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Fabulous Fabulist

A review of Lillian Ross's Reporting Back Buy the book

By Joshua Green

Lillian Ross, a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than 50 years, first gained fame in 1950 for a profile she wrote of Ernest Hemingway. Like so much of her work, especially in the magazine's "The Talk of the Town" section, she built the profile through vivid scenes and dialogue which she collected while accompanying the author and his fourth wife on a rousing celebratory weekend in New York City (Hemingway had just completed a book). Ross penned what's considered to be the classic eyewitness account of Hemingway, in the course of it developing a lifelong friendship with the author.

As her new book, Reporting Back: Notes on Journalism, reveals, that's about par for the course. Ross's journalism follows a conspicuous pattern: She meets a delightful subject, joins them on an exotic outing, and emerges with a sparkling piece of writing and a new friend. Examples here include, but are not limited to, Adlai Stevenson, Norman Mailer, John Huston, Charlie Chaplin, Francois Truffaut, Robin Williams, and multiple generations of Miss America contestants. "I have always been aware of my good fortune," she writes, "in the role of a reporter, to have the special blessing of simply being there."

Ross was one of the earliest proponents of what's sometimes referred to as the "fly-on-the-wall" style of journalism (a term she disavows), minimizing her own role in a story and bringing subjects to life with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for dialogue--sort of a literary cinema vérité. While many of The New Yorker writers of yore were famously circumspect about the process of their craft, Ross is a pleasant exception. Her purpose in Reporting Back is to impart some of the lessons she's learned about writing over the course of her career.

These tend to be simple, straightforward, and strongly held. Of her subjects, Ross says: "I set them up, get out of the way, and let them go." Of her editorial voice: "Everything is implied in the facts." And of writing topics: "If I find it interesting to write, I naturally assume the reader will find it interesting to read."

In order to show how these lessons apply, the book includes extended excerpts--occasionally entire "Talk of the Town" items--from Ross's many books and articles. In fact, Reporting Back isn't so much a book of writing instruction as it is an annotated guide to the author's greatest hits. This doesn't diminish its effectiveness; her own scrupulous adherence to the suggestions she puts forth are evidence of their value. "When what [a subject] has to say is original and riveting there is only one course for the reporter to take," she primly instructs. "By all means, quote these precious people, and quote them at length." Indeed, Ross was so enamored of the spark and energy she discovered in the playwright Lorraine Hansberry that her 1959 "Talk" piece, included here, is essentially one long Hansberry quote. The effect is no less striking than if Ross had devoted pages to her own description.

The problem with Ross's extended quotations is that one doubts whether anyone speaks quite so flawlessly at such great length. Curiously, for a writer who places a premium on capturing detail, Ross abhors tape recording interviews with her subjects. "Listening with your own ears--and not turning the listening over to a tape recorder--gives one fresh, interesting, and original quotes that bring the person you're writing about alive." As a matter of personal preference, that's fine. But if some of her gems seem too good to be true, perhaps it's because they are. Ross says she substitutes her own words for her subject's if she feels it's more representative, a license that would cost many reporters their job.

Ross's writerly discipline allowed her to return to subjects years or even decades later and pick up the thread of an earlier narrative, as she did with Benny Goodman, Norman Mailer, and assorted other favorites. Good writing, Ross tells us, "requires work, thought, planning, and elbow grease, but a writer does not lay all that on the reader. In the written story, it just happens." Reading these various articles consecutively, as one can do here, adds another level of appreciation to a writer at the top of her craft.

Joshua Green is an editor of The Washington Monthly.

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