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date: 18 January 2021

Literary Journalismlocked

  • Richard Lance KeebleRichard Lance KeebleCentre for Research in Journalism (CRJ), University of Lincoln

Summary

“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.

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