A shot across the bowels

“The argument needs to be put forcefully: reportage is the norm (and the normal) globally, new journalism is a transgression,” Beate Josephi said in her paper on comparing criteria on literary journalism across countries. Josephi took issue with using one country’s experience and types of nonfiction as the norm and said that, for example, those studying literary journalism had concluded, by using the reference point of the journalism of the US, that there was no such practice in Germany, which, she said, had a rich tradition of eyewitness journalism called reportage.Josephi considers reportage to be the mother and American new journalism, or even literary journalism (which has a much longer life, as Norman Sims pointed out), a sub category. Josephi was speaking after Brian Gabrial had presented some quantitative research on the reading lists prescribed for literary journalism courses. Of the 13 courses he looked at (eight in the US, three in Canada, one in Belgium and one in Brazil) he found the following:

  • in total there were 465 individual titles, 180 long form/collected and 285 individual, representing 191 authors,
  • of the 465 entries only 22 authors appeared more than 5 times, and
  • Gay Talese appeared 21 times (with “Frank Sinatra has a cold the most cited individual piece of writing), Joan Didion 19, Tom Wolf 17, Lilian Ross 14, Susan Orlean 13 and Hunter S Thompson 12.

This is, of course, a very tiny sample of courses taught around the world in universities, but the discussion that unfolded shows that many courses heavily depend on the American canon of writing, criticism and commentary. The categories and definitions too come from the US, with scholars in other countries searching, often in vain, for ‘literary journalism’ in contexts where that definition, and examples that fit that definition, cannot be found.

But wait, as the sessions at the IALJS go on, one discovers a host of writers and texts to jot down and add to one’s courses and the names used to describe this host of practices are as varied as the places they come from:

  • grand reportage in France (“grand”, according to Isabelle Meuret, “because writers, novellists and poets are interested in it”)
  • “reportage” in Spain, Portugal, Germany and Sweden
  • “creative nonfiction” in the UK
  • “documentary fiction or expression” (of the early African American writers)
  • “new literature”, according to Ryszard Kapuscynski
  • “committed reportage”
  • “chronicle”
  • “essay”
  • “documentary fiction” (of writers like Richard Wright)
  •  “ecriture verite”, of the women war writers
  •  “feuilletonism” (chatty, opinionated, impressionistic writing coined by Antero Pietila and Stacy Spaulding for the first African American war correspondents), and
  •  in a new course in Australia, “imagining the real”

It seems that the big divide between the North American and continental versions of this form of writing has to do with the degree of fact and fictionalising techniques used. As Roberto Herrscher, from Barcelona, said: “Reportage tells truth to power through literary means.” It is very important for some writers to keep their writing strongly connected to its journalistic roots and primarily fact-based, otherwise this power gets diluted. For these writers observation and eyewitness experience are crucial, and non-negotiable, to the writer/reporter’s position and the credibility of the work.

Josephi’s talk was something of a challenge to the IALJS as constituted because as John S Bak said in response, the field had to be demarcated somehow in order to make confererring and an association possible. But an important question has to be asked as the IALJS draws people from all over the world to think and talk together: why should the American definition, canon and critical position dominate the discussion? And more importantly, why hold onto to it when it makes young scholars working in this field think their local expressions of this kind of writing, show up as deficient in relation to the American brand of ‘literary journalism’.

The field is wide, rich, deep and complex, that’s powerful cause for celebration and should yield fascinating new insights which should start to show the strands that connect across national boundaries and also show influence and effects, so that we can get beyond the simple comparative discussion across countries and into a much larger idea of how this form with its multiple variations works and why it continues to have power.

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