International Literary Journalism in Three Dimensions

Article excerpt

Increasing attention to international literary journalism raises questions about its distinctive qualities. Norman Sims shares an analysis of the form over three dimensions: cultural borders, mental boundaries, and the impenetrable barrier of time.

There's a theory in earthquake prediction that says quakes on the edges of a fault system feed energy into other nearby faults. In international literary journalism, we can see quakes in one place and aftershocks in others.

A classic example was the influence in the 1960s and '70s of the New Journalism in the United States on literary journalism in Canada, a nearby fault system connected by language and culture. Bill Reynolds, who will soon be the next president of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (ialjs), has written about how the Canadian New Journalism of Tom Hedley differed from the variety found in the United States.

The attention to international literary journalism has led to two recent books and the creation of the IALJS.1 These studies show how quakes at the source, generally the United States, have shaken other approaches, but they also demonstrate that alternative approaches have grown up independently. In those discussions, literary journalism means a kind of long-form narrative journalism done with literary ambitions, not journalism about literature.

Typically, literary journalism involves immersion reporting for a year or longer, the active presence of the author in the narrative, and tools long associated only with fiction such as elaborate structures, characterization, and even symbolism, but with the added requirement of accuracy. Literary journalism most often deals with ordinary people rather than celebrities or politicians. Such long-form narratives stand in contrast to the relatively hurried standard forms of journalism. In some eras and in some countries, literary journalism is also known as reportage.2

Journalism in general is the widest-read form of literary production in North American cultures, and that may be true elsewhere. Literary journalism may be the deepest form of journalism and the most rare. It deserves analysis as a lasting literary production.

In what follows, I'd like to look at literary journalism from the perspective of writers who cross borders in three dimensions-cultural borders, mental boundaries, and the time barrier. Experimental border crossing can result in innovation. Readers find differences in literary journalism that originates in Russia, Turkey, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, China, and elsewhere as the form varies from nation to nation. I'd like to broaden the discussion of international literary journalism a bit to approach it from the perspective of writers who cross borders. I'll call it cross-borderland literary journalism to distinguish it from the national forms. For me, the terms international or transnational suggest border crossings not so much by readers as by the journalists themselves.

The first dimension of cross-borderland literary journalism involves what we expect from the term-critical differences encountered in crossing geographical, linguistic, and cultural borders. Geographical borders may be the least important crossing. In fact, international literary journalism may not require crossing geographical borders at all. Language and culture do not always respect lines drawn on a map.

The question of the relationship of language and human thought goes back centuries. In a recent article, Lera Boroditsky, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of the journal Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, wrote: "It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world."3 In another paper, she reported test results showing that in language cultures where the word bridge is a masculine noun, test subjects used words such as "strong," "sturdy," and "towering" to describe bridges. Test subjects from language cultures where bridge is a feminine noun used words such as "beautiful," "elegant," and "slender."4

Can some topics be more elaborately explored in French than in English? The question goes back at least to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language affects how we perceive the world. The thesis is controversial but widely accepted to some degree. In the earthquake systems created by language, we can ask whether or not the fault zones from Portugal to Spain are connected, or from Brazil to the Spanish-speaking cultures of South America.

A Spanish book, The Anatomy of a Moment, by Javier Cercas, deals with a parliamentary crisis in a form that incorporates fiction. Most North American writers would avoid such an approach because works containing fiction rarely achieve the status of literary journalism (Hunter Thompson was an exception here). Perhaps that is one reason that Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez is usually thought of only as a novelist in North America. The Story of the Ship-Wrecked Sailor and his other works of magical realism have few direct parallels in the history of North American literary journalism. García Márquez is considered a journalist and a literary journalist in Colombia.

Arguably, we don't have "international" literary journalism unless a cultural or linguistic border has been crossed. Culture is not always the same distinction as language because people speaking the same language can be of different cultures, such as American southerners and New Englanders. Before we label Canadian and U.S. literary journalism as cross-borderland or international, there should be cultural differences. Whether we agree or disagree about the language hypothesis, the whole point of studying international or transnational literary journalism is to discover the kinds of differences that come from geographical, linguistic, or cultural border crossings.

A second dimension of cross-borderland literary journalism involves such mental borderlands as race, gender, class, and other components of our thought. These overlapping components seem to carry implications beyond cultural or geographical boundaries.

An example of writing across class and racial lines is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which is about the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers. LeBlanc did not cross gender lines, but the class and racial lines are sharply drawn. Examples of writing across racial lines also include William Finnegan, Jonny Steinberg, and Rian Malan in South Africa. Or V. S. Naipaul, a British-educated native of Trinidad and Tobago, writing in A Turn in the South about the South in the United States. (Finnegan and Naipaul also crossed geographical borders, but Steinberg and Malan were writing within their nation.)

My favorite example for this second dimension is Jane Kramer's book The Last Cowboy. Jane Kramer went to Vassar College and earned a master's degree in English at Columbia University. She has divided her time for thirty years between Europe and New York. She writes the "Letter from Europe" pieces for The New Yorker. Highly educated, sophisticated, urbane, probably wealthy, and wonderfully articulate, Kramer has close connections with the literary, feminist, and social elites in both New York and Europe.

In The Last Cowboy, however, she crossed the borders of gender and class that are often hidden in American life. Her subject, whom she called Henry Blanton, was a ranch operator-a cowboy-in the Texas Panhandle. Blanton was emotionally closed off, too uncomfortable to talk with his wife about his difficulties in dealing with a landlord and other problems. The husband and wife, having lived for years on the range in a cabin that didn't have running water or electricity, were in a different class from Kramer. They lived at a great distance from any neighbors and had none of her sophistication, education, wealth, or literary connections.

Yet Henry Blanton opened up to Kramer. He told her stories that his wife hadn't heard, and spoke of the troubles with his landlord that became the dramatic climax of the book.

The Last Cowboy is one of the most remarkable pieces of cross-borderland literary journalism I have ever seen-precisely because Kramer crossed gender and class borders. She provided the essential element, like adding celery root to chicken soup. And yet she never left the United States. When Jane Kramer writes from Europe, she is in no less an international zone than she found in the Texas Panhandle.

The Last Cowboy is one of the most remarkable pieces of cross-borderland literary journalism I have ever seen-precisely because Kramer crossed gender and class borders. She provided the essential element, like adding celery root to chicken soup. And yet she never left the United States. When Jane Kramer writes from Europe, she is in no less an international zone than she found in the Texas Panhandle.

One example is the book And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, by Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson. Their book was a direct time-connected follow-up to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Other examples that stretch across time can be seen in the way the London slums in the 1800s were treated, and the way writers such as Jacob Riis and the Chicago School sociologists looked at the tenement residents in New York or Chicago in the 1890s and in the Progressive era, and then at how the underclass is covered today.

Historical writing done by literary journalists falls within this third dimension. In Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, Michael and Elizabeth Norman tell the story-and it was a story-of the first big campaign of World War II for Americans in the Philippines, which resulted in the largest surrender of U.S. troops ever. The central character, Ben Steele, a Wyoming cowboy, was captured on the Bataan peninsula, kept under horrible conditions as a prisoner of war, forced to work slave labor and sleep outside. Late in the war he was put on ships for transport to Japan. American aircraft bombed and sank his transport ships-twice. He survived and eventually reached Japan, where he was forced to work in a mine. From that location, he was within sight of Hiroshima when the Bomb was dropped. He became a major source and central figure in the story.

In writing that book, the Normans crossed the border of time. Like a lot of literary journalists who cross that border, they were uneasy and had some issues with traditional, academic historians. Michael told me, "I'm not sure what defines the word history. I do know that the classic historians abhor dealing with live bodies. They're really messy. They consider them incredibly unreliable. Our instincts as journalists are the exact opposite. . . . Our first instincts are to head for those warm bodies because we know that's where the passion is and where the literature will come from."5

A grand tradition of narrative in historical writing exists. Historian Keith Windschuttle said, "No one has ever provoked an objection by claiming history is a form of literature."6 John Clive, a Harvard professor of history and literature, focused his work on great literary historians such as Edward Gibbon, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Thomas Carlyle, Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Élie Halévy.7 Yet academic historians frequently have a certain tension with narrative historians and literary journalists.

It all involves crossing the border of time. Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer at The New Yorker, told me of such issues in a recent interview.8 In writing The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, Lemann began at a moment that would amplify the twentieth-century Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North: the invention in 1944 of the mechanical cotton picker. The device effectively ended the sharecropper system that kept black farmers in a feudal arrangement. Many migrated north by routes such as the Illinois Central railroad out of Louisiana and Mississippi and arrived in such northern urban centers as Chicago. The migration peaked in the 1950s and then declined after five or six million people had made the move. Lemann followed his central characters from the Delta town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, to Chicago. Into the story of their families and lives, he blended an analytical narrative of the poverty and race legislation enacted by the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and its impact on notorious Chicago ghetto projects such as Robert Taylor Homes and the Cabrini-Green complex. At the end of the story, some of the migrants returned to Clarksdale, which had been transformed in the intervening years. In addition to time, Lemann's book also crossed the borders of race, gender, and class.

In crossing the dimension of time, Lemann said he encountered special problems that most literary journalists do not see, and things that some historians avoid. In the last sentence of the book, Lemann wrote:

Perhaps I'm displaying a reporter's bias here, but it seemed to me that as rich in information about the black migration and its consequences as the archives and published sources were, the memories of the people involved were even richer.

Many academic historians, he said, are uncomfortable going out and doing interviews, even when rich source material is still available from people who experienced the times and the events. And they have "little interest or no interest in narrative as a form of professional practice."

Having criticized academic historians, Lemann also made some comments about traditional journalists who do history, typically involving famous figures rather than ordinary people.

Many journalists who write history would benefit from a little dose of understanding the academic critique of them, as being something other than pure jealousy or lack of interest in writing. In particular, most journalists who do this kind of presidential biography or military history, they are so into the "great man" theory of history that they don't even know there is [such a theory] or that there's been an argument about it for two hundred years. It is assumed that there are these towering figures and history moves because they move it. They tend to be not very good at context. Academic historians are maybe too much the other way.

Lemann noted that literary journalists, who sometimes hope to encapsulate the whole world in one book, could use that comprehensive sense of topic to do something different. This involves using narrative in crossing the border with time: What was very important to me and continues to be-it's the great cause of my career-is, in a craft sense, How do you combine narrative and analysis and not have them separated? It was very important to me to find a way to deal with those themes without breaking out of the construct that this was a big, sweeping narrative history.

That emphasis on narrative by a literary journalist who often devotes himself to historical topics makes a nice place to stop. Literary journalists always tell stories. All three dimensions of border crossing can play a role in narrative: geography, language, and culture; gender, race, and class; and time. They share a narrative impulse. All these forms of cross-borderland literary journalism depend on narrative, and on a well-told story.

University of Massachusetts Amherst

[Sidebar]

There's a theory in earthquake prediction that says quakes on the edges of a fault system feed energy into other nearby faults. In international literary journalism, we can see quakes in one place and aftershocks in others.

Typically, literary journalism involves immersion reporting for a year or longer, the active presence of the author in the narrative, and tools long associated only with fiction such as elaborate structures, characterization, and even symbolism, but with the added requirement of accuracy.

New and Noteworthy Books

Literary Journalism

John S. Bak & Bill Reynolds, eds., Literary Journalism Across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011)

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Random House, 2012)

Robin Hemley, A Field Guide for Immersion Writing: Memoir, Journalism, and Travel (University of Georgia Press, 2012)

Richard Lance Keeble & John Tulloch, eds., Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination (Peter Lang, 2012)

James Marcus, ed., Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage (Columbia University Press, 2012) [reviewed on page 76]

[Reference]

1 See Literary Journalism across the Globe, ed. John S. Bak & Bill Reynolds (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), and The Journalistic Imagination, ed. Richard Keeble & Sharon Wheeler (Routledge, 2007).

2 For more on literary journalism, see Norman Sims, True Stories (2007) and Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century (2008).

3 "Lost in Translation," Wall Street Journal, July 24, 2010.

4 Robert Krulwich, "Shakespeare Had Roses All Wrong" NPR, April 6, 2009. See also Lera Boroditsky, "How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?" in What's Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science, ed. Max Brockman (Vintage Books, 2009).

5 Personal interview, November 20, 2009.

6 Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History; How a Discipline Is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists (Macleay Press, 1994), 227.

7 See Norman Sims, "The Personal and the Historical: Literary Journalism and Literary History," in Global Literary Journalism: Exploring the Journalistic Imagination, ed. Richard Keeble & John Tulloch (Peter Lang, forthcoming 2012).

8 Personal interview, January 12, 2011.

[Author Affiliation]

Norman Sims is an honors professor in Commonwealth Honors College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is the author of True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism and editor of Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century. He has also edited two anthologies: The Literary Journalists and Literary Journalism (co-edited with Mark Kramer).