Books which set the standards for journalism

by NJ McGarrigle

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The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)

 

Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

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