The State of Narrative Nonfiction Writing

Nieman Reports, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

The State of Narrative Nonfiction Writing


On May 6, 2000, the Nieman Foundation and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism convened a panel of journalists to discuss narrative journalism. This event occurred during a two-day conference focused on nonfiction writing that was part of the 2000 Lukas Prize Project Conference. This project honors the work and life of J. Anthony Lukas, who won two Pulitzers, the second for his narrative book "Common Ground," in which he explored the personal and political dynamics of Boston's school desegregation crisis through the lens of three families' experiences.

Robert Vare, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly who teaches a seminar on narrative nonfiction writing at the Nieman Foundation, moderated a panel discussion about narrative writing in books, magazines and newspapers. Participants on the panel included Walter Kirn, contributor to Time and literary editor of GQ, Alma Guillermoprieto, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, Michael Kelly, editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly, and Jack Hart, writing coach for The Oregonian. Edited excerpts from their remarks follow.

Robert Vare: Welcome to the third and final panel of the J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Nonfiction Writers Conference. Our panel will attempt to assess the health and well-being of long-form narrative writing in the worlds of books, magazines and newspapers.

Each member of this panel, I think it's fair to say, is deeply committed to narrative journalism. But each is also fully aware that this most challenging of nonfiction forms is also tremendously difficult to shepherd into print. We'll attempt to explore some of these challenges and also try to raise some key questions: What is the current marketplace for narrative nonfiction writing in books, magazines and newspapers? Is there an audience for narrative? And if so, who is that audience? Who are the writers, and what are the publications, that can be considered standard-bearers of this narrative form? And finally, what is the future of narrative writing? What new directions does narrative writing seem to be taking?

First, let's try to get one troublesome piece of business out of the way as quickly as we can. What do we mean by the term "narrative nonfiction"? And is it the same or different from other terms that are in use, like "literary journalism," or "creative nonfiction," or "extended digressive narrative nonfiction"?

To me these semantic wrestling matches that go on are a complete waste of time. I think what each term suggests is that this is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalism--an attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fiction--constructing a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.

Nabokov, it will come as no surprise, had the most illuminating remarks about narrative. He wrote, "The term `narrative' is often confused with the term `plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not narrative; that's plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that's narrative."

So then, narrative nonfiction bridges those connections between events that have taken place, and imbues them with meaning and emotion. And this is the genre of nonfiction writing that Tony Lukas cared so passionately about and so classically embodied in all of his work--in newspapers, magazines and books.

The current publishing climate for long-form narrative nonfiction, it seems to me, is a decidedly mixed one. To sum up, one of narrative writers' two traditional sources of support, the magazine industry, has been undergoing some unhappy cultural shifts of late. …

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