The Undeclared War between Journalism and Fiction: Journalists as Genre Benders in Literary History

By Pribanic-Smith, Erika J. | Journalism History, April 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Undeclared War between Journalism and Fiction: Journalists as Genre Benders in Literary History


Pribanic-Smith, Erika J., Journalism History


Underwood, Doug. The Undeclared War between Journalism and Fiction: Journalists as Genre Benders in Literary History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 250 pp. $90.

In The Undeclared War between Journalism and Fiction: Journalists as Genre Benders in Literary History, Doug Underwood takes a fascinating look at the blurred lines between fact and fiction in journalism. He focuses primarily on journalists' fictional work based in truth but also addresses entirely factual stories told narratively and creative license taken under the guise of factual journalism.

Although Underwood reveals little new about the subject of literary journalism, he provides a unique interpretation, contending that fictional storytelling can be a more effective way to reveal universal truths and garner the public's attention than the objective presentation of cited facts common in journalistic writing.

Underwood frames the "new" journalism era of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s as a climactic period in the conflict between fact and fiction, but he encompasses two centuries of journalism and narrative writing in his discussion. Underwood demonstrates that eighteenth-century periodical essayists, who were forced to veil their criticisms of government behind parodies and satires to avoid dire consequences, formed a foundation for literary journalism that the hoaxsters and muckrakers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century strengthened.

While examining the history of the craft, Underwood argues that industrialism had a profound impact on journalistic conventions. Mass production of news resulted in an objective ideal and sterilization of the product to appeal to the masses without offending anyone, generating a formulaic, bland writing style that constrained the more literary-minded writers and drove them from the newsroom.

Constraints on journalists and their reactions to them are the focus of the second of four chapters. The first and longest chapter explores the line that has been drawn between journalism and fiction, including the employment of sensationalized writing to bring greater attention to an issue, controversies over the use of literary techniques to relay facts, and the question of whether journalistic literature can be considered "high literature." Underwood concludes that the goal should be "the best possible literary writing based upon a foundation of journalistic research and fact gathering, regardless of where and how the writer may decide to draw the line in distinguishing factual from fictional presentation." He also encourages complete transparency when writers take creative liberties so that the audience is not deceived.

The third chapter offers Ernest Hemingway as an example of a journalist who felt that newsroom conventions stifled his creative abilities and subsequently made a successful transition into fiction writing. …

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