In his ground-breaking anthology The Literary Journalists (1984), Norman Sims observed that literary journalism "demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show that an author is at work."
The term literary journalism is sometimes used interchangeably with creative nonfiction; more often, however, it is regarded as one type of creative nonfiction.
Highly regarded literary journalists in the U.S. today include John McPhee, Susan Orlean, Tracy Kidder, Jane Kramer, Mark Singer, Joan Didion, and Richard Rhodes. Some notable literary journalists of the past century include Stephen Crane, Jack London, George Orwell, and John Hersey.
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Classic Examples of Literary Journalism:
- "Coney Island at Night," by James Huneker
- "An Experiment in Misery," by Stephen Crane
- "The San Francisco Earthquake," by Jack London
- "The Watercress Girl," by Henry Mayhew
- "Among the shared characteristics of literary journalism are immersion reporting, complicated structures, character development, symbolism, voice, a focus on ordinary people . . ., and accuracy. Literary journalists recognize the need for a consciousness on the page through which the objects in view are filtered.
"A list of characteristics can be an easier way to define literary journalism than a formal definition or a set of rules. Well, there are some rules, but Mark Kramer used the term 'breakable rules' in an anthology we edited. Among those rules, Kramer included:
- Literary journalists immerse themselves in subjects' worlds. . . .". . . Journalism ties itself to the actual, the confirmed, that which is not simply imagined. . . . Literary journalists have adhered to the rules of accuracy--or mostly so--precisely because their work cannot be labeled as journalism if details and characters are imaginary."
- Literary journalists work out implicit covenants about accuracy and candor. . . .
- Literary journalists write mostly about routine events.
- Literary journalists develop meaning by building upon the readers' sequential reactions.
(Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism. Northwestern University Press, 2008)
- "Through dialogue, words, the presentation of the scene, you can turn over the material to the reader. The reader is ninety-some percent of what's creative in creative writing. A writer simply gets things started."
(John McPhee, quoted by Norman Sims in "The Art of Literary Journalism." Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer. Ballantine, 1995)
- "Literary journalism is not fiction--the people are real and the events occurred--nor is it journalism in a traditional sense. There is interpretation, a personal point of view, and (often) experimentation with structure and chronology. Another essential element of literary journalism is its focus. Rather than emphasizing institutions, literary journalism explores the lives of those who are affected by those institutions."
(Jan Whitt, Women in American Journalism: A New History. University of Illinois Press, 2008)
Backgrounds of Literary Journalism
- "[Benjamin] Franklin's Silence Dogood essays marked his entrance into literary journalism. Silence, the persona Franklin adopted, speaks to the form that literary journalism should take--that it should be situated in the ordinary world--even though her background was not typically found in newspaper writing."
(Carla Mulford, "Benjamin Franklin and Transatlantic Literary Journalism." Transatlantic Literary Studies, 1660-1830, ed. by Eve Tavor Bannet and Susan Manning. Cambridge University Press, 2012)
- "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 a few generations earlier."
(Arthur Krystal, "Slang-Whanger." Except When I Write. Oxford University Press, 2011)
- "The phrase 'New Journalism' first appeared in an American context in the 1880s when it was used to describe the blend of sensationalism and crusading journalism--muckraking on behalf of immigrants and the poor--one found in the New York World and other papers. . . .
"Although it was historically unrelated to [Joseph] Pulitzer's New Journalism, the genre of writing that Lincoln Steffens called 'literary journalism' shared many of its goals. As the city editor of the New York Commercial Advertiser in the 1890s, Steffens made literary journalism--artfully told narrative stories about subjects of concern to the masses--into editorial policy, insisting that the basic goals of the artist and the journalist (subjectivity, honesty, empathy) were the same."
(Robert S. Boynton, Introduction to The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. Vintage Books, 2005)