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date: 14 December 2018

Literary Journalism

Summary and Keywords

“Literary journalism” is a highly contested term, its essential elements being a constant source of debate. A range of alternative concepts are promoted: the “New Journalism,” “literary non-fiction,” “creative non-fiction,” “narrative non-fiction,” “the literature of fact,” “lyrics in prose,” “gonzo journalism” and, more recently, “long-form journalism,” “slow journalism,” and “multi-platform immersive journalism.” At root, the addition of “literary” to “journalism” might be seen to be dignifying the latter and giving it a modicum of cultural class. Moreover, while the media exert substantial political, ideological, and cultural power in societies, journalism occupies a precarious position within literary culture and the academy. Journalism and literature are often seen as two separate spheres: the first one “low,” the other “high.” And this attitude is reflected among men and women of letters (who often look down on their journalism) and inside the academy (where the study of the journalism has long been marginalized). The seminal moment for the launching of literary journalism as a subject in higher education was the publication in 1973 of The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. Bringing together the work of 22 literary journalists, Wolfe pronounced the birth of a distinctly new kind of “powerful” reportage in 1960s America that drew its main techniques from the realist novels of Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol. By the 1980s and 1990s, the study of literary journalism was growing (mainly in the United States and United Kingdom), with some courses opening at universities. In recent years, literary journalism studies have internationalized revealing their historic roots in many societies while another emphasis has been on the work of women writers. Immersive journalism, in which the reporter is embedded with a particular individual, group, community, military unit (or similar) has long been a feature of literary journalism. In recent years it has been redefined as “slow journalism”: the “slowness” allowing for extra attention to the aesthetic, writerly, and experimental aspects of reportage for the journalist and media consumer. And perhaps paradoxically in this age of Twitter and soundbite trivia, long-form/long-read formats (in print and online) have emerged alongside the slow journalism trend. The future for literary journalism is, then, full of challenges: some critics argue that one solution to the definitional wrangles would be to consider all journalism as worthy of critical attention as literature. Most analysis of literary journalism is keen to stress the quality of the techniques deployed, yet greater stress could be placed on the political economy of the media and a consideration of ideological bias. Indeed, while most of the study of literary journalism to date has focused on the corporate media, the future could see more studies of partisan, progressive, alternative media.

Keywords: literary journalism, narrative journalism, immersive journalism, academic discipline, American tradition, women writers, slow journalism, journalism studies

Unpicking Literary Journalism

“We live in a culture of blur and hybrids,” according to Lawson (2008). Indeed, the concept of “literary journalism,” an awkward, hybrid term, has a provisional quality that embodies many of the uncertainties and contradictions of the writer’s predicament in the early 21st century. Alternatives such as the “New Journalism,” “literary non-fiction,” “creative non-fiction,” “narrative non-fiction,” “the literature of fact,” and various other combinations such as “journalistic non-fiction,” “lyrics in prose,” “gonzo journalism” together with, more recently, “slow journalism,” “long-form journalism,” and “multi-platform immersive journalism” have all contended for prominence. Literary journalism certainly has the merit of conciseness and ease on the tongue. But what does it mean?

For Kramer (1995, p. 22), the term describes “the sort of non-fiction in which arts of style and narrative construction long associated with fiction help pierce to the quick of what’s happening—the essence of journalism.” But it’s not a journalism of fiction: literary journalists create unspoken trust in readers about accuracy by not, for example, inventing quotations. With sources they aspire to be as honest as possible about their intentions and attempt to “do no harm.” The concept of voice is central to Kramer’s account as the means by which the writer represents him or herself to the reader. “The defining mark of literary journalism is the personality of the writer, the individual and intimate voice of a whole, candid person . . . speaking simply in his or her own right.” The vision here is of a journalism purged of its grosser commercial and industrial aspects, practiced by artists of integrity and passion. It is a vision that embodies a number of claims: the seriousness of journalism against the condescension of the literary elite, the autonomy of the craft of journalism against mass production (Tulloch & Keeble, 2012, p. 5).

The vision draws on the real strengths of the Western journalistic tradition. It is wedded to an ideal Romantic individualism—with the journalist as a courageous actor confronting the forces of the state and corporate power. It is also a democratic vision. Norman Sims notes that “literary journalism pays respect to ordinary lives . . . the genre’s classics deal with the feelings and experiences of commoners” (Sims & Kramer, 1995, p. 3). Kramer also stresses the inherently democratic features of literary journalism in its commitment to plain speaking: “something pluralistic, pro-individual, anti-cant, and anti-elite. . . . Informal style cuts through the obfuscating generalities of creeds, countries, companies, bureaucracies and experts” (Kramer, 1995, p. 34).

What literary journalists perhaps share with documentary filmmakers is the impulse to “claim the real”: an assertion about truthfulness to verifiable experience, an adherence to accuracy and sincerity that practitioners assert are the essential features that distinguish their writings from “fiction” (Kramer, 1995). Significantly, in the only issue of the first newspaper in the American colonies, Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, Benjamin Harris (b. 1673–d. 1716) stressed in his reports on England’s campaign against Canada that he wanted to provide “accurate news in a time of confusion,” and promised to correct any mistakes (Smith, 1999, p. 5). Unless they are actively practicing bad faith, literary journalists believe in some sense that their writing is rooted in the disciplined observation/witnessing/depiction of “real” people woven into narratives of “real” events that are, in principle, verifiable. Sources can be checked, places revisited, but the claim to authenticity, the rhetoric of factuality, can chiefly be tested by consistency of detail and the character/authority of the narrative voice and the level of confidence it inspires (Tulloch & Keeble, 2012, p. 7).

Journalism’s Low Status

According to John Bak (Bak & Reynolds, 2011, p. 17), “Literary journalism has often been marginalized as the bastard child of literature and journalism.” Indeed, the addition of “literary” to “journalism” may be seen to be dignifying the latter, giving it a modicum of cultural class. While the media exert enormous political, ideological, and cultural power in societies, journalism retains a precarious position within literary culture and the academy. Journalism and literature are often seen as two separate spheres: the first one “low,” the other “high.” Complex factors (historical, cultural, ideological, and political) lie behind this (Keeble, 2007a, p. 3). Since the emergence in the early 17th century in Europe’s cities, particularly London, the “news media” (variously known as corantos, diurnals, gazettes, proceedings, and mercuries) have been associated with scandal, gossip and “low” culture. According to Craven (1992, p. 3), these publications “brought sex and scandal, fantasy, sensationalism, bawdiness, violence and prophecy to their readers: monstrous births, dragons, mermaids and most horrible murders.”

By the early 18th century in the United Kingdom, the derogatory term “Grub Street” had come to be linked with all forms of struggling, low-level publishing (Keeble, 2007a, p. 3). Originally applied to Milton Street, a warren of garrets and tenements in Moorfields (in east London, where impoverished writers lived) by the 1720s “Grub Street” had spread through the poor wards on the edges of the city, close to Clerkenwell and St John’s Gate—home of the Gentleman’s Magazine in the 1730s. Around the same time the word “hack” (from Hackney, another district in east London) came to be associated with writers and prostitutes—basically anything overused, hired out, or common (Uglow, 1998, p. 1). Even after hundreds of years of cultural change in the United Kingdom, the words “hack” and “Grub Street” are still associated with mainstream journalism. By the mid-19th century, the philosopher John Stuart Mill (b. 1806–d. 1883) was denouncing journalism in this way:

In France, the best thinkers and writers of the nation write in the journals and direct public opinion, but our daily and weekly writers are the lowest hacks of literature which, when it is a trade, is the vilest and most degrading of all trades because more of affection and hypocrisy and more subservience to the baser feelings of others are necessary for carrying it on, than for any other trade, from that of brothel keeper up.

(Allan, 2004, p. 19)

In the United States, as well, early forms of journalism were often linked with “vulgarity” and “corruption” (Schudson, 1978, p. 13). As the novelist James Fennimore Cooper (b. 1789–d. 1851) commented in The American Democrat (1838):

The press tyrannizes over publick men, letters, the arts, the stage, and even over private life. Under the pressure of protecting publick morals, it is corrupting them to the core, and under the semblance of maintaining liberty, it is gradually establishing a despotism as ruthless, as grasping, and one that is quite as vulgar as that of any Christian state known.

(Schudson, 1978, p. 13)

In the 1930s, the British critic Cyril Connolly was mourning the “victory” of journalism over literature. Its plain style, he argued, had thrust aside the “mandarin style” (Keeble, 2007a, p. 5). This was “characterised by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and the conditional, by exclamation and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits” (Connolly, 1961, pp. 29–30). There could be no delayed impact in journalism, no subtlety, no embellishment, he claimed. “Prose, with the exception of Conrad who tried to pep up the grand style, began to imitate journalism and the result was the ‘modern movement.’” Literature was merely responding to market demands and the democratization of culture epitomized in the mass-selling media. And these trends horrified Connolly (Keeble, 2007a, p. 6).

A “higher,” “extraordinarily rich” form of journalism had evolved in Britain since the 18th century (Adam, 2002, p. 17). It included “the literary essays of Addison and Steele, the polemical writings of Lord Bolingbroke, Cato and Junius, the legislative reports of Dr Johnson in Gentleman’s Magazine and, later, of Woodfall, one of the first [parliamentary] Gallery reporters, in the Public Advertiser” (see also Italia, 2005). By the mid-19th century, as Gross (1969, p. 63) points out, an “unprecedented number of serious journals of opinion” were prospering, including the Saturday Review, a re-invigorated Spectator, Fortnightly, National Review, Macmillan’s and Cornhill, the latter under the editorship of the novelist William Thackeray (b. 1811–d. 1863) (Fisher, 2000). Within the intellectual economy of modern societies, authors, editors, publishers, campaigners, and academics are found regularly changing roles. Indeed, for many men and women of letters since the 18th century, the continuous flow of their writing may have incorporated books, reviews, polemics, sociological research, poetry—as well as their journalism. Literary journalism theorists have tended to see journalism not as a marginal literary pursuit but as a central cultural field which writers exploit for a variety of reasons and where, crucially, they self-consciously construct their public identities (Keeble, 2007a, pp. 2–3). Yet, in general, the low status of journalism has persisted.

How Writers and the Academy Have Treated Journalism as “Low” Literature

This attitude has been reflected by both writers and, until recently, the academy. For instance, William Hazlitt (b. 1778–d. 1830) practiced “higher journalism” as both a literary journalist and a writer who discussed literature. Yet his journalism was profoundly influenced by his belief in the marginal position of journalism in relation to the “aristocratic” writers of “literature.” According to Kirsten Daly, Hazlitt’s essays, then, became essentially combative: amounting to a defense of the craft of journalism as a valid form of imaginative writing (Daly, 2007). The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (b. 1772–d. 1834) wrote throughout his life for a variety of journals (such as the Watchman, which he ran for just ten issues in 1796, and the Morning Post) in a variety of genres: non-political essays, profiles, leading articles, and parliamentary reports. According to Butler (1981), Coleridge may well be considered one of Britain’s first “modern journalists” or “professional intellectuals” yet his journalism was never a source of pride for him. He preferred to think of himself as “a very humble poet.” As Leader comments (2000, p. 24):

If the attitudes Coleridge expressed towards journalism live, they do so in the academy, not just today because it is the academy which shelters many poets and virtually all philosophers but because academic writing in general—“scholarship”—is meant to be pure and disinterested, above mere market considerations, including those of readability or accessibility, as also above such contingencies as tight deadlines or word limits.

Similarly, John Tulloch, in considering the journalism of Charles Dickens (b. 1812–d. 1870), argues that one reason for the low status of journalism has been its perceived lack of creative control by the author compared to the control allegedly associated with the “artist.” He says:

Arguably one of the malign effects of Romanticism in British culture was to define the “true” artist’s status as not having a patron but a soulful relationship to the audience that precluded writing for anything as vulgar as the market.

(Tulloch, 2007, p. 60)

Certainly the issues of creative control and his relationship to the mass audience fascinated Dickens as he aimed (in the end with remarkable success) to become a major editor and proprietor with his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens published about 350 articles—more than a million words—in magazines and newspapers. But only in recent years has the scale of his journalistic achievement been acknowledged. As leading Dickensian scholar John M. L. Drew comments (2003, p. 1), “Relative to the letterpress inspired by his novels and short stories, it is not well known and it is very widely scattered.”

The vast journalistic output of the American writer Willa Cather (b. 1873–d. 1947) has also been given scant attention by the academy. Charlotte Beyer argues that Cather carried these negative attitudes into her own writing, distinguishing clearly between her “journalistic stint” and her “serious writing” (Beyer, 2007). Virginia Woolf (b. 1882–d. 1941), though a literary journalist for much of her career, was extremely critical of the politics of the journalistic economy, seeing it as male-dominated. Significantly, her original version of Orlando: A Biography (1928), a satirical novel describing the adventures of a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries, has a great deal to say about literary politics. Censorship, men’s opinions of women, the corruption of the literary marketplace, and the embargoes on women writers were among her targets (Keeble, 2007a, p. 8; Lee, 1998, p. 123). In her poem, “Fantasy,” the journalist is depicted as a bug—repellent, crawling, and blood-sucking. Yet, according to Leila Brosnan, a seriously distorted image of Woolf’s literary project has emerged through the failure of critics to acknowledge the importance of her substantial career as a journalist (2000, p. 194). As a result, critics “perpetuate the construction of a literary figure, and the movement she is often deemed to exemplify, as separate from a whole sphere of literary and cultural production.”

George Orwell, the celebrated author of Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), stressed in his essay “Why I Write” (1970, p. 28):

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience.

In his “As I Please” column, which appeared in the leftist journal, Tribune, from 1943–1947, Orwell effectively defined a new kind of radical politics. It involved defending civil liberties, challenging racial intolerance, and reducing the influence of the press barons. It also incorporated a celebration of the joys of nature, an acknowledgement of the cultural significance of both Christianity and Marxism and an awareness of the power of language and propaganda. Above all, it recognized the extraordinary richness of the individual’s experience. Yet Orwell looked down on his journalism as mere “pamphleteering” (Orwell, 1970, p. 26):

In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.

Until recent studies by Paul Anderson (2006), Richard Lance Keeble (2007b), Peter Marks (2011), and Alex Woloch (2016), Orwell’s journalism had been largely ignored by the academy.

Albert Camus (b. 1913–d. 1960), author of The Outsider (1942) and The Plague (1947) and Nobel Prize winner, edited the Resistance journal, Combat, during the Second World War. But after he left the journal, he refused to work for any newspaper, saying he agreed with the Russian novelist Tolstoy that journalism was “a whorehouse for the intellect” (Todd, 1998, p. 326). Graham Greene (b. 1904–d. 1991) is well known as the author of more than 25 novels, including Brighton Rock (1938), The Heart of the Matter (1948), and The End of the Affair (1951). He began his writing career as a sub-editor on the Nottingham morning newspaper Guardian Journal, and later, in London, on The Times—and he did various stints as a film reviewer between 1928 and 1941 for journals such as the Spectator, Sight and Sound, and the short-lived Night and Day. Even though his journalistic career has been largely ignored by the academy, the documentary filmmaker John Grierson described Greene as “the best critic we ever had” (quoted in Sherry, 1989, p. 588) while, in a rare academic study, David Finkelstein judged him “one of the finest critics of his generation” (Finkelstein, 2007, p. 88).

Martha Gellhorn (b. 1908–d. 1998) is celebrated as one of the last century’s greatest war reporters, covering a range of conflicts—from the Spanish Civil War of 1937, the Second World War, the Vietnam conflict in 1966, and the 1967 Arab/Israeli Six Day War up until the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama (Moorehead, 2003). Yet she constantly stressed she needed the money from her journalism to fund her “writing,” suggesting that her reporting was not even a form of “writing,” as highlighted by Wilson (2007).

Not all journalists/novelists look down on their media work. Rudyard Kipling (b. 1865–d. 1945), author of novels such as The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901), poet, short story writer, and Nobel Prize winner, worked on local newspapers in Lahore and Allahabad, India, between 1883 and 1889. In his autobiography, Something of Myself (1977), he was keen to stress how much the disciplines associated with journalism had helped him develop his writing skills:

I have told what my early surroundings were, and how richly they furnished me with material. Also, how rigorously newspaper spaces limited my canvases and, for the reader’s sake, prescribed that within these limits must be some sort of beginning, middle and end. My ordinary reporting, leader- and note-writing carried the same lesson, which took me an impatient while to learn. . . . Mercifully, the mere act of writing was, and always has been, a physical pleasure to me. This made it easier to throw away anything that did not turn out well: and to practise, as it were, scales.

(Kipling, 1977, p. 154)

Literary Journalism in the Academy

So far, literary journalism has been considered as practice. But it is also a subject of research and teaching in higher education and considering its origins and development in the academy throws up many crucial insights.

The Origins

The seminal moment occurred in 1973 with the publication of The New Journalism edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. The anthology brought together the work of 22 (largely male and American) authors including Rex Reed, Gay Talese, Joe Eszterhas, Barbara L. Goldsmith, and Joan Didion (these last two were the only women), Nicholas Tomalin (the only Brit), and Garry Wills. But the most extraordinary feature of the book was the “Introduction” by Wolfe in which he pronounced with great confidence and élan the birth of a distinctly new kind of “powerful” reportage in 1960s America (1975, p. 46). This power derived mainly from the use of four techniques essentially drawn from the realist novels of Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens, and Gogol.

The first one was scene-by-scene construction, “telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer narrative.” The second was the use of realistic dialogue that involved “the reader more completely than any other single device. It also establishes and defines character more quickly and effectively.” The third device was the “third-person point of view” or “the technique of presenting every scene to the reader through the eyes of a particular character, giving the reader the feeling of being inside the character’s mind and experiencing the emotional reality of the scene as he [sic] experiences it.” Finally, Wolfe highlighted the recording of what he called “status life,” the “everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene” (Wolfe & Johnson, 1975, p. 47).

Wolfe also pointed to what appeared to be a stable literary “class structure.” The literary upper class were the novelists; the middle class were the “men of letters”: “the literary essayists, the more authoritative critics, the occasional biographer, historian or cosmically inclined scientist.” The journalists were so low down in the structure “they were barely noticed at all.” “They were regarded chiefly as day labourers who dug up slags of raw information for writers of higher ‘sensibility’ to make better use of.” In response, Wolfe combatively turned the tables claiming the recent work in journalism “outdazzled” the work done in fiction and that the supreme status enjoyed by the novel for ninety years (1875–1965) had come to an end.

It was unusual to see a journalist reflecting so deeply, provocatively, and originally on the work of his peers. Its effect was rather like that of a small earthquake in the fertile ground of Western culture: the after-effects are still being felt. Yet how can we understand the birth of New Journalism in the context of the political and cultural economy of 1960s and 1970s America? Susan Sontag reminds us of the importance of placing our understanding of artistic, literary styles in their historical and geographical context:

The notion of style, generically considered, has a specific, historical meaning. It is not only that styles belong to a time and place; and that our perception of the style of a given work of art is always charged with an awareness of the work’s historicity, its place in a chronology.

(Sontag, 1967, p. 18)

In part, and in complex ways, it could be argued that the emerging awareness and celebration of literary journalism as a genre in the 1970s and 1980s was a manifestation of the political, cultural, and ideological power of America (as the leader of the Western, capitalist world in its confrontation with Communist Soviet Union) at the time (Said, 1993, 1994; Keeble, 2018).

There was also, as Wolfe identified, a remarkable flowering of journalistic talent at the time in the United States. According to Weingarten (2005, p. 7): “It was an unprecedented outpouring of creative non-fiction, the greatest literary movement since the American fiction renaissance of the 1920s.” To take just two examples: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) had created a sensation when first published—and has remained controversial. Telling the somewhat gruesome story of the murder of a wealthy wheat farmer, Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie and the two youngest of their four children, Capote based his narrative on lengthy interviews over three years with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who subsequently confessed to the murders. He did this by deploying New Journalism’s four main devices: scene-by-scene construction, realistic dialogue, third-person point of view, and the recording of people’s status life (Nuttall, 2007) in a work that drew from a range of literary conventions: the biography, the crime story, the 19th-century episodic novel. In the “Acknowledgements” section at the start of the book, he begins: “All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned.” Moreover, the book is subtitled “A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences.” Yet despite this rhetoric, Capote could not resist the temptation to resort to fabrication: the chance encounter between Alvin Dewey, head of the murder investigation, and Susan Kidwell, Nancy Clutter’s best friend, in the Garden City cemetery is pure invention. As Nuttall comments (Nuttall, 2007, p. 137): “It clearly suits the demands of a fictional narrative, providing a sense of life carrying on, bringing us full circle, back to the place where the story began, rather than the requirements of a piece of journalism that it sticks to the facts.”

Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1968) is an account, part historicized, part novelized, of the march on the Pentagon in October 1967 in protest against the Vietnam War. The straightforward “I” narrative strategy is cleverly avoided. “Instead, he used the unusual device of becoming a character in the story but not the ‘I’ character. Mailer is the protagonist produced by Mailer the omniscient narrator. It is a subtle way of disguising the subjective reality of autobiography as the objective truth of biography” (Nuttall, 2007, p. 138).

Not only was there a wealth of journalistic talent on offer, a range of prestigious journals—such as the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, Esquire, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine—were on hand to provide outlets for their writings. According to Weingarten (2005, p. 7), “Working with sympathetic editors like Harold Hayes [Esquire], Clay Felker [New York Magazine] and Jann Wenner [Rolling Stone]—the three greatest magazine editors of the post-war era—the New Journalists could write as long as they pleased: 3,000 words, or 15,000, or 40,000, whatever the subject warranted, for an audience that genuinely cared about what they had to say.”

Finally, New Journalism Enters the Academy

In addition to this journalistic renaissance, there was an academic community with a long-standing tradition of journalism studies (taking in both practical and theoretical strands)—and a number of imaginative, highly intelligent, and risk-taking university lecturers determined to explore and expand (though not always uncritically) on the ideas in Wolfe’s inspirational text (Keeble, 2015). Slowly and hesitantly, literary journalism (otherwise termed “literary nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction”) emerged as a discipline in America (Keeble, 2018).

Thomas Connery, currently emeritus professor of communication and journalism at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, and author of A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre (1992), taught a course titled “Journalism and Literature” on a master’s program at Ohio State University in the early 1970s and led modules in “New Journalism” in the early 1980s (Connery, 2017). According to Norman Sims, author of the seminal The Literary Journalists (1984): “I think you should look to the 1970s or 1980s in the US for the true start of literary journalism as a discipline. The New Journalism made such a splash that lots of journalism departments started teaching courses on the subject in the seventies (as they will in the future on ‘fake news,’ probably)” (Sims, 2017).

By the end of the century, following Wolfe’s trailblazing act, a highly influential series of academic texts appeared cementing the position of literary journalism as a subject for research in higher education. These included Sims and Kramer (1995), Talese and Lounsberry (1995), Campbell (2000), Kerrane and Yagoda (1997), Hartsock (2000), Treglown and Bennett (1998), Applegate (1996), and Berner (1998).

In Britain, paradoxically, while a vast tradition of literary journalism dates back to Daniel Defoe (b. 1660–d. 1731) and a number of the early seminal texts on literary journalism were by British academics, it has been slow to emerge as a discipline in British universities. As Jenny McKay, writing in 2011, commented:

What university courses in the UK don’t usually include at either the undergraduate or the postgraduate level is any serious consideration of journalism as a branch of literature. Among a few exceptions was a course taught at the University of Stirling until autumn 2009, one module in a Master’s course at the University of Lincoln and the more recent Master’s in literary journalism at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow.

(McKay, 2011, p. 52)

Today, the position of literary journalism in higher education is very different. Type “Journalism and Creative Writing” into the UCAS (the U.K. university course database) and information on 77 undergraduate courses appears; at postgraduate level there are 13 programs. For “Magazine Journalism,” which incorporates feature/long-form/immersive writing, there are 11 undergraduate and 11 postgraduate programs.

However, the situation in Portugal remains bleak. As Isabel Soares, of the Instituto Técnica de Lisboa, comments:

Here in Portugal, literary journalism is not (yet) an autonomous discipline. However, after a lot of effort by myself and colleagues it has been accepted at my institute as part of a program in investigative journalism. Students can also opt to develop a thesis in literary journalism. Thus, it has been mainly introduced at the postgraduate levels: in the Master’s in Communication Studies and PhD in Communication Sciences.

(Soares, 2017)

In France, John Bak, Professor at the Université de Lorraine, comments bluntly:

As for literary journalism as a discipline in France, it does not exist. Even LJ as a topic in France is difficult to talk about. Some colleagues work on “mooks” [a blend of magazines and books] for their research, and I know two professors who do have research projects on French reportage from the 19th or early 20th centuries.

(Bak, 2017)

In Australia, Matthew Ricketson and Sue Joseph (2015) record the launch of the program, “Contemporary Writing Practice: Creative Non-Fiction,” at the University of Technology Sydney in 1999 and the “Literary Journalism” course at RMIT, Melbourne, the following year. The formation of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) at a conference in France in 2006, proved to be another pivotal moment as it helped inspire the development of both the study of the genre and its teaching across the globe. According to David Abrahamson, of Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Chicago: “What might be termed ‘Literary Journalism Studies’ started to feel like a legitimate academic discipline around 2010 or 2011 following the sixth annual IALJS-conference in Brussels” (Abrahamson, 2017).

The Persisting Power of the North American Tradition

In his editorial in the inaugural issue of Literary Journalism Studies (LJS) (the biannual journal of the IALJS) Norman Sims stressed (2009, p. 9): “We need an international scholarship that recognizes there are different national manifestations. Despite all the North American scholarship on the subject, we should not conclude that literary journalism is only an American phenomenon. It appears in other cultures with variations in form.” Yet the U.S. (and to a lesser degree the U.K.) influences have continued to hold a powerful sway over the evolution of the discipline. As Rupert Hildyard comments in an essay examining the literary journalism of John Lanchester in his book on the 2008 financial crash, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (2012), “We need to maintain some scepticism towards the global tag which, so often, conceals Anglo-American interests and hegemony” (2012, p. 144).

In an analysis of the contributions to the LJS between Spring 2009 and Fall 2014 issues, Sue Joseph of the University of Technology Sydney, showed the persisting power of the North American tradition: of the 73 authors, the United States accounted for 36 (53.73 percent), Canada eight (11.94 percent), Norway four (5.97 percent), the U.K. and Netherlands three (4.47 percent each), Australia, Portugal, and South Africa (2.98 percent each) with just a single paper from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cuba, Finland, Germany, Ireland (1.49 percent each) (Ricketson & Joseph, 2015, p. 28). Ricketson and Joseph comment: “The data shows that even in the most well-meaning and hopeful of enterprises, as the IALJS certainly is, an international association and its journal are still heavily weighted towards the country of publication, in this case, the US” (Ricketson & Joseph, 2015, p. 29).

Significantly, John S. Bak argues in Literary Journalism Across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences (2011, p. 7):

Though largely considered an Anglo-American phenomenon today, literary journalism has had a long and complex international history, one built on a combination of traditions and influences that are sometimes quite specific to a nation and at other times come from the blending of cultures across borders.

Holland, Spain, China, Brazil, Finland, New Zealand, Slovenia, Australia, and Poland are among the countries examined. Yet the crucial opening, scene-setting section, exploring the theory of international literary journalism, is covered entirely by U.S. or U.K. academics. Similarly, while a special issue of the Australian Journalism Review in 2015 was titled “Literary Journalism: Looking Beyond the Anglo-American Tradition,” many of the contributors still framed their studies with references to the seminal U.S./U.K. texts (Keeble, 2015, pp. 152–153). For instance, Isabel Soares, in her study of Portuguese literary journalism, acknowledges the importance of (all-male) Anglo-American practitioners such as Charles Dickens, W. T. Stead, Jack London, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, the theories of Americans such as John Hartsock, Thomas Connery, and Norman Sims—and the “living” long-form journalism currently found in the New Yorker.

The Study of Literary Journalism Goes International

Yet the most significant feature of the study of literary journalism in recent years has been its internationalization. Since 2014, when Sue Joseph’s study of the content of LSJ concluded, papers in the journal have explored a diverse range of international subjects (so achieving, in a way, Norman Sims’s original ambition). For example, McQueen (2015) examines the court reporting of Paul Schlesinger during the 1920s; Hartsock (2015) focuses on the writings of the Belarussian Svetlana Alexievich, significantly the first author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature specifically for her literary journalism, while Horadecka (2015) shows how the Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuściński used quotations from Herodotus’s Histories in his autobiographical Travels with Herodotus, published in Poland in 2004 and translated into English in 2008. Cowling (2016) looks at the “lost” literary journalism of 1950s South Africa; while topics covered in a special issue focusing on Francophone literary journalism, include 20th-century reportage in French Canada (Pinson, 2016); the innovative journalism of Françoise Giroud (Thérenty, 2016), and the 19th-century colonial press in Algeria (Demougin, 2016). Alexievich’s documentary war prose is also analyzed by Aliaksandr Novikau in an article in Media, War & Conflict (2017). He argues: “Her honest and raw books are based on carefully documented eye-witness accounts of the scariest things that can happen to people in horrific wartime situations.” In another important journal article, Victoria R. Sgarro (2015) examines the genre from a global comparative perspective, taking in case studies from the United States, South Africa, and China.

Academic texts are also increasingly stressing the international spread of literary journalism. The two volumes of Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination (Keeble & Tulloch, 2012, 2014) carry chapters on Brazil, Canada, Cape Verde, Finland, France, India, Ireland, the Middle East, Norway, Portugal, Sweden in addition to Britain and the United States. John Hartsock’s Literary Journalism and the Aesthetics of Experience (2016), while concentrating on American authors, draws on an eclectic range of international theorists such as Mikhail Bakhtin, Wolfgang Iser, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Vicktor Shklovsky and covers a number of east and west European writers. Similarly, in Witnessing the Sixties: A Decade of Change in Journalism and Literature, edited by Frank Harbers, Ilja van den Broek, and Marcel Broersma (2016), chapters explore the convergence of fiction and journalism in the work of Australian, Dutch, Flemish, German, and U.S. authors. And two texts on the role of humor in journalism (Keeble & Swick, 2015; Swick & Keeble, 2016), while aiming to highlight the importance of humor in scholarly investigations and journalism pedagogy, take in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Chile, Spain, Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States.

The ethics of literary journalism is an increasingly important focus for research. A special issue of Journalism, edited by Julie Wheelwright and Susan Greenberg (2014), was significantly international in its spread of papers. Focusing on the reportage of Jonny Steinberg, Rennie (2014) suggests that his narrative journalism techniques may have helped some South Africans empathize with oppressed groups who, before the end of apartheid, were excluded from civil society. Mitchell (2014), using discourse analysis in examining the work of Spanish journalist Javier Cercas, identifies some core ethical ideals for literary journalists. In her account of making a television documentary about a Soviet female intelligence agent, Wheelwright (2014) stresses the need for literary journalists to be sensitive to the social and historical contexts of the documents they use. And Forde (2014) considers the role literary journalism can play in the struggles for freedom and justice through a close study of James Baldwin’s Fire Next Time (1963). In another text, Tulloch (2011), in analyzing the writings of Gitta Sereny and Gordon Burn, argues that it is the literary journalist who takes on the ultimate challenge of the investigative reporter—grappling with issues of causation and evil.

The New Focus on Women Writers

Accompanying the growing international scope of literary journalism studies in recent years has been the focus on women writers (Maguire, 2016). A separate section of Global Literary Journalism, Vol. 2 (2014) was devoted to exploring the question: “Is there a specific woman’s voice?” Chapters explored the work of the French writer/journalist Marguerite Duras (Thérenty, 2014), Brazilian Eliane Brum (Lima & Martinez, 2014), and the American Mary McCarthy (Reynolds, 2014a). Significantly, a special issue of LJS, in 2015, was devoted entirely to the topic. While more than half the essays focused on the United States, Joseph (2015) analyzed the journalism of Australian Margaret Simons, while Calvi (2015) explored the role of the “uncertain narrator” in the journalism of Leila Guerriero, a leading literary journalist in Latin America. Guest editor Leonora Flis, of the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia, highlighted the continuing power of the North American tradition in this way: “We have tried to create national versatility in our selection of essays. Still, writers from the United States prevail, no doubt in part also because the American journalistic space is rich in its collection of noteworthy writers and has a long tradition of literary journalism” (2015, p. 9). The collection aimed to “make gender an organic part of the analysis rather than a special mission or central characteristic” (Flis, 2015, p. 8).

In French Cultural Studies, Dubbelboer (2015) examined the little-noticed journalistic career of Colette (b. 1873–d. 1954), author of the 1944 novella Gigi, arguing that her writing used an anthropological approach characterized by a “sort of personal, participatory reportage.” The journalism of Colette also comes under the microscope in Amélie Chabrier’s (2016) study of her coverage of some of the famous French murder trials of the early 20th century. Chabrier concludes that “in her radical detachment from the rigorous and cold observation usually expected in such context, without breaking away from one of the main objectives of such articles, she lets readers (absent from the courts and debates) see those standing in disgrace—and maybe understand them better” (Chabrier, 2016, p. 15). The work of Freya Stark (b. 1983–d. 1993), the British explorer and travel writer, is reviewed by Mary Henes, in Journeys (2015), in particular her Baghdad Sketches (1932), which was largely based on the columns she had written for the Baghdad Times. The paper focuses on Stark’s resistance to expected feminine norms of the British community and places her experience in the context of Gertrude Bell and Margaret Stefana Drower, two other Middle East experts. Elsewhere Marcus O’Donnell (2015) analyses Savage Dreams (1994) by the American Rebecca Solnit and argues that she combines her writerly and activist practices to produce a distinctive open form of literary journalism (see also Maguire, 2016).

Immersion and Slow Journalism: Print and Online

The practice of immersive journalism, where the journalist embeds for quite a while with a particular individual, group, community, military unit (and so on), has for long been a feature of literary journalism. The American Jack London (b. 1876–d. 1916), author of Call of the Wild (1903), and White Fang (1906), slept on the streets and stayed in workhouses in London’s impoverished East End for several months while researching the plight of the poor that led to the publication of The People of the Abyss, in 1903. Later, George Orwell (b. 1903–d. 1950) spent three years intermittently living with the beggars and hop pickers in London and eastern England and working as a dishwasher in a flashy Parisian hotel before publishing Down and Out in Paris and London (part memoir, part fiction), in 1933. In 1936, Orwell travelled to the north of England, living with the destitute, meeting miners, and even going down coal mines before penning The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). And in the following year Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, his account of being embedded with a republican militia group during the Spanish Civil War, was published. But London and Orwell were by no means the first journalists to “go native.” In 1866, James Greenwood (under the pseudonym “The Amateur Casual”) contributed a series of articles to the Pall Mall Gazette based on his experiences living with tramps and other homeless people in London. As Seth Koven comments (2006, p. 26), the series launched the career of Greenwood (b. 1832–d. 1929) “as one of the most prominent chroniclers of London’s netherworlds. Greenwood’s articles made the degrading conditions in the casual wards of workhouses an instant cause célèbre.” Beatrice Potter (b. 1866–d. 1943), the author of the celebrated Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), contributed “Pages of a Workgirl’s Diary” to the Nineteenth Century in September 1888 which amounted to a “vivid record of her experiences masquerading as a trouser fitter and Jewess in a sweated workshop in east London” (Koven, 2006, p. 156). Elizabeth Banks (b. 1872–d. 1938), an American, settled in London for the last 40 years of her life, and her reporting on the conditions of the poor and working girls—for newspapers as diverse as the Daily News, London Illustrated, New York Times, the London Times and Referee—was based on her researches posing as a Covent Garden flower girl, barmaid, and street sweeper (Koven, 2006, pp. 140–180).

As Norman Sims wrote in the “Introduction” to The Literary Journalists (1984, p. 3), the genre “demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show readers that an author is at work. Authority shows through.” Since then, the immersive writings of Arundhati Roy (Chapman, 2012), Charles Bowden (Reynolds, 2014b; Nandorfy, 2014), Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Keeble, 2014), and Ted Conover (Walters, 2017) have all drawn the attention of scholars.

Moreover, immersive journalism redefined as “slow journalism” has emerged in recent years (with associated schools of both theory and practice in print and on the web) adding an extra ingredient to the literary journalism feast. The “slowness” allows for extra attention to the aesthetic, writerly, and experimental aspects of reportage for the journalist and media consumer. According to Susan Greenberg, slow journalism’s essays, reportage, and other non-fiction forms “offer an alternative to conventional reporting, perceived as leaving an important gap in our understanding of the world at a time when the need to make sense of it is greater than ever. The journalistic equivalent of slow food keeps the reader informed about the provenance of the information and how it was gathered” (Greenberg, 2012, pp. 381–382). In France, there’s the magazine XXI. In the United Kingdom, the hard copy magazine and website, Delayed Gratification, encourages its readers to “join the slow journalism revolution” with its in-depth literary journalism, arguing:

The speed of the modern news agenda can leave you feeling constantly on the back foot. We go the other way and wait for three months to pass before returning to the news, picking out what really mattered and returning to events with the benefit of hindsight so we can give you the final analysis rather than the first, kneejerk reaction.

Perhaps paradoxically in this age of Twitter and soundbite trivia, a new emphasis on long-form/long-read formats has accompanied the slow journalism trend (Bernstein, 2012). In the United Kingdom, the radio show/website/magazine Little Atoms promotes “long reads:” one feature explores the “hidden history” of the Conservative Party’s first ethnic minority MP; another devotes more than 3,800 words to examining the impact of the elevation on Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party on the revolutionary socialist movement in the United Kingdom. The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times and the leftist New Statesman, all carry long-form reportage prominently. The BBC’s website is also keen to promote its conversion to immersive, long-form journalism. Australia has The Saturday Paper, Quarterly Essay, and The Monthly. (Ricketson, 2016) and the work of reporters Chloe Hooper, Paul McGeough, Marian Wilkinson, Anna Krien, Helen Garner (Eisenhuth, 2014), Doris Pilkington Garimara, Kate Holden, Greg Bearup, and Anna Goldsworthy (Joseph, 2016); in India, there’s Frontline magazine and in France Le Monde Diplomatique; in the United States, there are longreads.com, theverge.com, longform.org, and magazine.atavist.com; in Germany, Carolin Emcke’s “Welcome to Germany” for the prestigious weekly Die Zeit, looks at the struggles of refugees to claim their right of residence: all are promoting in diverse and imaginative ways long-form, in-depth, literary journalism.

New Wave of Multimedia, Long-Form Journalism

The publication of John Branch’s “Snow Fall: The avalanche at Tunnel Creek,” on December 20, 2012, in the New York Times is said to have marked a watershed moment in literary journalism (Dowling & Vogan, 2015). Presented as a six-part story combining aerial video, animated simulations, interactive graphics, and text, it involved a team of 11 staffers working for more than six months. It quickly attracted 3.5 million views, won a Pulitzer Prize, and launched a new wave of multimedia long-form journalism. An analysis of 50 long-form (defined as being over 2,000 words) multimedia packages published between August 2012 and December 2013 in “quality” outlets in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia found that “digital storytelling encompasses more than the fragmented, de-centered, hypertextual blocks of the web and furthers the field’s understandings of the web’s potential for dramatic and immersive journalism” (Jacobson, Marino, & Gutsche, 2016, p. 14).

Whether “Snow Fall” really does show the way ahead for literary journalism in the age of the Internet and mobile technology remains to be seen. Given its cost (particularly in terms of staffers’ salaries) and production time, technologically dazzling features are likely to remain a preserve of the affluent few corporate media. But others argue that long-form storytelling has benefitted from the limitless space of the Internet and freedom from the costs of paper, printing, and transport. According to Giles (2014), four kinds of websites showcasing feature writing have emerged since the 1990s: those providing a complementary online experience for readers of their hard copy titles (such as Atlantic Monthly, and the London-based Monocle); sites carrying exclusively original features (such as the Berlin-based 032C, the American Salon.com, and Slate.com, the London-based Aeon, and Narratively). Then there are the aggregator sites that take a curatorial role in selecting the best features from other publications (such as Huffington Post and Atlantic.com). Finally come the multimedia “Snow Fall”-type packages, considered here earlier. In this context Giles notes the pioneering work of Mark Bowden, whose “Black Hawk Down” was carried in serial form in the Philadelphia Inquirer every day for a month in 1997. Covering the infamous battle in Somalia in October 1993 that cost 18 American lives and killed or injured 1,000 Somalis, the feature included links to audio, video, and interactive graphics. Giles ends positively quoting Jonathan Green:

The strength of online media may lie in its native capacity to flit between various modes of presentation: from video to audio, via three-dimension contextual hyperlinking . . . but one of the little oddities of journalism online is how much of it is straight forward text on a page. So old-fashioned, but there you have it: the internet loves a written story. . . . Reading. Depth. Analysis. Insight. All of it in the supposedly hit-and-giggle of online media (2010).

The Future?

While literary journalism is slowly establishing itself as a separate discipline in higher education, its status as a special field among practicing journalists remains problematic. Joseph (2016), in discussions with journalists in Australia, finds generally a reluctance to adopt the term “creative non-fiction”—or else hostility toward it. Three of Joseph’s favorite authors—David Marr, Helen Garner, and Chloe Hooper—refused to take part in the survey. Fairfax war reporter Paul McGeough, the first of Joseph’s interviewees, was clearly uninterested in the debate. “I’ve never thought about it,” he says. “Beyond journalist reporter, I’ve never tried to define myself” (Joseph, 2016, p. 3). Margaret Simons, who won the Walkley Award for Social Equity Journalism for her essay, “Fallen Angels” in 2007, says she “hates” the term “creative non-fiction.” She prefers such terms as “dirty journalism,” “disinterested journalism,” and even “objectivity with bullshit” (p. 132). Significantly the one person who seriously understands Joseph’s question about defining creative non-fiction is fellow academic John Dale.

One solution is to see all journalism as worth critical attention as literature. Immediately, the problem of academics confronting practicing journalists with a concept they feel uncomfortable with is solved. Their work becomes interesting—not because it falls within a specific genre (that needs careful explaining) but because of its inherent literary elements (Keeble, 2018). This approach may also counter some elitist attitudes according to which literary journalism studies are somehow elevated above the more mundane activities of journalism academics. These busy themselves with teaching students how to bash out lively intros (opening paragraphs, in the jargon) and well-structured stories to deadlines and to use the constantly changing media technologies while literary journalism colleagues ponder the deeper literary, ethical, epistemological issues buried in the texts.

While much of the academic discussion about the corporate media focuses on its negative elements (e.g., the ways it promotes sexist, racist, ageist, militarist stereotypes), it is interesting that literary journalism studies tend to highlight “good” examples: its special ability to capture the complexities of society and human experience, to highlight the plight of the poor and the oppressed, to explore the ever-changing dynamics in race and gender relations, and so on. There is perhaps here a tendency of academics to focus on literary techniques while marginalizing the political economy of the media and a critical consideration of ideological bias. Indeed, while most of the study of literary journalism to date has focused on the corporate media, the future may see more studies of the partisan, progressive, alternative media (such as consortiumnews.com, counterpunch.org, mondediplo.com, newmatilda.com, newsbud.com, tomdispatch.com, whowhatwhy.org, and zerohedge.com).

Moreover, while the study of literary journalism is clearly internationalizing, the research into literary journalism as an academic discipline across the globe and its history in higher education has hardly begun. Some challenging years lie ahead.

Further Reading

Gross, J. (1969). The rise and fall of the man of letters: English literary life since 1800. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Find this resource:

Joseph, S., & Keeble, R. L. (Eds.) (2015). The profiling handbook. Bury St. Edmunds: Abramis.Find this resource:

Laughlin, C. (2002). Chinese reportage: The aesthetics of historical experience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Find this resource:

Maguire, M. (2015). Literary journalism: Journalism aspiring to be literature. In D. Abrahamson & M. R. Prior-Miller (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of magazine research: The future of the magazine form (pp. 362–374). New York and London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Mustain, G. (Ed.). (2011). Global stories: Literary journalism: Best of class. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.Find this resource:

Ricketson, M. (2014). Telling true stories: Navigating the challenges of writing narrative non-fiction. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.Find this resource:

Sims, N. (2007). True stories: A century of literary journalism. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.Find this resource:

Underwood, D. (2013). The undeclared war between journalism and fiction. New York and Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Whitt, J. (2008). Settling the borderland: Other voices in literary journalism. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Find this resource:

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