Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe & His Magic Writing Machine

Review of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Dwight Macdonald, The New York Review of Books, August 26, 1965.

A new kind of journalism is being born, or spawned. It might be called “parajournalism,” from the Greek para, “beside” or “against”: something similar in form but different in function. As in parody, from the parodia, or counter-ode, the satyr play of Athenian drama that was performed after the tragedy by the same actors in grotesque costumes. Or paranoia (“against beside thought”) in which rational forms are used to express delusions. Parajournalism seems to be journalism—“the collection and dissemination of current news”—but the appearance is deceptive. It is a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction. Entertainment rather than information is the aim of its producers, and the hope of its consumers.

Parajournalism has an ancestry, from Daniel Defoe, one of the fathers of modern journalism, whose Journal of the Plague Year was a hoax so convincingly circumstantial that it was long taken for a historical record, to the gossip columnists, sob sisters, fashion writers, and Hollywood reporters of this century. What is new is the pretension of our current parajournalists to be writing not hoaxes or publicity chitchat but the real thing; and the willingness of the public to accept this pretense. We convert everything into entertainment. The New Yorker recently quoted from a toy catalogue:

WATER PISTOL & “BLEEDING” TARGETS! Bang! Bang! I got ‘cha! Now the kids can know for sure who’s [sic] turn it is to play “dead”! New self-adhesive ‘stick-on” water wounds TURN RED WHEN WATER HITS THEM! Don’t worry, Mom! Won’t stain clothing! “Automatic” pistol is a copy of a famous gun. SHOOTS 30 FT. Water Pistol & Wounds…59c. 40 Extra Wounds…29c.

And there was the ninety-minute TV, pop music and dance spectacular put on at Sargent Shriver’s official request, a disc jockey who calls himself Murray the K, in the hope of “getting through” to high school dropouts about what Mr. Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity could do for them. Some Republican Senators objected on grounds of taste and dignity—the message was delivered by Murray the K jigging up and down in a funny hat as the big beat frugged on—but the program did stimulate a great many teenage inquiries. It “worked” in the same sense that parajournalism does…

The New York Review of Books