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.

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Defining Literary Journalism

Series: Photographs Related to the George W. Bush Administration, 1/20/2001 – 1/20/2009Collection: Records of the White House Photo Office (George W. Bush Administration), 1/20/2001 – 1/20/2009, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Recognizing Literary Journalism?

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.

  1. Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjects’ worlds and in background research.
  2. Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor with readers and with sources.
  3. Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.
  4. Literary journalists write in “intimate voice,” informal, frank, human and ironic.
  5. Style counts, and tends to be plain and spare.
  6. Literary journalists write from a disengaged and mobile stance, from which they tell stories and also turn and address readers directly.
  7. Structure counts, mixing primary narrative with tales and digressions to amplify and reframe events.
  8. 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”.

Criticism of Literary Journalism

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.

The Role of Literary Journalism Today

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.

FAQs About literary journalism

What is the meaning of literary journalism?

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

Why is literary journalism important?

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.

What is the difference between literary journalism and other journalism?

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.

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