Out of Sight

The myth of the invisible reporter

Text by Joanna Biggs

Joanna Biggs, a journalist and editor at the London Review of Books, is collecting interviews for her book about work in Britain, due out in 2015. She explores how interviewing has changed, from Studs Terkel to Katherine Boo.

Reporting is a strange activity, something that feels natural and unnatural at once. It reminds me most of dating. I’m doing a lot of interviews for a book about people’s working lives, and it feels as though I’ve been frantically seeing a few people a week for months. You write to ask them to meet and if they say yes, you need a way for them to recognise you: I have brown hair, but do I call myself a brunette? That sounds like a come-on, or like I’ve escaped from a 1970s language lab. I wear my red cardigan as it’s easy to spot – but is it blood red? Rose red? Ketchup red? I get nervous waiting – have I got the wrong place, wrong day, what if they don’t turn up at all? When they do, I want them to feel comfortable; I want to be nimble enough to follow the conversation’s ebb and flow. And I want them to go away happy enough to hear from me again.

It’s also not like dating, though, because it always goes better if I don’t say much. I felt proud when, walking back after an interview recently, my interviewee said: “Oh! I completely forgot to ask about you” (but perhaps for her it felt like a date gone wrong, one on which you talked about yourself too much). I generally write in my notebook to stop myself from saying things out loud. It’s not only that it’s embarrassing to listen back to the tape and hear yourself stumbling around; it’s that if you want to find anything out, then speaking yourself is useless. But does it follow that when you write the encounter up you should erase your own presence? Might it not be better to show the reader that you were there too, scribbling, reacting, buying the coffee, laughing at the jokes, slipping up with a leading question? Does making yourself invisible really make it easier to see the subject?

In the 1960s, Joan Didion reported for Life and Esquire and Vogue, and on the packing list she taped to the inside of her wardrobe door was a typewriter and two legal pads and pens. No Dictaphone, no camera; she simply carried “files”. It was the arrival of the tape recorder in the late 1970s that changed reporters’ relationship to what they saw. Suddenly they could get down exactly what their interviewees said and how they said it. What the reporter saw was only part of the point, because now they could let their subjects speak for themselves. The writer could be invisible.

Studs Terkel saw how the technology could be used to document the American 20th century. The foremost oral historian of the US, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, would fumble with his tape recorder so his interviewees could see he was nothing to be scared of, and gather their stories of everyday life and extraordinary feats in the Great Depression and the Second World War. In his 1974 book Working, receptionists, door-to-door salesmen and taxi drivers tell him about their working lives. I imagine the people who still pick the book up are looking forward to hearing from the welders at the Ford plant and the lettuce pickers in California, but the worker I didn’t want to stop talking was the advertising creative, Barbara Herrick. Her entry opens with her name in capital letters and an italicised introductory paragraph by Terkel: she’s 30 and single, a vice-president at an ad agency who has won many awards. He sets the scene – an apartment in Beverly Hills full of paintings and records and “well-thumbed” books – then she is set going. Her career has been carefully orchestrated to avoid having to sleep with clients. The trick is to schedule a breakfast meeting, but it also helps to say: “And even though you’re a terrifically nice guy and I’d like to sleep with you, I feel I can’t.” She has to accept what comes with being a token woman: “‘Let’s have some coffee, Barbara. Make mine black.’ I’m the waitress. I go do it because it’s easier than to protest. If he’d known my salary is more than his I doubt that he’d have acted that way”. She has begun to doubt the usefulness of advertising altogether: “Do I ever question what I’m selling? (A soft laugh.) All the time.”

I might have expected her to boast – Terkel notes that she earns enough to put her in the top one per cent of working women in the US – but for her, becoming successful has meant devising ways to manage other people’s egos as well as lines for soap powder and frankfurters. Terkel’s books feel like life: some people go on a bit, others don’t explain themselves properly; some are bitter, others blithe. There is a welcoming messiness to Working, and the form of the book itself would have you believe that there’s no conscious shape to it at all: it’s just people talking.

Terkel showed what a reporter could do with invisibility, but not everyone was convinced. While he was collecting interviews for Working, Didion was on assignment. She doesn’t share her packing list to make herself more visible and more glamorous in the manner of a women’s magazine (though that is an effect of knowing she washes her face with Basis soap). She tells us to help us understand what the 1970s felt like – and what they felt like is the subject of The White Album, as she called her 1979 collection of that decade’s reporting. Didion recalls that she habitually forgot something obvious: not a Dictaphone, but a watch. Her writing nights would be punctuated with a trip to the hire car for five minutes of its radio, calls to the motel’s front desk or to her husband at home to find out the time: “This may be a parable, either of my life as a reporter during this period or of the period itself.” Didion keeps reminding us that she’s in the way, that what we see in the book are the things she has seen, re-seen, thought about and written down so that we can see them too. Her being there – visible, watchless – reminds us that she isn’t an Isherwoodesque “camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”; she isn’t passive, she can’t record everything and she is always thinking.

The tape recorder gave reporters a choice. You could report something so directly that you didn’t need to appear: one hour with your subject would give you enough verbatim quotes for an article in the transparent question-and-answer style seen in most newspapers and magazines today, gussied up with a line about the interviewee sipping Diet Coke. Or you could be there, insert yourself into a story over weeks and months and years (you’d need your notebook, because no one could survive transcribing years of hanging out). The second approach means you have to adopt a point of view: it would simply be too unkind to the reader not to carve them a path through such a mass of material. Reporting has, on the one hand, never been easier and, on the other, never so difficult. In effect, the choice you have to make is between going on a date and moving in together.

Katherine Boo sounds like a good date: “I long ago decided I didn’t want to be one of those nonfiction writers who go on about themselves,” she has said of the way she decided to write up nearly four years of reporting in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi in the award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She pulled together hundreds of pages of official documents, interviews conducted through translators and footage the residents took themselves, as well as hours spent in the slum following people around. Her book approaches Flaubert’s ideal in which the author is like “God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”. Boo’s invisibility, unlike Terkel’s, isn’t just about avoiding going on about herself; it’s about inhabiting someone else so entirely that you can reproduce their thoughts like an old-fashioned omniscient narrator. Nineteen-year-old Abdul picks out items from the dump to sort and sell, and in Boo’s account that is also how he sees people:

Maybe because of the boiling sun, he thought about water and ice . . . if he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view better than – what it was made of . . . In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Boo says she knows her characters’ thoughts only by “pressing them in repeated (they would say endless) conversations and fact-checking interviews”. But there is something unsettling in combining objective journalism with the techniques and subject matter of a novelist.

The combination has been an uneasy one ever since the first “nonfiction novel”, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in 1966. Heralded as a new genre, the novelist’s account of the murder of a Kansas family for what turned out to be an empty safe sold millions of copies and became a sensation (and three movies). But the book has been seen as creepy for the sympathy it shows the killers, as well as for Capote’s choice not to appear in its pages. Diana Trilling called Capote’s invisibility “a shield for evasion”. It has been clear since the mid-1960s that Capote embellished his account, and even as recently as February this year, the Wall Street Journal was still reporting that he had lionised the book’s detective in return for access to his papers and help convincing witnesses to talk. Invisibility might solve the problem of obscuring the subject, only to create another – obscuring your own prejudices.

Invisibility offers something it can’t deliver: objectivity and an escape from the narrating ego. “Method reporting” books such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Polly Toynbee’s Hard Work use the authors’ invisibility as middle-aged women to make visible what it’s like to work minimum-wage jobs for a few months. But in wanting to convey how hard it is to work in a nursery or a diner, they end up writing about their own sore feet. Terkel, too, puts his subjects’ names in upper-case letters, but sneaks in with italicised interjections; Boo makes not being a character in her book almost a moral credo – “I don’t want you to think about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul” – but she also chooses when to zoom in and out.

Now that anyone can record audio and video and publish it themselves in a second, the question of what reporters bring to the things they’ve seen seems more pressing than ever. I keep thinking how amazing it would be to report while wearing Google Glass, turning your humdrum eyes and ears into a digital video and audio track – until I remember the glasses don’t transcribe (and that’s not even getting into the ethical questions). I come back from reporting with an mp3 file and pages of scrawly notes, and my work at first is to transcribe, sift, listen, reconstruct. This is the Terkelian work: patient, slow, steady. But then, as I start to write, I can’t always explain what I want to without admitting I was there – that’s the Didionian work. I feel perhaps I ought to take Boo’s approach: she’s the one with the moral high ground, awards, staff job at the New Yorker and “genius” grant. Yet something is lost if the reporter doesn’t own up to being there.

Beyond reinterpretations of the “new journalism” of the 1960s and 1970s – by Boo and others – writers have begun to employ non-fictional sources in new ways. Sheila Heti’s “novel from life”, How Should a Person Be?, uses taped conversations between her and her best friend Margaux Williamson to riff on the traditions of the celebrity Q&A-style interview and of the two-hander play, in an effort to get at what authenticity might mean. In the age of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Vine, authenticity may require not invisibility, but a particular sort of visibility. Perhaps the reporter needs to be a more sceptical, stoical presence than she’s been before. Emily Witt, in the spring 2013 issue of n+1, writes about watching porn being filmed before a live audience, who also participate by spanking the stars as they work and calling out “I’d take you to meet my mother!” or “Make that bitch choke!” Our audience member goes and gets a snack: “While I certainly worried about what I had seen, I could not find it in myself to feel that level of indignation. I ate my ice-cream sandwich and went to sleep.”

When the photographer Lee Miller (who’d been Man Ray’s muse in Paris before being taken on by British Vogue and sent to document the war) got into Hitler’s flat in Munich in 1945, she calmly photographed his desk and telephone before setting up a shot in the bathroom. She brought a statue from another room to stand on a side table, arranged a portrait print of the Führer by the soap-holder, left her boots on the chenille mat and got into Hitler’s bathtub. Her friend David Scherman caught the image: Miller holding a flannel to the back of her neck as her eyes move off into the dead air beyond the tub. This is no ordinary bathing Venus, even if you don’t at first recognise where you are, or know that the boots had been at the liberation of Dachau that day. The reporter doesn’t have to be invisible: she just has to bring you with her to a place you didn’t expect to see. §