Interviewing for Subjective Reauty

All the discussion about interviewing and other research methods thus far has had to do with what is sometimes called "objective reality." The writer conducts his or her research to develop material that will be useful in re-creating for the reader just the way things occurred and looked at the time. For creative nonfiction writers, objective reality is not the only reality. There is also the subjective reality—the emotional life of a person, what goes on in his or her mind. Critics of subjective reality think that as soon as the writer leaves objective reality and begins to dip into a person's emotions and thoughts, he or she is leaving the world of journalism and entering the world of fiction. Creative nonfiction writers maintain that one can present the reader a more complete, more accurate picture of reality by presenting the objective and the subjective realities of a situation. Everyone lives in a world made up of both realities, so why not report on them?

How can you possibly know what another person thinks? the critics ask. They forget, of course, that when they interview people, they accept what an interviewee says—presumably because he or she doesn't merely think it or feel it, but actually says it. Why not accept what a person says in an interview about what he or she thinks or feels—and report it? If you do report this subjective reality, you must make it clear to the reader that this is what the interviewed person said about his or her feelings and thoughts.

Some creative nonfiction writers, like Tom Wolfe, invent internal monolog for the interviewed person. Wolfe says he can do it because he has researched and interviewed at length, frequently for weeks and months, so that he can accurately capture what that person would be likely to think during some event. Some would say that a person of Wolfe's imagination and willingness to dig deep probably can create a monolog that approximates what a person might think, feel, or say— but in how many other writers would we have that much faith?

John McPhee, interviewed by Norman Sims for his book The Literary Journalists, said that we cannot get into another person's head and think for him or her. In McPhee's series of excellent books, he tells research methods / 213

us in one way or another how the characters feel about something, but he says he never invents what they feel—that always comes from the interview. Like Wolfe, McPhee practically lives with the people he writes about, so that what he writes about their thoughts and feelings is undoubtedly accurate in the details and in the tone.

Tom Wolfe wrote this about subjective reality in Chapter 2 of his book The New Journalism:

The idea was to give the full objective description plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters. That was why it was ironic when both the journalistic and literary old guards began to attack this new journalism as "impressionistic." The most important things one attempted in terms of technique depended upon a depth of information that had never been demanded in newspaper work. Only through the most searching forms of reporting was it possible, in non-fiction, to use whole scenes, extended dialogue, point-of-view, and interior monologue. Eventually I, and others, would be accused of "entering people's minds".But exactly! I figured that was one more doorbell a reporter had to push.

Wolfe's use of the word "impressionistic" does not mean to imply an analogy to Impressionism, the style of painting where much of the detail is left out. Creative nonfiction is actually more of a realistic painting than is regular news reporting. Regular, objective, news reporting is more impressionistic; it leaves out the entire realm of the subjective and gives an impression painted by a pile of facts hastily dabbed on the canvas and information from sometimes rather rapid-fire interviews smeared across to give a semblance of truth.

Gay Talese, in Ronald Weber's The Reporter As Artist, said this on writing about what another person is thinking:

I attempt to absorb the whole scene, the dialogue and mood, the tension, drama, conflict, and then try to write it all from the point of view of the person I am writing about, even revealing whenever possible what those individuals are thinking during those moments that I am describing.

Talese has said, too, that he believes he can more accurately reflect a person's thoughts about something than could that person him or herself, particularly if that person is not a writer. Talese added that this presumes he's been studying the person for a long time, perhaps months. He's interviewed his subject on many occasions on various topics, and he's asked what the person thought about the particular topic. He feels that a clever writer (like himself) can bring out meanings through words much better than the average person he interviews can—especially if the person is merely quoted in casual conversation. No one speaking extemporaneously uses words as well as a professional writer with lots of time to compose. Talese even concludes that he is fairer and more accurate in his reporting when he uses indirect quotes than when he uses the expected direct quotes.

In a direct quote, the writer captures the interviewee's words as verbatim as possible within quotation marks. By contrast, in an indirect quote, the writer uses his or her own words to render what the interviewee said, and often sets the paraphrase off with the word "that." "John said that the war seemed to go on interminably" is an example of an indirect quote, while a direct quote might read, "'The war seemed to go on and on and on,' John said." Although direct quotes give the impression of objectivity and accuracy, if a professional writer revises the interviewee's words into a clearer statement, it may, in the end, represent a more accurate expression of the person's thoughts. Talese reminds us always to do as he does: Attribute any indirect quote to its source. This practice requires the ultimate in careful thinking and working, or one can either unintentionally distort the person's message or intentionally make the person seem to support some point the writer desires to make. The ethical journalist must always keep this in mind.

Two examples from Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father demonstrate how he puts indirect quotes into practice by telling us what a person was thinking at the time:

The men slept in shifts through June and July, constantly on the alert for any intrusion, but nothing happened. The monotony,

Bill thought, the monotony is maddening, and he was tempted at times to leave again for California, but each time he resisted, fearful that a disaster would strike moments after his departure.

The children talked quietly, and Rosalie sat quietly next to Bill, feeling frustration and guilt. She wished that she had found out ahead of time the main reason why both parents had been invited; if she had, she might have protected Bill from that which made him most vulnerable: his ego.

In the second quote, Talese used two approximate equivalents of thinking: "feeling" and "wished." Whether using "thinking," "feeling," or "wished," he was not thinking for Bill or Rosalie—he had gotten these thoughts, feelings, and wishes from them in a long series of interviews.

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Responses

  • Esko
    What does this quote mean Literary old guards began to attack this new journalism as impressionistic?
    7 years ago

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