The death of journalism has been exaggerated; or if it hasn’t, the decline is an opportunity for young writers. “If some people are put off, then maybe that makes it easier for the people who are very good, and who really want to do it,” pronounces a cheerful Dylan Jones, editor of British GQ. With the Norman Mailer Foundation, Jones has just launched a major new prize for nonfiction. As he points out, Britain is swamped with prizes for fiction, but there’s relatively little to encourage a young Mailer or Tom Wolfe on his or her way.
The GQ and Mailer prize is seeking nonfiction on any subject and has assembled an alarmingly well-qualified panel of judges from Times Literary Supplement Editor Peter Stothard, literary agent Ed Victor, nonfiction chameleon Geoff Dyer, novelist Tony Parsons, Canongate Editor Jamie Byng, and pop star Lily Allen.
“We wanted to show that there is still a place for the kind of reporting or writing where someone goes out into the world and comes back with something to tell.”
Jones might play devil's advocate on the question of whether journalism as a career still appeals to young people, but he’s adamant that its power is undiminished: "If newspapers have to some extent declined, there will always be room for good journalism. I don’t think it’s hard at all. In many ways, it’s easier” he says. “More and more journalists are now working in TV and in film, and writing online as well.” The distinctions between genres of media have also become less clear; two of this week’s Oscar contenders started life as nonfiction: British journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir became An Education and The Hurt Locker started life as the dispatches of embedded writer (now screenwriter and producer) Mark Boal.
Said Alex Bilmes, features director at GQ, “There's so much doom and gloom out there. We wanted to show that there is still a place for the kind of reporting or writing where someone goes out into the world and comes back with something to tell. There are still people interested in publishing it, and we're still interested in people learning how to do this kind of stuff.”
GQ is working on the prize with the Mailer Foundation and Mailer’s friend and collaborator Lawrence Schiller. The winner will spend a month in Provincetown at Mailer’s old home, which just before his death in 2007, he decided to turn into a retreat for writers, telling Schiller that he didn’t want “to lose it to history.” Writers on the board of the foundation include Joan Didion and Günter Grass. The foundation now hosts writers, whether they work on fiction, nonfiction, or movie scripts. Mailer’s working studio has been preserved as he left it, as a museum.
Jones says that for GQ to work with Schiller and the foundation in Provincetown is an “an amazing opportunity, and for whoever wins, it’s a fantastic leg up.” He sees the determinedly thoughtful newspaper supplements launched in the early '60s and magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone as nonpareil in championing a new style of journalism. These were the early days of Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and the other legends of New Journalism. Their place, now, in journalistic history is the source of many an Almost Famous-style romantic fantasy about the life of a writer. The importance of the writing they printed is the reason why GQ “devotes a lot of time and space and money to narrative journalism” and is set on finding new stars.
Mailer once joked that it wasn’t hard to write the truth, “It’s the phony pieces that throw out the literary back.” Convinced of his genius, Mailer’s mother kept everything he had ever written. Before his death in 2007, he sold his vast archive to the Harry Ransom Center in Texas. Correspondence there revealed his irritation at being thought of as America’s best journalist. He thought of himself as the best writer. The blurring of that distinction seems an apt foundation for this new literary talent contest.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.