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What is literary journalism, and why did Sean Penn fail to carry it off?

Sean Penn aspired to literary journalism, but failed to capture the world outside his own head. Reuniones Anuales GBM / FMI Lima 2015, CC BY-NC-ND

What is literary journalism, and why did Sean Penn fail to carry it off?

On Saturday evening (US time), Rolling Stone published an interview (the first in decades) with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, best known as El Chapo, the world’s most notorious prison escapee and drug kingpin. The publication instigated the now-familiar, solemnly recognised ritual of internet pandemonium. For the most part, this was due to the fact that the article was written by Sean Penn.

In El Chapo Speaks, Penn describes his journey into the literal and allegorical depths of a Mexican jungle, to sit, drink tequila and reveal to El Chapo his (El Chapo’s) presence on American television in the form of the Fusion original special: Chasing El Chapo.

There are obvious moral questions to be asked about the conduct of Penn and Rolling Stone (the most urgent to do with El Chapo being offered editorial control), and they are being asked.

For me, the issue here is the morality of Penn’s style. The narrative hook is the moral exploration of a man who lives in the public imagination as an uncomplicatedly evil super-villain. Unfortunately, the story unravels because its voice does not enable moral insight.

Inner voice versus public facts

Penn begins with a description of the technological precautions he must take to ensure he is not tracked (they are evidently unsuccessful: El Chapo was re-captured in the early hours of January 8 by the Mexican Navy’s Special Forces).

There is an unsettling digression in which he contemplates the danger of his penis being removed by the narcos he is among, and the article ends with a meditation on the American teens who will be overdosing on the drugs disseminated by Mexican cartels.

By rejecting the tenets of traditional journalism – the sort that at least pretends to objectivity – and straight-up offering the perspective of an Oscar-winner, activist and one-time Madonna husband, Penn is operating at some indefinable narrative location between art, entertainment and fact. So what is his responsibility?

In the 1960s and 70s, a troupe of egomaniacal white men (Penn is, at the very least, continuing this proud tradition), including Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson, popularised a form of journalism that became known as new or literary journalism.

This brought them fame – as it did to the less egomaniacal, more incisive (not male) Joan Didion, probably the best literary journalist – and permanently altered the form. Today, the influence is felt in longform work everywhere, some of the best examples coming from contemporary fiction writers like George Saunders, David Foster Wallace and Tom Bissell.

There is no settled definition of new journalism; the best I’ve encountered is Joseph Hellman’s in Fables of Fact (1981):

Fiction is the literary form most concerned with interior consciousness, while journalism is that most concerned with public fact. New journalism attempts to deal with a world in which the latter has, at an unassimilable pace, entered the former.

Literary journalists are nearly always fiction writers, because fiction writers best capture what it’s like to be inside another person’s head.

Getting out of your head

The genre’s central issue is the handling of authorial voice, through which we enter other minds. In Capote’s tale of a picture-perfect Kansas family’s brutal murder, In Cold Blood (1965), the narrator has a ghostly omniscience, never appearing as a character, but presuming to know the internal workings of his subjects’ heads.

In Mailer’s story of the 1967 anti-Vietnam march on Washington, The Armies of the Night (which carries the absurdly grandiloquent subtitle: History as a Novel, The Novel as History), he describes himself, in the third person, as dramatic protagonist. Despite Mailer’s irrepressible self-esteem, he frequently self-deflates (“Mailer was a snob of the worst sort,” we are told).

Wallace begins his excellent article on David Lynch with self-deprecation:

I don’t even pretend to be a journalist and have no idea how to interview somebody, which turned out perversely to be an advantage, because Lynch emphatically didn’t want to be interviewed.

These strategies are each, in their own way, responding to traditional journalism’s failure to capture the journalists’ humanity, the humanity of the reader and the humanity of those written about.

Penn’s intrusive persona

Despite the title, El Chapo Speaks is Penn’s story and, unlike those described above, his perspective does not facilitate access to a world. Instead, the frequency of the first-person pronoun is exhausting (“I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there.”) and the reader is plunged into a loop of grandiose self-reflection:

I’d offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.

When Penn meets El Chapo there are fragments of insight. He does not see “the big bad wolf of lore”. Instead, the drug dealer’s presence,

conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk…

The journalist’s obligation to uncover his subject’s depths is independent of the subject’s virtue, and attempting to humanise El Chapo is a worthy endeavour. But the story must escape the writer’s head and explore the worlds of others.

By its style, the article makes a claim to be in the tradition of literary journalism, aiming to be both journalism and art. Artistically, it fails. On the other hand, worthwhile points are made about the futility of the War on Drugs and America’s complicity in Mexico’s violence, and the story of this particular Hollywood dude drinking tequila with El Chapo is inherently fascinating.

But the lack of humility does Penn in. A literary journalist owes the reader imaginative access to other perspectives, and Penn makes little effort to imagine outside his own. Literary journalism’s ethical privilege is absent.

Didion ends the preface to her first essay collection thus:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

Sean Penn wants you to think the opposite.