This essay examines literary journalism and expands on the various genre contained within. Historical references are used to discuss the differences between traditional and literary journalism. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, are analysed to consider the different approaches to writing non-fiction novels and the ethical issues that arise.
The main problem in defining literary journalism is the sheer number of descriptive terms used. Anu Nousiainen observes:
“Journalists and scholars haven’t been able to agree even on a name. The form has been called literary journalism, literary nonfiction, nonfiction novel, art journalism, factual fiction, journalistic nonfiction, New journalism, creative nonfiction, literature of fact, journalit and non-imaginative literature” (2012:6).
Reputable academic institutions also disagree. The Nieman Narrative Program prefer the term ‘narrative journalism’ whereas the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) use the term ‘literary journalism’. Mark Kramer finds “the “literary” part self-congratulating and the “journalism” part masking the form’s inventiveness”. Although he concedes the term is “roughly accurate” (1995:1).
Journalism has evolved from the invention of the Gutenberg press to the digital age. Within liberal democratic societies, legislation underpins what may be printed in what is called the free press. Along the way journalists have developed a set of principles to work within. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explain them as elements: “The first among them is that the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (2007:5).
News stories were traditionally loquacious and descriptive narrative. Two inventions contributed towards changes in journalistic writing. Following the invention of the telegraph (1844), it became possible to transmit information by wire across vast distances. News on wars and natural disasters became available in hours rather than the weeks or months it had previously taken. In the early years the telegraph was unreliable so journalists “learned to transmit their information in bursts, with the most important facts first” (DeSilva 2007:117). This was the origin of the ‘inverted pyramid’, which includes the who, what, when, where, why and how material of a story in descending importance, which can be cut from the bottom to fit the space available. A formula still observed in traditional objective journalism.
Photography was first used in war reporting by Roger Fenton during the Crimean War (1854-1856). Phillip Knightley remarks that although the camera does not lie directly, Fenton’s staged photographs “portray a war where everything looks ship-shape and everyone happy. They show well-dressed officers and men eating, drinking, or smoking” (2004:14). The propaganda photographs did not reflect the true situation reported by William Howard Russell, “the sick have not a bed to lie upon? They are landed and thrown into a ricketty house without a chair or table in it” (2004:6).
Literary journalism, in its simplest definition, is a form of writing non-fiction using the narrative techniques and styles usually associated with works of fiction. It should still convey the truthful reporting of news or events with an accurate representation of dialogue. The aim of literary journalism is to communicate characters and a plot written in artistic and creative language in which the reader feels immersed, drawn into the story.
Tom Wolfe describes four main devices used by literary journalists. These are the same devices fiction writers use, summarised as:
- Scene by scene construction
- Third person point of view
- Status life (1996:46).
Literary journalism does not follow the structure conventions of traditional journalism such as the inverted pyramid. Instead, flashbacks, flash-forwards and juxtaposed storylines are often used to convey immediacy and give the narrative a “gripping or absorbing quality” (1996:46). This is often achieved through subjective narrative and an omniscient narrator.
Early literary journalists
Daniel Defoe, better known for his novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders is also considered to be one of the earliest literary journalists for his 1704 work, The Storm (Miller:2011). Following the great storm of November 1703, Defoe wrote to clergymen all over the UK to request they write and submit their true accounts of the storm, the damage caused and the number of casualties. These letters were printed to convey “hereby to the Ages to come the Memory of the dreadfulest and most universal Judgment that ever Almighty Power thought fit to bring upon this Part of the World” (Defoe 2013:9).
By allowing the letters to set the scene, communicate their own dialogue, express the third-person point of view and status details, Defoe allowed “Others speak for themselves, and being writ by Men of Letters, as well as Men of Principles, I have not Arrogance enough to attempt a Correction either of the Sense or Stile; and if I had gone about it, should have injur’d both Author and Reader” (2013:8).
Nousiainen observes that by the late nineteenth century, two styles of journalism had developed:
“The newer of these two attempted to appear neutral in tone, and it is what we
now call objective reporting. The other one had been around much longer: it was this type of subjective journalistic writing that the modern narrative journalism derives from” (2012:15).
Other early literary journalists include George Orwell who wrote Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Rejecting imperialism and the bourgeois lifestyle, Orwell spent time living and working in the slums of Paris and London “in which actual incidents are rearranged into something like fiction” (Woodcock ca 2015).
In the autumn of 1962, Esquire magazine printed a story by Gay Talese on the Boxer, Joe Louis. It caught the attention of Tom Wolfe who was fascinated with the writing style: “The piece didn’t open like an ordinary magazine article at all. It opened with the tone and mood of a short story” (1996:23). Wolfe was fascinated because Talese was normally a more restrained writer for The New York Times.
In 1963, a work colleague of Wolfe’s at The New York Herald Tribune, Jimmy Breslin, wrote “one of the most memorable newspaper columns of all time” (Shedden:2014). Titled It’s an Honor, it tells the story of President John Kennedy’s funeral from the point of view of the gravedigger, Clifton Pollard.
Wolfe’s first experiment with New Journalism, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby was published in Esquire magazine in 1963. Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New York Review of Books, described it as an example of “parajournalism”. Speaking of the new genre, he said the New Journalists had created “a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction” (Beuttler:1984).
Wolfe puzzled over the suggestion that the new style journalism was somehow “illegitimate” before realising that “the sudden arrival of this new style of journalism… had caused a status panic in the literary community” (1996:39). He compared the various literary functions to an eighteenth-century class structure. “The literary upper class were the novelists… the middle class were the ‘men of letters’… the lower class were the journalists” (1996:39). New Journalism was invading the other’s territory, upsetting the established order.
Talese, also strove to breakout, to write “the literature of reality” (cited in Brown 2015:39). Born to Italian immigrant parents, Talese felt like a “factional American”, adding that Italian-Americans were mostly labourers, downtrodden people and “if they were depicted in popular culture at all, it was as gangsters” (cited in Brown 2015:39). Talese was motivated to:
“break through and achieve status in a world dominated by fiction… I wanted to write the great non-fiction work. I wanted to achieve a place for myself… that was worthy of respect and didn’t have to measure up against these foppish f**king fiction writers that got all the glory. That was my private battle: to elevate journalism, because we were the underclass” (cited in Brown 2015:41).
An off-shoot of New Journalism, this was Hunter S Thompson’s self-labeled, subversive writing style. Whereas other writers made their presence invisible, Thompson immersed himself in the world and lives of his subjects and used first person narrative which “made the I story his territory” (Nuttall 2007:136). While writing his first non-fiction novel, Hell’s Angels, Thompson learned of the dangers of immersion and was badly beaten for criticising the gang’s culture.
New New Journalism
This progressive form of literary journalism finds a new generation of contemporary, mainly American writers, using new methods and approaches to experiment with non-fiction in reporting and novels. Robert S. Boynton explains:
“The New New Journalists bring a distinct set of cultural and social concerns to their work. Neither frustrated novelists nor wayward newspaper reporters, they tend to be magazine and book writers who have benefited enormously from both the legitimacy Wolfe’s legacy has brought to literary nonfiction, and from the concurrent displacement of the novel as the most prestigious form of literary expression” (ca. 20051).
Jon Krakauer writes of the experience of climbing Mount Everest in Into Thin Air, an extreme feat by anyone’s standard of immersion towards a subject. Similarly, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spent over ten years consumed with the subjects and their stories of drug use, crime and poverty in the Bronx in her book, Random Family. At times she was so tired that she passed her tape recorder to the subject and left them to “Do whatever you want with it” (Boynton ca. 20052).
Literary journalism in the digital age
New techniques of literary journalism have continued to evolve into the digital age. A Pew Research Center study, identifies the “Millennial generation” referring to those born after 1980:
“The first generation to come of age in the new millennium… They are history’s first “always connected” generation. Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multi-tasking hand-held gadgets almost like a body part” (Taylor and Keeter 2010).
This generation want to be engaged on multimedia platforms and there is much scope for literary journalism. One example of an emerging form is Snow Fall by John Branch. A multimedia feature published on The New York Times webpage in 2012. It includes videos, maps and graphics as well as text to show and tell the story of the Tunnel Creek avalanche. Another form, flash fiction – the new definition for the short-short story has found a niche in non-fiction writing with online magazine Brevity.
Analysis of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Overview and Intention
Both these non-fiction novels give accounts of murders and the legal processes that brought the criminals to justice. Both authors were successful novelists before venturing into the non-fiction genre and both conducted extensive research to recreate their stories. Capote travelled to Kansas to interview everyone who knew the deceased family and interviewed the killers many times over a five-year period leading up to their execution. Mailer never met his subject but wrote his book from tape-recorded interviews and letters as well as visiting Utah for further research material.
Published in 1965, In Cold Blood reconstructs the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter and his family. Following the arrest, trial and conviction of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, Capote’s intention was to understand the impact of the crime on the family and the inhabitants of the close community.
Fourteen years later The Executioner’s Song was published. It chronicles Gary Gilmore’s last nine months following his release from prison in 1976 through the events that led to his execution in Utah in January 1977. Photographer Lawrence Schiller, secured the rights to Gilmore’s story with the intention of making a film, needing a screenwriter, he contacted Mailer.
Structure and Style
Capote’s book consists of four parts which each juxtapose events in parallel timelines between the family or community and the killers as their lives collide with tragic consequences for all. Although all events are recorded in a precise chronological format, biographical and historical information on the two killers is woven into the narrative in part two (Perry) and part three (Hickock). It is a concise book of 336 pages.
Mailer’s two-in-one book however, is an expansive work of 1,050 pages. Book One, ‘Western Voices’ has seven parts, each of which journals Gilmore’s story from different points of view, those of his family, friends and victims. Although each part of this book is in chronological order, the timelines overlap as each part is taken from a different character’s perspective. Book Two, ‘Eastern Voices’ also has seven parts in which the processes of American law are explained alongside the media involvement around Gilmore. This book also explains how the first book came to be written.
Capote’s technique is more effective in leading the reader through the story. In The Last to see Them Alive, long passages of the Clutters last day alternate with shorter passages of Perry and Hickock on their journey West, building suspense towards their inevitable meeting. A single paragraph of Perry and Hickock’s arrival at the Clutter property spells doom: “Dick doused the headlights, slowed down and stopped until his eyes were adjusted to the moon-illuminated night. Presently, the car crept forward” (2000:56). Capote then cuts to the next morning which leaves the reader eager to discover what happened next.
On the other hand, the overlapping timelines used by Mailer are confusing and distracting while the reader tries to work out where one character’s story fits in alongside another. Mailer emulates Capote’s style in part four, The Gas Station and the Motel, interspersing the narrative between Colleen Jensen the morning after her husband was killed and Gilmore and April waking up in the Holiday Inn.
“By 6.30 when Monica awoke in the dawn, Colleen was saying to herself that she was still alive, and her baby was still alive… So she went in and greeted Monica with “Good morning” and picked her up and loved her and gave her a bath and got her ready for the day.
When the light came through the window, April and Gary dressed and he took her home…” (2014: 237-238).
As Capote’s book begins with the last day the Clutter’s were alive, so Mailer’s book starts with the first day of Gilmore’s freedom. This reversal of structure may have been a deliberate move by Mailer to demonstrate that his book was different, not a copy of Capote’s style.
Capote and Mailer both use cinematic and literary devices within their narratives. Descriptive scenes set up the action. Short passages and transitions cut to new scenes. Each uses the devices differently, to their strengths to emphasize the facts and engage the reader.
Both authors use scene by scene construction, blending the information they gathered descriptively into the narrative. Similarly, both authors use the voice of the omniscient narrator to detach themselves from the story. Mailer uses a more colloquial language style which gives the reader more of a sense of ‘being there’. This could have been a deliberate styling decision by Mailer to avoid comparison with Capote’s previous work which uses a more formal, detached style. This may also be explained in that Mailer used tape recorded interviews and was able to incorporate the noticeable regional accents in his narrative. Capote never took notes when interviewing and his narrative misses the vernacular tone which only comes through in passages of dialogue.
Capote uses dialogue sparsely. For example: “Mr. Clutter had just one serious cause for disquiet – his wife’s health. She was ‘nervous’, she suffered ‘little spells’” (2000:4). “Nancy… still managed to ‘practically run that big house’” (2000:16). These give the impression of dialogue, things the Clutters said themselves, when of course they were said by people who knew the Clutters.
Conversely, Mailer uses dialogue extensively within the individual character’s stories. ““Guns?” she said. “Yes,” he said, “guns.” She asked where he got them. “Where do you think? I stole them.” Katherine just said, “Oh.” Right there on the back of her car he started bringing them out for examination…” (2014:181). This technique is successful in carrying the reader along in the story.
Both authors use free indirect speech to give the third person point of view, to allow the reader to experience the feeling of being in the mind of the character. In Capote’s book for example: “In the solitary, comfortless course of his recent driftings, Perry had over and over again reviewed this indictment, and decided it was unjust” (2000:43).
Mailer, likewise, in Nicole’s story, blends her consciousness with his observations: “She hadn’t been thinking in such a way for quite a while. Now that feeling was around her again. She knew what he meant” (2014:73). Mailer’s one exception in use of free indirect speech was Gilmore. The reader hears about him from other characters and his own statements are evident in the interview transcripts but the reader is not given an opportunity to see inside his mind.
Capote describes his character’s status life in great detail but mainly from the point of view of the narrator in rich, colourful language. Mr. Clutter is observed getting dressed in “whipcord trousers, a cattleman’s jacket, and soft stirrup boots…” (2000:6). Mr. Clutter’s achievements are listed as: “Framed documents commemorating milestones in his career gleamed against the walnut walls of his office…” (2000:45).
In contrast the language Mailer uses is plain and understated: “For a young Mormon couple, they lived well. They had steaks in the freezer and loved to go out and get pizzas” (2014:329). Mailer also conveys status life more effectively through dialogue: ““Daddy bought me a new typewriter today.” Ava told Bessie…” (2014:320).
All journalism should be guided by the principles of truth and accuracy; traditional journalists would also add objectivity. Literary journalism has been criticised for its subjective nature; in adding the thoughts and feelings of a character to the narrative. Isabel Wilkerson asserts: “Narrative writers must strike a careful balance: caring about our subjects without sacrificing our narratives” (Kramer and Call 2007:172). Literary journalists would argue that the length of time spent ‘immersed’ with their subjects allow them to observe and hear firsthand such information and incorporate it into the narrative.
Capote claimed in the ‘Acknowledgements’ of In Cold Blood that it was completely factual, he later admitted that he had used ‘composite characters’ as it was not possible to include all individual contributions. It also emerged that the final chapter – a meeting between detective Dewey and Nancy’s friend Susan, was in fact made up; to give the story a nicer ending than the execution.
Mailer writes in ‘An Afterword’ of The Executioner’s Song that: “This book does its best to be a factual account of the activities of Gary Gilmore…” (2014:1051). He does however confess to the creative licence of adding the ‘Old Prison Rhyme’ and that some of Gilmore’s interviews were “trimmed and very occasionally a sentence was transposed…. to treat him decently” (2014:1052). It is worth noting that this book was nominated for Pulitzer awards in both the fiction and non-fiction categories. It won the former.
Traditional journalism remains encased in the inverted pyramid holding onto its strong principle of objectivity. Literary journalism continues to grow like a rhizome, evolving with the technology of the twenty-first century to offer writers another platform of subjective expression. There is room for both.
The underlying foundation of all journalism is that it remains truthful. If something is not seen or heard, witnessed or verified, it should not be reported as true. The claims of Capote and Mailer in writing true-crime, which then emerged as slightly altered to fit in with the tone of the story, may undermine those who strive for honesty.
Both Capote and Mailer’s books have their merits. In Cold Blood for its descriptive scenes and progressive structure, The Executioner’s Song for its engaging, realistic dialogue. What cannot be disputed is that both books have achieved classic status and continue to be the subject of debate in journalism studies.
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