Defining International Literary Journalism: Case Studies from South Africa, the U.S., and China

By Victoria R. Sgarro
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 1/3 |

The simplistic history of modern journalism commonly disseminated in western classrooms describes literary journalism and its manifestations around the world as traceable back to a single Anglo-American tradition — specifically, the American “New Journalism” made popular by Tom Wolfe and his contemporaries in the 1970s. In actuality, contemporary journalism—and by extension contemporary literary journalism—has roots that are far more widespread than this theory suggests.

Defining Literary Journalism

On the other hand, John S. Bak, founding President of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, more appropriately descibes the “the history of ‘journalism’ [as having] many strands” (Bak and Reynolds, p. 3).

To understand Bak’s analogy of the “many strands” of literary journalism, take the case of American and English journalistic histories, for example. Bak (2011) explains these nations’ historical “strands:”

Since journalism in America and in Europe evolved from different traditions, it is only natural that their literary journalism should have done so as well. But the picture of a U.S.-led literary journalism and a European-produced literary reportage is not as clearly demarcated as one would think or hope. (p. 11)

Bak believes that the strand of American literary journalism and the strand of European literary reportage are neither entirely separate (despite having separate journalistic origins) nor entirely similar (though their journalistic products are alike). Moreover, English literary reportage eventually evolved in two divergent directions: continuing its original course of literary reportage on the one hand, and transforming into literary journalism on the other.

Whereas the United Kingdom’s strand of literary journalism thrived “because the foreign environment nourished it along,” its strand of literary reportage “withered and nearly dried up” (Bak & Reynolds, 2011, p. 8). Therefore, the differing fates of America’s and the UK’s journalistic traditions illustrate Bak’s point that strands of literary journalism can interact across cultures to become at once increasingly similar and increasingly different — while still remaining examples of the same overarching “literary journalism.”

In the same way that America and the UK have their own literary journalism found among their differing journalistic traditions and histories, strands of literary journalism have appeared in different journalistic cultures throughout the world. Rather than being universal derivatives of the New Journalism strand of literary journalism, these strands of literary journalism existed before, progressed alongside or materialized after New Journalism appeared in the United States. Thus, the relationship between these different traditions of literary journalism throughout the world is a non-linear one. Instead, different cultures of literary journalism have experienced transnational and cross-cultural exchange throughout the lifetime of literary journalism.

The existing strands of literary journalism, as well as their similarities and differences, are the result of this cross-cultural process — “a process of cross-cultural pollination,” as Bak (2011) describes it (p.14). Bak (2011) continues, “Just when it appears that the authorities have succeeded in trampling it out of existence in one culture, it goes underground, metamorphoses, and takes root in another” (p. 17). Therefore, the international cultures of literary journalism are “not as clearly demarcated as one would think or hope” (to return to the American-English example) (Bak & Reynolds, 2011, p. 17).

Recognizing that different “strands” of literary journalism exist, the relevant question becomes: How does one relate these strands of literary journalism in a way that allows a comprehensive definition of “literary journalism” as a whole? Answering this question is a difficult task to face. Bak (2011) concedes, “Arguably, what brings international forms of literary journalism closer together remains more on the theoretical than on the pragmatic level for now” (p. 10).

Literary Journalism as a Discipline

A major barrier to merging these different strands into one inclusive definition of “literary journalism” is identifying the scope of this definition. Is literary journalism a form, a genre, or even a field? Is it a subcategory of literature? Of journalism or nonfiction? Or rather does literary journalism occupy a space somewhere in between fiction and journalism? How broad or narrow a portion of all writing disciplines should this definition encompass?

In the introduction to their 2012 anthology, Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination, Keeble and Tulloch acknowledge the difficulty of determining what practices of writing to include in a comprehensive definition of “literary journalism:”

On a value-free level, we might argue that, rather than a stable genre or family of genres, literary journalism defines a field where different traditions and practices of writing intersect, a disputed terrain within which various overlapping practices of writing…camp uneasily, disputing their neighbors’ barricades and patching up temporary alliances. (p. 7)

Keeble and Tulloch’s struggle with this “disputed terrain” reveals the danger in leaving the range of writing practices categorized as “literary journalism” undefined. They warn that if left untouched or uncontrolled, this range can seem impossibly infinite: “Indeed, it is tempting to see all journalism as ‘literary’” (Keeble & Tulloch, 2012, p. 4). Therefore, for the purpose of analyzing the world’s literary journalism, it is necessary to define the scope of this form.

To define this terrain, Keeble and Tulloch (2012) return to Bak’s formative introductory essay: “Maybe we should simply follow John S. Bak” (p. 7). When defining the range of literary journalism, Bak (2011) discounts the prominent literary journalism theorists who came before him: “[We] should stop referring to literary journalism as a genre (Wolfe, Connery), or even as a form (Sims and Hartsock)” (p. 18). Instead, he argues that theorists should “start calling [literary journalism] what it is: a discipline” (Bak & Reynolds, 2011, p. 18). Bak (2011) makes the compelling case that classifying literary journalism as a discipline yields the benefit of producing a definition “elastic enough to account for its cultural variances” (p. 10). Bak’s reasoning is convincing enough to win over Keeble and Tulloch.

Reaching a Definition: Characteristics of the Discipline

Once “literary journalism” is regarded as broadly as “a discipline,” it is then necessary to define the characteristics that qualify a work to be placed within its realm. New Journalism provides an adequate starting point for this discussion because theories of New Journalism predate and consequently are more defined than theories of international literary journalism. New Journalism, popularized in the 1960s and 1970s, employs the basic techniques derived by Tom Wolfe in his 1973 collection, The New Journalism. Simply put, these techniques are as follows: “scene-by-scene construction, use of dialogue, point of view and details” (Keeble & Tulloch, 2012, p. 16).

Bak (2011) argues that theorists should not consider these New Journalism techniques as “the Ten Commandments of literary journalism and hold up the world’s production of the form in comparison” (p. 18). Instead, Bak (2011) contends:

If anything, we should pit international literary journalists against Wolfe’s manifesto at times, if only to demonstrate that a European, African or Asian literary journalism is not like an American literary journalism but that it nonetheless advances our understanding and appreciation of the form. (p. 18)

Therefore, understanding New Journalism only touches the surface of understanding literary journalism as a discipline.

From Wolfe’s and Johnson’s defining essay on New Journalism, it is worth turning to Literary Journalism, the formative 1995 collection edited by Kramer and Sims. Keeble and Tulloch (2012) summarize the defining traits of literary journalism in Kramer’s words:

[L]iterary journalists ‘immerse’ themselves; create unspoken trust in readers about accuracy by not, for example, reorganizing the chronology of events or inventing quotes …, use ‘informal language [and] elegant, simple expression’ … With sources they aspire to be as honest as possible about their intentions and attempt to ‘do no harm’ …The concept of ‘voice’ is central to his account as the means by which the writer represents him or herself to the reader. (p. 5)

Therefore, while some overlap does exist between Kramer’s definition of “literary journalism” and Wolfe’s definition of “New Journalism,” they are by no means the same discipline.

Most important to Kramer’s definition, as Keeble and Tulloch (2012) raise in their introduction, is the voice of the writer (also found in Wolfe’s definition of New Journalism):

The defining mark of literary journalism is the personality of the writer, the individual and intimate voice of a whole, candid person…speaking simply in his or her own right. (p. 5)

Keeble and Tulloch’s essay relies on this idea throughout their introduction. In fact, to them the authenticity and accuracy of a piece of literary journalism depends on the authorial voice: “…in truth the claim to authenticity can chiefly be tested by consistency of detail and the character/authority of the narrative voice and the level of confidence it inspires,” and “Accuracy can also be somehow entwined with our sense of the tone and quality of the narrative voice in a piece of journalism” (Keeble & Tulloch, 2012, p. 7 & p. 9).

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