What is literary journalism, and why did Sean Penn fail to do it?


On Saturday night (UST), Rolling Stone posted an interview (the first in decades) with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, the prison escapee and drug lord on most famous in the world. The post was the source of the now familiar and solemnly recognized ritual of pandemonium on the internet. For the most part, this was because the article was written by Sean Penn.

In El Chapo Speaks, Penn describes his journey to the literal and allegorical depths of a Mexican jungle, to sit down, drink tequila, and reveal his presence (El Chapo) on American television to El Chapo in the form of the special original Fusion: Chasing El Chapo.

There are obvious moral questions to ask about Penn and Rolling Stone’s conduct (the most urgent to do with El Chapo being offered editorial control), and they are being asked.

For me, the issue here is the morality of Penn’s style. The narrative hook is the moral exploration of a man who lives in the public imagination as an uncomplicated super-villain. Unfortunately, the story is unraveling because her voice does not allow for moral insight.

Inner voice against public facts

Penn begins with a description of the technological precautions he must take to ensure that he is not followed (these are clearly unsuccessful: El Chapo was recaptured in the early hours of January 8 by special forces of the Mexican Navy. ).

There is a disturbing digression in which he contemplates the danger of his penis being taken away by the narcos of which he is a part, and the article ends with a meditation on American teens who are going to overdose on drugs distributed by the Mexican cartels. .

Rejecting the tenets of mainstream journalism – the genre that at least claims objectivity – and directly offering the perspective of an Oscar winner, activist, and Madonna’s former husband, Penn operates in an undefinable narrative space between art, entertainment and do. So what is his responsibility?

In the 1960s and 1970s, a gang of egocentric white men (Penn continues that proud tradition, at the very least), including Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, popularized a form of journalism that made himself known. as new or literary journalism.

It got them fame – as it did for less egocentric, more incisive (not masculine) Joan Didion, possibly the best literary journalist – and definitely changed the form. Today the influence is felt throughout long-running works, some of the best examples coming from contemporary fiction writers like George Saunders, David Foster Wallace and Tom Bissell.

There is no established definition of the new journalism; the best I have come across is that of Joseph Hellman in Fables of Fact (1981):

Fiction is the literary form most concerned with inner consciousness, while journalism is the one most concerned with the public fact. The new journalism tries to approach a world into which the second has entered, at an unassimilable pace, into the first.

Literary journalists are almost always fiction writers, because fiction writers best capture what it’s like to be in another person’s mind.

Get out of your head

The central issue of genre is the management of the author’s voice, through which we enter other minds. In Capote’s story of the brutal murder of a perfect Kansas family, In Cold Blood (1965), the narrator has ghostly omniscience, never appearing as a character, but presuming to know the inner workings of the head. of his subjects.

In Mailer’s story of the 1967 anti-Vietnamese march on Washington, Armies of the Night (which bears the absurdly grandiloquent subtitle: History as a Novel, The Novel as History), he describes himself, in the third person, as a dramatic protagonist. Despite Mailer’s overwhelming self-esteem, he frequently deflates (“Mailer was a snob of the worst kind,” we are told).

Wallace begins his excellent article on David Lynch with a self-mockery:

I don’t even pretend to be a journalist and I don’t know how to interview someone which turned out to be a perverse advantage as Lynch categorically didn’t want to be interviewed.

These strategies each respond, in their own way, to the failure of traditional journalism to capture the humanity of journalists, the humanity of the reader, and the humanity of those who speak about it.

Penn’s intrusive character

Despite the title, El Chapo Speaks is Penn’s story, and unlike those described above, his perspective doesn’t make it easy to enter a world. Instead, the frequency of the first-person pronoun is grueling (“I don’t see spy eyes, but I guess they’re there.”) And the reader is immersed in a self-reflection loop. grandiose:

I had given myself experiences beyond my control in many countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong goes wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with deep situational awareness (but not perfect science) of the caveats available in the design in chaos.

When Penn meets El Chapo, there are shards of insight. He does not see “the big bad wolf of tradition”. Instead, the presence of the drug dealer,

evokes questions of cultural complexity and context, survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, intelligent entrepreneurs of all stripes …

The journalist’s obligation to discover the depths of his subject is independent of the virtue of the subject, and attempting to humanize El Chapo is a laudable endeavor. But the story must escape the writer’s head and explore the world of others.

By its style, the article is in the tradition of literary journalism, wanting to be both journalism and art. Artistically, it’s failed. On the other hand, interesting points are being raised about the futility of the War on Drugs and America’s complicity in the violence in Mexico, and the story of this tequila-drinking Hollywood dude with El Chapo is inherently fascinating.

But the lack of humility makes Penn. A literary journalist owes the reader imaginative access to other perspectives, and Penn makes little effort to imagine outside of his own. The ethical privilege of literary journalism is absent.

Didion thus ends the preface to his first collection of essays:

My only advantage as a journalist is that I am so small physically, so discreet in temperament, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence is against their best interests. And it still is. This is one last thing to remember: Writers are always selling someone.

Sean Penn wants you to think otherwise.


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