Friday, October 16, 2009

"Literary Journalism" - in the textbook "contemporary creative nonfiction: the art of truth" - by Bill Roorbach (Literary Entry)

This is a required reading assignment for a university literary class. As this work is found nowhere else online, I have decided to set a precedent for many college students everywhere who so desperately look for a re-posted work online to copy-&-paste to a text-to-speech program. By having it read back to them, they spend a fraction of the effort otherwise spent manually reading this passage. Students seek paths of least resistance. I am constructing one of them.

The traditional journalist, God bless him, is a "Just the facts, Ma'am" kind of guy. Not for him the squishy-squashy territory of subjective experience, or wishy-washy questions about his objectivity, or longhaired worries over whether his work will last. He sees both sides of every issue, talks to both camps, reports. To the best of his abilities, he writes without bias. All of his stories are other people's stories. His language is always like the next reporter's language, and this is a good thing: we don't need personality on the front page-- we need to know what happened, who what where when how and why, and we want it in the disembodied, generalized, authoritative voice of the newspaper in hand.

Not for our traditional journalist fancy language and ten-dollar words and sentences longer than your leg; he wants all his employer's readers to understand him utterly, from the callow kid in seventh grade to the professor at the local college, from the sisters at the abbey to the regulars at Joe's Bar and Grill. And he wants to offend none of them, but only to inform their opinions. He thinks in column inches and sources, and not in paragraphs and people. He brings the facts to light, and leaves interpretation to others. If his employer and his prejudices and safety let him, he provides one of the crucial services in the preservation of freedom and democracy: the transmission of untainted information. Hail the traditional journalist!

But let's face it, the traditional journalist does not aspire to art. He aspires to the scoop, and to the facts, and to the story of the day, and finds unbounded excellence in his way. His editors, journalists themselves, reserve for themselves and for selected columnists to the right to express opinion. In this expression of opinion, the traditional journalism aspires to influence. But influence is not art, either. On the features page, traditional newspaper does start to tell stories, but they are stories about strangers brought briefly to light, stories that any one of the excellent reporters in the pool of features writers could go out and get and then write competently to the specifications of the features editor.

Literary journalism aspires to art. It may aspire to other things, as well, but artfulness is the crucial ingredient. And art requires an artist, that is, an individual working to her own ends for her own reasons to create something that wasn't there when she started, something no one but the artist knew was necessary until it appeared, something that only the artist could have made in that exact way, or perhaps at all.

The literary journalist may not go around thinking of making art or of being an artist, but in using the language in fresh ways, making characters out of her people (very often including herself), in showing readers the drama of the factual, in having an opinion, in treating her bias as a virtue, in writing for both present and future, in having a very human voice, in presenting her subjects in ways no one else could, in making free use of the conventions of storytelling (dialogue instead of quotation, scene instead of declaration, plot instead of event, point-of-view instead of impartiality, deep involvement instead of professional detachment), she is making literary art at least possible.

Literary journalism is not particularly new, though the label is. Many critics have pointed to George Orwell as a literary journalist, and writers in English well before him like Addison and Steele (Joseph and Richard, respectively), William Hazlitt the elder, James Boswell, and even Robert Louis Stevenson wrote at times in the form before anyone thought to name it, bringing voice and first-person sensibility and unhidden subjectivity (including fierce opinion) and careful language to what was essentially reportage, building a kind of bridge between the essay and the news report.

In the twentieth-century United States, glossy, high-budget magazines gave certain nonfiction writers the benefit of comparatively long and leisurely weekly and monthly deadlines and wider columns for paragraphs to grow in. Audiences got used to reading fiction in these fancy magazines, and come to expect drama and characters and elegant structure and poetry and surprises from the nonfiction, as well. Readers began to respond to writers who told them what it felt like to be a soldier for example, what it felt like to be poor. They wanted the smells, sights, sounds, pains, and caresses, and tastes of life itself, wanted the writing so vivid that as readers they might feel the emotions of the people they read about, and, more and more, feel the emotions and therefore the humanity of the writers themselves.

I include a chapter from John Hersey's Hiroshima here (it's a stretch, I admit, to call it contemporary, though Mr. Hersey is still alive) because Hiroshima is one of the first widely read works of journalism to use the novelist's techniques. Like nearly all the selections I reproduce here, Hiroshima appeared first in a periodical, in this case The New Yorker, whose editor at the time, Harold Ross in 1946, devoted a whole issue to the piece, an unheard-of move. In a letter to the writer, the famously irascible and understated Ross said, "Those fellows who said 'Hiroshima' was the story of the year, etc., underestimated it. It is unquestionably the story of my time, if not of all time. Nor have I heard of anything like it." Of course, humanizing the Japanese victims of the atomic bomb was deeply controversial-- but Hersey's conscience became the world's conscience, and his technique made people of what had been mere front page statistics.

Many critics have pointed out that Truman Capote's In Cold Blood subtitled A true Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences and published in 1965) is only possible because of the pioneering done by Hersey in Hiroshima, not only in technique, but in style and structure. And continuing controversy has surrounded the issue of Capote's accuracy. Did he slip and slide with the facts (especially in the matter of dialogue, and scenes only the dead could remember) in his pursuit of the truth and drama? He called his book a nonfiction novel, causing riots of discussion and argument.

The stage was now set for what Tom Wolfe called the New Journalists, tooting his own rather loud horn while declaring rightly or wrongly that nonfiction writers were taking the literary high ground that novelists had abandoned.

Michael Herr had more to say about war in Vietnam than he'd been able to report back to newspapers-- his work in Dispatches gives the real picture of a journalist's life and work in war emotion and regret included.

Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song, which he subtitled A True Novel, tells the story of Gary Gilmore, the first man executed after the Supreme Court lifted its ban on capital punishment, back in the 1970s. Mikal Gilmore gives his own version in Shot in the Heart, published later. Mikal is not only a fine reporter, but Gary's little brother. How does the personal angle figure into the search for the truth in this case?

And all the writers in this section dedicated themselves to the stories they wanted to tell, light-years beyond the limits of traditional journalism, lived inside their stories until they themselves were inextricable from these stories-- that is, only one writer, the artist at the center of the telling, could have done the job at hand.

Readers interested in further immersion in literary journalism shoudl find two excellent volumes helpful indeed: The Literary Journalists, edited by Norman Sims, and The Literature of Reality, edited by Gay Talese and Barbara Lounsberry. And get hold of any one or more of John McPhee's books, all of which are among the best examples of contemporary literary nonfiction available. I've included Mr. McPhee later in this volume-- but if there were unlimited room, I would have included him here, too (and in the essay section, and in the memoir section): he's that important.

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