Why I write the way I write; An opinion piece on literary Journalism

Essay by Dylanna Fisher

Journalism: it is a world of finding the truth and providing the truth. As a journalist myself, I always had an image of journalists that were more of a Hollywood stereotype. A no-nonsense man in a brown suit providing the facts without the flair, without drama; just the cold hard truth. He works in a busy newsroom full of smoke and telephones ringing. Everyone is talking. The man is talking on the phone busily typing up notes before rushing out the door with his jacket to ask the hard questions. There’s no room for flair or drama in the newsroom because that’s not hard-hitting news. That’s a kind of idealized professionalism that I attributed to journalism – and accurately at that.

There’s almost a science to writing a news article. Writing starts with a lede, something to give the facts right there right away. Each paragraph is written in order of importance until the last one. The final paragraph is the one that’s there for future thought as a reward dedicated to readers who stay to the end. Though not every reader gets down to reading. Then quotes are used sparingly and only the strong ones make it in. A good quote is a quote that you couldn’t paraphrase better. Overall, keep it simple and straightforward.

That’s the basic idea behind journalistic writing in a watered-down version. It provides the facts with a little flavour, like a dash of salt and pepper. That’s respectable journalism in its purest form, as considered by people that consider objective reporting vital to the craft. They’re right about objectivity and authenticity being a vital role in any journalist’s morals. The science behind journalism is what’s taught, what’s deemed as journalistic writing, separating it from other forms of the written word.

Hartsock writes that professionalism in a journalist’s work is determined by the means of their livelihood’s production, “The work of journalism has been dismissed as literature not on its merits but because of what journalists do for a living as determined by their means of production.” Essentially, journalists are professionals because they write for a newspaper or a magazine, rather than a novel.

There was a kind of professionalism to the average journalist that made the work respectable, which allowed it to be different from other forms of writing. There was a fine line between feature writers and “scoop” writers as Tom Wolfe describes them in terms of their style and subject of writing and beyond that. Feature writers were more able to have a style outside that of a hard-hitting scoop reporter. Feature writers threw out the rule book on a kind of scientific look at writing as a journalist. There is still a cut and dried lede in a feature as in an article, but it’s nearly hidden as a nut graf.

Literary Journalism

black and silver dlsr camera near white and black typewrite
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Feature writers first separated themselves from hard-hitting news by writing “human interest stories,” as Wolfe describes them, which were “long and often hideously sentimental accounts of hitherto unknown souls beset by tragedy or unusual hobbies within the sheet’s circulation area… In any case, feature stories gave a man a certain amount of room in which to write.”

Literary journalism is a kind of journalism that has that flair, that exact flair that isn’t in the idyllic movie setting of a newsroom. It’s more along the lines of novelists. Literary journalism takes the scientific and traditional method of writing a news article and uses it as a bookmark for fiction novels by Bram Stoker, and Mark Twain, and Margaret Atwood.

Novels were outside the realm of journalism; outside the realm of even feature writing. They were considered artistic, dramatic, wholly subjective, and thus in their own realm of writing. As Wolfe explains, when journalists wanted to adopt this style of writing, they would quit their jobs and become novelists.

“The idea was to get a job on a newspaper, keep body and soul together, pay the rent, to know ‘the world’ accumulate ‘experience,’ perhaps work some of the fat off your style—then, at some point, quit cold, say goodbye to journalism, move into a shack somewhere, work night and day for months and light up the sky with final triumph. The final triumph was known as The Novel,” Wolfe writes. This is how novels were viewed as being above journalism. This created the impression that reporting was a stepping-stone to becoming an author; to making it in the literary world. Interestingly enough, it was that professionalism that encouraged journalists to emerge beyond this kind of hard-hitting journalism, as they could expand into higher literary worlds.  That’s where literary journalism comes in, as well as the debate surrounding it.

The Debate of Literary Journalism

There’s quite a lot of debate on what is literary journalism and if it exists. It doesn’t. Not as its own genre of writing does it exist. It is not its own genre of journalism because its definition is much too broad for that. It’s a style of writing that expands throughout journalism. It can be a journalistic nonfiction novel such as Joan Didion’s non-fiction books (She has written several novels; as well as several memoirs and works of literary journalism).

Furthermore, it can be a one-person profile reading like a novel, as in Barbara Goldsmith’s work.  It can be a nonfiction creative article in the terms of Richard Harding Davis or Stephen Crane. Literary journalism is a style of writing that takes the stylistic readability and audience enthrallment of a novel to give you something with credible real-world substance. One is called a literary journalist not because they write literary journalism but because they write journalism that is stylistically literary.

Hartsock explains that literary journalism is a style all its own. The content is gathered in the same way as typical hard-hitting news with reporting, research, and interviewing. But the story is written in a more artistic style.  

“If narrative literary journalism is permitted to be dismissed based on the professional class of the people who engage in it, then it can be conveniently lumped into a broader category of literary nonfiction. The result is that it can continue to be overlooked and ignored. In effect, one can’t tell the trees from the forest. The danger of course is that this form would continue to be lost in the critical forest.” Literary journalism is not the same as other forms of nonfiction novel-like writing because it is inherently journalistic.

Furthermore, literary journalism is a kind of marriage between novel-writing and journalistic writing. The authors include everything that makes an article credible (the research, reporting, interviewing, editing, fact-checking, objectivity) and combine it with everything that makes a novel fun to read (style, dialogue, scene-setting, literary devices, creativity, descriptions). There are literary devices that enthrall an audience that wasn’t typically used in journalism with the worry of being too artsy or not artsy enough and ending up being tacky, Simile, personification, understatement, irony, dialogue, dialect, anthropomorphism, metaphor, digression. People like stories, stories are enthralling and captivating. That’s why religion teaches morality through stories. That’s the reason children’s books have an overt message behind them. This is the exact reason many novels have messages to them. People like stories and that’s what literary journalism delivers.

This style of journalism began with the adoption of literary devices into journalistic articles, the advancement of professionalism within journalism, and the connection between the journalistic craft and the craft or art of literature. It didn’t change the craft of journalism, but merely added a new opportunity for stylistic choice among already diverse writers. It has a feeling of art to it, which wasn’t how journalism was originally defined. When literary journalism came along, it was contrasted to objective reporting and, for a lack of better phrasing, traditional hard-hitting writing. It wasn’t respected because of that direct comparison.

Literary journalism has been seen as less respectable than ‘typical news’ because it’s stylish. Art isn’t credible. Art is subjective; news is objective, the news is credible. There’s a fine line and many people argue about where literacy journalism sits. That debate creates a shadow of a doubt on literary journalists and their writing.

folded newspapers
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What’s the difference between a fiction novel and a news article?

A fiction novel or even a nonfiction novel mainly creates its content in the mind, from research, life experience and emotions of its writer. The second deals with verifiable facts gathered with precision, fully researched, with sources. Journalists write them to share about the world, to provide information and context for the world around their audience.

Now, what’s the difference between literary journalism and fiction?

The answer is the same as the one above. Wolfe writes, “really stylish reporting was something no one knew how to deal with, since no one was used to thinking of reporting as having an esthetic dimension.”

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