Posted by: Melany | October 12, 2009

The Renaissance of Literary Journalism

An interesting article from the American Journalism Review, Tom Wolfe’s Revenge by Chris Harvey, discusses the evolution of literary journalism and the key players in this style.

I have pasted my favourite parts of the article. These are the elements that I believe relate most to my thinking of literary journalism.

Harvey has noted a few key elements in literary writing: They’re written in narrative form, with a heavy emphasis on dialogue, scene setting and slice-of-life details.

The slice-of-life element is used to intellectually and emotionally involve the reader. The goal is to “show the reader real life.” To say: “Come here! Look! This is the way people live these days! These are the things they do!”

Harvey has noted that Wolfe wrote about various subcultures with the eye of a novelist. He liked to experiment with writing styles. “He toyed with extended dialogue, point of view and interior monologue. He even played with ellipses, dots, dashes and exclamation points – attempting, he wrote, to leave the illusion of people thinking.”

I really enjoyed this last sentence. To me it linked my literary article on illusion and magic with Wolfe’s writing style. This indicates that reading the article can be an experience within itself. This also links with the idea of using different voices, motifs, repetition and rhythm. This makes the reading experience enjoyable and encourages the reader to keep going until the end.

The article then discusses the very famous example of Janet Cooke. Something went very wrong here.

In 1981, when Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing – after it was discovered the eight-year-old drug user in her lead paragraphs was not a real person, but a composite – a whole new round of criticisms was fired.

Writing in the December 1981 issue of this magazine, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw said Cooke had fallen into a typical New Journalism trap: She had spent too much time searching for “flashy metaphors” and not enough time digging up “verifiable facts and legitimate news.”

Shaw added: “Janet Cooke wrote very well. Too well. She forgot she was a journalist, not a storyteller – a reporter, not a creator.”

On the other hand, there is a right way to research and write literary journalism.

Others say they sometimes go to greater lengths to accurately portray what a source is thinking or feeling.

Cynthia Gorney, a Washington Post Style section writer on leave to write a book about abortion, says that when trying to explain a Catholic obstetrician’s beliefs, she immersed herself in his world.

“I did lengthy, multiple interviews with him,” says Gorney. “I read much of the literature he would have been reading,” including ethics texts written in the time he would have been in college and a journal written for Catholic physicians.

“I learned as much as I could about growing up in Catholic schools,” Gorney says. Then she read her description to him. “He made a couple of tiny changes, but said I got it right.”

Harvey discusses the joy of literary writing. He says that it is compelling because, unlike the traditional inverted pyramid style, it offers the reader a reward for reading through the entire story.

“The pleasure and knowledge that come from reading come from making predictions of what will happen in a story,” Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute says.

The form is also easily recognized by readers, because “people in general, in their own memories, use narrative all the time,” Clark says. “They use it to learn, to understand, to remember and find meaning.”

The article concludes by explaining why literary journalism will continue into the future and why there is a demand for this style of writing.

Kramer of Boston University says an even greater reliance by newspapers on literary journalism would help readers sort out the complexities of life. “The thing that’s wrong with most newspaper stories is they’re missing the human context,” he says. “You wonder what kind of person was that robber.”

Sims at the University of Massachusetts agrees. Traditionally, he says, newspapers have not valued “the report on the ordinary life and everyday culture of their own towns.” They haven’t covered ordinary lives. They have covered “extraordinary foul-ups.”

It is true that people are naturally attracted to the human element of a story. Everything appears much more honest and real when it has a human face. The exploration of ordinary things is an important element of literary journalism. I think it is interesting to find one element of a story and focus on that while allowing for additional exploration to occur if the story offers an opportunity for this.


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