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The Decline and Fall of Literary Journalism

Professor Norman Sims, who says that he “more-or-less invented or revived the term,” has replied to my criticisms of literary journalism. His reply was posted earlier this morning at Critical Mass, the blog that Mark Athitakis maintains for the National Book Critics Circle.

Now, I had objected that, when it is used to describe a certain kind of journalism (“journalism of the better sort,” to coin a phrase), the term literary journalism is pretentious. Sims does not entirely disagree:

“Literary” is a sacred and self-congratulatory term, and it is matched with “journalism,” a profane term. English departments tend to prefer “creative nonfiction,” a term with even more inherent difficulties. “Creative” implies that it can be made up — and it often is — and “nonfiction” says what it is not. The choice of terms was debated in the [International Association for Literary Journalism Studies], and that scholarly group decided to go with literary journalism.

So it is a bureaucratic term — or a newer substitution for an older one, rather like the personnel department’s becoming the department of human relations. “The standards have been vigorously debated in an international conversation,” Sims declares. All right, then. A consensus has been reached and the question is now closed. There is even a professional organization dedicated to propagating the faith! And I, I am a stranger to it.

Not only that: I am not permitted to call myself a literary journalist. “I’d call Myers a ‘critic,’ not a literary journalist,” Sims says, as if the difference were immediately obvious to everyone. It is acceptable, though, to go on referring to Edmund Wilson as a literary journalist. Not because he reviewed books for the New Republic, the Dial, the Nation, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. Certainly not because he supported himself on the proceeds from his reviews. No, indeed. “If you look at Wilson’s writing in American Jitters (1932), and especially his piece ‘The Jumping-Off Place,’ you’ll find excellent examples of Wilson’s reporting and literary journalism done early in the Depression,” Sims says. “And of course he was an extraordinary literary and cultural critic as well,” he allows.

The problem with all this is that Sims’s history is farblondzshet, as the French might put it. “The first modern use of ‘literary journalism’ was probably in 1937 by Prof. Edwin H. Ford at the University of Minnesota,” Sims writes in a footnote, “but it didn’t catch on until I published The Literary Journalists in 1984.” I really like that qualification “modern.” Even after he slips it in, though, his claim remains false from top to bottom.

The term literary journalism dates from the mid-19th century. The earliest use of it in this country that I’ve been able to track down was in an unsigned editorial in the Yale Literary Magazine in June 1842.

“It is a common remark,” the editorial opens, “that every age has its own Literature.” While earlier ages had their dramas and their poetry and their satires and their romances, the literature of the time had “assumed a lighter costume, and one more adapted to the character of the age.” It had taken the form of the Review. Britain had the Westminster Review, the Dublin Review; Paris, its “Moniteurs and Gazettes, and in the metropolis the rage for Literary Journalism is actually surprising.” Germany, after all, is the “book-publishing nation of Europe,” but even there “the love of Literary Journalism has never been carried farther than la belle France.”

The contemporary usage was on the mark. Literary journalism arose with the 19th century reviews — the Edinburgh Review in 1802, the Quarterly Review in 1809, the Westminster Review in 1824. (The first Review on these shores, the North American Review, was founded in 1815. It was followed by the Democratic Review in 1837 and the American Whig Review in 1844.) As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains in The Spirit of the Age (2007):

The essays in each Review were just that: reviews of a book or several books, or of a lecture, an essay, a pamphlet, a journal, or even the text of a bill in Parliament. There had been book-review journals before that, but they were little more than booksellers’ organs, brief notices of new publications. The new quarterlies contained long reflective, critical essays, often using the book as the pretext for an excursion into the subject at large.

“Literary journalism” seems to have been the American name for the contents of the Reviews. In 1859, the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe’s old journal, welcomed two new Reviews that had “entered fully upon the career of literary journalism. . . .” The term was only beginning to be established, but by the end of the century, it had become accepted usage. In discussing Andrew Lang’s merits in the Bookman for April 1896 (he may not be a critic, but “he has the qualifications of fine scholarship, a long love of books, and a long habit of using them, without which no fine handling of literature is possible”), Annie Macdonell wrote:

Mr. Lang is the perfect master of the manner which suits him best, and very straightforward, lucid, and swift it is; and if he has founded no school, he has had incalculable influence in forming a lighter, brighter, simpler style of literary journalism.

Nor is it true that this use of the term was somehow “pre-modern.” Back in 1861, the Christian Review had praised Macaulay for raising the tone and modifying the character of “modern literary journalism.” The term and the practice were both strikingly modern, emerging at the same time as the modern profession of letters. Patronage was dead; creative writing was not yet born. Literary journalism — that is, reviewing books for the periodicals — was the means of economic support for the average writer with literary ambitions. By the 1860’s, John Gross wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969), “literary journalism was at last becoming a secure enough profession for it to attract a steady flow of talent from the universities.”

For over a century, “literary journalism” meant this and only this. “Nona Balakian describes herself as a literary journalist,” Alden Whitman said of the writer after whom the National Book Critics Circle’s book-reviewing prize is named, “meaning that for the last quarter-century and more she has been a workaday book reviewer, interviewer, essayist and editor whose product has appeared largely in the pages of the New York Times.”

The term was used in exactly this sense by most writers, including T. S. Eliot (who described “serious literary journalism” as a “precarious means of support for all but a very few”), W. H. Auden (who pointed out that, “In earning his living, the average poet has to choose between being a translator, a teacher, a literary journalist or a writer of advertising copy”), Allen Tate (who spoke darkly of the need to “resist the organized literary journalism of New York”), Granville Hicks (“The responsible literary journalist must be prepared to judge a political novel on more than one level”), Christopher Lasch (who described Oswald Garrison Villard as “one of the last great eccentrics who distinguished American literary journalism”), James Dickey (who dismissed a rival’s verse as “high-falutin’, bad-punning literary journalism of the trashiest and most tiresome sort”), Saul Bellow (who complained that the universities and the mass media “have between them swallowed up literary journalism”), Joyce Carol Oates (who griped about being assigned to “the sort of ready-made category that literary journalism seems too often to insist upon”), and Paul Auster (“I never thought of myself as a critic or literary journalist, even when I was doing a lot of critical pieces”).

The term was a commonplace for most writers, because they had come of age in a literary ecosystem (in Andrew Fox’s good phrase) in which book reviewing was both a means of support and a way to start out. With the post-World War II rise of what I called the “elephant machine” — the creative writing workshop, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops, which produced graduates who went on to teach creative writing and institute new workshops — the old profession of literary journalism, as Bellow said, was swallowed up.

In England, where creative writing took longer to gain a foothold, literary journalism remained a career option for much longer. Indeed, so commonplace was the assumption that writers relied upon literary journalism as a boost and a support that the bellyache about literary journalism also became something of a commonplace. In 1961, V. S. Pritchett listed the obstacles to literary success: “too much money, too little money, popular journalism, literary journalism, marriage, ‘the pram in the hall.’ ” Three decades later, James Wood summarized the critics’ complaints about his literary generation: “We were all watching too much television or writing too much literary journalism to produce great books.”

Wood’s use of the term suggests that Sims is not even right when he argues that the meaning of literary journalism has shifted since 1984, when he published an anthology called The Literary Journalists. It’s more likely that the currency of the term in Sims’s sense dates to 1992, when reviewers began to use it at last to distinguish a certain kind of book or writer. Kenneth Brower, reviewing Bob Reiss’s The Road to Extrema in the New York Times, complains about a device flourished with regularity throughout the book:

Who is it that introduced the abrupt, jarring discontinuity into American literary journalism? John McPhee?

Just four months later, writing in the Washington Post, David Streitfeld identified Joseph Mitchell with literary journalism. “During the late ’30s and ’40s,” Streitfeld wrote, Mitchell

created a new kind of magazine feature, one that took the energy and initiative of journalism and hitched it to larger literary goals.

The new meaning of the term — its nonce meaning — was ratified when it was associated with two of the writers who are most often advanced as exemplars of “literary journalism.”

Yet the original meaning of the term remains valid, and at least to my mind, this meaning — its traditional meaning — is preferable. And for all the reasons I gave in first criticizing the new genre a month ago. Short version: there is nothing to distinguish “literary” journalism from journalism of any other sort.

Sims is no help. Sometimes literary journalism is whatever it pleases him to call literary journalism (“I am a historian of the form, so . . . I’m entitled to use the term to describe the work of Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Martha Gellhorn, Joseph Mitchell, John McPhee, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe,” etc.); at another time, literary journalism is journalism that uses the techniques of literature (“the active presence of the author’s voice in the narrative,” for example, or “the tools long associated only with fiction,” etc.).

If it is the former then literary journalism is simply non-fiction with status honor. If it is the latter then it is nothing. For though there have been many “privileged criteria” (as E. D. Hirsch Jr. has called them) for distinguishing literature from non-literature, the historical fact is that every attempt to isolate the special and unique qualities of literature has failed. Literature is either a selection of the best that has been written, in which case some journalism qualifies; or it is everything that has been written, in which case all journalism qualifies.

It is time to return to the original meaning of literary journalism.


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