An Accurate Deception

An Accurate Deception

For those who are interested, I have written summaries of four articles which attempt to define “literary journalism.” Of my readings this afternoon, however, the most interesting was a piece written by my professor Dr. Charles Anderson: “Coming into the Country . . . and Living There: Literary Nonfiction and Discourse Communities” (1991). Dr. Anderson proposes that literary nonfiction can be roughly divided into a tree:

The collision of “literary journalism” and cultural criticism is not demarcated by any of the articles I read earlier. Like the evasion of philosophy sketched by West, there seems to be an evasion of the term “criticism” by most people who attach the label of journalism to nonfiction. I would call people like Didion and Wolfe cultural critics, not journalists.

The Literary Journalists Introduction by Norman Sims (1984)

Sims asserts that “scraps of information don’t satisfy a reader’s desire to learn about people doing things” (3). Literary journalists unite the realms of fiction and nonfiction. They follow their own set of rules. The voice of the author is the central concern. Authority, in the truest sense of the word, is primary. “Unlike fiction writers, literary journalists must be accurate” (4). Sims cites the definition of the “new journalism” as emergent from the 60s, which calls attention to the “voice” of the author. As a reader, Sims says, he reacts differently to literary journalism than to standard reporting or fiction. “Knowing this really happened changes my attitude while reading” (5).

Other terms cited as potential descriptors include personal journalism, new journalism, and parajournalism (4). Sims credits this genre with “returning character, motivation, and voice to nonfiction writing” (5). Sims cites Tracy Kidman as calling journalism “antiseptic” (5). He claims that this genre returns emotion to writing (6). Sims surveys several writers, and then sets forth the characteristics of immersion, structure, accuracy, and responsibility as its guiding forces. The goal of literary journalism is to portray the “masks of men” in a believable fashion (21).

“Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists” by Mark Kramer (1995)

Kramer argues against the term “new journalism” proposing that it isn’t new. “Literary journalism” is a duller term, part self-congratulatory, and partly masking the forms inventiveness. He starts with Defoe, and moves quickly to a laundry-list of authors from Mark Twain forward. He asserts that the form began to broaden and deepen in the 1970s. The basic characteristics of the form are enumerated as:

  1. Immersion in the subject’s world

  2. An implicit covenant about accuracy and candor

    1. Between writer and reader

    2. Between writer and sources

  3. Writing about mainly routine events

  4. Writing in an “intimate voice”

  5. Style is plain and spare

  6. Writes from a disengaged or mobile stance

  7. Structure is digressive, to amplify main points

  8. Reliant on a reader’s sequential reactions

Kramer sees the emergent form as a union of science and literature, with logical forms wedded with the integrity of storytelling (34).

“The Art of Literary Journalism” by Norman Sims (1995)

Sims presents a survey of several works in the genre of “new journalism,” citing representative author attitudes along the way. The fundamental assumption is that this form presents “insider access” to information, and Sims sees it as a blend between fiction and ethnography.

The outlook of the first writer, Joe Nocera, focuses on characterization. He sees the mode as one of revealing the personalities inside the story, the drama, and the human dimension. He places his emphasis on trust: “In any kind of literary journalism, you have to build a bond of trust. You have to get people to let their hair down while you’re around, and be willing to forget about you as a reporter, and to say things” (6). Mark Singer sees the pursuit as attaching ideas to people. John McPhee, when asked what to avoid said: “The expression of concepts without illustration, without narrative and exemplification, a form of thematic directness instead of indirectness which comes with sketching characters and letting the abstract or conceptual values to be implied” (8).

Tom Wolfe suggested that the New Journalism requires “scene by scene construction, saturation reporting, third-person point of view, and a detailing of the status lives of the subjects” (9). Richard Todd was more direct: “Voice and story are the only tools” (9). Mark Singer expressed his beginning anxiety over the word art, rationalizing his embrace of the term in this way: “Instead of just making a table, you’re making a beautiful table” (10). Joseph Mitchell place the most important emphasis on “the revealing remark” (11).

Ted Conover privileged the personal reaction, comparing himself to a participant-observer ethnographer (12). The overall goal, in Sims view is to fulfill the role of “bearing witness” (13). Turning to John McPhee, the role is shifted to a more factual emphasis, of using storytelling tools to transmit information. Drawing a separation between fiction and storytelling, Sims asserts that these tools are not inherently fictional, but rather simply a continuation of the storytelling tradition (19).

Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction by John Hellman (1981)

In his introduction, Hellman notes the opposition between the blending of the “content of fiction (read: falsehood) with that of journalism (read: truth)” (3). The phrase “a larger truth” is marshaled to defend the license of “New Journalism.” The “new reader” needs understanding of facts, not facts themselves. Rather than an opposition of subjective vs. objective, Hellman argues that the real conflict is that of a “disguised perspective versus an admitted one” (4). Journalism hides behind the mask of objectivity and truth, while often providing neither.

The new journalist exploits the transformational resources of human perception and imagination to seek out a fresher and more complete experience of an event, and then to re-create it into a personally shaped “fiction” which communicates something approaching the wholeness and resonance it had for him. . . . (7)

Almost by definition, new journalism is a revolt by an individual against homogenized forms of experience, against monolithic versions of truth. (8)

Hellman gestures at the realistic novel as a way of dealing with an unstable culture. He places new journalism in the genre of a fictional form, rather than a truthful one, and suggests that its rise in the 60s is a response similar to the crisis faced by Defoe or Hawthorne. The contract between the reader and writer is different in the case of “non-fiction” versus fiction, however:

Despite the opposite nature of their author-reader contracts, new journalists share with contemporary fiction writers an emphasis on perceiving consciousness as a transforming power, and a desire to avoid the distortion caused by an attempt to disguise that power.

The use of framing devices (forewords and afterwords) acts to authorize the text demonstrates this relation. Hellman cites Robert Scholes suggestion “Fact comes from facere — to make or do. Fiction comes from fingere — to make or shape” (17-18). Hellman asserts that there is little distinction between the activities, and they “can be left separate or merged” (18). In chapter 2, Hellman cites Frye, and suggests that the primary dividing line between the genres is one of motive— though the distinction between fact and fiction may be disputed, journalistic writing is assertive (21). Mas‘ud Zavarzadeh proposes that the “nonfiction novel” is a new type of writing because it is bireferential, simultaneously pointing at the text and outside it, compared to fictional works which are primarily internally referential, and supported only through internal consistency (22). Zavarzadeh further asserts that nonfiction novelists are “uniformly absurdist in their intention” because:

they can only neutrally transcribe the texture of the fictional reality whose contradictory nature and mythic dimensions resist the totalizing imagination. (22)

Ultimately, Hellman attempts to refute the separation proposed by Zavarzadeh, suggesting that nonfiction novels use all the standard techniques of plot and invention utilized by fiction. Nonfiction is best understood as an emergent, fictional, literary genre.