"No New Journalist that I'm familiar with left a book for us that succeeds in being so utterly of its time and to timeless. Yes, the Nam was a rock-and-roll war, a Sixties war if you like. However, be assured that Dispatches, with its poetry flaring from the vernacular to the sublime, is a work proved upon our pulses today."
I'm in the midst of reading Michael Herr's Dispatches, of which Robert Stone writes (above quote) in his introduction to the Everyman's Library Edition. It's the last of the 2012 Literature and War Readalong titles and I had hoped to be finished by now but the book is proving to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. Every once in a while you come across a book that knocks you for a loop with its writing or subject matter. Dispatches is a series of reportages by Michael Herr who was a war correspondent for Esquire, but it's not the straightforward journalism that I had expected.
As I've been reading I was thinking that this must surely be a good example of literary nonfiction (or creative nonfiction), which I think it is, as Herr writes of his experiences in Vietnam in an impressionistic, vivid and very visceral manner. I'm wondering if I am ill-suited to the writing style, yet I think the writing style is well-suited to the time and place Herr writes about. Throw into the mix references to events, places and acronyms I'm not familiar with (I feel as though I should be but see now I have a gaping hole of knowledge when it comes to the Vietnam War), so style and content are slowing me down.
I'm not discouraged in my reading, however, and I think it's good to read outside comfort zones. I feel, though, that I'm not going to take away from this book what I could had I been better informed. This is a case where reading about what I'm reading (if that makes sense) can only be a good thing. It's been helpful, too, to read Caroline's thoughts about the book, and I'm a little relieved to hear that the latter sections (the book is divided into six "dispatches") are easier going than the earlier ones.
So in order to 'orient' myself a little better a definition right about now wouldn't be amiss. 'New Journalism' is "an artistic, creative, literary reporting form with three basic traits: dramatic literary techniques; intensive reporting; and reporting of generally acknowledged subjectivity. New Journalism isn't entirely new to me actually, as I've read books by a few of its practitioners in the past including Joan Didion and Truman Capote (both are authors I hugely admire by the way). As for Michael Herr's Dispatches, Robert Stone writes:
"About the time that Michael herr began his journey through Vietnam, the mode of narrative that came to be called 'New Journalism' had begun to appear in the American press. The unique claim of the New Journalism of that period was to present a pursuit of reality - we might very uneasily call it 'truth' - in two authoritative dimensions. On the one hand it was journalism imbued with the authority of the press. It was the news, a recounting of facts theoretically subject to stern review by responsible authorities whose institutional reputations spoke for the accuracy of the matter contained. In an age perhaps more trusting of its institutions this seemed reassuring."
"Yet New Journalism made claims beyond the correct rendering of events. Along with its documentary accuracy it aspired to deliver the subjective observations, the tropes, witticism, and insights, quite often unsympathetic, that even the most partisan standard feature story might leave to the reader's inference. The result could be quite scandalous and attention-getting, with some readers enraged by the insolence that the New Journalist might visit on his subject's embarrassed subjects, and others rejoicing not only in the public exposure of the enemies' fatuities but in having the journalist's observations echo their own judgments. So the New Journalism, liberty and license, dependent on the honor and perception of the reporter, as an unwieldy vehicle."
Hmm. So I wonder if I can apply the term verisimilitude to Herr's writing as he certainly is giving a taste of place--what it felt like to be in Vietnam, especially the fear.
So, onwards now. I do feel like I've oriented myself a little better and know what's coming, so perhaps the second half of the book will make for a smoother reading experience. Now that you've heard all about the style, next time I'll let you know about the content!