The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism

Article excerpt

Kerrane, Kevin and Ben Yagoda, eds. The Art of Fact A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism. New York: Scribner, 1997. 558 pp. $35.

Those who know and appreciate writing that combines keen powers of observation, well-developed factgathering skills, and sophisticated literary ability-what we tend to call literary journalism-will greatly appreciate this collection. At last, they will say, here in one place is a volume that illustrates the existence and richness of literary journalism over time. And they would be right.

But those who want an introduction to literary journalism, who want a taste of the many writers and various styles that fall under this ill-defined, much maligned, frequently misunderstood hybrid also will appreciate this collection. Rather than having to search out a dizzying array of books and articles to get a handle on writing that Yagoda describes as "making facts dance," they can get it in one place.

Both groups, veteran and rookie, also will see that the subtitle, "A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism," is somewhat of a misnomer. Although readers get twelve selections from ten writers that the editors call "Pioneers," the other forty-six writers published their fifty-eight selections in the twentieth-century. Nevertheless, because most literary journalism collections feature writing from the past thirty years, this book still provides significant historical range with a representative selection of writers.

Most of the writers are American, although a number of British writers are included, such as Daniel Defoe, James Boswell, James Dickens, and George Orwell. In addition to the first section, "Pioneers," the selections are grouped under three headings: "Telling Tales," "The Reporter Takes the Stage," and "Style as Substance."

Of course, familiar names are plentiful, including (in the order in which they appear in the book): Stephen Crane, Richard Harding Davis, Jack London, John Hersey, Lillian Ross, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Tracy Kidder, Bob Greene, A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Ben Hecht, James Agee, Joe Mitchell, John Steinbeck, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, John McPhee, and Michael Herr. But writers less familiar and not commonly mentioned as literary journalists also appear. Among them are Morris Markey, Walter Bernstein, Sylvester Monroe, Gary Smith, Marvel Cooke, Al Stump, Bill Buford, Rosemary Mahoney, Dennis Covington, Martha Gellhorn, David Simon, and Svetlana Alexiyevich.

Some of the selections are borderline literary journalism but obviously are favorites of the editors. Those who have taught or studied literary journalism no doubt will have at least ten other writers they wish were included in the collection. Or they may cringe over writers who were included. Of course, that is going to happen with any anthology but especially with an anthology of literary journalism, an unsatisfactory term whose definition tends to bend and shift, always leaving considerable room for judgment in identifying representative writers and writing. For instance, a recent Dictionary of Literary Biography volume, American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995, contains twenty writers who are not included in the Kerrane-Yagoda collection. …