What Is Literary Journalism?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In Cold Blood books and magazines with Truman Capote
Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood (1966) " is a great example of literary nonfiction.

 Carl T. Gossett Jr /Getty Images

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," (Sims 1984).

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 Norman 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," (Sims 2008).

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," (Whitt 2008).

The Role of the Reader

Because creative nonfiction is so nuanced, the burden of interpreting literary journalism falls on readers. John McPhee, quoted by Norman 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," (Sims 1995).

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," (Lane 2007).

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," (Mulford 2012).

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," (Krystal 2009).

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 2007).

Sources

  • 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.