully) covered through other major news outlets.
These reassessments are inherently critical of sensationalist, reductionist, or just plain
insensitive journalism, even as they offer models of more responsible storytelling.
A particularly powerful example of this is Pamela Colloff’s contribution, “Hannah
and Andrew.” Hannah Overton’s arrest and trial had been covered before Colloff
began her research. The case itself was harrowing: Overton was accused of poisoning her adopted, troubled child by force-feeding him Zatarain’s seasoning. She had
already been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison, in part due
to the media and prosecution’s portrayal of her as a cold, heartless child abuser. However,
Colloff remarks that during the course of her own research, “the picture that
emerged of Hannah was so radically at odds with the picture of her that had been
presented at trial that I started thinking about that as a theme of the story. She was
either an angel or a monster, and nothing in between” (28). The story that results not
only forces readers to change their perception of the case, but also to consider the
terrifying power of reductive characterizations such as “good” and “evil.”

In another example, Wil S. Hylton’s “The Unspeakable Choice” covers the astounding
number of children abandoned shortly after the passage of Nebraska’s safe-haven
law. Hylton began his research with trepidation, wondering what responsible story
could result from such tragic circumstances. He recalls asking himself, “Beyond the
sordid tale of negligence and trauma, did the episode reveal anything larger?” (127).
His exhaustive research and reporting did indeed reveal something larger, that the
passage of a safe-haven law with no age limit provided an opportunity for desperate
parents from across the country to guarantee medical care for their children that they
could not provide themselves. Instead of portraying such parents as irresponsible and
cruel—as the media, lawmakers, and politicians have done—Hylton puts a human
face on the issue through his sympathetic portrait of an exasperated and desperate
mother who chooses to give up her child to the state. Ultimately, he reveals a hidden
story of how state institutions are failing to cope adequately with mental illness and
are unfairly placing the blame on struggling parents.

These are only two examples among many. The collection abounds with stories
that critically examine the nature of truth-telling today. Harrington and Sager remark
on this key feature of literary journalism: “In a world where it seems everybody has a
strong opinion about everything, these stories remind us to be humble about what we
think we know. They illustrate how literary journalism can unlock the inner workings
of human experience in ways that traditional news, investigative and feature journalism
can’t”.

Besides being excellent reading for nonfiction enthusiasts, Next Wave will undoubtedly
serve as a resource for students, teachers, and practitioners of literary journalism.
The collection offers several supplements that aid in the reader’s appreciation
of the process behind each of the stories included. Among these are a list of notable
young literary journalists and “Walt Harrington’s Selected Readings,” a guide for
students or teachers who would like to read more broadly among contemporary and
historical examples of literary journalism. Perhaps the most enlightening feature of
the collection is the inclusion of a short personal essay, entitled Author’s Afterword,
from each of the contributors. These essays describe the authors’ approach to the
topic, their own experiences writing the pieces, and other challenges unique to each
story. Through this feature, research methods are illuminated that might be obscured
in the final products.

As the editors are heartened to hear, most of the personal essays emphasize good
old-fashioned journalistic practice: getting to know the sources; spending time immersed in the field; and devoting hours to perfecting prose and searching for the
ideal narrative structure. This goes to show, once again, that the tradition of literary
journalism is still strong. This emphasis leads to my one major quibble with the
book, however: while the collection vigorously refutes the idea that engaged, stylistically
masterful nonfiction storytelling is no longer relevant in today’s society, it does
not particularly address the ways in which literary journalism has changed in the last
two decades. Besides being under the age of forty, there is little that explicitly distinguishes
these writers from those preceding them. Perhaps too much energy is being
expended on making sure the form persists to allow the editors to reflect critically on
the capacity for change, growth, and experimentation within the genre. While this
collection is valuable in that it offers material that fits squarely into the established
genre of literary journalism, this lack of historical awareness of generic change keeps
publication of this book from being a field-defining event.

As the editors note in the introduction, this text is available primarily as an
eBook with paperback editions printed on demand. In this reviewer’s copy there are
repeated typographical errors in the introduction and final piece, which unfortunately
mar an otherwise excellent collection. Nonetheless, it will prove to be of great
interest to fans of good literary journalism, and an invaluable resource to students of
the form. (Publisher’s note: The reviewer worked from an ADVANCE UNCORRECTED PROOF, per industry standard. All typos and glitches have been repaired for final publication.)

–Literary Journalism Studies
Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2013
Reviewed by Holly E. Schreiber, Indiana University, U.S.A.

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