In 2018, Maeve embarked upon a Research Masters at Dublin City University, where she studied Literary Journalism- from the birth of the printing press to the present- and untangled the roots of fact and fiction, hoping to reunite journalists with their right to use any literary device and sharpen her own craft.
If you wish to discover her findings, continue reading…
Sometimes the facts are not enough. Sometimes a formula is not enough. Sometimes what is needed is as much of the human soul- the emotions, the grit, the look of warmth or deceit- a reporter can gather (Alexievich, 2015). In this technological era, where power propels through the hands of those who understand the mass media machine, the public are bombarded with instant information, fake news and commercial campaigns: sometimes they need a true story to be told the old-fashioned way. And by that, I mean with the entire literary arsenal at the journalist’s disposal. Within the last century, the journalistic capacity has been thwarted by the pursuit of the objective ideal and the yearly decline of newspaper circulations (Fegan, 2019). The journalist has been stripped of the fundamental traits that make it possible to communicate the human condition, while the rising levels of news avoidance continue to reveal the lack of trust the public has in the press (Benton, 2019). But it is not the first time journalists have fought to gain the public’s confidence: in fact, I will argue it is in their blood, considering they used to risk spilling their own, just so they could get the truth to society and remind them that they are not alone. It takes more than facts though; more time than the deadline dictated journalism that never leaves the office and hangs over the phone; more emotion and understanding than the illegible statistics we have become.
Literary journalism is a narrative form based on immersive reporting. It focuses on day-to-day events by finding meaning and symbols in the time passing. It applies any literary device- aesthetic descriptions, metaphors, poetic syntax and perspective- to the observations made. It paints portraits of the public as they rise and fall. And relies on the practitioner to record what they heard, smelt, felt, tasted and saw, before asking question after question to gain a thorough understanding of their subject and their life, allowing them to write clearly and with feeling.
During this study of literary journalism, I found the way in which we use our words, or rather, how we take them for granted, to be one of the most interesting factors. For instance, let us consider the word journalism: once we hear it, our minds jump straight to the last headline we saw or the last piece of news we heard because the word’s meaning is set concretely within us; but the idea we have has been shaped by the way we choose to receive our news. Maybe we invest in a newspaper, a newsletter or journal. Maybe we prefer the radio or TV. Maybe we stay online, scrolling through the algorithms and adverts that our ever-watching apps tailor to our search engine needs, clicking and never questioning how easily we stumbled upon such ready and relatable information.
I want to deconstruct a few words- journalist, journalism, novel and literature- before I establish the origins of literary journalism by unravelling the roots of fact and fiction. I will provide examples of the form and its practitioners, prove the journalist’s right to any literary device and illustrate the role commercial interests played in shaping today’s newspapers. Then, I will detail the 13 accompanying stories alongside the methods used in their compilation.
To begin the deconstruction, I want to hark back to the middle of the 17th century, when newspapers and periodicals were first published and the soon to be labelled and professionalised journalist was someone who simply kept a journal, detailing the world around them and making note of the questions they had or had answered for themselves. There were no writerly restrictions put upon them, nor was there an obligation for them to write solely fact or fiction. There was merely space to be filled on blank pages, beside adverts looking for such writers: those who responded later became known as journalists (Underwood, 2008, p.18).
From inception, the journalist and novelist have been entwined, simply because “the formal and fantastic romance, the long-winded involved story, was losing its vogue,” (Lyall, 2008). The journalists and novelists were writers who became interested in capturing the veracity of real life, ensuring the romanticism of the 17th century died. The literary developments they made were not distinguished by their subject, whether true or imaginary: both were focused on capturing the true state of their society.
And I am sure they both kept journals.
It was the excitement stirred by the French Nouvelles (novellas) arriving in England around the same time that inspired the term novel. “Interestingly, in its more archaic definition (dating back to the late fifteenth century), the ‘novel’ was a synonym for ‘news’ or ‘tidings’ and the ‘novelist’ for a ‘newsmonger’ or ‘news carrier’,” (Underwood, 2008, p.20). So, without any difference or guidelines, journalists and novelists began to advance their literariness, while the entangled relationship between fact and fiction continued grow alongside the printing press.
What has remained unchanged is the role of the journalist, which is that of a messenger; whether it is a satirical fable or news from up the road or from afar, the journalist has always been charged with providing useful information that enables the public to make informed decisions on current issues facing them (Bovee, 1999, p.28). If we take heed of this standard and use it as a marker for defining what journalism is, we can decipher what falls within its lines as we delve into the eras when both the journalist and novelist excelled. But what makes a piece of writing literature? What makes it literary?
Technically, it is literary scholars who determine what pieces of writing are classed as art. And this is subjective to each of their tastes. It is also the reason why so few works of literary journalism are considered literature; but this is changing. With more and more research appearing and deconstructing the history of journalism and the novel, it is getting harder and harder for literary scholars to deny the claim journalists have, not only to the novelist’s techniques, but to their legacy (Bak, 2020, pp.165-166).
In What Is Literature? A Definition Based on Prototypes, Jim Meyer claims that literary works are…
-are marked by careful use of language, including features such as creative metaphors, well-turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, alliteration, meter
-are in a literary genre (poetry, prose fiction or drama)
-are read aesthetically
-are intended by the author to be read aesthetically
-contain many weak implicatures (are deliberately somewhat open in interpretation)
-deal with the human condition and experience in some way
Then, Meyer goes on to state that “works in other genres are often considered literature, but again, the terminology used to describe such works—terms like ‘literary non-fiction’—indicate that such texts are not prototypical literary works,” (Meyer, 1997, p.9): thus, painting the problem literary journalism has been plagued with. Despite its ability to check each of the points above, it is does not meet the literary requirements because of its title, which implies the literary world has forgotten where it came from.
Fortunately, the literary journalists have not.
Since the late 20th century, there have been disputes over what term best suits the journalistic form. It has been called literary non-fiction, creative non-fiction, narrative non-fiction, literature of fact, personal journalism and parajournalism; considering the time wasted, surely it is feasible to accept the preferable term, literary journalism, as Norman Sims put it (1984, p.4). Then, it is possible to focus on what it can achieve. And does it not make for a terribly intriguing tale, when you discover the number of novelists who were journalists long before they set their pens to their fiction? And continued to practice the profession during the notable years of their careers?
*To read more, please contact Maeve!