Ode to the Oxford American

The Oxford American’s current issue explores new south journalism, and it’s exceptional. I mean, really good. This “southern magazine of good writing” is just that. Complete with plays, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and essays. If you haven’t had the fortune of reading it, this could be your lucky day.

Here’s something to wet your literary appetite, courtesy the Oxford American:

Gay Talese

I learned nothing on the streets, and what I learned in my Journalism department (at the University of Alabama, 1949–53) did not have much influence on my career as a reporter, magazine writer, and nonfiction author of eleven books.

The most valuable lessons that shaped my career in journalism were derived from the observations and the eavesdropping that I indulged in during my boyhood days working after school in my parents’ clothing store. The shop was located on the main street of my hometown, a small island resort in South Jersey called Ocean City, about twelve miles south of Atlantic City. On one side of the shop was my father’s tailoring department (he designed and cut suits for a small but select group of the town’s leading men, including the mayor and top banker); and on the other was my mother’s dress boutique, specializing in garments for “mature” women (i.e., most of them middle-aged, bridge-playing ladies who were slightly overweight and wealthy enough to purchase high-priced frocks that flattered their figures). As I performed menial tasks around my parents’ shop during my free hours I learned many things:

1) Courtesy. My parents were always courteous to their customers, knew how to talk to people (but to listen rather than talk too much), and, as a result, my parents had a large and satisfied clientele who respected their good judgment about clothes and came to regard them as likable and tactful people.

The relationship that my parents had with their customers is the kind of relationship I developed as a young journalist with my sources. Courtesy is the key: knowing how to engage people in a respectful manner, to listen rather than interrupt with unnecessary questions, and to take pride in work well done.

From a young age, I took pride in what I wrote, and it was instilled in me by my father’s high standards in craftsmanship. My father’s suits were exquisitely tailored, were designed to last, and were, in an understated way, eye-catchingly elegant. In my own career I measured myself by the exacting standards of my father. I wanted to write stories that were uncommonly well-crafted and were designed to last, to hold up, to have the imperishable qualities of a fine short story or an essay. I cared about the “stitching” of sentences and paragraphs, the whole design of narrative writing; it all had to hold together, to have a organizational shape, a style, a distinctive feel about it.

2) Personal Appearance. I saw my parents dressed in an attractive manner every working day, and whenever they appeared on the public streets or in restaurants and cinemas. They cared about “how they looked” at all times, and as a consequence people regarded them as special people, appealing as subjects on the scene. My parents thought that by dressing up they were paying “respect” to the people they were with, no matter if these people were their customers, or their social friends in the community, or people with whom they attended concerts on the boardwalk or dined with. I myself “dress up for the story,” meaning that I never go to interviews without presenting myself in my well-made tailoring as a person worthy of respect. Respect for what? For what I do: I am within an honorable truth-telling profession, and I have always thought of journalism (when properly practiced) as a calling, not a job; I have always thought, as well, that a reporter should “dress for the story,” for the story you are working upon is always important: It seeks a truth, or a higher truth than ordinary workaday journalism; I always placed upon myself high and exacting standards. Again, this was exemplified by my parents.

3) There are other matters of importance, of course. Curiosity heads the list. If you are not intensely curious, you will never become a leading journalist or nonfiction author. (My own curiosity was developed as a boy in the store: I’d wonder about the customers, I’d strain to overheard their conversations across the counter with my parents, I’d watch their gestures as they talked and would later ask my parents for more information about them. These customers were small-town people, not famous in any sense, but they were “real” people, and I always wanted to write about ordinary “real” people, as fiction writers do.

(Who is more ordinary than Willy Loman, the failed road merchant of Arthur Miller’s classic, “Death of a Salesman”?) When I wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” and he himself would not talk to me, I shaped the whole story from what I had been told by “ordinary people,” dozens of people who were not celebrities, who were not stars, etc.—they were just people who had been on the scene, in minor roles, when Sinatra was present; and I spoke to those “ordinary” people and got an extraordinary story that is remembered long after it was first published in Esquire in 1966.

4) Once the curiosity has been satisfied, and all the research has been completed, and all the facts are triple-checked for accuracy, then the organization begins…. I spend lots of time organizing my story before I actually settle down to write it. I want to know, step-by-step, scene-by-scene, how I’ll proceed. What’s the lead paragraph? What follows the lead paragraph? How does the story end?

5) The writing must be literary, lyrical, or at least should aspire toward the same artistic standards as one’s favorite fiction writer. I read lots of novels and short stories by top writers, wanting to gain insight (and inspiration) from their storytelling talents. Journalism is really storytelling. It is about people and places. These people and places must be described so well that the reader is “seeing” what you are writing about.

Bio: Cited by Tom Wolfe as the creator of New Journalism, Talese worked as a reporter for the New York Times from 1956-65, is the bestselling author of eleven books, and has written for myriad magazines and journals. His Esquire story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” was deemed the magazine’s “best story ever published,” and his most recent book, A Writer’s Life, devotes hundreds of pages to this question we posed to him.

 

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