Generations and Journalism

by Daniel A. Kaufman

My discussion with Robert Wright on Joan Didion, The New Journalism, the Silent Generation, Generation X, and more. Originally aired on, part of the network, October 14.




16 responses to “Generations and Journalism”

  1. Thomas Jones

    Real quick initial comment that Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” opened some doors in terms of New Journalism that is often overlooked.

  2. Absolutely. It’s often cited as one of the sources of the tradition.

  3. Interested that you mentioned The Breakfast Club. In relation to a previous piece where American Graffiti was being discussed as representing (one version of) the real world I was going to suggest – but didn’t – that TBC represented something more in line with my sense of what is real.

    On that pronunciation issue. I have always pronounced agora with the emphasis on the first syllable but I know that the natural way it would be read if it were an English word is as you and Dan Tippens pronounce it.

    I recently mentioned the site to someone with a background in nursing, and I had to say it again slowly, pronouncing it with equal stress. Then she said. Ah yes the fibre. She thought I had said Angora as in Angora fibre which comes from rabbits apparently and not from Angora goats which produce mohair. Confusing!

    If you pronounce it AG-uh-ra, only people with a classical education will get it. If you pronounce it ag-OR-uh, people with a classical education will wince and others will think of a hairy sweater or a rabbit or a goat.

    So what about going with the flow and changing the name to The Electric Angora? 🙂

  4. labnut

    So what about going with the flow and changing the name to The Electric Angora?

    I approve. After all we weave stories with many threads. Let the threads be made of that fine natural wool, mohair. May our contributions aspire to the same quality even if some of the comments are quite hairy. Full disclosure – I live in a major mohair producing region and so cannot resist a shameless, self-serving commercial plug –


    The story of how Angora goats arrived on our shores and grew in numbers is truly amazing.
    In 1838 the Sultan of Turkey sent twelve neutered rams and one female to Port Elizabeth, halfway across the world.
    The rams were rendered infertile, as the Sultan wanted to protect his country’s powerful mohair empire.
    What he didn’t realise, though, was that the ewe on board was pregnant and gave birth to a kid ram en route to Africa, which was the start of the industry in South Africa.
    Today’s Karoo region produces the most mohair in the world – all thanks to the Sultan’s mistake and a pregnant ewe.

    One may beware Greeks bearing gifts but this was a welcome Turkish gift.
    Go on, spoil yourself and buy something made with mohair. You will always be grateful to me for my recommendation 🙂 and you will feel completely at home when you contribute to the Electric Angora.

  5. davidlduffy

    Possibly, one should follow the suggestion of Samuel Marchbanks (aka Robertson Davies): The Junior Deipnosophists.

  6. Hi Dan, I really appreciated this extension of the Didion piece. Ellis did not appeal to me though I probably gave him as much chance as Wright did (his reaction was similar to my own). So I thought it was very interesting when you juxtaposed him with Hughes.

    If you had simply declared (outside any other context) that Hughes was documenting (or the documenting voice of) generation X I probably would have laughed, thinking it was a joke. But when set against Ellis, that fact seems near crystal clear. There was a reality and humanity (to both the situations and characters) in Hughes movies, that seemed absent in Ellis. While somewhat Hollywood-ized, a kind of pasteurization, I can point (and have) to some of his movies as representative of my experiences.

    But here is where I wonder if elements beyond “generation” become important. You note that Ellis is focused on a subset of people he would have known well… and something clearly outside my realm of experience. Hughes on the other hand was focused on an environment that was almost definitively my realm of experience, with much of his settings being the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, my exact location.

    Could it be that the takes of Ellis versus Hughes on generation X represent rich versus middle class, or coastal versus midwest experiences?

    On Agora, I pronounce it Ag-uhr-uh.

  7. What you said about Didion here, Dan, reinforced my positive feelings about her. (Especially the wariness with respect to social abstractions and the wagon train morality stuff.)

    On the generations concept, you can certainly see differences in student behaviour over time, but I remain skeptical about your use of standard labels and generational narratives (albeit that you give them a personal and original twist). In particular, I’m very ambivalent about self-conscious generational identity, which can take on a life of its own. In some respects this sort of generalized labelling and self-identification reminds me of astrological star signs (which of course are very different insofar as they have no basis in fact at all).

  8. The difference with astrological signs, of course, is that whereas there is no reason whatsoever for thinking that peoples’ lives and relationships are affected by distant stars, there is pretty good reason to think that people who live in a common place, in the same period, with common place/period experiences, will share certain sensibilities and attitudes. Again, this can be very much overstated, but the comparison with astrology strikes me as inapt.

  9. Mark: I asked a friend who has a Masters in Classics and he told me that my pronunciation is correct.

  10. Hi Dan, while I agree with your argument that generational narratives are more compelling (are more realistic) than astrological accounts, if one jettisons the “lives and relationships are affected by distant stars” mechanics of astrology maybe they are closer to each other than might appear and so support (at least slightly) what Mark suggests.

    Basically all that astrology (in the sense of “what is your star sign?”) boils down to is that the time of year you are born may affect the kind of temperament and/or sense of opportunities which may be available to you. So it might not be the stars, but the changing mix of hormones, neurotransmitters, and nutrients affecting your mother (and so you) during gestation and in the initial growth period after birth, based on the natural yearly cycle, that sets a sort of tone for your life.

    Not to mention people born at certain times during the year will have predictable relationships to events that recur annually (so a set circular-temporal relationship) for the rest of their lives, with individuals born during certain time-frames always falling short, being on time, or ready in advance of season-based opportunities.

    Ancient people may have made a connection from these to the patterns of stars, and so falsely attributed causality to the stars, but the underlying mechanism (setting some level of “similar experience”) could arguably exist. In essence it is “generational” but on a shorter time scale. Now I agree there is less here to work with than generational influences, but I don’t see it being so far off that people can’t conceive of themselves as having certain connections to others because they share something with others “born in the depths of winter”, “born in early spring”, “born in fall”, etc.

    And finally, as Mark was actually suggesting (he sure wasn’t defending astrology, as what I wrote might seem) any commonality can form enough of a hook to generate some level of expectation and self-fulfilling prophecy. How much of what underlies “generational” social pressures are mere self-fulfilling prophecies? For example, when children were forced to live and work side by side with adults, and almost no media segregated based on age, was there such a thing as a generational narratives?

    To be clear, I am not defending astrology. I don’t believe in it. But I do think there may be more connections of the “shared experience” variety based on when people are born during a year, than you seem to give credit and which make Mark’s comparison not entirely inapt.

  11. dbholmes: When Didion says the following:

    “I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs…, of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man’s own blood… We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.”

    I don’t think she is saying anything for which talking about the commonalities of “Capricorns” or “Virgos” provides any sort of useful analogy. For one thing, what she is saying is true (unlike astrological statements). And for another, its true in a quite specific, substantial way, whereas astrological characterizations and predictions almost always require a certain kind of fraudulent vaguery, so that virtually every one winds up true, no matter what.

  12. Regarding that comparison, I said it reminds me *in some respects* of star signs. I explicitly referred to the “self-identification” aspect and suggested that this process could “take on a life of its own”. What I mean is, the label itself (millennial, Aquarian…) – or rather it’s application to a particular individual or group – can feed into self-perceptions and change (slightly) the way one sees oneself and others. (This of course goes beyond the common experiences which you are talking about.)

    On the pronunciation issue, I think you’ll find that the first (and often only) pronunciation of agora given in most standard sources has a schwa (a sort of unstressed ‘uh’) as the middle syllable, with emphasis on the first syllable. This applies to both British and American sources I have looked at. But I did find one reference to your pronunciation (in the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary) though it was not the first listed pronunciation. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary by contrast only has AG-uh-ra (rough approximation – can’t do IPA here). Most American dictionaries seem to have just this one pronunciation, as do most English and general internet pronunciation sources.

    Others may know more about Greek and Latin pronunciations. (Is the stress in Greek on the last syllable? Ag-OR-a would be my guess for the *Latin* pronunciation.) But I think the standard English pronunciation has been as I suggested above. It seems that in recent years however more people (especially in the US) have been saying ag-OR-uh.

  13. Dan,
    Lively discussion, really enjoyed listening to it.

    My first reaction is, what of the precursors to New Journalism? I’m thinking especially of one of my own literary heroes, Mark Twain – not the Twain of Sawyer and Finn, but of The Innocents Abroad and especially Roughing it (the passage in RI where Twain meets Brigham Young is investigative reporting charged with Twain’s personal feelings about Young and about the somewhat bloody history of the Mormons), and has behind it Twain’s own vulnerability as admittedly not the bravest guy to be undertaking this venture.

    One wonders if it wasn’t straight ‘objective’ reportage that was the aberration in the history of journalism, and whether the journalists of the ’60s were merely rediscovering the true journalistic voice.

  14. dmf

    looking forward to hearing Greil Marcus next month gotta throw his Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century into the mix.

  15. dmf: Ellis’s Twitter feed is one of the best out there.

  16. dmf

    dk, indeed might also be a way to get him on yer bloggingheads show, we should also put david foster wallace into the genx reporting pantheon