Journalism in the History and Theory of Writing
2006 SAMLA Convention
Charlotte, NC
10-12 November

Leslie Haynsworth
Columbia College


Journalizing the Literary Establishment: Creative Nonfiction and the Influence of Print Journalism on Literary Production

Do not cite without permission of the author.


Print journalism is widely reported to be a profession in crisis these days. Newspaper and magazine readerships and revenues alike are declining, and most expert observes don't expect that to change anytime soon. So it seems anomalous, even ironic, that perhaps the most dynamic field of literary writing at present is the one—creative nonfiction—that limns the intersection between the two (in many respects otherwise discrete) professions of literature and print journalism.

Why, even as the practice of journalism itself is pushed, by public demand for more online news, more celebrity news, less in-depth reporting, ever farther away from the goals it has in common with literary writing, is it a more journalistic approach to literary production that's doing so much at present to renew the public's interest in “serious” literary writing? Creative nonfiction is the “hot,” booming field in academic creative writing programs these days, and it's also increasingly dominating the reading lists of book clubs and of middlebrow and highbrow literary consumers in general.

This paper will propose that even as certain characteristics of journalistic writing—strong storytelling, insightful analysis, etc.—are becoming less evident in print media, these requisites of good journalism are at the same time becoming more manifest, and more highly valued, in creative writing. In other words, even as journalism itself seems to be becoming less traditionally journalistic, literary writing is becoming more so. While creative nonfiction is typically seen as a literary approach to journalism, as journalism under the influence of, or infused by, literature, I'm going to flip that equation around and assert that it's also worthwhile to regard creative nonfiction as a literary art that's being transformed in notable ways by journalism. I'll also consider how a more journalistic approach to writing changes the practice of creative writing and explore some of the reasons why the most journalistic kind of creative writing is also the biggest growth industry in creative writing, even as traditional journalism is in decline.

There are many factors contributing to the decline of traditional print journalism, but the most obvious one is a shrinking audience: people consume less hard news than they used to, and they seem to consume less and less of it with each passing year. As Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Michael Currie Schaffer put it in a May 22, 2006 New York Times business section column about the uncertain fate of print media, “Something happened to our generation where we were not raised to do something our parents did every day. I have friends here who are smart people, who are very well informed, but they don't feel a need to get a paper.” As a result, says Times media-business columnist David Carr, who authored the column that quotes Schaffer, few in the newspaper business take future employment in the field for granted. “A year ago,” Carr notes, “I was talking on the phone to the editor of a major newspaper … [and] we had The Conversation, the one about the large boulder that seems to be tumbling through the newspaper business. ‘How old are you?' he asked. Forty-nine, I told him. ‘Me too. Do you think we outrun this thing?' I said I thought so. But I wonder if it will be the same for my [32-year-old] friend Michael Schaffer.” While few people would go so far as to predict that print journalism will cease to exist altogether, most do view it as being poised on a long downhill slope.

Nonfiction, on the other hand, is a literary genre that's very much in the ascendancy. An August 13 article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune asks, “What's that book next to you on the beach towel …? Chances are it's a memoir, biography or political screed by someone who thinks the way you do. It used to be assumed that ‘beach read' meant novel, but not anymore. Fiction may not be dying, but it's certainly getting sand kicked in its face by the truth. Nonfiction, once relegated to the ‘good for you, like oatmeal' shelf, has become the kind of fare readers choose for enjoyment.” The Star-Trib advances a couple of different explanations for this trend. The article cites novelist/essayist Charles Baxter, who proposes that “Americans are pragmatic. They like the sense that something actually happened,” and Barnes & Noble marketing executive Bob Wientrak, who traces the public's growing interest in nonfiction back to the acrimonious 2000 presidential election. Finally, the article suggests, “In a modern climate that seems to value speed, convenience and prepackaged thrills over mental meandering, perhaps it's not surprising that reality more easily trumps make-believe.” Whatever the reason, Wientrak notes that “Nonfiction has been trending up for the past several years,” and Daisy Maryles, Executive Editor of Publishers Weekly, says that in 2005, “truth was stronger than fiction.”

So book-length nonfiction is thriving, while the market for print journalism continues to shrink. What's puzzling about that is that the very qualities that seem to make nonfiction so appealing—its ability to help us make sense of confusing or troubling times, its appeal to those who lead busy modern lives, and above all its inherent truthfulness, its promise to tell stories that really did happen—are also qualities—in fact, core qualities—of print journalism. If busy people are willing, in increasing numbers, to sit down and digest whole books about current affairs, why are they less and less willing in the aggregate to sit down for half an hour each morning with the daily newspaper?

Partly, of course, because we're talking about audiences of different sizes. As evidence for the extent to which nonfiction outsold fiction last year, PW 's Maryles notes that “The top nine bestsellers in nonfiction last year each sold more than a million copies.” A million copies is a lot for any book, but even with declining circulations, the Newspaper Association of America says that in 2006 more than 140 million Americans read a Sunday newspaper. Even as nonfiction book sales and newspaper sales are trending in different directions, a lot more people are still reading the Sunday New York Times each week than are reading almost any given nonfiction book in a given year. So in all likelihood, the interests and concerns that are driving more people to buy and read nonfiction are also still also driving many people to pick up their daily newspaper.

But still … if readers are buying more books for all of these reasons, why are they at the same time buying fewer newspapers? One reason, the one most often cited by anxious newspaper executives, is that newspapers are competing with new platforms for news delivery, especially the Internet. Newspaper readership demographics are telling in this respect: while about three fourths of all adults over 55 read a Sunday newspaper, less than half of adults age 18-34 do. Younger news consumers are more likely to turn to online news outlets, where a typical hard news story is likely to be both more up-to-date and shorter (ergo, quicker to read) than it would be in print.

Depending on the specific source, online news stories may also be something else that traditional print journalism is never supposed to be: subjective—which is to say, either written from an explicitly partisan point of view or written by a writer who makes his or her presence felt in the story in some other way, perhaps by reflecting on how the story will impact his or her own life. A capacity for subjectivity and partisanship is also a significant factor that has contributed to the rising appeal of news-related blogs, which vary widely in the extent to which they adhere to journalistic standards, but which typically report the news with a kind of passion, even an emotional intensity that's by definition missing from print journalism. A blog often develops a following not so much for what it reports but for how it reports it; that is to say, readers turn to blogs to get their news filtered through the perspective of a particular blogger. The reader can then interpret the blog's account of the news based on what he or she knows about the blogger, whose personality, values, politics and feelings are usually clearly on display.

That kind of subjectivity is also a hallmark of creative nonfiction, especially in its current incarnation. Most people trace the origins of the kind of creative nonfiction that's taught in MFA programs today and is revitalizing sales of nonfiction books back to the New Journalism of the 1960s. That makes writers like Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe the pioneers of the genre. And while most of the New Journalists began their careers as traditional journalists, what set their writing apart from that found in the newspapers of their day was its subjectivity, its insistence that a story became much more compelling when narrated from a particular point of view and in a distinctive authorial voice. As Tom Wolfe puts it in his manifesto-cum-introduction to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism , “The idea was to give the full objective description plus something that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for: namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters.” Wolfe's brand of journalism in fact positively reveled in subjectivity, wallowed around in it with a kind of joy and abandon that perhaps only a writer long habituated to and then suddenly liberated from the confines and limitations of objective reporting could feel. Subsequent generations of literary nonfiction writers have tended for the most part to tone the purple prose way down. But the legacy of the New Journalism that almost all of them have retained is a focus on subjective storytelling, which practitioners of the genre plainly recognize as being instrumental to its appeal. As Michael Steinberg remarks in the introduction to a 2006 anthology of essays culled from the highly-regarded literary nonfiction journal Fourth Genre , “The artfully crafted personal essay/memoir is uniquely suited for our times. We say this because today the need to pay attention to the singular, idiosyncratic human voice is perhaps more urgent than ever before. As essayist/editor W. Scott Olsen asserts, ‘As the world becomes more problematic, it is in the little excursions and small observations that we can discover ourselves, that we can make honest connections with others, that we can remind ourselves what it means to belong to one another.'”

So we have three different media—traditional newspapers, online news and weblogs, and nonfiction books and essays—through which people can learn the news and/or gain information and insights which will help them make sense of the world. Each is at least in some ways similar to and in some ways different from the others: print journalism and nonfiction books are alike in being older kinds of media and in being held (at least in theory) to high standards of accuracy. Print and online journalism are alike in delivering news in shorter, more timely doses than books or essays can. And nonfiction books and online journalism are alike in being, or at least in having a great capacity to be, subjective, and in being, in contrast to print journalism, growth industries. The common factor among the two media that are currently thriving, then, is their capacity for subjectivity—which is particularly noteworthy in light of Barnes & Noble exec Bob Wientrak's observation that the intensely partisan aftermath of the 2000 election played a significant role in sparking the popularity of nonfiction.

Again, though, this growing appetite for news that's reported subjectively seems sort of paradoxical given the extent to which the public polices the mainstream media these days for “liberal bias” or “conservative bias.” Why such relentless pressure on traditional news outlets to be objective even as news consumers are abandoning these outlets in favor of more subjective kinds of news delivery? I'd suggest that this is because of a disparity between our needs and our interests: in order for the news media to perform its all-important function of providing us with accurate and unbiased information so that we, as citizens of a democracy can make informed political decisions, we need for there to be news available to us that is reliably objective and comprehensive. But we're just more interested in the subjective stuff, which is often livelier and more fun to read, and which is also more likely to mirror back to us our own beliefs and perspectives. We believe in objectivity as an abstract value. But we prefer subjectivity. We want newspapers to keep doing their jobs the way they always have. But in order to do so, newspapers have to adhere to all the traditional rules of hard news reporting that make their accounts of the news comparatively dry and dull. Books and online news sources, even when they're reporting the same news that's covered in the newspaper, have license to cultivate readers by breaking the rules in all kinds of ways, by getting subjective, by breaking out of the inverted pyramid structure to tell the story from a particularly compelling angle, and by being a lot more creative—flowery, effusive, emotive, what have you—with language than a newspaper journalist can be. My sense, then, is that we as a society don't want newspapers to go away or even to change what they're doing in any significant way. We value them enough to hound them relentlessly when we perceive them to have violated their promise to be factual, objective reporters of the truth. But we're just not as interested in actually reading factual, objective reports of the truth as we are in knowing that such reports are getting written. And these days we have an increasing proliferation of alternatives to them.

I'm suggesting, then, that nonfiction literature and online news sources are stealing readers away from print media because of their ability to offer things to readers that print media's ordained role in society prohibits it from offering. But I'd also like to suggest that, at least in the case of nonfiction literature, this poaching on journalism's territory also allows journalism to have a transformative effect on the encroaching genre. In the literary world—from bookstores to publishing houses to MFA programs—the rising popularity of nonfiction among book readers means that telling the truth, reporting the facts, and helping people to understand and make sense of the world around them—all traditional journalistic goals—have also of late become more central to our understanding of what good literature is supposed to accomplish. If traditional journalism seems underappreciated within its own realm, I'd propose that its values and practices are nevertheless exerting increasing influence over the shape of literary writing.

That journalism can and will transform the practice of literary writing is in fact convincingly asserted by Tom Wolfe in his introduction to The New Journalism. While we tend to think of the New Journalists as journalists who broke with their profession by adopting more literary writing practices—as, that is, journalists who morphed into creative writers—Wolfe himself is at pains here to point out that it's really the journalist in each New Journalist that makes his or her work so compelling. Above all, Wolfe insists, it was the journalistic perspective the New Journalists brought to their literary writing that put them on the literary map. For literary writers, Wolfe says, “the crucial part that reporting plays in storytelling … is something that is not so much ignored as simply not comprehended. The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one in which the artist is viewed as a holy beast who in some way … receives flashes from the godhead, which is known as creativity. The material is merely his clay, his palette …. It took the New Journalism to bring this strange matter of reporting to the foreground.” And it's reporting—gathering the facts, telling the truth—that sets nonfiction apart from other forms of creative writing and also accounts for its growing popularity. Indeed, Robert Boynton, in his introduction to a 2005 anthology called The New New Journalists , says that today's literary nonfiction is particularly grounded in the muckraking, investigative-reporting tradition of late-19 th and early 20 th -century journalism. Reporters like Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens and Stephen Crane, Boynton says, held much the same goals and values that practitioners of creative nonfiction do today. But, Boynton notes, “By the first decades of the 20 th century, the growing belief that newspapers should strive for objectivity left little room for literary journalism on their pages.” Thus, he asserts, it's those working in the realm of literary nonfiction who are today best equipped to address the issues that were once tackled most directly in the journalistic sphere: “How does a fast-growing society of immigrants construct a national identity? How does a country built by capitalism consider questions of social justice? …. We are currently experiencing,” Boynton notes, “the fascination with ‘true stories'—news from the world—that is common during times of great unrest or turmoil …. ‘Americans are lucky enough to be living in a place which, in relative terms, is breathtakingly important,' says Michael Lewis. ‘The stories we have to tell about life in America have a universal appeal that stories from no other place have.'” Those stories are being told by literary writers using literary techniques and a manifestly subjective voice. But they're also being told, at least in many cases, with journalistic rigor and a journalistic commitment to digging relentlessly for the truth. In that sense, creative nonfiction as it's being practiced today is at least as indebted to journalism as it is to literary tradition. And as the genre's popularity continues to rise, so to does the influence of journalistic writing and journalistic values on the field of literary production.