Posted by: Melany | October 17, 2009

Literary Guidelines

I had an epiphany and realised that a book collecting dust on my bookshelf, Writing Feature Stories, by Matthew Ricketson, may have information about literary journalism. I have found this book enormously helpful in the past and trust Ricketson’s views.

In the book he discusses literary journalism briefly and he offers the following as elements of literary journalism.

A body of critical literature has been emerging in the past fifteen years or so, developed by practitioners such as Jon Franklin and Mark Kramer as much as by critics. Between them, they have delineated the following elements of literary journalism:

Writing Feature Stories by Matthew Ricketson

Writing Feature Stories by Matthew Ricketson

1. Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind. This means no composite characters, no invented quotes and no attributing thoughts to sources unless they can be verified.

2. Exhaustive research, whether through conventional sources such as documents and interviews, or by ‘saturation’ reporting; that is, by immersing yourself in the world of your subject, often for weeks or months at a time, to get beneath surface realities. This implies a higher standard of accuracy.

3. Novelistic techniques, where a bedrock of research makes it legitimately possible to use a range of techniques borrowed from fiction, such as creating whole scenes, quoting passages of dialogue, describing the social milieu in detail and writing interior monologues for subjects (based on interviews with the subject). Literary journalists are restricted mostly to techniques drawn from socially realistic fiction.

4. Voice, which gives the writer freedom to be ironic, self-conscious, informal, hectoring, self-aware, etc. It is mainly through the authorial voice that literary journalists can move beyond a socially realistic portrayal of events and people. Daily journalism is tyrannised by the institutional voice. Hunter S. Thompson is an extreme example of the individual voice. Sometimes indulgent, he can be highly effective too; one of George McGovern’s advisers said Thompson’s account of the 1972 presidential campaign was the least accurate and most truthful he had ever seen.

5. Literary prose style, both in the attention paid to structuring the narrative and choosing the words themselves.

6. Underlying meaning. The purpose of all this work and style is to go beyond the constraints of daily journalism and find the underlying meanings in issues and events. This implies greater intellectual rigour in mounting an argument about the subject, even if that argument is embedded in an artfully constructed narrative.

What emerges from this list of elements is that literary journalism stands or falls on the quality of the reporting and research work. Without that, all the finest prose in the world has little meaning. In literary journalism the research is the iceberg, the polished prose its tip. Everybody sees the tip and it can be a truly impressive sight. Bulking below the surface is the iceberg, unseen and largely unknown.


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