Literary journalism is a form of writing characterized by a particular aesthetic self-consciousness more usually associated with literary creativity than with fact-driven journalism. While conventional descriptions of journalism stress objectivity and clarity, descriptions of literary journalism often focus on qualities more usually associated with literary texts. Literary journalism aims to combine a desire to present information objectively with one to do it stylishly, therefore giving it a different kind of impact to the regular fare of newspapers. Some argue that one of its characteristics is that the quality of its craft means that it will be still read in years to come, whereas much journalism has, and is intended to have, a short shelf life.
As a term, “literary journalism” is both more, and less, than the sum of its parts. The first word of the term implies its proximity to kinds of writing conventionally thought of as literature: chiefly fiction, plays, poetry. Yet at the same time the second word seems to contradict, even rule out, the first. If it is journalism, how can it also be literary? This may be one reason why the term “creative nonfiction” is also increasingly being used as a less burdened and more precise description. Such a synonym does not run the risk, as “literary journalism” does, of implying that such writing must concern itself with the literary in some way.
Other related terms include “new journalism.” This was originally coined in the late nineteenth century to describe developments in newspaper writing within a newly technologized industry, produced for a reading public with different expectations from their daily reading than their predecessors had t was made still more famous by Tom Wolfe’s groundbreaking book The new journalism (1973), which argued for a form of journalism that could be read like a novel. Wolfe cited many novelists who were also celebrated journalists, and was a pioneer in the kind of journalistic writing often cited as an example of the best kind of journalistic practice. Others whose work also crossed over in this way include Stephen Crane, Charles Dickens, and George Orwell.
Uglow (1998) has argued that the term “literary journalism” needs to be considered historically in order to understand its shifting and sometimes conflicted relationship to the larger sphere of cultural production. Certainly, thinking about it in this way allows for a broader consideration of the relation between literary journalism and the public sphere more generally. Literary journalism, some proponents claim, helps to create and sustain debates about a range of subjects in a manner that commands a wide readership and is likely to do so for a long period. It does this by its adherence to the best qualities of both journalistic endeavor, such as truthfulness and objectivity, and literary texts. In short, it reads like the best kind of fiction, but it is not made up. Whether, finally, the term “literary journalism” or “creative nonfiction” is most appropriate, the qualities that characterize it remain the same.
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- Wolfe, T. (1973). The new journalism. New York: Harper and Row.