This week we’re celebrating the things that make literary journalism different from news writing. A focus on felt detail. An embrace of emotion. An acceptance that the decisions made in the writing process make “the truth” subjective. And, finally, a recognition that in both narrative and news, trust is the thing that matters most of all.
Feeling the facts: making the case for the sensory connection in literary journalism. You’ll see at right that I created a word cloud from the ones that repeated and resonated at a recent literary journalism conference I attended in Nova Scotia. Many of the speakers made the case for the use of sensory details, for emotion, in narrative stories. “Facts aren’t enough,” one speaker said. “We need to feel them.” Another said: “The term ‘imagination’ is problematic because of its close association with invention.” But “all stories are a product of imagination. Reason and imagination need each other.”
The soundtrack: “Feeling Good,” by Nina Simone. This is a song I can play on repeat. In fact, I’ve even created a Spotify playlist of the same song five times so I don’t have to hit repeat. The moment those horns come in!
One Great Sentence
“This will happen so fast that one night he will be in the backyard, believing it a perfect place, and by the next night he will have changed and the yard as he imagined it will be gone, and this era of his life will be behind him forever.”
Susan Orlean, “The American Man, Age 10,” Esquire, December 1992. Read why we think it’s great.
Fake news and true facts, and the licenses taken in pursuit of narrative. This is such a thoughtful piece by David Ulin about the impossibility of “just the facts” in journalism, even in the face of the “fake news” refrain. I love this quote: “All journalism,” Michael Rosenwald argued recently in the Columbia Journalism Review, “is a kind of fiction. The writer gets to choose what to put in and what to leave out, shaping the story in different ways than another writer would, even after witnessing the same events. The transaction between the writer and reader consists of an implicit trust that the writer will deliver a reasonable facsimile of people and events.”
The soundtrack: “Fake Empire,” by The National. Wonderful lyric: “Turn the light out, say goodnight/No thinking for a little while/Let’s not try to figure out everything at once/It’s hard to keep track of you falling through the sky/We’re half awake in a fake empire.”
What I’m reading online: I have to start with a story off the news, “The Trump presidency falls apart,” by David Graham in The Atlantic. Whatever your politics, it’s remarkable for its damning day-by-day recitation of the latest revelations involving the Trump administration.
I think Sarah Smersh is doing an incredible job covering class in America. In this piece for Aeon magazine, “Poor teeth,” she looks at the class divide through something very simple: teeth. She writes, “My family’s distress over our teeth – what food might hurt or save them, whether having them pulled was a mistake – reveals the psychological hell of having poor teeth in a rich, capitalist country: the underprivileged are priced out of the dental-treatment system yet perversely held responsible for their dental condition.”
In the same vein, there’s Dear Grammar Police, Your Smug Corrections Aren’t Helping Anyone, by Sarah Bronson for Narratively. She’s definitely right in saying there’s a “language privilege” in this country (witness a president who appears to deliberately misspell things in tweets to appeal to a certain base).
In another vein altogether, The final days of the Ringling Bros. circus, by the Associated Press’ Michelle Smith, is lovely. It offers sweet and sorrowful snapshots of the carnies as they say goodbye to the only life that most of them have known. One of them is sixth-generation circus, and he likes to say his parents fell in love in the air. Sigh.
What’s on my bedside table: “Francophone Literary Journalism,” a special issue of the Literary Journalism Studies journal. I received this before I attended the literary journalism conference. I had no idea that Colette was a journalist in addition to being an author, never mind a journalist dispatched to murder trials. Amélie Chabrier of the Université de Nîmes in France writes, “While the media machine dehumanized the accused and turned them into monsters, Colette applies herself to re-immersing them in a human, almost banal everydayness, pausing at one or other detail, perhaps in an attempt to grasp what led them to commit an extraordinary act.”
What’s on my turntable: Although I spend most of my time listening to music on Spotify, sometimes I want to hear the needle touching down on vinyl. This week’s vinyl: “Greatest Hits,” by Sly & the Family Stone. It feels like summer today in Maine, so I put on my official start of summer soundtrack. It’s hard to pick a favorite from these brilliant songs, but I think I’d pick “I Want to Take You Higher.”
If you want to chat about storytelling (or music), you can reach me at email@example.com. Or you can find me at @karihow on Twitter.