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John Hartsock on the lasting power of narrative journalism

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John Hartsock long ago got out of the rough and tumble of daily newspaper journalism and has spent the greater part of his life as a scholar at the State University of New York at Cortland, studying, thinking and writing about literary journalism. He's written one of the most comprehensive histories of American literary journalism, in which he argues that the writing form did not start, as many think, with Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," but has roots back in the 19th century among writers such as Stephen Crane and Lafcadio Hearn.

I asked Hartsock (who is a friend) recently what he thought of literary or narrative journalism and newspapers in an era of shrinking budgets, shrinking space, shorter stories, fewer ads and the feeling that readers are too time-crunched to sit down and read a long and deep narrative story at their leisure.

John: "What I find most troubling is that narrative isn’t published more by newspapers, especially now when they face such profound challenges.

In 2000, a survey of 37,000 newspaper readers across the country, conducted by the Readership Institute at Northwestern University, identified writing that incorporated narrative as more accessible than the traditional “hard news” or inverted pyramid model—the simple who-what-when-where-how-and-why model that was the standard in newspapers during much of the last century.

To that I would add complex features that explore highly complex policies and issues written abstractly. As the report notes: “Papers that incorporate a narrative writing style in their coverage of a wide variety of topics—not just traditional features content—are seen as easier to read.”

Despite the findings, I think there is still a lot of resistance to publication of narrative.

Brigid: Why?

John: Part of the reason may be that the findings in themselves don’t explain why narrative is “easier” to read. What we do know is that it is more cognitively accessible. This is because it involves a kind of reading that engages readers more and engagement doesn’t necessarily make it easier—although it does make the material more interesting.

There are a couple of reasons, at least, why it is more engaging. First, our minds inquire into the world around us by naturally telling stories. It’s the way the human mind is set up, according to, among others, the scientist E.O. Wilson. It’s fairly simple: You face some kind of problem or complication, you go through several phases of exploring it or engaging with it, and then you come to some kind of answer or resolution—although not necessarily a happy ending. And that’s a story.

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The second and related reason is that it is inherent to the nature of narrative to draw readers in, to give them a sense of participation. They, too, must consider the complication, be intrigued by it, and then take the journey through those exploratory phases. The readers become, in a sense, vicarious participants.

But something else happens as part of that imaginative participation that’s even more important: In becoming participants, they are empowered to have their own perceptions, their own responses. Ultimately, what you have is personal empowerment or self-efficacy. You’re personally invested in the story.

That’s not the case with the old models which tended to dictate to readers.

Brigid: What do you mean?

John: The old models had a tendency to deny questioning on the part of the reader. And in complex issues and policy stories, part of the problem is the level of abstraction—of abstract language. It’s no wonder I find many of my college students saying they find newspapers boring. I have a lot of respect for those old models. I used to practice them. But they are cognitively alienating, dis-inviting many readers from imaginative participation. The highly educated have no difficulty with them. But how about those who have had fewer educational opportunities--the "teeming masses"? Catering only to the highly educated is a kind of elitism. No wonder newspapers are losing readers.

When I share with my students narrative journalism that is about “real life” (I’m cribbing here from Tom Wolfe), they usually find it eye opening, as opposed to highly abstract news stories where an abstract Congressional committee discusses abstract legislation to lift an abstract cap on abstract federal spending.

Brigid: What are some historical examples of that engaging, participatory narrative writing?

John: Stephen Crane, who is probably most famous as the author of "The Red Badge of Courage," was a wonderful narrative journalist back in 1890s New York. And he understood the problem inherent to conventional models of journalism.

During the Spanish-American War, which he covered in Cuba for the New York World, he observed that career soldiers often failed to receive the kind of media attention prominent members of society had (was he thinking of Teddy Roosevelt?):

The name of the regular soldier is probably Michael Nolan and his life-sized portrait was not in the papers in celebration of his enlistment . . . . If some good Spaniard shoots him through he will achieve a temporary notoriety, figuring in the lists for one brief moment in which he will appear to the casual reader mainly as part of a total, a unit in the interesting sum of men slain.

That’s what narrative journalism attempts to do, help us understand the human viscerality of Michael Nolan. Call it human interest. But it’s something we can all relate to as human beings.

It speaks to one of the important historic functions of newspapers—to educate the teeming masses, not Beltway insiders.

Brigid: Tell me about what you're doing now.

John: I'm editing a journal called Literary Journalism Studies, which is dedicated to scholarly research about the subject. It is the official journal of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.

Because we try very hard to be an international journal, we also publish from time to time narrative/literary journalism from other countries that might not otherwise receive international distribution. For example, in our next issue, due out in April, I plan (assuming copyright permissions come through) to publish a Dutch piece and a Finnish piece (translated into English of course). Both, incidentally, appeared in newspapers!

What's interesting is that they are a bit gonzo - a little over the top. But gonzo, it seems, has a presence in stodgy old Europe.

Brigid: Is that a surprise?

John: There's a mistaken notion that somehow only Americans do narr/lit j (although, it’s true that Americans have undoubtedly done the most research on it, followed, in what may be a bit of a surprise, the Chinese, because China has something of a tradition, too).

People in other countries have been doing this stuff for a while. In Western Europe, it’s called “literary reportage,” “reportage literature,” or simply “reportage.” In Russian, it’s ocherk, which means simply essay. In Chinese, it’s baogao wenxue, which translates as “reportage literature.”

Brigid: Who are your favorite literary journalists?

John: Perhaps my favorite all-time writer, if I had to pick one—and I really don’t want to—would be Joan Didion because of her razor-sharp irony and her mastery of understatement—or as the poet Keats might have said, she “teases us out of thought.” This, of course, is her 1960s and 1970s stuff—the “New Journalism."

I tend to focus on book-length narrative. Two of my recent favorites are Daniel Bergner’s In the Land of Magic Soldiers, about the civil war in Sierra Leone, and Linda Grant’s People on the Street, her account of contemporary Israeli society.

Other recent favorites are Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta (WOW!), Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, and The Sewing Circles of Herat by Christina Lamb.

For a more domestic focus, I’ve enjoyed The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller, Methland by Nick Reding, and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. And then for something of a "transnational" focus (like it or not we really are going "global") there is Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains and Michael and Elizabeth Norman’s Tears in the Darkness.

Brigid: Who in your opinion is doing some of the most interesting narrative journalism today?

John: There don’t seem to me to be a lot of standouts who come back time and again with new works.

There is of course the perennial Tracy Kidder. Ted Conover is another. John McPhee. William Langewiesche. Lawrence Weschler. For a while there was Jon Krakauer, but I haven’t heard much of him lately. Same with Susan Orlean.

A stand out among newspaper journalists is Lane DeGregory. She told me last year that while she’s writing this stuff she’s still doing her regular beat reporting, which I find remarkable. And the St. Petersburg Times has long pushed this stuff. Same with the Portland Oregonian, although I don’t know how it has fared since editor Jack Hart retired, and he was the moving force there.

Incidentally, for a good book on how different writers of narrative j go about their research and writing, I would recommend Rob Boynton’s The New New Journalism (2005). In it he interviews 19 authors—like Conover, Langewiesche, and Weschler on how they do it. Rob is the director of the recently created graduate program in “literary reportage”at New York University.

Brigid:Which books do you use in your classes?

John: In my teaching, because I’m often introducing students to this kind of writing for the first time, we do old standards like John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, among others. The students are always startled when they read these, and hungry to read more, no small accomplishment with today’s young people. I think it’s all because it’s about, as Tom Wolfe said, “real life.”

Among more contemporary, the kids love Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. Inspiring. For an anthology that has a good sweep—in terms of variety and history—there is The Art of Fact by Kerrane and Yagoda.

Brigid: Where do you go to look for narrative writing?

John: For articles from newspapers and magazines, there is a good source in the Nieman Narrative Digest, which is sponsored by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. Publications, and often the authors, make the contributions, so it’s voluntary. But it’s as good as you’ll get.

For specific magazines, there are the usual suspects, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and sometimes Harpers. I haven’t seen it in a while, but the British journal Granta was and I believe still is a major venue for this writing in the UK. In the 1980s and early 1990s they ruled, in my view.

My colleague Norman Sims at the University of Massachusetts, who’s kind of my elder statesman of the scholarship (he introduced me to it), reminded me about Esquire and GQ. Another colleague, David Abrahamson at the Medill School of Journalism who is the president of the International Association for Literary Journalism, said there appeared to be some good narrative journalism on a website called Narrative. Sometimes a site called Words Without Borders publishes narrative journalism. Salon has, too.

Brigid: Now that you're in the rarified scholarly realm, do you ever think back on the years feeding the beast as a daily journalist?

John: Was thinking of the idea of gonzo, and wondering how we ever got anything done with some degree of sobriety when we were young.

By Brigid Schulte  | April 23, 2010; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  | Tags:  In Cold Blood, Journalism, Lafcadio Hearn, Stephen Crane, john hartsock, literary journalism, narrative journalism  
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