An Interview with Robert S. Boynton: What’s New in the “New Journalism”?
Michael F. Shaughnessy –
1) Professor Boynton, first of all could you tell us a bit about your education, experience and what you are currently doing?
I had a good liberal arts education, and double majored in philosophy and religion at Haverford College.
I then got an MA in Political Science at Yale University, focusing on political philosophy.
I currently teach at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, where I run the Literary Reportage concentration.
I’m also working on a book about an episode from the Cold War in Northeast Asia.
2) Now, what exactly do you mean by “literary reportage” and is this a relatively new field?
When we started the concentration we looked hard for a name that would distinguish us from programs in “literary journalism,” “creative nonfiction,” etc.
We wanted something that emphasized the reporting that is at the center of the best journalism–“literary” or otherwise.
Our idea was to bring together the best of creative writing MFA programs ( mentorship, building a body of work)
and the best of journalism programs (reporting, research, accuracy).
Literary Reportage seemed to articulate this synthesis.
3) Tough question, and you could probably write a book on this, but what impact has the Internet had on the field of writing?
I think the impact of the internet has been more on “publishing” than on “writing” as such. The kind of writing I care most about (see above) is done is roughly the same way it has always been done.
What has changed is how people who care about literary reportage are able to reach an audience. I’m particularly enthusiastic by the recent developments with e-readers: Kindle Singles, Atavist.com, Byliner.com and others. It seems to me that they open up many options for funding and distributing our work.
The line between the “article” and the “book” has been blurred.
4) Do you, as an educator, now have to train students differently to write in this day and age?
A writer must always be mindful of changes that take place in the world at large, and in the world of journalism/writing. That said, I see my role as a conservative one: to help my students figure out how best to use new technology to accomplish THEIR goals, as opposed to making them feel they have to master an endless list of skills (writing code, etc.) to keep.
I love new technology, but I sometimes fear that we aren’t critical enough about the uses to which it is put.
5) In general, how well are the high schools preparing students to write at the college level? And how well is the typical college preparing students to do graduate work at NYU?
I’m wary of making gross generalizations based on relatively small sets of data (the students I’ve taught) viewed through a highly subjective and distorting lens (my opinion of them).
What I CAN say is that the best students are as good as any I’ve ever had, and as interested in good writing and reporting as any I’ve ever encountered. My only fear is that school is becoming so expensive that they are burdened by too much debt, which in turn makes them specialize too early. I’m a big believer in the role of a liberal arts education that teaches you how to think clearly, write well, and be fascinated by a lot of different things.
6) I actually took a few courses at NYU a few decades back, and it was a fresh, fibrant, robust center of literary appreciation. How would you characterize it now in this age of the web?
The web has had a transformative, democrative impact on the literary/journalistic world. That said, I often feel that the sense of connection one gets from the web is often superficial and fleeting. NYU’s tremendous advantage is its location, and we try to make the most of that by bringing a steady stream of editors and writers in. We stream and tape most of the events, so there is an opportunity to participate via the web as well. But nothing beats the experience of being there.
7) Now, please- your definition of longform journalism.
I don’t have a definition of longform journalism.
8) Let’s talk, if you will about some of your contemporaries ( perhaps you admire their work, perhaps not ) and their contributions–Alana Newhouse and the Tablet Magazine.
I think the world of Alana and of Tablet. One of my best former students, Matthew Fishbane, works there, producing fascinating longform journalism on a slew of unusual subjects.
9) I recently encountered The Atavist- what do you think of this source and Evan Ratliff?
As I mentioned, I think Atavist is one of the hopeful signs in journalism. What is sometimes missed by those who appreciate it is the fact that their software is the least of their accomplishments. They could never do the work they do if Evan and is colleagues were not some of the very best writers and editors in the business. Again, the revolution represented by Atavist and other operations is in distribution.
10) Max Linsky and “Longform”—is this a good source or resource?
Along with Longreads, Readability and others, Longform provides an important aggregating function that brings attention to the work. Good curation is essential if readers are going to find the best longform journalism on the web. There is so much stuff out there that we need smart people to help us figure out what to read and how to read it most efficiently.
11) Anna Holmes and ” Jezebel “–is this for an esoteric audience, or only for people with special interests?
I think websites like Jezebel are useful sources of comment and criticism.
12) One of your colleagues is David Samuels and his work in New Yorker ( which I have always enjoyed ) Harpers and The Atlantic. Your thoughts?
I think he is one of the most talented journalists working today.
13) Lawrence Schiller and The Norman Mailer Center- How have his contributions assisted in the development of writing?
We need as many organizations–large and small–as possible help writers develop their craft. Not everyone can go to Yaddo. The Literary Reportage concentration at NYU has teamed up with the Banff Centre for the Arts to sponsor a participant in their month-long literary journalism program, which is one of the oldest in existence. http://journalism.nyu.edu/graduate/courses-of-study/literary-reportage/banff-fellowship/
14) Here is your chance to drop a few names of what you consider ” good writers and good writing”…Immediate thoughts that come to mind?
There are too many to mention. We are living through a golden age of excellent longform nonfiction.
15) Is there anything I have neglected to ask?