Will the web kill the Collected Journalism?
They’re still turning up, the Collected Letters – Bruce Chatwin is only the latest writer to have his correspondence put between hard covers. And, every time they do, you can be sure that some reviewer will point out how this one might be the last of the line. The Letters of Ted Hughes, yes. The Tweets of Bret Easton Ellis? Unlikely.
What, though, about collected journalism? The latest in this particular line is Working The Room, from Geoff Dyer (reviewed in The Independent here). The subtitle on the cover is the rather grand ‘Essays’, which is expanded inside, with an embarrassed little cough, as ‘Essays and Reviews’, but really it should read ‘Essays, Reviews, Book Introductions, Magazine Features, Plus Some Other Odd Bits and Pieces for Various Outlets, A Right Rag Bag, In Fact.’ It’s the stuff a writer does, for money, inbetween the ‘proper’ books. (The title of an Aphex Twin compilation, Remixes For Cash, springs to mind.)
No matter. It’s a format that does fit this particular writer well, because of the breadth of his interests and the impulsivity of his thinking and connections, but it does beg the question, if much of this stuff is basically journalism, how much of it is available online? My favourite book journalism collections (I’m thinking particularly of Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché and Anthony Burgess’s Homage to Quert Yuiop) are basically bundled-together batches of newspaper clippings – if you were a follower of the writer and had carefully their pieces of out the paper, you’d have no need to buy the book. Will the web kill the Collected Journalism, like the phone, and email, killed the Letters?
After all, clipping pieces out of the paper was something I used to do with Geoff Dyer, until I realised that most of what I was keeping, gently yellowing, between the covers of his last journalism collection (Anglo-English Attitudes) was archived on the media sites where they were first published.
So, of the 51 pieces in Working The Room, what, exactly, do we have?
Well, there are three previously unpublished pieces (‘Regarding the Achievement of Others’, about Susan Sontag really wanting to be a novelist when everyone knew her brilliance lay in her essays, ‘Sacked’, which is an autobiographical vignette chock full of sex and drugs, and the more sedate ‘On Being An Only Child’). Then there is one transcribed radio broadcast, five essays or introductions from art or photography monographs (Martin Parr, Richard Avedon and so on) and seven introductions to ‘classic’ reprints (two Lawrences, two Fitzgeralds, one Cheever, one Rebecca West and the Gouncourt journals). There are contributions to an Oxfam collection and anthologies on marriage, contemporary cities and the jazz label ECM.
The rest, I think – numbering over half of the pieces in the book – are all pieces for the print media. (There are two, one on sex in hotels for Nerve.com and one on James Salter for the Penguin site, that were online only, and still available in those places.) So, they were in the paper, or the magazine, they were put on the website, they’re still online, right?
Not necessarily. The sites for glossies like Vogue and Tank don’t have the pieces at all, while Prospect and Granta hide theirs behind a subscriber paywall. Those for the Telegraph, Guardian and LA Weekly, however, are there to read for free – as well as some more on the latter two sites that didn’t make it into the book at all.
Does this make the book a pointless exercise? Well, no, and not just because of the beautiful design, in hardback, which runs to a handful of colour plates to illustrate the photography pieces – though these help, of course.
Many of the pieces to be found online are straightforward book reviews, which – what with the ever-lessening space given over to such things in today’s newspapers – have got to show immediate, incisive brilliance to be worth rereading,. That is something that Dyer has always had, and certain of them are expanded in the book in any case.
I remember being disappointed by the thick paperback of Bamboo, William Boyd’s collected journalism, for instance – all the pieces seemed the same length, the same tone, the same dependable, Sunday brunch level of insight. Dyer keeps things interesting by never going through the motions, even when his piece is a standard books pages review, and he has clearly kept his options open, and his interest alive, by doing different pieces for different outlets, such as covering Paris Fashion Week for Vogue, or the 2004 Olympics for The Guardian.
Collections like these are always going to be small sellers, next to the novels and original non-fiction works, but for some of us, they might just end up being the most treasured. “As time goes by,” Dyer writes in his book on Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, “we drift away from the great texts, the finished works on which an author’s reputation is built, towards the journals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, jottings.” Unlike the Letters, then, which are the victim of social as much as technological forces, I think that the Collected Journalism will last as long as the book… or the newspaper.Tagged in: Geoff Dyer
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