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The Invasion of the Word Snatchers

November 29, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Until the middle of the 1960s, jagged boundaries zigzagged through the literary world, marking off the major fiefdoms. Under this feudal system, the choicest territory belonged to the novelists, who lived in a lush landscape where similes and metaphors grew like giant redwoods; personification was always in season; hyperbole flowered; litotes dropped off the trees, and windfalls of synecdoche piled up on the ground. The novelists dwelt in a veritable Garden of Eden, sharing it only with the occasional visiting poet, dramatist, or biographer, few of whom were ever invited to settle in permanently.

During this benighted era, which lasted for a good two centuries, a sweaty, thirsty rabble of journalists labored in the arid wastelands, struggling against all odds to make the desert bloom. A hereditary underclass, they were fenced in by Who, What, Where, When and Why, the impenetrable cactus hedge of reporting. If ever a journalist managed to creep through the wall of spines and thorns to taste the luscious fruits of literary prose--the juicy adjectives, the ripe adverbs, the tropical nouns and succulent verbs--he was summarily tried and convicted of perpetrating Purple Prose and speedily shipped back beyond the pale. There, in the Saharas, Kalaharis and Negevs of language, the journalist could only dream of one day writing a novel himself and getting even.

Even then, there were always a few gaps in the wall, places where an intrepid journalist might sneak through under cover of darkness and at great personal peril. The border guards couldn't cover every square inch. Those carelessly patrolled areas were the magazines, and during the '60s and '70s, the magazines were full of journalists gleefully biting into the forbidden fruits of imagery. Magazines were willing to gamble, because they had nothing to lose. They were an endangered species, desperate and ready to try anything just to keep from becoming extinct. Like other marginal businesses, magazines would often risk hiring undocumented workers.

A journalist could say things in a magazine that would be unthinkable in a newspaper of record. On a magazine, a writer could play with the illicit punctuation on top of the keyboard--the dashes, dots, asterisks, exclamation points and parentheses. Some of them even cut loose by keeping their finger on a letter, an easy trick with an electric typewriter. Occasionally, a desperate magazine would even relax the rigid rules of orthography in lieu of a bonus for the particularly talented.

The first sentence of Tom Wolfe's now classic, even seminal, piece of New Journalism, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," began: "There goes (Varoom! Varoom!) that Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmm)." Published in Esquire in 1963, this impression of the California car culture affected journalism the way The Communist Manifesto affected the Romanovs. In this case, however, there was no time lag worth mentioning. The revolutionaries got right to work, not wasting a week. Serf journalists all over the country burned their style books, threw off the shackles of grammar, punctuation, and sometimes, of taste and judgment, to storm the Winter Palace of Proper Journalistic Usage.

As in any revolution, there were inevitable abuses--zealots who couldn't be controlled and ran amok through the English language, sacking and burning everything in sight. (Wolfe said later that he'd merely turned in his working notes, never intending to see the piece in print in that form, which, after the fact, was like saying the Bolsheviks only meant to jolt the Czar into a bit of enlightened social legislation.) But, as Victor Hugo wrote, "Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come," and in the mid-'60s, ideas were coming thick and fast; Womens' Lib, Pop Art, hallucinogenic drugs, Sexual Revolution, Black Power, a whole counterculture of themes that burst the decorous bounds of Who, What, Where, When and Why and left them in ruins.

At first the New Journalism tended to be satiric, not so different from the Old Journalism's more sensational exposes, except that now the writer wasn't content to be merely an observer, but insisted upon becoming a participant in the events he described. Think of Hunter Thompson almost getting stomped to death while reporting on the Hell's Angels convention at Bass Lake; of John Sack with Company M in Vietnam, of Michael Herr in Khesanh during the siege; George Plimpton scrimmaging with the Detroit Lions.

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