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.

Nonfiction Prose in the Form of Literary Journalism

Described in The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist as nonfiction prose—informational writing that flows and develops organically like a story—and the strategies that effective writers of this genre employ, Rose Wilder discusses literary journalism as nonfiction prose—informational writing that flows and develops organically like a story. “Literary journalism, according to Thomas B. Connery, is ‘nonfiction printed prose whose verified substance is molded and converted into a tale or sketch via the employment of narrative and rhetorical elements normally associated with fiction.’

“Through these tales and sketches, authors make a message, or give an interpretation, on the people and culture represented,’ according to the author’s definition. ‘Behold others’ lives, often placed within far clearer circumstances than we can bring to our own,’ says Norman Sims, who adds to this description by saying that the genre itself helps readers to ‘behold others’ lives, often set within far clearer contexts than we can bring to our own.’

“He goes on to claim that ‘literary journalism has something fundamentally political—and extremely democratic—about it—something pluralistic, pro-individual, anti-cant, and anti-elite.’ Furthermore, as John E. Hartsock points out, the vast majority of work that has been considered literary journalism is composed “largely by professional journalists or those writers whose industrial means of production are to be found in the newspaper and magazine press, thus making them, at the very least, de facto journalists in the interim.”

“Common to many definitions of literary journalism is that the work itself should include some form of greater truth; the tales themselves may be considered to be indicative of a bigger truth,” she writes in her conclusion.

Literary Journalism has a long history.

This distinct kind of journalism may trace its origins back to figures such as Benjamin Franklin, William Hazlitt, and Joseph Pulitzer, among other individuals. “[Benjamin] Franklin’s Silence Dogood writings marked his foray into the world of literary journalism,” writes Carla Mulford in her introduction. While her background was not typical of newspaper writing, the character Franklin developed “speaks to the form that literary journalism should take—that it should be situated in the everyday world,” according to the New York Times.

Literary journalism as we know it now has been decades in the making, and it is deeply entwined with the New Journalism movement of the late twentieth century in which it was conceived. “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 only a few generations earlier,” writes Arthur Krystal of the critical role that essayist William Hazlitt played in refining the genre.

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