International Literary Journalism in Three Dimensions

By Sims, Norman | World Literature Today, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

International Literary Journalism in Three Dimensions


Sims, Norman, World Literature Today


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. …

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