What Is Literary Journalism?

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Literary journalism is a form of nonfiction that combines factual reporting with narrative techniques and stylistic strategies traditionally associated with fiction. This form of writing can also be called  narrative journalism or new journalism . The term literary journalism is sometimes used interchangeably with creative nonfiction ; more often, however, it is regarded as one type of creative nonfiction.

In his ground-breaking anthology The Literary Journalists , Norman Sims observed that literary journalism "demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show that an author is at work."

Highly regarded literary journalists in the U.S. today include John McPhee , Jane Kramer, Mark Singer, and Richard Rhodes. Some notable literary journalists of the past include Stephen Crane, Henry Mayhew , Jack London , George Orwell , and Tom Wolfe.

Characteristics of Literary Journalism

There is not exactly a concrete formula that writers use to craft literary journalism, as there is for other genres, but according to Sims, a few somewhat flexible rules and common features define literary journalism. "Among the shared characteristics of literary journalism are immersion reporting, complicated structures, character development, symbolism , voice , a focus on ordinary people ... and accuracy.

"Literary journalists recognize the need for a consciousness on the page through which the objects in view are filtered. A list of characteristics can be an easier way to define literary journalism than a formal definition or a set of rules. Well, there are some rules, but Mark Kramer used the term 'breakable rules' in an anthology we edited. Among those rules, Kramer included:

  • Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjects' worlds...
  • Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor...
  • Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.
  • Literary journalists develop meaning by building upon the readers' sequential reactions.

... Journalism ties itself to the actual, the confirmed, that which is not simply imagined. ... Literary journalists have adhered to the rules of accuracy—or mostly so—precisely because their work cannot be labeled as journalism if details and characters are imaginary." 

Why Literary Journalism Is Not Fiction or Journalism

The term "literary journalism" suggests ties to fiction and journalism, but according to Jan Whitt, literary journalism does not fit neatly into any other category of writing. "Literary journalism is not fiction—the people are real and the events occurred—nor is it journalism in a traditional sense.

"There is interpretation, a personal point of view, and (often) experimentation with structure and chronology. Another essential element of literary journalism is its focus. Rather than emphasizing institutions, literary journalism explores the lives of those who are affected by those institutions."

The Role of the Reader

Because creative nonfiction is so nuanced, the burden of interpreting literary journalism falls on readers. John McPhee, quoted by Sims in "The Art of Literary Journalism," elaborates: "Through dialogue , words, the presentation of the scene, you can turn over the material to the reader. The reader is ninety-some percent of what's creative in creative writing. A writer simply gets things started."

Literary Journalism and the Truth

Literary journalists face a complicated challenge. They must deliver facts and comment on current events in ways that speak to much larger big picture truths about culture, politics, and other major facets of life; literary journalists are, if anything, more tied to authenticity than other journalists. Literary journalism exists for a reason: to start conversations.

Literary Journalism as Nonfiction Prose

Rose Wilder talks about literary journalism as nonfiction prose—informational writing that flows and develops organically like a story—and the strategies that effective writers of this genre employ in The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary journalist. "As defined by Thomas B. Connery, literary journalism is 'nonfiction printed prose whose verifiable content is shaped and transformed into a story or sketch by use of narrative and rhetorical  techniques generally associated with fiction.'

"Through these stories and sketches, authors 'make a statement, or provide an interpretation, about the people and culture depicted.' Norman Sims adds to this definition by suggesting the genre  itself allows readers to 'behold others' lives, often set within far clearer contexts than we can bring to our own.'

"He goes on to suggest, 'There is something intrinsically political—and strongly democratic—about literary journalism—something pluralistic, pro-individual, anti-cant, and anti-elite.' Further, as John E. Hartsock points out, the bulk of work that has been considered literary journalism is composed 'largely by professional journalists or those writers whose industrial means of production is to be found in the newspaper and magazine press, thus making them at least for the interim de facto journalists.'"

She concludes, "Common to many definitions of literary journalism is that the work itself should contain some kind of higher truth; the stories themselves may be said to be emblematic of a larger truth."

Background of Literary Journalism

This distinct version of journalism owes its beginnings to the likes of Benjamin Franklin, William Hazlitt, Joseph Pulitzer, and others. "[Benjamin] Franklin's Silence Dogood essays marked his entrance into literary journalism," begins Carla Mulford. "Silence, the persona Franklin adopted, speaks to the form that literary journalism should take—that it should be situated in the ordinary world—even though her background was not typically found in newspaper writing." 

Literary journalism as it is now was decades in the making, and it is very much intertwined with the New Journalism movement of the late 20th century. Arthur Krystal speaks to the critical role that essayist William Hazlitt played in refining the genre: "A hundred and fifty years before the New Journalists of the 1960s rubbed our noses in their egos, [William] Hazlitt put himself into his work with a candor that would have been unthinkable a few generations earlier."

Robert Boynton clarifies the relationship between literary journalism and new journalism, two terms that were once separate but are now often used interchangeably. "The phrase 'New Journalism' first appeared in an American context in the 1880s when it was used to describe the blend of sensationalism and crusading journalism—muckraking on behalf of immigrants and the poor—one found in the New York World and other papers... Although it was historically unrelated to [Joseph] Pulitzer's New Journalism, the genre of writing that Lincoln Steffens called 'literary journalism' shared many of its goals."

Boynton goes on to compare literary journalism with editorial policy. "As the city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in the 1890s, Steffens made literary journalism—artfully told narrative stories about subjects of concern to the masses—into editorial policy, insisting that the basic goals of the artist and the journalist (subjectivity, honesty, empathy) were the same."

  • Boynton, Robert S. The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007.
  • Krystal, Arthur. "Slang-Whanger." The New Yorker, 11 May 2009.
  • Lane, Rose Wilder.  The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist . Edited by Amy Mattson Lauters, University of Missouri Press, 2007.
  • Mulford, Carla. “Benjamin Franklin and Transatlantic Literary Journalism.”  Transatlantic Literary Studies, 1660-1830 , edited by Eve Tavor Bannet and Susan Manning, Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 75–90.
  • Sims, Norman. True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism . 1st ed., Northwestern University Press, 2008.
  • Sims, Norman. “The Art of Literary Journalism.”  Literary Journalism , edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, Ballantine Books, 1995.
  • Sims, Norman. The Literary Journalists . Ballantine Books, 1984.
  • Whitt, Jan. Women in American Journalism: A New History . University of Illinois Press, 2008.
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What is Literary Journalism: a Guide with Examples

What is Literary Journalism: a Guide with Examples

Literary journalism is a genre created with the help of a reporter’s inner voice and employing a writing style based on literary techniques. The journalists working in the genre of literary journalism must be able to use the whole literary arsenal: epithets, impersonations, comparisons, allegories, etc. Thus, literary journalism is similar to fiction. At the same time, it remains journalism , which is the opposite of fiction as it tells a true story. The journalist’s task here is not only to inform us about specific events but also to affect our feelings (mainly aesthetic ones) and explore the details that ordinary journalism overlooks.

Characteristics of literary journalism

Modern journalism is constantly changing, but not all changes are good for it (take fake news proliferating thanks to social media , for instance). Contemporary literary journalism differs from its historic predecessor in the following:

  • Literary journalism almost completely lost its unity with literature
  • Journalists have stopped relying on the literary features of the language and style
  • There are fewer and fewer articles in the genre of literary journalism in modern editions
  • Contemporary media has lost the need in literary journalism
  • The habits of media consumers today are not sophisticated enough for a revival of literary journalism

The most prominent works of literary journalism

With all this, it’s no surprise that we need to go back in time to find worthy examples of literary journalism. Fortunately, it wasn’t until the 1970-s that literary journalism came to an end, so here are 4 great works of the genre that are worth every minute of your attention.

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Mark Twain studied journalism from the age of 12 and until the end of his life. It brought him his first glory and a pseudonym and made him a writer. In 1867, Twain (as a correspondent of the newspaper Daily Alta California , San Francisco) went on a sea voyage to Europe, the Middle East, and Egypt. His reports and travel records turned into the book The Innocents Abroad , which made him famous all over the world.

In some sense, American journalism came out of letters that served as an important source of information about life in the colonies. The newspaper has long been characterized by an epistolary subjectivity, and Twain’s book recalls the times when no one thought that neutrality would one day become one of the hallmarks of the “right” journalism.

Of course, Twain’s travel around the Old World was a journey not only through geography but also through the history that Twain resolutely refused to worship. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes not too much, but the more valuable are the lyrical and sublime notes that sound when Twain-the-narrator is truly captivated by something.

John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946)

John Hersey was a war correspondent and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his debut story A Bell for Adano . As a reporter of The New Yorker , he was one of the first journalists from the USA who came to Hiroshima to describe the consequences of the atomic bombing.

Starting with where two doctors, two priests, a seamstress, and a plant employee were and what they were doing at exactly 08:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, when the bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Hersey describes the year they lived after that. Hersey’s uniform and detached tone seems to be the only appropriate medium in relation to what one would call indescribable and inexpressible. Without allowing himself sentimentality, admiring horrors, or obvious partiality, he doesn’t miss any of the details that add up to a horrible and magnificent picture.

Hiroshima became a sensation due to the formidable brevity of the author’s prose, which tried to give the reader the most explicit (and the most complete) idea of what happened for the first time in mankind’s history

Truman Capote, “In Cold Blood” (1965)

Truman Capote turned to journalism as a young writer looking for a new form of self-expression. He read an article about the murder of the family of a farmer Herbert Clutter in Holcomb City (Kansas) in the newspaper and went there to collect the material. His original idea was to write about how a brutal murder influenced the life of the quiet backwoods. The killers were caught, and Capote decided to use their confessions in his book. He finished it only after the killers were hanged. This way, the six-year story got the finale.

In Cold Blood was published in “The New Yorker” in 1965. Next year it was released as a book that became the benchmark of true crime and a super bestseller. “In Cold Blood” includes:

  • A stylistic brilliance.
  • Inexorable footsteps of doom destroying both innocent and guilty.
  • The horror hidden in a person and waiting for a chance to break out.

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)

Tomas Wolfe is one of the key figures of literary journalism. Mainly due to his creative and, so to speak, production efforts, “the new journalism” became an essential part of American culture and drew close attention (both critical and academic).

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test became one of the hallmarks of this type of journalism with its focus on aesthetic expressiveness (along with documentary authenticity). This is a story about the writer Ken Kesey and his friends and associates’ community, “Merry Pranksters”, who spread the idea of the benefits of expanding consciousness.

Wolfe decided to plunge into the “subjective reality” of the characters and their adventures. To convey them to the reader, he had to “squeeze” the English language: Wolfe changes prose to poetry , dives into the stream of consciousness, and mocks the traditional punctuation. In general, he does just about everything to make a crazy carnival come to life on the pages of his book (without actually participating in it). Compare that with gonzo journalism by Hunter S. Thompson , the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which draws upon some similar themes.

The book’s main part is devoted to the journey of the “pranksters” on a psychedelic propaganda bus and the “acid tests” themselves, which were actually parties where a lot of people took LSD. Wolfe had to use different sources of information to reconstruct these events, and it’s hard to believe that he didn’t experience any of them himself. Yet, no matter how bright his book shines and how much freedom it shows, Wolfe makes it clear that he’s talking about a doomed project and an ending era.

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What is Literary Journalism?

In this article, a journalist explains what is literary journalism and its key conventions.

Literary journalism is a type of writing that uses narrative techniques that are more typical of novels, short stories and other forms of fiction. However, similar to traditional news reporting, it is presenting a factual story to a public audience.

It is also known as creative nonfiction, immersion journalism, narrative journalism and new journalism.

The last of those terms, ‘new journalism’ came about during the 1960s and 70s, when the writings of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, and Truman Capote, and gonzo journalism , reached the public sphere.

Before reading on, check out our guide to the best journalism tools .

Defining Literary Journalism

Recognizing literary journalism, criticism of literary journalism, the role of literary journalism today, resources for journalists, what is the meaning of literary journalism, why is literary journalism important, what is the difference between literary journalism and other journalism.

what is literary journalism

Norman Sim’s seminal anthology, The Literary Journalists , included the work of some of those writers. It also tried to define just what a literary journalist is. Within its opening passage, it read:

“The literary journalists are marvelous observers whose meticulous attention to detail is wedded to the tools and techniques of the fiction writer. Like reporters, they are fact gatherers whose material is the real world.
“Like fiction writers, they are consummate storytellers who endow their stories with a narrative structure and a distinctive voice.”

Although the history of literary journalism goes back much further than 1960s, it was then when writers such as Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Gay Talese exposed this style to the masses.

Their work was renowned for its immersive qualities and its ability to build a plot and narrative. Instead of sticking to journalistic formulas, they wrote in their own voice and in a stylistic narrative that was uniquely theirs.

This writing style was not typical of the newspaper articles of the day.

Although their long-form stories and in-depth research was more suited to literature than newspapers, the likes of Esquire and The New Yorker did publish their work with great success.

New Journalism Not Being New

The differences from the common journalism of the 1960s were notable, hence why their work went under an umbrella category known as ‘new journalism’.

That being said, this style was not new at all, with literary journalism already being written in both North America and further afield.

John S. Bak, founding President of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, points to how journalism evolved in different regions, yet when it comes to this form of writing, there are still overlapping traits. He wrote:

“Since journalism in America and in Europe evolved from different traditions, it is only natural that their literary journalism should have done so as well. But the picture of a U.S.-led literary journalism and a European-produced literary reportage is not as clearly demarcated as one would think or hope.”

Literary journalism takes the qualities of both literature and reporting and melds them into something unique. According to the aforementioned Sims, there are some common features that the best literary nonfiction writers employ. He said:

“Among the shared characteristics of literary journalism are immersion reporting, complicated structures, character development, symbolism, voice, a focus on ordinary people… and accuracy.”

Editor, Mark Kramer echoes these characteristics in his ‘breakable rules’ for literary journalists, which he penned for Harvard University. His rules are as follows.

  • Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjects’ worlds and in background research.
  • Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor with readers and with sources.
  • Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.
  • Literary journalists write in “intimate voice,” informal, frank, human and ironic.
  • Style counts, and tends to be plain and spare.
  • Literary journalists write from a disengaged and mobile stance, from which they tell stories and also turn and address readers directly.
  • Structure counts, mixing primary narrative with tales and digressions to amplify and reframe events.
  • Literary journalists develop meaning by building upon the readers’ sequential reactions.

As said above though, these are all ‘breakable rules’.

The difficulty in defining this type of writing was also touched upon in the 2012 anthology, Global ‘‘Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination’ by Keeble and Tulloch.

They stated: “On a value-free level, we might argue that, rather than a stable genre or family of genres, literary journalism defines a field where different traditions and practices of writing intersect”.

However, when defining literary journalism and literary reportage, Keeble and Tulloch’s definition does work well: “‘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”.

Much of the criticism relating to literary journalism relates to its prioritizing style and narrative technique, over reportage.

As Josh Roiland of the University of Maine puts it, “literary journalism has experienced a resurgence in recent years, and like all popular movements it has sustained a backlash from those who believe it fetishizes narrative at the expense of research and reporting.”

Author and academic, D.G. Myers, shared another critique of the genre, calling it out for ‘pretention’.

He wrote: “Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phoney. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor.”

He also points out how the stylistic methods used are a mixture of travel writing and historical record, rather than plain journalism. He added:

“(Literary journalism) is history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence.”

Liz Fakazis wrote for Britannica on the subject of literary journalism and its critics. She wrote: “(Literary journalism) ignited a debate over how much like a novel or short story a journalistic piece could be before it began violating journalism’s commitment to truth and facts.”

Overall, most of these critiques appear to come from a similar point of view.

That is that the personal essay style of writing that embodies literary journalism is too far removed from the values of news reporting in its most puritanical form. For instance, some argue that this type of reporting does not put enough emphasis on objectivity.

Fakazis further discussed this in her Britannica piece, pointing toward the evolution of truth within journalism as a reason and justification for this type of writing . She wrote:

“(Literary journalists) works challenged the ideology of objectivity and its related practices that had come to govern the profession. The (literary journalists) argued that objectivity does not guarantee truth and that so-called “objective” stories can be more misleading than stories told from a clearly presented personal point of view.
“Mainstream news reporters echoed the New Journalists’ arguments as they began doubting the ability of “objective” journalism to arrive at truth—especially after more traditional reporting failed to convey the complex truth of events such as McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, and the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.”

The fact that objectivity was removed as a guiding principle of the Society of Professional Journalists (replaced with fairness and accuracy) in 1996 further pushes this argument.

As is discussed in a ThoughtCo article by academic Richard Nordquist , although narrative nonfiction is obliged to report the facts, it is also required to share the bigger picture and this can be even more important. He wrote:

“Literary journalists face a complicated challenge. They must deliver facts and comment on current events in ways that speak to much larger big picture truths about culture, politics, and other major facets of life; literary journalists are, if anything, more tied to authenticity than other journalists. Literary journalism exists for a reason: to start conversations.

Ultimately, literary journalism is a type of reportage that requires time, commitment and deep knowledge of the craft. It’s not something that you’ll read in a tabloid or online often, but it’s rewarding for the writer and readers.

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FAQs About literary journalism

Literary journalism is a genre of journalistic work that consists of writing that embraces narrative techniques while presenting a factual story.

Literary journalism contextualizes a story and presents more than just the plain facts, which at times do not give a rounded view of the going-on being reported on.

The key difference is the writing style. Literary journalism takes on narrative techniques that are more typical of novels, short stories, and other forms of literature. Meanwhile, traditional journalism reports the facts and sticks to formulas, such as the inverted pyramid, which is designed for sharing news efficiently.

what is literary journalism

Cian Murray is an experienced writer and editor, who graduated from Cardiff University’s esteemed School of Journalism, Media and Culture. His work has been featured in both local and national media, and he has also produced content for multinational brands and agencies.

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Literary Journalism

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These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.

Literary journalism is another essay form that is best reserved for intermediate and advanced level courses, but it can be incorporated into introductory and composition courses. Literary journalism is the creative nonfiction form that comes closest to newspaper and magazine writing. It is fact-driven and requires research and, often, interviews.

Literary journalism is sometimes called “immersion journalism” because it requires a closer, more active relationship to the subject and to the people the literary journalist is exploring. Like journalistic writing, the literary journalism piece should be well-researched, focus on a brief period of time, and concentrate on what is happening outside of the writer’s small circle of personal experience and feelings.

An Example and Discussion of a Literary Journalism

The following excerpt from George Orwell is a good example of literary journalism. Orwell wrote about the colonial regime in Marrakech. His father was a colonial officer, so Orwell was confronted with the reality of empire from an early age, and that experience is reflected in his literary journalism piece, Marrakech :

Orwell isn’t writing a reflective, personal essay about his travels through Marrakech. Neither is he writing a memoir about what it was like to be the son of a colonial officer, nor how that experience shaped his adult life. He writes in a descriptive way about the Jewish quarters in Marrakech, about the invisibility of the “natives,” and about the way citizenship doesn’t ensure equality under a colonial regime.

Generating Ideas for Literary Journalism

One way to incorporate literary journalism into an introductory or intermediate level course is simply to have students write personal essays first. Then the students can go back and research the facts behind the personal experiences related in their essays. They can incorporate historical data, interviews, or broaden the range of their personal essay by exploring the cultural or political issues hinted at in their personal essays.

If a student writes, in passing, about the first presidential candidate they were eligible to vote for, then they can include facts and figures around that particular election, as well as research other events that were current at that time, for example. As with other essay forms, students should find topics that are important to them.

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4.3 Different Styles and Models of Journalism

Learning objectives.

  • Explain how objective journalism differs from story-driven journalism.
  • Describe the effect of objectivity on modern journalism.
  • Describe the unique nature of literary journalism.

Location, readership, political climate, and competition all contribute to rapid transformations in journalistic models and writing styles. Over time, however, certain styles—such as sensationalism—have faded or become linked with less serious publications, like tabloids, while others have developed to become prevalent in modern-day reporting. This section explores the nuanced differences among the most commonly used models of journalism.

Objective versus Story-Driven Journalism

In the late 1800s, a majority of publishers believed that they would sell more papers by reaching out to specific groups. As such, most major newspapers employed a partisan approach to writing, churning out political stories and using news to sway popular opinion. This all changed in 1896 when a then-failing paper, The New York Times , took a radical new approach to reporting: employing objectivity , or impartiality, to satisfy a wide range of readers.

The Rise of Objective Journalism

At the end of the 19th century, The New York Times found itself competing with the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst. The paper’s publishers discovered that it was nearly impossible to stay afloat without using the sensationalist headlines popularized by its competitors. Although The New York Times publishers raised prices to pay the bills, the higher charge led to declining readership, and soon the paper went bankrupt. Adolph Ochs, owner of the once-failing Chattanooga Times , took a gamble and bought The New York Times in 1896. On August 18 of that year, Ochs made a bold move and announced that the paper would no longer follow the sensationalist style that made Pulitzer and Hearst famous, but instead would be “clean, dignified, trustworthy and impartial (New York Times, 1935).”

This drastic change proved to be a success. The New York Times became the first of many papers to demonstrate that the press could be “economically as well as ethically successful (New York Times, 1935).” With the help of managing editor Carr Van Anda, the new motto “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” and lowered prices, The New York Times quickly turned into one of the most profitable impartial papers of all time. Since the newspaper’s successful turnaround, publications around the world have followed The New York Times ’ objective journalistic style, demanding that reporters maintain a neutral voice in their writing.

The Inverted Pyramid Style

One commonly employed technique in modern journalism is the inverted pyramid style . This style requires objectivity and involves structuring a story so that the most important details are listed first for ease of reading. In the inverted pyramid format, the most fundamental facts of a story—typically the who, what, when, where, and why—appear at the top in the lead paragraph, with nonessential information in subsequent paragraphs. The style arose as a product of the telegraph. The inverted pyramid proved useful when telegraph connections failed in the middle of transmission; the editor still had the most important information at the beginning. Similarly, editors could quickly delete content from the bottom up to meet time and space requirements (Scanlan, 2003).

The reason for such writing is threefold. First, the style is helpful for writers, as this type of reporting is somewhat easier to complete in the short deadlines imposed on journalists, particularly in today’s fast-paced news business. Second, the style benefits editors who can, if necessary, quickly cut the story from the bottom without losing vital information. Finally, the style keeps in mind traditional readers, most of who skim articles or only read a few paragraphs, but they can still learn most of the important information from this quick read.


Interpretive Journalism

During the 1920s, objective journalism fell under critique as the world became more complex. Even though The New York Times continued to thrive, readers craved more than dry, objective stories. In 1923, Time magazine launched as the first major publication to step away from simple objectivity to try to provide readers with a more analytical interpretation of the news. As Time grew, people at some other publications took notice, and slowly editors began rethinking how they might reach out to readers in an increasingly interrelated world.

During the 1930s, two major events increased the desire for a new style of journalism: the Great Depression and the Nazi threat to global stability. Readers were no longer content with the who, what, where, when, and why of objective journalism. Instead, they craved analysis and a deeper explanation of the chaos surrounding them. Many papers responded with a new type of reporting that became known as interpretive journalism .

Interpretive journalism, following Time ’s example, has grown in popularity since its inception in the 1920s and 1930s, and journalists use it to explain issues and to provide readers with a broader context for the stories that they encounter. According to Brant Houston, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc., an interpretive journalist “goes beyond the basic facts of an event or topic to provide context, analysis, and possible consequences (Houston, 2008).” When this new style was first used, readers responded with great interest to the new editorial perspectives that newspapers were offering on events. But interpretive journalism posed a new problem for editors: the need to separate straight objective news from opinions and analysis. In response, many papers in the 1930s and 1940s “introduced weekend interpretations of the past week’s events…and interpretive columnists with bylines (Ward, 2008).” As explained by Stephen J. A. Ward in his article, “Journalism Ethics,” the goal of these weekend features was to “supplement objective reporting with an informed interpretation of world events (Ward, 2008).”

Competition From Broadcasting

The 1930s also saw the rise of broadcasting as radios became common in most U.S. households and as sound–picture recordings for newsreels became increasingly common. This broadcasting revolution introduced new dimensions to journalism. Scholar Michael Schudson has noted that broadcast news “reflect[ed]…a new journalistic reality. The journalist, no longer merely the relayer of documents and messages, ha[d] become the interpreter of the news (Schudson, 1982).” However, just as radio furthered the interpretive journalistic style, it also created a new problem for print journalism, particularly newspapers.

Suddenly, free news from the radio offered competition to the pay news of newspapers. Scholar Robert W. McChesney has observed that, in the 1930s, “many elements of the newspaper industry opposed commercial broadcasting, often out of fear of losing ad revenues and circulation to the broadcasters (McChesney, 1992).” This fear led to a media war as papers claimed that radio was stealing their print stories. Radio outlets, however, believed they had equal right to news stories. According to Robert W. McChesney, “commercial broadcasters located their industry next to the newspaper industry as an icon of American freedom and culture (McChesney, 1992).” The debate had a major effect on interpretive journalism as radio and newspapers had to make decisions about whether to use an objective or interpretive format to remain competitive with each other.

The emergence of television during the 1950s created even more competition for newspapers. In response, paper publishers increased opinion-based articles, and many added what became known as op-ed pages. An op-ed page—short for opposite the editorial page —features opinion-based columns typically produced by a writer or writers unaffiliated with the paper’s editorial board. As op-ed pages grew, so did interpretive journalism. Distinct from news stories, editors and columnists presented opinions on a regular basis. By the 1960s, the interpretive style of reporting had begun to replace the older descriptive style (Patterson, 2002).

Literary Journalism

Stemming from the development of interpretive journalism, literary journalism began to emerge during the 1960s. This style, made popular by journalists Tom Wolfe (formerly a strictly nonfiction writer) and Truman Capote, is often referred to as new journalism and combines factual reporting with sometimes fictional narration. Literary journalism follows neither the formulaic style of reporting of objective journalism nor the opinion-based analytical style of interpretive journalism. Instead, this art form—as it is often termed—brings voice and character to historical events, focusing on the construction of the scene rather than on the retelling of the facts.

Important Literary Journalists


The works of Tom Wolfe are some of the best examples of literary journalism of the 1960s.

erin williamson – tom wolfe – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Tom Wolfe was the first reporter to write in the literary journalistic style. In 1963, while his newspaper, New York’s Herald Tribune , was on strike, Esquire magazine hired Wolfe to write an article on customized cars. Wolfe gathered the facts but struggled to turn his collected information into a written piece. His managing editor, Byron Dobell, suggested that he type up his notes so that Esquire could hire another writer to complete the article. Wolfe typed up a 49-page document that described his research and what he wanted to include in the story and sent it to Dobell. Dobell was so impressed by this piece that he simply deleted the “Dear Byron” at the top of the letter and published the rest of Wolfe’s letter in its entirety under the headline “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” The article was a great success, and Wolfe, in time, became known as the father of new journalism. When he later returned to work at the Herald Tribune , Wolfe brought with him this new style, “fusing the stylistic features of fiction and the reportorial obligations of journalism (Kallan, 1992).”

Truman Capote responded to Wolfe’s new style by writing In Cold Blood , which Capote termed a “nonfiction novel,” in 1966 (Plimpton, 1966). The tale of an actual murder that had taken place on a Kansas farm some years earlier, the novel was based on numerous interviews and painstaking research. Capote claimed that he wrote the book because he wanted to exchange his “self-creative world…for the everyday objective world we all inhabit (Plimpton, 1966).” The book was praised for its straightforward, journalistic style. New York Times writer George Plimpton claimed that the book “is remarkable for its objectivity—nowhere, despite his involvement, does the author intrude (Plimpton, 1966).” After In Cold Blood was finished, Capote criticized Wolfe’s style in an interview, commenting that Wolfe “[has] nothing to do with creative journalism,” by claiming that Wolfe did not have the appropriate fiction-writing expertise (Plimpton, 1966). Despite the tension between these two writers, today they are remembered for giving rise to a similar style in varying genres.

The Effects of Literary Journalism

Although literary journalism certainly affected newspaper reporting styles, it had a much greater impact on the magazine industry. Because they were bound by fewer restrictions on length and deadlines, magazines were more likely to publish this new writing style than were newspapers. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, authors simulating the styles of both Wolfe and Capote flooded magazines such as Esquire and The New Yorker with articles.

Literary journalism also significantly influenced objective journalism. Many literary journalists believed that objectivity limited their ability to critique a story or a writer. Some claimed that objectivity in writing is impossible, as all journalists are somehow swayed by their own personal histories. Still others, including Wolfe, argued that objective journalism conveyed a “limited conception of the ‘facts,’” which “often effected an inaccurate, incomplete story that precluded readers from exercising informed judgment (Kallan).”

Advocacy Journalism and Precision Journalism

The reactions of literary journalists to objective journalism encouraged the growth of two more types of journalism: advocacy journalism and precision journalism . Advocacy journalists promote a particular cause and intentionally adopt a biased, nonobjective viewpoint to do so effectively. However, serious advocate journalists adhere to strict guidelines, as “an advocate journalist is not the same as being an activist” according to journalist Sue Careless (Careless, 2000). In an article discussing advocacy journalism, Careless contrasted the role of an advocate journalist with the role of an activist. She encourages future advocate journalists by saying the following:

A journalist writing for the advocacy press should practice the same skills as any journalist. You don’t fabricate or falsify. If you do you will destroy the credibility of both yourself as a working journalist and the cause you care so much about. News should never be propaganda. You don’t fudge or suppress vital facts or present half-truths (Careless, 2000).

Despite the challenges and potential pitfalls inherent to advocacy journalism, this type of journalism has increased in popularity over the past several years. In 2007, USA Today reporter Peter Johnson stated, “Increasingly, journalists and talk-show hosts want to ‘own’ a niche issue or problem, find ways to solve it, and be associated with making this world a better place (Johnson, 2007).” In this manner, journalists across the world are employing the advocacy style to highlight issues they care about.

Oprah Winfrey: Advocacy Journalist

Television talk-show host and owner of production company Harpo Inc., Oprah Winfrey is one of the most successful, recognizable entrepreneurs of the late-20th and early-21st centuries. Winfrey has long been a news reporter, beginning in the late 1970s as a coanchor of an evening television program. She began hosting her own show in 1984, and in 2010, the Oprah Winfrey Show was one of the most popular TV programs on the air. Winfrey had long used her show as a platform for issues and concerns, making her one of the most famous advocacy journalists. While many praise Winfrey for using her celebrity to draw attention to causes she cares about, others criticize her techniques, claiming that she uses the advocacy style for self-promotion. As one critic writes, “I’m not sure how Oprah’s endless self-promotion of how she spent millions on a school in South Africa suddenly makes her ‘own’ the ‘education niche.’ She does own the trumpet-my-own-horn niche. But that’s not ‘journalism (Schlussel, 2007).’”

Yet despite this somewhat harsh critique, many view Winfrey as the leading example of positive advocacy journalism. Sara Grumbles claims in her blog “Breaking and Fitting the Mold”: “Oprah Winfrey obviously practices advocacy journalism…. Winfrey does not fit the mold of a ‘typical’ journalist by today’s standards. She has an agenda and she voices her opinions. She ha[d] her own op-ed page in the form of a million dollar television studio. Objectivity is not her strong point. Still, in my opinion she is a journalist (Grumbles, 2007).”

Regardless of the arguments about the value and reasoning underlying her technique, Winfrey unquestionably practices a form of advocacy journalism. In fact, thanks to her vast popularity, she may be the most compelling example of an advocacy journalist working today.

Precision journalism emerged in the 1970s. In this form, journalists turn to polls and studies to strengthen the accuracy of their articles. Philip Meyer, commonly acknowledged as the father of precision journalism, says that his intent is to “encourage my colleagues in journalism to apply the principles of scientific method to their tasks of gathering and presenting the news (Meyer, 2002).” This type of journalism adds a new layer to objectivity in reporting, as articles no longer need to rely solely on anecdotal evidence; journalists can employ hard facts and figures to support their assertions. An example of precision journalism would be an article on voting patterns in a presidential election that cites data from exit polls. Precision journalism has become more popular as computers have become more prevalent. Many journalists currently use this type of writing.

Consensus versus Conflict Newspapers

Another important distinction within the field of journalism must be made between consensus journalism and conflict journalism . Consensus journalism typically takes place in smaller communities, where local newspapers generally serve as a forum for many different voices. Newspapers that use consensus-style journalism provide community calendars and meeting notices and run articles on local schools, events, government, property crimes, and zoning. These newspapers can help build civic awareness and a sense of shared experience and responsibility among readers in a community. Often, business or political leaders in the community own consensus papers.

Conversely, conflict journalism, like that which is presented in national and international news articles in The New York Times , typically occurs in national or metropolitan dailies. Conflict journalists define news in terms of societal discord, covering events and issues that contravene perceived social norms. In this style of journalism, reporters act as watchdogs who monitor the government and its activities. Conflict journalists often present both sides of a story and pit ideas against one another to generate conflict and, therefore, attract a larger readership. Both conflict and consensus papers are widespread. However, because they serve different purposes and reach out to differing audiences, they largely do not compete with each other.

Niche Newspapers

Niche newspapers represent one more model of newspapers. These publications, which reach out to a specific target group, are rising in popularity in the era of Internet. As Robert Courtemanche, a certified journalism educator, writes, “In the past, newspapers tried to be everything to every reader to gain circulation. That outdated concept does not work on the Internet where readers expect expert, niche content (Courtemanche, 2008).” Ethnic and minority papers are some of the most common forms of niche newspapers. In the United States—particularly in large cities such as New York—niche papers for numerous ethnic communities flourish. Some common types of U.S. niche papers are papers that cater to a specific ethnic or cultural group or to a group that speaks a particular language. Papers that cover issues affecting lesbians, gay men, and bisexual individuals—like the Advocate —and religion-oriented publications—like The Christian Science Monitor —are also niche papers.

The Underground Press

Some niche papers are part of the underground press . Popularized in the 1960s and 1970s as individuals sought to publish articles documenting their perception of social tensions and inequalities, the underground press typically caters to alternative and countercultural groups. Most of these papers are published on small budgets. Perhaps the most famous underground paper is New York’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Village Voice . This newspaper was founded in 1955 and declares its role in the publishing industry by saying:

The Village Voice introduced free-form, high-spirited and passionate journalism into the public discourse. As the nation’s first and largest alternative newsweekly, the Voice maintains the same tradition of no-holds-barred reporting and criticism it first embraced when it began publishing fifty years ago (Village Voice).

Despite their at-times shoestring budgets, underground papers serve an important role in the media. By offering an alternative perspective to stories and by reaching out to niche groups through their writing, underground-press newspapers fill a unique need within the larger media marketplace. As journalism has evolved over the years, newspapers have adapted to serve the changing demands of readers.

Key Takeaways

  • Objective journalism began as a response to sensationalism and has continued in some form to this day. However, some media observers have argued that it is nearly impossible to remain entirely objective while reporting a story. One argument against objectivity is that journalists are human and are, therefore, biased to some degree. Many newspapers that promote objectivity put in place systems to help their journalists remain as objective as possible.
  • Literary journalism combines the research and reporting of typical newspaper journalism with the writing style of fiction. While most newspaper journalists focus on facts, literary journalists tend to focus on the scene by evoking voices and characters inhabiting historical events. Famous early literary journalists include Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote.
  • Other journalistic styles allow reporters and publications to narrow their editorial voice. Advocacy journalists encourage readers to support a particular cause. Consensus journalism encourages social and economic harmony, while conflict journalists present information in a way that focuses on views outside of the social norm.
  • Niche newspapers—such as members of the underground press and those serving specific ethnic groups, racial groups, or speakers of a specific language—serve as important media outlets for distinct voices. The rise of the Internet and online journalism has brought niche newspapers more into the mainstream.

Please respond to the following writing prompts. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  • Find an objective newspaper article that includes several factual details. Rewrite the story in a literary journalistic style. How does the story differ from one genre to the other?
  • Was it difficult to transform an objective story into a piece of literary journalism? Explain.
  • Do you prefer reading an objective journalism piece or a literary journalism piece? Explain.

Careless, Sue. “Advocacy Journalism,” Interim , May 2000, http://www.theinterim.com/2000/may/10advocacy.html .

Courtemanche, Robert. “Newspapers Must Find Their Niche to Survive,” Suite101.com , December 20, 2008, http://newspaperindustry.suite101.com/article.cfm/newspapers_must_find_their_niche_to_survive .

Grumbles, Sara. “Breaking and Fitting the Mold,” Media Chatter (blog), October 3, 2007, http://www.commajor.com/?p=1244 .

Houston, Brant. “Interpretive Journalism,” The International Encyclopedia of Communication , 2008, http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/tocnode?id=g9781405131995_chunk_g978140513199514_ss82-1 .

Johnson, Peter. “More Reporters Embrace an Advocacy Role,” USA Today , March 5, 2007, http://www.usatoday.com/life/television/news/2007-03-05-social-journalism_N.htm .

Kallan, Richard A. “Tom Wolfe.”

Kallan, Richard K. “Tom Wolfe,” in A Sourcebook of American Literary Journalism: Representative Writers in an Emerging Genre , ed. Thomas B. Connery (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1992).

McChesney, Robert W. “Media and Democracy: The Emergence of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, 1927–1935,” in “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding” OAH Magazine of History 6, no. 4 (1992): 37.

Meyer, Phillip. Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods , 4th ed. (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), vii.

New York Times, “Adolph S. Ochs Dead at 77; Publisher of Times Since 1896,” New York Times , April 9, 1935, http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0312.html .

Patterson, Thomas. “Why Is News So Negative These Days?” History News Network , 2002, http://hnn.us/articles/1134.html .

Plimpton, George. “The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel,” New York Times , January 16, 1966, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-interview.html .

Scanlan, Chip. “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid,” Poynter, June 20, 2003, http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/chip-on-your-shoulder/12754/writing-from-the-top-down-pros-and-cons-of-the-inverted-pyramid/ .

Schlussel, Debbie. “USA Today Heralds ‘Oprah Journalism,’” Debbie Schlussel (blog), March 6, 2007, http://www.debbieschlussel.com/497/usa-today-heralds-oprah-journalism/ .

Schudson, Michael. “The Politics of Narrative Form: The Emergence of News Conventions in Print and Television,” in “Print Culture and Video Culture,” Daedalus 111, no. 4 (1982): 104.

Village Voice, “About Us,” http://www.villagevoice.com/about/index .

Ward, Stephen J. A. “Journalism Ethics,” in The Handbook of Journalism Studies , ed. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch (New York: Routledge, 2008): 298.

Understanding Media and Culture Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.


What Is Literary Journalism and How Does It Work?

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  • February 18, 2022

Literary journalism is a type of nonfiction that mixes factual reporting with narrative tactics and stylistic choices often associated with fiction. It is becoming increasingly popular. This type of writing is referred to as narrative or new journalism, depending on who is doing the report. Literary journalism is occasionally used interchangeably with creative nonfiction; however, it is more commonly viewed as a subset of creative nonfiction rather than a separate genre.

Mr. Norman Sims said in his seminal anthology The Literary Journalists, which was published in 1962, that literary journalism “requires immersion in complicated, difficult subjects.” The author’s voice emerges to demonstrate that they are currently at work.”

John McPhee, Jane Kramer, Mark Singer, and Richard Rhodes are just a few highly recognized literary journalists working in the United States today. Stephen Crane, Henry Mayhew, Jack London, George Orwell, and Tom Wolfe are just a few of the literary journalists who have made a name for themselves in the past.

Literary journalism has certain characteristics.

Authors use no standard formula to construct literary journalism, as there is for other genres. Still, according to Sims, literary journalism is defined by fairly flexible guidelines and common characteristics. In literary journalism, immersion reporting, sophisticated frameworks, character development, symbolism and voice, and an emphasis on everyday people are all traits shared by the genre.

According to literary journalists, “an awareness on the page through which the things in view are filtered is essential.” Rather than a formal definition or a set of criteria, a list of traits may be a more straightforward method to describe literary journalism. There are certain rules, but in an anthology we produced, Mark Kramer coined the phrase “breakable rules,” referring to regulations that may be broken. Kramer listed the following guidelines in his list:

Literary journalists immerse themselves in the worlds of their topics… Literary journalists make implicit agreements with themselves about truth and sincerity… The majority of the time, literary journalists write about everyday happenings. Literary journalists develop the meaning of a piece by building on the sequential reactions of readers.

Why Literary Journalism Isn’t the Same as Fiction or Reporting

Even though the name “literary journalism” implies a connection between fiction and journalism, according to Jan Whitt, literary journalism does not cleanly fit into any other genre of writing. “Literary journalism is not fiction—the characters are real, and the events took place—yet it is also not journalism in the usual meaning of the term.”

A personal point of view is expressed and (often) experimenting with the structure and chronology of the work. The focus of literary journalism is another important aspect to consider. In contrast to traditional journalism, which focuses on institutions, literary journalism investigates the lives of individuals who those organizations impact.”

The Reader’s Participation

Because creative nonfiction is so subtle, the onus of understanding literary journalism lies on the shoulders of the reader. “Through conversation, words, and the presentation of the scenario, you may pass over the material to the reader,” says John McPhee, as quoted by Sims in “The Art of Literary Journalism.” In creative writing, the reader accounts for ninety-some percent of the originality. “A writer does nothing more than get things started.”

Literary Journalism and the Pursuit of the Truth

Literary journalists are confronted with a difficult task. To be effective, literary journalists must deliver facts and comment on current events in ways that speak to much larger big-picture truths about culture, politics, and other major facets of life; if anything, literary journalists are more concerned with authenticity than authenticity different types of journalists. A primary purpose of literary journalism is to elicit responses from readers.

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UCLA Extension

Literary Journalism I

Learn the basics of nonfiction writing — which offers rich, detailed, and vivid portraits of real events — as you read the best examples of the genre, and begin your own works.

What you can learn.

  • Define what literary journalism is and how it differs from standard reportage
  • Read examples from contemporary masters like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese
  • Develop skills of strong fiction writing to apply to writing about true events
  • Start your own literary journalism project and get input from peers and the instructor

About this course:

Spring 2024 schedule.

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what is literary journalism

What is literary journalism, and why did Sean Penn fail to carry it off?

what is literary journalism

PhD Student in English, University of Sydney

Disclosure statement

Dan Dixon does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Sydney provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.

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On Saturday evening (US time), Rolling Stone published an interview (the first in decades) with Joaquín Guzmán Loera , best known as El Chapo, the world’s most notorious prison escapee and drug kingpin. The publication instigated the now-familiar, solemnly recognised ritual of internet pandemonium. For the most part, this was due to the fact that the article was written by Sean Penn.

In El Chapo Speaks , Penn describes his journey into the literal and allegorical depths of a Mexican jungle, to sit, drink tequila and reveal to El Chapo his (El Chapo’s) presence on American television in the form of the Fusion original special: Chasing El Chapo .

There are obvious moral questions to be asked about the conduct of Penn and Rolling Stone (the most urgent to do with El Chapo being offered editorial control), and they are being asked .

For me, the issue here is the morality of Penn’s style. The narrative hook is the moral exploration of a man who lives in the public imagination as an uncomplicatedly evil super-villain. Unfortunately, the story unravels because its voice does not enable moral insight.

Inner voice versus public facts

Penn begins with a description of the technological precautions he must take to ensure he is not tracked (they are evidently unsuccessful : El Chapo was re-captured in the early hours of January 8 by the Mexican Navy’s Special Forces).

There is an unsettling digression in which he contemplates the danger of his penis being removed by the narcos he is among, and the article ends with a meditation on the American teens who will be overdosing on the drugs disseminated by Mexican cartels.

By rejecting the tenets of traditional journalism – the sort that at least pretends to objectivity – and straight-up offering the perspective of an Oscar-winner, activist and one-time Madonna husband , Penn is operating at some indefinable narrative location between art, entertainment and fact. So what is his responsibility?

In the 1960s and 70s, a troupe of egomaniacal white men (Penn is, at the very least, continuing this proud tradition), including Tom Wolfe , Truman Capote , Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson , popularised a form of journalism that became known as new or literary journalism.

This brought them fame – as it did to the less egomaniacal, more incisive (not male) Joan Didion , probably the best literary journalist – and permanently altered the form. Today, the influence is felt in longform work everywhere, some of the best examples coming from contemporary fiction writers like George Saunders , David Foster Wallace and Tom Bissell .

There is no settled definition of new journalism; the best I’ve encountered is Joseph Hellman’s in Fables of Fact (1981):

Fiction is the literary form most concerned with interior consciousness, while journalism is that most concerned with public fact. New journalism attempts to deal with a world in which the latter has, at an unassimilable pace, entered the former.

Literary journalists are nearly always fiction writers, because fiction writers best capture what it’s like to be inside another person’s head.

Getting out of your head

The genre’s central issue is the handling of authorial voice, through which we enter other minds. In Capote’s tale of a picture-perfect Kansas family’s brutal murder, In Cold Blood (1965), the narrator has a ghostly omniscience, never appearing as a character, but presuming to know the internal workings of his subjects’ heads.

In Mailer’s story of the 1967 anti-Vietnam march on Washington, The Armies of the Night (which carries the absurdly grandiloquent subtitle: History as a Novel, The Novel as History), he describes himself, in the third person, as dramatic protagonist. Despite Mailer’s irrepressible self-esteem, he frequently self-deflates (“Mailer was a snob of the worst sort,” we are told).

Wallace begins his excellent article on David Lynch with self-deprecation:

I don’t even pretend to be a journalist and have no idea how to interview somebody, which turned out perversely to be an advantage, because Lynch emphatically didn’t want to be interviewed.

These strategies are each, in their own way, responding to traditional journalism’s failure to capture the journalists’ humanity, the humanity of the reader and the humanity of those written about.

Penn’s intrusive persona

Despite the title, El Chapo Speaks is Penn’s story and, unlike those described above, his perspective does not facilitate access to a world. Instead, the frequency of the first-person pronoun is exhausting (“I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there.”) and the reader is plunged into a loop of grandiose self-reflection:

I’d offered myself to experiences beyond my control in numerous countries of war, terror, corruption and disaster. Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness (though not a perfect science) of available cautions within the design in chaos.

When Penn meets El Chapo there are fragments of insight. He does not see “the big bad wolf of lore”. Instead, the drug dealer’s presence,

conjures questions of cultural complexity and context, of survivalists and capitalists, farmers and technocrats, clever entrepreneurs of every ilk…

The journalist’s obligation to uncover his subject’s depths is independent of the subject’s virtue, and attempting to humanise El Chapo is a worthy endeavour. But the story must escape the writer’s head and explore the worlds of others.

By its style, the article makes a claim to be in the tradition of literary journalism, aiming to be both journalism and art. Artistically, it fails. On the other hand, worthwhile points are made about the futility of the War on Drugs and America’s complicity in Mexico’s violence, and the story of this particular Hollywood dude drinking tequila with El Chapo is inherently fascinating.

But the lack of humility does Penn in. A literary journalist owes the reader imaginative access to other perspectives, and Penn makes little effort to imagine outside his own. Literary journalism’s ethical privilege is absent.

Didion ends the preface to her first essay collection thus:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

Sean Penn wants you to think the opposite.

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The Future of News: A Case for Literary Journalism

Norman Sims has spent three decades studying literary journalism, a genre that is generally viewed in contrast to traditional newspaper journalism. But in his new book, “ True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism ,” Sims argues that literary journalism could be the very thing to boost newspaper readership. He recently discussed how even the earliest examples of literary journalism share aspects of one of the newest narrative forms: the blog.

Spadora: Your interest is literary journalism, which is most often found in magazines and books. How do you assess the state of newspaper journalism?

Sims: I see a degree of stress in public affairs journalism that wasn’t there 10 or 20 years ago. Newspaper staffs have been reduced and there are fewer resources available to support the newspaper’s job of covering government and doing independent investigative reporting. There’s still plenty of great work being done, but people inside the industry are now questioning whether or not the fundamental nature of American democracy will change if newspapers continue down this path.

Done right, public affairs journalism is hard work. Similarly, literary journalism requires time and careful attention. Some scholars have suggested that bringing voice and storytelling back to the newspaper in the form of narrative journalism may pay returns in a larger audience. It would be wonderful if literary journalism and public affairs reporting could contribute to the survival of the newspaper.

Spadora: In “True Stories” you write about the role that short narratives known as “sketches” played in newspapers a century ago, before the form fell out of favor. The sketch seems to offer writers the freedom of literary journalism without demanding the investment of time that the genre demands. What is the likelihood that sketches could make a comeback?

Sims: The sketch died early in the 20th century when facts-consciousness and objectivity were newfound darlings in the press. Today, editors are recognizing that narrative storytelling can be accurate and more enjoyable than the standard forms of news.

For (late 19th-century journalists) George Ade and Finley Peter Dunne , the column provided an oasis for sketch writers in the 20th century, and that remains true today. In a column, voice, perspective, personality and attitude are appropriate. Recently reporters have discovered another area where sketches can survive: the blog.

The woeful state of contemporary newspapers may be a consequence of the objective, impersonal style of newspaper reporting. (University of Toledo journalism professor) Paul Many has suggested that literary journalism could be the last, best hope to pull readers back to the newspaper. People like Dan Barry (of The New York Times ) might be thought of as contemporary sketch writers. They are somewhat exempt from some of the rules that apply to other writers at a newspaper. That gives them the freedom to have a voice.

Narrative reporters, as we now call sketch writers, have become popular at innovative newspapers such as The Oregonian . They bring voice and perspective back and, perhaps, offer competition to the blogosphere.

Spadora: The book chronicles the peaks and valleys of literary journalism. The valleys seem to correspond with pushes for objective reporting. Are literary journalism and traditional journalism natural antagonists?

Sims: On the journalistic roller-coaster ride of the 20th century, the major styles, such as muckraking, interpretative reporting, and even investigative journalism, did not remove the reporter from the text, but objectivity did. To the extent that the movement toward objectivity removed the voice of the reporter, literary journalism was in a different camp.

Spadora: Your portrait of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell is one of the most enjoyable aspects of “True Stories.” He seemed to be as extraordinary a person as he was a writer, and it appeared that those facts were related. How did Mitchell’s personality influence his work?

Sims: In my opinion, Joe Mitchell’s personality and work were directly connected. His gentleness, patience, craftsmanship, and respect for others came through in his writing. Those who knew him saw his face in every piece. I think the same is true of John McPhee .

Spadora: How would you advise a young journalist go about becoming a literary journalist?

Sims: Mark Kramer (the founding director of the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism ) once described the apprenticeship needed in order to become a literary journalist. It involved 10 years spent writing miles of sentences while making little money. Meanwhile many job opportunities would swim by offering bigger salaries, and they would attract smart, capable writers into other fields. It’s nature’s way; not all seeds will sprout. If you’re serious, take someone like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc or Jonathan Harr as a model. Get used to sleeping on the couch.

Spadora: Near the end of “True Stories,” there is a somewhat bleak look at the present and future of the genre. Are we in a “valley” for literary journalism now, in terms of avenues available to writers? Do you have concerns about the genre’s future for that reason?

Sims: The risk for literary journalism has shifted from the publishers to the writers. This is a difficult time financially for all journalists. Just ask the hundreds of Los Angeles Times , Boston Globe , and Chicago Tribune journalists who have been laid off. I don’t fear for literary journalism, because it has natural qualities that attract good writers. I have greater concerns about the sustainability of traditional public affairs journalism.

Spadora: The daily newspaper reporter seldom has the time and resources that literary journalism demands. Without several months to report or a budget to travel, what tools of the literary journalist are still available to him or her?

Sims: You don’t have to be John McPhee at The New Yorker to use the tools of literary journalism in newswriting. Within a larger story, a writer can embed a scene complete with setting, characters, dialogue, and action. Characterization that brings people to life can involve more than details of age, occupation, and address.

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Story Craft

January 1, 1995, breakable rules for literary journalists.

By Mark Kramer

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When writers, readers, English teachers, librarians, bookstore people, editors, and reviewers discuss extended digressive narrative nonfiction these days, they’re fairly likely to call it literary journalism. The previous term in circulation was Tom Wolfe’s contentious “New Journalism.” Coined in the rebellious mid-’60s, it was often uttered with a quizzical tone and has fallen out of use because the genre wasn’t really alternative to some old journalism, and it wasn’t really new.

Literary journalism is a duller term. Its virtue may be its innocuousness. As a practitioner, I find the “literary” part self-congratulating and the “journalism” part masking the form’s inventiveness. But “literary journalism” is roughly accurate. The paired words cancel each other’s vices and describe the sort of nonfiction 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.

This journalism in fact has proper pedigree. Daniel Defoe, writing just after 1700, is the earliest cited by Norman Sims, one of the few historians of the form. The roster also includes Mark Twain in the 19th century and Stephen Crane at the start of the 20th. Before and just after the Second World War, James Agee, Ernest Hemingway, A.J. Leibling, Joseph Mitchell, Lillian Ross, and John Steinbeck tried out narrative essay forms. Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion followed, and somewhere in there, the genre came into its own – that is, its writers began to identify themselves as part of a movement, and the movement began to take on conventions and to attract writers. Public consciousness of a distinct genre has risen, slowly.

In the 1970s John McPhee, Edward Hoagland, and Richard Rhodes – among others now in their 50s and 60s – broadened the form, joined in the 1980s by several dozen then-youthful counterparts, including Tracy Kidder and Mark Singer. Richard Preston and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, the youth of this collection, began publishing in their 20s, and both had studied literary journalism in seminars – a sure sign a new genre has arrived. Another sign is a change in its treatment by book review editors. They used to assign area experts routinely – geologists to review McPhee’s “Basin and Range” (1981), computer programmers to review Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine” – with neither brand of scientist generically qualified to assay the subtle narrative techniques and deft wordsmithing. Now editors are likelier to assign such reviewing to other writers and to critics.

New forms of the written word that catch on are infrequent literary occurrences. Still, writers will forever seek ways beyond the constraints by overlapping cousin-genres – travel travel writing, memoir, ethnographic and historical essays, some fiction and even ambiguous semifiction stemming from real events – all tempt fields just beyond rickety fences.

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Literary journalism has been growing up, and readers by the million seek it out. But it has been a you-know-it-when-you-see-it form. The following annotated list of defining traits derives from the work in this anthology and works by other authors I’ve cited. It reflects authors’ common practices, as the “rules” of harmony taught in composition classes mirror composers’ habits. But however accurately represented, rules for making art will surely be stretched and reinvented again and again.

1. Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjects’ worlds and in background research.

Speaking at a relaxed meeting of the Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, shortly after he’d won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Soul of a New Machine,” Tracy Kidder enraged several young journalists with an offhand comment – that literary journalists are, overall, more accurate than daily journalists. He recalls telling them, “It has to be true; our reporting takes months, and you’re sent to get a story and write it up in three hours, and do two more before leaving work. A privileged journalist might get a few weeks for a feature.”

Literary journalists hang out with their sources for months and even years. It’s a reward – and risk – of the trade, as I’ve discovered on many projects. I spent one glorious June with a baseball team; I wandered intermittently in backwoods Russia through six years of perestroika and the ensuing confused transition. I spent a year in hospital operating rooms, and years in the fields and corporate offices of America’s farms. Every writer in this anthology has had similar experiences. The reporting part of the work is engrossing and tedious. It is not social time. One stays alert for meaningful twists of narrative and character, all the while thinking about how to portray them and about how to sustain one’s welcome.

The point of literary journalists’ long immersions is to comprehend subjects at a level Henry James termed “felt life” – the frank, unidealized level that includes individual difference, frailty, tenderness, nastiness, vanity, generosity, pomposity, humility, all in proper proportion. It shoulders right on past official or bureaucratic explanations for things. It leaves quirks and self-deceptions, hypocrisies and graces intact and exposed; in fact, it uses them to deepen understanding.

This is the level at which we think about our own everyday lives, when we’re not fooling ourselves. It’s surely a hard level to achieve with other people. It takes trust, tact, firmness, and endurance on the parts of both writer and subject. It most often also takes weeks or months, including time spent reading up on related economics, psychology, politics, history, and science. Literary journalists take elaborate notes retaining wording of quotes, sequence of events, details that show personality, atmosphere, and sensory and emotional content. We have more time than daily journalists are granted, time to second-guess and rethink first reactions. Even so, making sense of what’s happening – writing with humanity, poise, and relevance – is a beguiling, approachable, unreachable goal.

2. Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor with readers and with sources.

No Un-Literary-Journalistic-Activities Committee subpoenas the craft’s corner-cutters. Literary journalists, unlike newspaper reporters, are solo operatives. You can see the writers here, in their first few paragraphs, establishing their veracity with readers by displays of forthrightness and street savvy. These are important moments. They imply the rules the author elects to follow. Readers are the ultimate judges of which authors don’t play fairly. They have had the last word in several publicized cases. Two areas of ethical concern often jumble together in discussions of the scrupulousness of literary journalism: (a) the writer’s relationship to readers and (b) the writer’s relationship to sources.

(a) The writer’s relationship to readers

A few distinguished essayists we retrospectively link to literary journalism did indeed commit acts that, if done by writers today, would be considered downright sinful: They combined or improved upon scenes, aggregated characters, refurbished quotations, and otherwise altered what they knew to be the nature of their material.

What distinguished them from fiction writer may have been merely intention – presumably to convey to readers the “sense” of an actuality. In fact, one of the genre’s grand old men, Joseph Mitchell, whose work is in this collection, has written about and spoken to interviewers about using composite characters and scenes in his 1948 classic “Old Mr. Flood.” John Hersey, author of “Hiroshima,” did the same thing with the main character of his 1944 article “Joe Is Home Now” (however, he later complained about the practice among New Journalists). Mitchell never complained, and neither writer did it again.

I have no trouble comprehending the liberty of either of these artists trying things out. Other pioneers, including George Orwell (in “Shooting an Elephant”) and Truman Capote (in “In Cold Blood” (1966)), apparently also recast some events, and my private verdict is to find them similarly exculpated by virtue of the earliness (and elegance) of their experimentation, and by the presumed lack of intention to deceive. None violated readers’ expectations for the genre, because there weren’t yet strong expectations – or much of a genre, for that matter – to violate.

Still, if you reread those essays having learned they portray constructed events, you may find yourself second-guessing what was real. One wouldn’t bother doing this with a novel. The ambiguity is distracting. Today, literary journalism is a genre readers recognize and read expecting civil treatment. The power of the prose depends on the readers’ accepting the ground rules the works implicitly proclaim.

There is a category of expectations, and I’d argue it describes material that falls outside the modern understanding of what literary journalism is. By the time he published “The Executioner’s Song,” in 1979, about a triple murderer named Gary Gilmore, Norman Mailer elected to specify his liberation from restrictive factuality. The dust jacket bore the odd description “A True Life Novel.” Although such truth-in-labeling doesn’t explicitly demarcate what parts are actual, it’s a good-faith proclamation to readers that they’ve entered a zone in which a nonfiction writer’s covenant with readers may be a tease, a device, but doesn’t quite apply. It would take a naive audience to misconstrue clearly self-proclaiming “docudramas” such as Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” (which Mark Singer writes about in this collection) or Mailer’s sort of “docufiction.” Most reader swill instead savor, whether as art or entertainment, the deliberate byplay of reality against fancy, in this often wholesome, but always special category of film and prose that straddles the line.

However, chats with writer friends and panel discussions at writing conferences have me convinced that literary journalists have come to share a stodgier tacit understanding with readers, one so strong that it amounts to a contract: that the writers do what they appear to do, which is to get reality as straight as they can manage, and not make it up. Some, of course, admit in private to moments of temptation, moments when they’ve realized that tweaking reality could sharpen the meaning or flow of a scene. If any writers have gone ahead and actually tweaked, however, they’re no longer chatting about it to friends, nor talking about it on panels. In recent years, a few literary journalists have drawn heavy fire for breaking trust with readers. It is not a subject about which readers are neutral.

Conventions literary journalists nowadays talk about following to keep things square with readers include: no composite scenes, no misstated chronology, no falsification of the discernible drift or proportion of events, no invention of quotes, no attribution of thoughts to sources unless the sources have said they’d had those very thoughts, and no unacknowledged deals with subjects involving payment or editorial control. Writers do occasionally pledge away use of actual names and identifying details in return for ongoing frank access, and notify readers they’ve done so. These conventions all add up to keeping faith. The genre makes less sense otherwise. Sticking to these conventions turns out to be straightforward.

Writers discover how to adhere to them and still structure essays creatively. There’s no reason a writer can’t place a Tuesday scene prior to a Monday scene, if the writer thinks readers should know how a situation turned out before knowing how it developed. It is easy to keep readers unconfused and undeceived, just by letting them know that you’re doing. While narrating a scene, a literary journalist may wish to quote comments made elsewhere, or embed secondary scenes or personal memories; it is possible to do all these things faithfully, without blurring or misrepresenting what happened where and when, simply by explaining as you go along. Like other literary journalists, I’ve found that, in fact, annoying, inconsistent details that threaten to wreck a scene I’m writing are often signals that my working theories about events need more work, and don’t quite explain what happened yet.

Not tweaking deepens understanding. And getting a slice of life down authentically takes flexibility and hard labor. Readers appreciate writing that does the job. It is not accidental that the rise of literary journalism has been accompanied by authors’ nearly universal adherence to these conventions, which produce trustworthy, in-the-know texts and reliable company for readers.

(b) The writer’s relationships to sources The writer’s reliable companionship with sources can cause difficulty. An inescapable ethical problem arises from a writer’s necessarily intense ongoing relationships with subjects. Gaining satisfactory continuing access is always a tough problem; most potential subjects are doing quite well at life with no writers anywhere in the neighborhood, and their lives are tangles of organizational and personal affiliations. Yet, in order to write authentically at the level of “felt life,” literary journalists will seek from subjects the sustained candor usually accorded only spouses, business partners, and dearest friends. Strong social and legal strictures bind husbands, wives, partners, and pals to only the most tactful public disclosure of private knowledge. Literary journalists’ own honorable purposes, on the other hand, require as much public discourse as possible.

During the months a writer stays around subjects, even a forthright relationship (that has commenced with full discussion of intentions, signing of releases, and display of part articles and books) is likely to develop into something that feels to both parties a lot like a partnership or friendship, if not quite like marriage. The ticklish questions the writer comes up against are these: Does the subject see himself revealing information to a friend, at the same moment the writer sees himself hearing information from a source? And how responsible is the writer for the consequences of such perceptions?

Writers, in good faith, try all sorts of ways to get and keep good access without falsifying their intentions. The most obvious has been to write about people who either don’t mind or else actually like the prospect of being written about. Anthropologists say “access downward” is easier than “access upward.” Literary journalists (including me) have had cordial continuing access to people far from the world of books, who just like the company of the writer and the sound of the project – including hoboes riding the rails, migrant workers sneaking across the border, merchant seamen, teen prostitutes, high school football players, plain dirt farmers.

Another category, exemplary subjects – a dynamic schoolteacher, a deft surgeon, a crew of tip-top carpenters, a dexterous canoemaker, a hard-bargaining corporate farm executive – also welcome attention, sometimes because they have causes they hope to represent, such as bigger school budgets, lessened malpractice liability, or fairer crop subsidies.

My own rule has been to show part articles, to make clear the public exposure involved, to explain my publisher’s and my commitments of time and money, to stipulate that subjects won’t get to edit manuscript or check quotes. Then I go ahead – if I’m still welcome after all that, and sometimes I’m not. In a few cases, I have doubted that subjects understood my intentions or their consequences well enough to consent, or I’ve felt consent hadn’t been freely given but was influenced by boss’s orders (for example, the nurses in an operating room where my subject worked). Then, I’ve made it my business to do no harm. By luck, I’ve been able to write what I wished, without having these occasional moments alter essential content. Every genre, whether daily or literary journalism, poetry, or fiction, ultimately depends on the integrity of the writer.

3. Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.

The ecology of convenient access impels literary journalists toward routine events, not extraordinary ones. The need to gain long-term, frank access has forced writers to seek material in places that can be visited, and to avoid, in spite of longings to the contrary, places that can’t. The level of access required is so high that it has largely determined the direction of literary journalists’ efforts.

The goal during “reporting” or “fieldwork” is not to become socialized as an insider, as an intern at a firm might en route to a job. It is to know what insiders think about, to comprehend subjects’ experiences and perspectives and understand what is routine to them. Insiders who eventually read a literary journalist’ account should find it accurate and relevant, but not from an inside perspective. At first, when I spent time with surgeons, blood alarmed me – an unsurgeonlike attitude. By the end of a year witnessing controlled mayhem, my attention had shifted. I knew when the surgeon found bleeding routine, and recognized the rare moments when it alarmed him. My rookie reaction wasn’t relevant to the surgeon’s world; my later reaction served me better in comprehending his perspective.

Routine doesn’t mean humdrum. Most anyone’s life, discovered in depth and from a compassionate perspective, is interesting. Some very routine subjects, however, haven’t been breached, and seem unbreachable except by insiders. Oddly, one major constraint is legal. Commission from a national magazine in hand, I once approached an attorney well known for effectively defending many suspected murderers. He was tempted by the prospect of an article about his daily work. I sketched out the access I’d need – including entrée to his office discussions with and about a current client. The attorney backed away. I’d be out beyond the umbrella of attorney-client privilege, he said, and could be challenged, and perhaps subpoenaed, for questioning on what I’d heard. His client could then sue him for malpractice.

Uncontaminated access to top levels of big business during a major deal has also proved nearly beyond reach, mostly because corporate sources perceive that allowing a journalist to roam might exceed prudent fiduciary responsibility, and might subject them to suit. Also, businesspeople work repeatedly within a circle of associates, and whoever let in a writer unbound by the circle’s prospect of mutual advantage could be seen as breaking trust. Writers occasionally do make it through these barriers. A few kiss-and-tell versions of business deals have also been written by former players. And writerly post-factum reconstructions sometimes re-create dramas of complex deals.

A cousin, true-crime reporting, also reconstructs events post-factum . Murderers usually try not to do their work in front of writers. But criminal cases subsequently open access to the most secret places, starting the moment the deed is revealed. Cooperative culprits looking for redemption, variety, or forgiveness; vengeful family members; and elaborate court records have taken writers far into hidden inner worlds – after the fact.

Nonfiction writers are fated to arrive late. Something that a literary journalist can only do in the first person, with hindsight, after chance has subjected him to bad or good fortune, is to write about a person about to be mugged, slip on a banana peel, or find a pot of gold. Once in a while, something untoward happens to a writer, and readers may profit from the author’s misfortune – Francis Steegmuller’s “The Incident at Naples” (which ran in The New Yorker in 1986) comes to mind. Steegmuller describes being robbed and injured while on holiday. Perhaps it is to push this limit that writers go adventuring – sailing into nasty seas and living to tell, hunting in the green hills of Africa and bagging the limit in close calls. Before disaster destroyed the lives of Christa MacAuliff and the Challenger astronauts, NASA had signed up writers wishing to go space traveling. Among the applicants was Tracy Kidder, who has gone on instead to write about aging.

4. Literary journalists write in “intimate voice,” informal, frank, human and ironic.

In literary journalism, the narrator is neither the impersonal, dutiful explainer and qualifier of academic writing, who presents research material carefully but without special consideration of readers, nor the seemingly objective and factual, judgment-suspending, orthodox informant of newswriting. The narrator of literary journalism has a personality, is a whole person, intimate, frank, ironic, wry, puzzled, judgmental, even self-mocking – qualities academics and daily news reporters dutifully avoid as unprofessional and unobjective. They’re taught to discount their personal reactions about other people and to advance no private opinions. From the perspective of the institutions or intellectual traditions sponsoring such prose, there are sound civic, commercial, scientific, and discipline-abetting reasons for curtailing the appearance of private judgment. The effect of both academic and news styles is to present readers with what appear to be the facts , delivered in unemotional, nonindividuated, conventionalized, and therefore presumably fair and neutral voice. Obviously, they leave lots out.

The defining mark of literary journalism is the personality of the writer, the individual and intimate voice of a whole, candid person not representing, defending, or speaking on behalf of any institution, not a newspaper, corporation, government, ideology, field of study, chamber of commerce, or travel destination. It is the voice of someone naked, without bureaucratic shelter, speaking simply in his or her own right, someone who has illuminated experience with private reflection, but who has not transcended crankiness, wryness, doubtfulness, and who doesn’t blank out emotional realities of sadness, glee, excitement, fury, love. The genre’s power is the strength of this voice. It is an unaffiliated social force—although its practice has been mostly benign. It is a one of the few places in media where mass audiences may consume unmoderated individual assertion, spoken on behalf of no one but the adventurous author.

The voice is rarely no-holds-barred, accusatory, or confessional, however, even though some writers – Tom Wolfe comes to mind – are adept at making it look that way. In most literary journalism, an informal, competent, reflective voice emerges, a voice speaking with knowledgeable assurance about topics, issues, personal subjects, a voice that reflects – often only indirectly, as subtext – the writer’s self-knowledge, self-respect, and conscience. I suggest to my Boston University writing workshop that members find their voices by imagining they’re telling fairly close friends whose wit they respect about an incident they’d observed and taken seriously, linked to fields they’d studied. What emerges is a sociable, humorously self-aware, but authoritative voice – I hear it at dinner parties when people tell anecdotes. Reading it feels companionable.

This voice is a handy invention for essay writers, not a quirky preference, nor merely a way of getting into the act. It is an effective tool for a difficult modern job. It enables an author to step around acculturated views of relationships and issues that are usually guarded by walls of formal language and invisible institutional alliances. The powers of the candid, intimate voice are many, and they bother people who insist on idealized versions of reality. Formality of language protects pieties, faiths, taboos, appearances, official truths. The intimate voice sidesteps such prohibitions, says things in the mode that professionals in the know use when they leave work feeling pensive and confide to friends or lovers. It is the voice in which we disclose how people and institutions really are. It is a key characteristic of literary journalism, and is indeed something new to journalism.

A former newspaper reporter told me she’d interviewed a city traffic department official and found him stentorian and self-promoting, not sharp on issues, but a charming good-old-boy at local politics. She liked him, but she had his number. Nevertheless, her newspaper article, she recalled, had started something like, “The long-awaited design plans for a new highway exit were released today by the Office of Traffic Management.” Her observations about the man, the jokes her knowing colleagues made about him in the bar near the newsroom afterwards are sorts of material a literary journalist might bring into a narrative about, say, the complex actuality of planning and building a highway exit – along with, perhaps, material on traffic management, bureaucratic structures, urban finance, executive psychology, the politics of urban renewal, and on the meanings of driving and self-promotion and good-old-boyhood in the writer’s own life.

The audience is invited, when reading literary journalism, to adopt complex and relaxed expectations about meaning, and to share something excluded from academic and news articles – the author’s ironic vision. Irony – the device of leading readers to consider a scene in more knowing terms than some of its actors do – is virtually taboo in other forms of nonfiction. Two exceptions come to mind, and in both places, literary journalism turns up. The Wall Street Journal is the one major American paper that regularly runs ironic features on its front page. This may be because management there defines its audience as well-heeled, powerful, and in-the-know – in short, as “not everyone,” but an elite sector of the whole community, those on top, sharing some views of the world below. And Sunday newspaper magazines often feature a wholesome type of ironic voice, in articles whose narrators relate personal experiences with some sensitive aspect of communal morality – prejudice, costly sickness, the burdens of aging and of mental illness. Walt Harrington’s piece, essentially on the growth of interracial tolerance, both his own and our nation’s, is in that spirit. As the piece illustrates, the power of irony need not emerge from sarcasm or meanness. It can bind a community, simply by expanding contexts of events beyond what the actors usually consider.

5. Style counts, and tends to be plain and spare. A mark of literary journalism that shows right from the start of a piece is efficient, individual, informal language. The writers here have worked their language until it is spare, stylish, and controlled. Ear may be the last teachable skill of writing. Elegant, simple expression is the goal, and what many poets and novelists reach toward, too. People discern character in part by divining who’d make those word choices. Impersonal or obdurate speakers get found out. Clean, lucid, personal language draws readers toward experiencing the immediacy of scenes, and the force of ideas.

“If you want to see the invisible world, look at the visible one,” Howard Nemerov said in his enchanted essay “On Metaphor.” The best language of literary journalists is also evocative, playful, sharpened by active verbs, sparing of abstract verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and the many indolent forms of “to be,” taut in its grammatical linkages. Such uncluttered style is gracious – clear and pleasant in its own right, and suited for leading readers not merely to picture, but to feel events. Readers resist clumsy writing, often without thinking much about what’s wrong, but engage with good prose, often as heedlessly. Feeling transports readers as mere logic cannot.

6. Literary journalists write from a disengaged and mobile stance, from which they tell stories and also turn and address readers directly. David Quammen, like the other authors here, occupies a strategic stance in relation to his material in “Strawberries Under Ice.” He is the host. He entertains by telling you a good winter camping tale, immersing you in it so you feel the immediacy of it, its past, its impending future, and the ongoing “now” of it. He also guides you, his presumptive social intimate, through his evaluation of it, exiting from story to informative digressions about glaciers and his psychology, then reentering action.

Readers experience this well-spoken, worldly, witty, cagey storytelling buddy warmly, in good measure because Quammen the writer isn’t trapped within the events he portrays. He describes events (that happened to Quammen the subject) from a “retrospective platform,” recollecting action and considering its shape, meanings, and metaphoric echoes.

This mobile stance of the writer is another key element in literary journalism. Each author in this anthology, while telling tales, repeatedly looks directly at the reader, comments, digresses, brings in associative material, background, previous events – not necessarily personal ones – then reengages the story. When the author drops you back at the spot where the tale’s been left off, the place feels familiar. “Oh, good,” says the well-hosted reader, realizing the story is back on screen, “now I find out what happens next.” The reader rejoins with enhanced perspective on the events, gained from the digressive material. The forward-moving leading edge of the narrative, from which such digressions and returns happen, may be called “the moving now” – it’s a term useful for discerning essay structure. Good storytellers often digress at moments when especially interesting action is pending, and not at the completion of action. Lucid storytelling, skillful selection of moments for pertinent digression, returning to the “moving now,” are among the essential elements out of which literary journalists constructs essays.

The literary journalist’s mobile stance is not quite borrowed property of novelists – in fiction, the reader can never be sure the author has stepped away from the story, and can’t quite shake the presumption that even an author’s most out-of-story asides might turn out to be another layer of story. When the literary journalist digresses and then returns to narrative, the author’s real-world knowledge juxtaposes with story. This mobile stance is an amazing device, full of power.

The authors in this anthology have varied approaches to this mobile stance. Jane Kramer mostly tells about scenes, conversing with readers, but a several refined moments fully sets scenes, drawing readers into experiencing them. Her erudition and grasp of the larger meanings of her subject infuse these moments. We see her scenes with a pleasant knowingness; we are newly sophisticated by her erudition. Tracy Kidder, on the other hand, does almost nothing but tell tales, suspending action for digressive comments to readers only occasionally. Both authors’ stances aid their control of the reader’s developing experience.

7. Structure counts, mixing primary narrative with tales and digressions to amplify and reframe events. Most literary journalism is primarily narrative, telling stories, building scenes. Each piece here carries readers along one, and often a second and third, story line. Walt Harrington’s “A Family Portrait in Black & White” achronologically braids several discrete narratives that explore his relationship to racism, starting nearly currently and flashing back. He relates the events of his own interracial courtship and marriage, and also plaits in the stories of several of his wife’s relatives, and the story of the relaxing of American racial attitudes.

The sequences of scenes and digressions – some brushed past, some dwelled upon – along with the narrator’s mobile stance relative to these tales and asides, comprise narrative structure. Literary journalists have developed a genre that permits them to sculpt stories and digression as complexly as novelists do. At any moment the reader will probably be located somewhere along the time line of at least one unfolding tale and a few developing ideas. Quammen’s “Strawberries Under Ice,” at first glance an example of unusually charming science writing on glaciers, is in fact a coyly constructed narrative of the purgation of his soul, and once that’s well along, of his courtship and marriage, of the miracle of love and its metaphorical expression in the warming effect of ice, of paradoxical and intimate metaphors, finally of rebirth from the warmth of a snow cave. Because of Quammen’s crafty structuring of these elements, the piece creeps up on you. When authors make decisions about structure – order of scenes, points of digression, how intensively to develop which elements of stories and digressions – they consider the effects of the order and intensities chosen on readers’ experience.

8. Literary journalists develop meaning by building upon the readers’ sequential reactions. Readers are likely to care about how a situation came about and what happens next when they are experiencing it with the characters. Successful literary journalists never forget to be entertaining. The graver the writer’s intentions, and the more earnest and crucial the message or analysis behind the story, the more readers ought to be kept engaged. Style and structure knit story and idea alluringly.

If the author does all this storytelling and digressing and industrious structure-building adroitly, readers come to feel they are heading somewhere with purpose, that the job of reading has a worthy destination. The sorts of somewheres that literary journalists reach tend to marry eternal meanings and everyday scenes. Richard Preston’s “The Mountains of Pi,” for instance, links the awkward daily lives of two shy Russian emigre mathematicians to their obscure intergalactic search for hints of underlying order in a chaotic universe.

Readers take journeys designed by authors to tease out the ineluctable within the everyday; the trip will go nowhere without their imaginative participation. Ultimately, what an author creates aren’t sequential well-groomed paragraphs on paper, but sequential emotional, intellectual, and even moral experiences that readers undertake. These are engaging, patterned experiences, akin to the sensations of filmgoing, not textbook reading. What these pieces mean isn’t on paper at all.

The writer paints sensory scenes, confides on a level of intimacy that stirs readers’ own experiences and sensations, and sets up alchemical interplay between constructed text and readers’ psyches. The readers’ realizations are what the author and readers have made together.

Why has this union of detailed fact, narratives, and intimate voice risen so remarkably in this century?

Many traditions that defined behaviors and beliefs at the start of the century have fragmented or vaporized. In 1900 a few hundred categories described the routines of labor, and a handful of patterns defined propriety. These days, there are 10,000 sorts of jobs and of propriety. In the same period, science, which had promised answers, order, and ease, has yielded convolution, danger, and vast domains of knowledge that seem crucial to everyone but comprehensible only by specialists. And in a culture that once called upon experts, and leaders with creeds, for piloting, august authority has run aground. Presidents, priests, generals on horseback, professors in ivory towers – none can command collective faith these days.

Yet somehow this has not resulted in universal despair. A formidable crowd of citizens wants, I’m sure with more urgency than ever, to read books and essays that comprehend what’s happening in its complexity. They demand not just information, but visions of how things fit together now that the center cannot hold. A public that rarely encountered the personal imaginations of others at the turn of the century, now devours topical bestsellers, films and TV shows that cast issues narratively, and literary journalism.

Literary journalism helps sort out the new complexity. If it is not an antidote to bewilderment, at least it unites daily experiences – including emotional ones – with the wild plentitude of information that can be applied to experience. Literary journalism couples cold fact and personal event, in the author’s humane company. And that broadens readers’ scans, allows them to behold others’ lives, often set within far clearer contexts than we can bring to our own. The process moves readers, and writers, toward realization, compassion, and in the best of cases, wisdom.

I’ll even claim that there is something intrinsically political – and strongly democratic – about literary journalism, something pluralistic, pro-individual, anti-cant, and anti-elite. That seems inherent in the common practices of the form. Informal style cuts through the obfuscating generalities of creeds, countries, companies, bureaucracies, and experts. And narratives of the felt lives of everyday people test idealizations against actualities. Truth is in the details of real lives.


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Creative Nonfiction and Literary Journalism: What’s the Difference?

what is literary journalism

Mar 21, 2017 by Kayla Dean published in Writing

what is literary journalism

When I was in high school, my AP English teacher had our class read essays from names like Annie Dillard, David Foster Wallace, and Virginia Woolf. Back then, I didn’t know who any of these people were. I fell in love with “Death of a Moth” when I had to write a one-page analysis of it back in the day, but it wasn’t until my last year of college that I really understood what these authors were doing: writing creative nonfiction.

Yes, I know. You’ve heard the term already. Everyone on the blogosphere seems to have something to say about it. All the articles you click on now almost always have a storied way of telling you basic information. Writing advice blogs mention the word here or there. And have you seen that Creative Nonfiction magazine at Barnes & Noble (i.e., one of THE DREAM magazines for our genre)?

This is the beginning of another endeavor: I’m going to explain creative nonfiction, its genres, and how you can write your own creative nonfiction essays in this new column.

Don’t try to tell me that you aren’t interesting enough. That you haven’t been to Venice yet, and you don’t think that at twenty-something years old you could possibly have enough life experience to write anything interesting. You don’t feel like enough of a person yet. I am all of the above. Your experiences are enough to figure out this whole writing-about-real-experiences thing. First stop? Let’s break down the difference between creative nonfiction and literary journalism.

What Creative Nonfiction Actually Means

Creative nonfiction was coined by Lee Gutkind in the ‘90s. Simply stated, it’s “true stories, well told.” At least, that’s the slogan for his magazine. Gutkind has written several books on the genre, like this one , which is incredibly helpful for getting started in the genre. But if you’re looking for a more precise definition, creative nonfiction is essentially a narrative that deals in factual events. Meaning that whatever you write about, whether in essays or long-form, must be based in reality.

But there’s also something unique about this genre: it’s extremely important that you tell a narrative that has a literary language about it. In other words, you want your prose to be compulsively readable because it’s real life told in a human voice that strays away from the technical or academic.

Some consider creative nonfiction to be an umbrella term for a genre that includes things like personal essays, memoir, travel writing, and literary journalism. You probably know what the first three are, but why is the last one different from creative nonfiction?

How Literary Journalism Fits In

Some people say there isn’t a difference. But here’s my take: literary journalism is often rooted in heavy research. For example, a biologist could write about the problems they see in an endangered population of turtles in the Pacific. A journalist could write about their experiences reporting in the Middle East, exposing a problem they encountered while in the field. Both of these are real examples. But they aren’t necessarily based on the storyteller’s life so much as the facts that they uncover on their journey. A writer can use figurative language to weave a narrative, but they can’t just engage in solipsism for 300 pages.

Not that creative nonfiction allows this. However, there’s a bit more freedom in the way that a writer can arrange facts. Some writers have even gotten in trouble when readers discovered they hadn’t told the story exactly as it had happened. You don’t want to stir up controversy, but there is a freedom in how you collapse or expand events. You can even re-order them to fit a narrative arc.

How to Pick the Right Non-Fiction Genres

Some writers object to writing this way. You may even find that there are two different camps of writers who completely disagree with one another’s prose. This may seem divisive. But there may be another option.

Literary nonfiction is another term I’ve seen thrown around, but not as often as the first two. It usually operates as a blanket term for both creative nonfiction and literary journalism. This one combines the essence of both into a style that works in many contexts. For a literary nonfiction piece, you’d do a bit more research than for a piece that is creative nonfiction. The latter form does allow you to simply write about your life. You may fact check dates or places, but many writers of creative nonfiction write things as they remember them. Implicit in some writing is even a type of subjectivity because the experiences are so personal that they’re more difficult to really verify.

Maybe this feels a little confusing. But if you’re looking to write about your own life, you’ll likely fall in the creative nonfiction camp. If you want some great essays to read on just about anything, check out online publications like Ecotone, Longreads, Literary Hub, or The Millions. These are great places to start if you want to read some creative nonfiction ASAP. And, if you’re a personal essay person, check out these tips from The New York Times on writing great creative nonfiction.

Those essays you read in high school English class can be a great start for your first foray into creative nonfiction, but they’re just the beginning. The realm of nonfiction may feel intimidating, especially if you’re not sure you have a shocking tale to put into a memoir just yet. That’s the great thing about creative nonfiction: you really can write about just about anything. The best part? No sensationalism required.

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Article contents

The new journalism.

  • Danielle Hinrichs
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.494
  • Published online: 26 July 2017

Amidst war protests, hippies, civil rights demonstrations, rock-and-roll festivals, assassinations, feminism, youth power, experimentation with drugs, and sexual revolution, many reporters and writers found that traditional literary categories could not capture the tumultuous changes of the 1960s. Concerned that fiction neglected the people and events of America at that time and that journalism ignored the complexity of the era, reporters and writers forged a new genre by applying the writing techniques and characteristics of the novel and short story to nonfiction, journalistic prose. Journalists like Tom Wolfe , Gay Talese , and Michael Herr joined fiction writers such as Truman Capote , Norman Mailer , and Joan Didion to create a nonfiction form characterized by its use of dialogue, scenic construction, point of view, and personal voice, all traditionally the terrain of fiction. The genre's many critics denied the originality of the form and worried about its threats to the objectivity and accuracy of traditional reportage. For New Journalists, the emerging genre was more responsive to cultural changes and more accurately, more thoroughly, and more interestingly conveyed the issues, events, and people of the 1960s and early 1970s. The New Journalism drew greater attention to nonfiction as a creative literary form and encouraged experimentation with genre and style.

Tom Wolfe, the greatest advocate and one of the most prolific practitioners of the New Journalism, has been called the Big Bad Wolfe and Rebel-Doodle Dandy and is known for his fresh white suit and flawless style. His collection of essays, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby ( 1965 ), though not the first example of New Journalistic writing, was perhaps the most recognized and influential early example of the movement. The title essay emerged not from a calculated desire to try new techniques but out of frustration with the limitations of traditional practices for conveying the changing society and popular culture of the 1960s. Wolfe began writing an article for Esquire magazine about a hot rod and custom car show in California run by teenagers with money and a dedication to style. Faced with a deadline, he resisted constructing the story in the usual way and finally resigned himself to leaving it unfinished. The editor asked Wolfe to send his notes so that someone else could write up the article. Wolfe sat down at his typewriter and began a letter to his editor, “Dear Byron.” Rock-and-roll music blaring in the background, Wolfe wrote all night long, freely discussing his experiences in California of viewing cars as works of art and meeting people dedicated to a culture based on the freedom and sex appeal of the automobile. In the morning, he presented a forty-nine-page document to Esquire . The magazine struck the salutation and printed Wolfe's letter in its entirety.

This anecdote elucidates several important developments in the history and significance of New Journalism. The form grew out of attempts to write more freely about changes in the postmodern social world, and it often incorporated personal experience and an informal style. Like this early source, New Journalistic writing often reads as if it were a letter that includes the reporter's experiences and thoughts, conveying an intimacy with characters and revealing the context in which the story evolved. And, as Wolfe's groundbreaking letter did, the New Journalism developed amidst the noise of rock-and-roll and the sights, sounds, and turbulent emotions of the 1960s.

Journalism's movement toward a more fluid form and personal voice expanded the rules of journalistic writing to include more creative methods, wedding techniques of journalism and the novel and blurring the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction. In Wolfe's story about writing Kandy-Kolored , he self-consciously reflects on the changes taking place in his own writing and in journalism as a whole. The New Journalism called attention to the creative potential of nonfiction writing, but the form was not entirely new. Many critics have shown that the New Journalism is just one development in a lengthy and diverse tradition of literary reportage that includes such important figures as William Hazlitt , Charles Dickens , Stephen Crane , Mark Twain , James Agee , Lillian Ross , A. J. Liebling , and John Hersey . To varying degrees, all of these authors used narrative techniques in nonfiction writing. The New Journalism was new in the sense that it attracted a plethora of practitioners and critics in the 1960s and 1970s and declared itself a movement, explicitly challenging traditional practices and calling attention to its potential as an exciting and influential genre. Tom Wolfe not only wrote some of the most influential New Journalistic works, but he also offered critical commentary and examples as the coeditor of an anthology called The New Journalism ( 1973 ). His interpretation greatly influenced the development and perception of the form. Wolfe described the fiction of the 1960s as “neo-fabulism” and listed its conventions as “No Background, No Place Name, No Dialogue, and the Inexplicable.” In the midst of a literary revolution in which postmodern writers like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth began writing mythical and allegorical texts more tangentially related to historical reality, Wolfe and other New Journalists sought to recuperate the techniques of social realism as practiced by such writers as Honoré de Balzac and John Steinbeck in order to convey the rich and diverse social world of the late twentieth century . Wolfe defined the New Journalism according to realist writing strategies adapted by nonfiction writers: scene construction, dialogue, third person point of view, and the inclusion of status details like clothing and mannerisms.

Wolfe credited longtime journalist Gay Talese with introducing him to the possibilities of such techniques. Although Talese thoroughly researches his essays and interviews, they read as if they were short stories, including dialogue instead of direct quotations, exploring the interior thoughts of characters, and showing subjects interacting with their surroundings. For example, in an interview with Floyd Patterson , the boxer reveals intimate details of his life, telling Talese how it feels to be knocked out and why he avoids looking other fighters in the eye (otherwise he might not want to fight them). Rather than narrating the boxer's life, Talese shows him interacting with the places and people around him. The story depicts Patterson moving from one scene of action to another: running and throwing punches as he emerges from his training camp; speaking with a fan on the street; and relaxing in his apartment, with boxing trunks drying in front of the fireplace. We begin to understand the complexity of character through the revelations of dialogue, scene, and point of view.

Tom Wolfe's famously experimental vocabulary, alliteration, phrases from pop culture, long sentences, and unusual punctuation contribute to the feeling that we are in the mind of his characters and convey an immediacy and spontaneity of expression. Wolfe has remarked that he “found that things like exclamation points; italics; abrupt shifts (dashes) and syncopations (dots) helped give the illusion not only of a person talking but a person thinking.” In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ( 1968 ), Wolfe describes a crowd awaiting the Beatles from the point of view of various members of the audience. His unusual punctuation and use of onomatopoeia draw the readers into the crowd and convey the tremendous energy of participants. The following quotation is all one sentence, one gasp of pent-up anticipation and frantic release:

Each group of musicians that goes off the stage—the horde thinks now the Beatles, but the Beatles don't come, some other group appears, and the sea of girls gets more and more intense and impatient and the screaming gets higher, and the thought slips into Norman's flailing flash-frayed brain stem ::: the human lung cannot go beyond this :::: and yet when the voice says And now — the Beatles —what else could he say?—and out they come on stage— them —John and George and Ringo and uh the other one—it might as well have been four imported vinyl dolls for all it was going to matter—that sound he thinks cannot get higher, it doubles, his eardrums ring like stamped metal with it and suddenly Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww , it is like the whole thing has snapped, and the whole front section of the arena becomes a writhing, seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air, this mass of pink arms, it is all you can see, it is like a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles—it is a single colonial animal with a thousand waving pink tentacles,—vibrating poison madness and filling the universe with the teeny agony torn out of them.

The punctuation marks demonstrate pauses in Norman's thinking and intensify the action throughout the passage, moving from three sequential colons to four, long dashes like holding one's breath while the Beatles emerge, and then the Ghhhhhhwooooooooowwwwww of release as the crowd goes wild. We move further and further into the observer's consciousness, hearing the ringing of his eardrums and seeing what he sees: the “seething mass of little girls waving their arms in the air.” Through such undefined punctuation and visually audible words, Wolfe places the reader within a sensory world, one where we hear and see and feel as if we are in the audience.

The Media and Traditional Journalism

Although Wolfe defines the New Journalism by the techniques it uses and the forms it follows, it might be helpful to understand this new form in terms of what it does not do. To some extent, the New Journalism is less a creation of new methods and boundaries than a rejection of limiting, prescribed writing techniques. As Nicolaus Mills has suggested in The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology ( 1974 ), “A who, what, where, when, why style of reporting could not begin to capture the anger of a black power movement or the euphoria of a Woodstock.” Many journalists felt that the detached, objective, and formulaic approach of traditional journalistic practices could not express the rebelliousness, confusion, and cultural questioning of Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the growing drug culture in the United States. While still claiming adherence to factual accuracy, New Journalists embraced subjectivity and resisted the inverted pyramid taught in journalism classes throughout the country. When Michael Herr published his personal account of time spent with soldiers at the war front in Vietnam, he remarked, “The press got all the facts (more or less); it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about.” In Dispatches ( 1977 ), Herr does “report meaningfully,” not by presenting statistics in decreasing order of importance but by recording his personal relationships with men in combat.

Similarly, works like Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ( 1968 ) and Hunter S. Thompson 's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ( 1971 ) sought to convey America's counterculture on its own terms, intimately exploring the drug culture from within. Thompson's work, in particular, shows how a more traditional journalistic approach makes 1960s America less comprehensible. Thompson and his drug-filled escapades become the central subject of Fear and Loathing . Trying to decide how to leave town quickly after accumulating thousands of dollars in room service charges at a Las Vegas hotel, the reporter struggles to peruse the newspaper calmly. He reads:

Trio Re-Arrested in Beauty's Death An overdose of heroin was listed as the official cause of death for pretty Diane Hamby, 19, whose body was found stuffed in a refrigerator last week, according to the Clark County Coroner's office. Investigators of the sheriff's homicide team who went to arrest the suspects said that one, a 24-year-old woman, attempted to fling herself through the glass doors of her trailer before being stopped by deputies. Officers said she was apparently hysterical and shouted, “You'll never take me alive.” But officers handcuffed the woman and she apparently was not injured.

This traditional news story, telling the who, what, when, and where in the first paragraph, leaves us with a resounding “Why?” There is no answer to this question and the attempt to fit this incredible story into the rigid form of traditional journalistic patterns remains unsatisfying and jarring. The objective phrases of formal newspaper language, such as “apparently hysterical” and “official cause of death,” convey none of the shocking absurdity of the event. In contrast, Thompson's writing speaks to the confusion and tumultuousness of the political and social world with informal language, fluid form, and characters who continually travel across the country, looking for meaningful answers to life's questions.

The resounding rejection of traditional forms does not lead to a clearly categorized and easily defined set of New Journalistic practices. Rather, it brings journalists into an inventive period of fascinating experimentation and transgression of stylistic boundaries.

The Nonfiction Novel

Well-known novelists joined reporters in creating and defining the New Journalism in its early stages. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences appeared in serial form in The New Yorker in 1965 , and then in book form in 1966 . This immensely popular work revived Capote's career and elevated nonfiction writing in the view of the book-buying public. Capote remarked that he turned to nonfiction because he “wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Nevertheless, he distanced himself from the New Journalism and declared In Cold Blood an entirely new form, the “nonfiction novel.”

In order to re-create an accurate account of murder in novel form, Capote conducted extensive interviews and studied public documents to expose the minds of the criminals and the fears of the townspeople. He recreated the scene of the murder, conversations between participants, and the thoughts of the killers. Capote's obvious absence when the murder took place and his inclusion of dialogue and characters' thoughts initiated a far-reaching critical debate about the possibilities and problems of the New Journalism. How could his witnesses remember exactly what they thought or said? How could Capote trust his sources and record them accurately? Capote, however, both defended the accuracy of his account and questioned the possibility of complete objectivity. He spent six years becoming intimately involved with the lives of the criminals, reading about crime, interviewing murderers, training himself to memorize conversations, and relentlessly interviewing witnesses and participants.

Although Norman Mailer initially called Capote's work a “failure of imagination,” demonstrating the literary world's preference for fiction, Mailer soon broke new ground with his own nonfiction writing when he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Armies of the Night ( 1968 ). Like Capote, he distanced himself from the New Journalism, subtitling his work, History As a Novel/The Novel As History , raising further questions about the relationship between fiction and nonfiction. In The Armies of the Night , Mailer describes an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon. Unlike Capote, who maintains an objective distance from the events of his novel, Mailer includes himself as a primary character. He refers to himself in third-person, making Norman Mailer both a participant in and an explicit observer of a clash between protesters and police.

The Critics

The New Journalism, its presence and its aspirations as a new literary genre, developed amidst tremendous controversy. Wolfe himself admitted doubts about the term “new” and outlined many important forerunners in his introduction to The New Journalism . Critics and naysayers like Dwight MacDonald asserted, “What is new is the pretension of our current parajournalists to be writing not hoaxes or publicity chit-chat but the real thing; and the willingness of the public to accept this pretense.” The battle between New Journalists and their critics revolves around the question of newsworthiness and the power to define what is a significant part of history and worthy of public attention. Critics questioned both the importance and the accuracy of New Journalistic pieces, charging that reporters claimed the authority of factual journalism without complying with the rigor of traditional methods. According to MacDonald, “The parajournalist cozies up, merges into the subject so completely that the view point is wholly from inside, like family gossip.…There is no space between writer and topic, no ‘distancing’ to allow even the most rudimentary objective judgment, such as for factual accuracy.” In response, New Journalists argued that the form does not distort the facts but, on the contrary, presents them in a more complete manner. Talese writes, “The New Journalism, though often reading like fiction, is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through the mere compilation of verifiable facts.” Traditionalists, however, continued to equate fact and truth in opposition to the unreliability of fiction. In the end, this very criticism reveals the significance and power of the form. By transgressing boundaries between fact and fiction, New Journalists drew attention to literary techniques and claimed a revered space for nonfiction writing within American literature.

The New Journalist Behind the Scenes

The New Journalism encompasses a wide variety of forms and modes, including sports writing, accounts of crimes, interviews, entertainment reports, analyses of social trends, and war correspondence. The writers of these very diverse New Journalistic works share the belief that the reporter must go beyond the surface, to become intimate with the subject of the piece, even participating if possible in events. Readers of the New Journalism often feel like they are being taken behind the scenes, observing the otherwise hidden motives and thoughts of public figures. Works by Joe McGinnis , George Plimpton , and John Sack demonstrate the diversity of New Journalistic topics—political candidates, sports teams, and combat—and the similarity of approaching these subjects with behind-the-scenes involvement. Rather than sitting down with Richard Nixon in a traditional interview or reporting on comments crafted for the press, McGinnis watched as the Nixon campaign taped several television commercials. This informal and time-consuming approach, what Gay Talese has called the “fine art of hanging out,” revealed the process and development of Nixon's thoughts as well as the extent to which advisors shaped and censored his ideas. George Plimpton took this participatory involvement to a physical level, training for and playing in an exhibition game with the Detroit Lions for his book Paper Lion ( 1964 ). Plimpton becomes a central character in the book, and his inability to complete a single play in the exhibition game demonstrates the unique abilities and attitudes of professional football players. In M ( 1966 ), John Sack goes even further, risking his own life by joining (as a reporter) an infantry company in Vietnam. He gets to know the soldiers, intimately including their thoughts alongside accounts of their battles. After being harshly criticized for reporting people's thoughts, Sack sent the story to each soldier, gaining the entire troop's approval.

Gay Talese's Flying to Dublin with Peter O'Toole ( 1961 ) demonstrates that the expectations of intimacy require reporters to go beyond the techniques of traditional reporting. Sitting next to O'Toole on a flight to Ireland, Talese strikingly juxtaposes New Journalistic methods and traditional ones. On the airplane, the actor reveals “anger that can be sudden (‘Why should I tell you the truth? Who are you, Bertrand Russell ?’) and…anger that quickly subsides (‘Look, I'd tell you if I knew why, but I don't know, just don't know’).” The exchange shows O'Toole's insecurity and doubts and allows readers to develop an understanding of the actor's evolving thoughts. But when O'Toole emerges from the plane to face “a crowd of photographers and reporters…flash bulbs fixed,” we see an entirely different O'Toole: “He posed for pictures, gave a radio interview, bought everybody a drink; he laughed and backslapped, he was charming and suave, he was his public self, his airport self.” The moral of Talese's story could be a motto for New Journalists: don't wait at the airport; get on the plane!

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of New Journalistic writing is the considerable flexibility of its styles and approaches. Certain magazines and newspapers allowed journalists the resources they needed for the form to flourish. Periodicals like Esquire , the New York Herald Tribune , the Village Voice , and Rolling Stone gave their reporters a great deal of freedom, encouraging them to dig deeply into each assignment. In 1972 , Joe Eszterhas from Rolling Stone traveled to a small Missouri town where a hippie named Charlie Simpson had shot three people, two of them cops, and then himself. Long before the murder, the community had become divided; young “longhairs,” speaking slang and listening to Jimi Hendrix, began meeting in the town square, encountering resistance from town officials who wanted to maintain the status quo. Eszterhas revealed the hostility of town traditionalists and the frustrations of young discontents by becoming a part of both subcultures. Complete with tie, blazer, and cigar, he frequented bars and coffee shops, conversing with townspeople. When he felt that he understood their reaction to the crime, he donned blue jeans and a leather jacket and talked to Simpson 's friends. Eszterhas's adaptability and awareness of his own role in the story contributes to a powerful portrayal of various points of view in Harrisonville, Missouri. He ends the story not with a simplistic statement about violence in the United States, but with a complex and confused questioning of the issues of the time, exposing a painful clash of values and ideals:

It had been a long few days and I had scrutinized too many vivid details of four vicious killings and something in my mind flailed out now—Jesus Simpson, murderer, cold-blooded killer, compassionate, sensitive, sentimental. It could have been the fatigue or the Missouri weed or the beer mixed with wine, but I saw too many grotesqueries leaping about in that blazing bonfire.

The reporter's confusion is followed by the broken dialogue and unfinished thoughts of Simpson's friends. Like Eszterhas, many New Journalists leave their stories with questioning and uncertain endings, refusing to contain the confusion of wars, protests, drugs, and transformation in a neat and conclusive package. Instead, they urge the reader to confront the messiness, the disorder, and the pain of current events.

The Journalist As Character

Although Wolfe saw New Journalism as a rejection of the practices of postmodern fiction, both respond to questions about objective experience through self-conscious allusions to the act of writing and the role of the author. Despite Capote's belief that “for the nonfiction-novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work,” the journalist's subjectivity enters the New Journalism in many ways, most significantly in works by Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson .

Joan Didion begins John Wayne: A Love Song , published in Slouching towards Bethlehem ( 1968 ), with a story about going to the movies as a child. She then writes, “I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” Didion calls attention to her own role in shaping the story and connects with the reader through references to her own thoughts, but she refuses to make herself too central in the story. Throughout the essay, she strives to illuminate the character and significance of John Wayne, and she feels the need to explain her own presence in the narrative.

Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, feels no need to explain himself. He takes the inclusion of the reporter to its furthest extreme, making himself the subject of his writings. Many critics have objected to Thompson's self-centered narratives, echoing Wayne Booth's comment that the thesis of Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that “Hunter Thompson is interesting.” Others, though, would happily agree, finding Thompson very interesting indeed. Nevertheless, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not only about Thompson's travels but also about his attempts to research a story; his narratives become expositions on the process of writing a story, researching an event, and getting sidetracked time after time. In Thompson's own style of personal and participatory journalism, sometimes called “gonzo journalism,” the rebel writer of the New Journalism rides with the Hell's Angels and takes psychedelic drugs, and the reader feels that writing is happening spontaneously as we watch.

Lasting Influence

Throughout the mid-1960s, Tom Wolfe offered grandiose claims for the New Journalism as a newly powerful genre that “would wipe out the novel as literature's main event.” Although Wolfe's most dramatic expectations remain unfulfilled, the New Journalism has become an important and influential force in American literature. Decades after Wolfe's proclamation, writers and critics rarely use the term New Journalism to refer to contemporary writing, but its legacy continues in studies of literary journalism and creative nonfiction. Whereas Joan Didion is the only woman writer consistently included in studies of the New Journalism, broader consideration of the history of nonfiction writing has brought a greater diversity to literary discussions of the form. Most recently, the term “Way New Journalism,” referring to journalism's encounter with the Internet, demonstrates the lasting influence and significance of the New Journalism in American literature and life.

See also Capote, Truman ; Didion, Joan ; and Mailer, Norman .

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Chris . Style as Argument: Contemporary American Nonfiction . Carbondale, Ill., 1987. An in-depth analysis of works by Wolfe, Capote, Mailer, and Didion.
  • Hartsock, John C. A History of American Literary Journalism . Amherst, Mass., 2000. One of the best late-twentieth-century works that places the New Journalism in a historical tradition of literary journalism.
  • Hellmann, John . Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction . Urbana, Ill., 1981. Helpful for comparing the New Journalism with fiction of the era. Hellmann offers insightful analyses of work by Mailer, Thompson, Wolfe, and Herr.
  • Johnson, Michael L. The New Journalism: The Underground Press, the Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Media . Lawrence, Kans., 1971.
  • Mills, Nicolaus . The New Journalism: A Historical Anthology . New York, 1974. This collection contains works by many lesser-known authors, including several women writers. The anthology is organized thematically with useful introductions.
  • Talese, Gay , and Barbara Lounsberry , eds. Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality . New York, 1996. This collection includes classic New Journalism as well as more recent nonfiction writing. Talese's introduction is particularly engaging.
  • Weber, Ronald . The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy . New York, 1974. An essential collection of writings about the New Journalism by New Journalists, critics, and literary analysts.
  • Wolfe, Tom , and E. W. Johnson , eds. The New Journalism . New York, 1973. An important anthology of New Journalistic works with an introduction and commentary by Wolfe.

Related Articles

  • Capote, Truman
  • Didion, Joan
  • Mailer, Norman

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Our Brain and the News

The Psychophysiological Impact of Journalism

  • Isabel Nery 0

CAPP, ISCSP, Lisbon University, Lisbon, Portugal

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Provides an innovate study of the impact of journalism on readers

Links literary journalism to contemporary studies in neuroscience

Highlights the importance of journalism in a time of media crisis

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Table of contents (5 chapters)

Front matter, neurosciences of communication: a multidisciplinary approach.

Isabel Nery

Methodology and Procedures

What our data tells, discussion: the psychophysiological impact of journalism, back matter.

This book explores the impact of news and literary journalism on human cognition and emotion. Providing an innovative analysis of psycho-physiological measures, including emotional response, perception of pain, and changes in heartbeat, Nery seeks to understand how readers react to journalistic texts. There is a growing enthusiasm in the search for understanding the processing of information, with some already arguing for the establishment of the neuroscience of communication as a new discipline. By combing neuroscience methods with communication research studies, specifically journalistic research and theory, Nery offers us a unique way of exploring and thinking about news, literary journalism, and the brain.

  • human cognition
  • literary journalism
  • media literacy

Book Title : Our Brain and the News

Book Subtitle : The Psychophysiological Impact of Journalism

Authors : Isabel Nery

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-51160-8

Publisher : Palgrave Macmillan Cham

eBook Packages : Literature, Cultural and Media Studies , Literature, Cultural and Media Studies (R0)

Copyright Information : The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2024

Hardcover ISBN : 978-3-031-51159-2 Published: 22 February 2024

eBook ISBN : 978-3-031-51160-8 Published: 21 February 2024

Edition Number : 1

Number of Pages : XXIII, 122

Number of Illustrations : 2 b/w illustrations

Topics : Journalism , Neurosciences , Emotion

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