Commentary Magazine


Topic: history

“Literary Journalism”: What It Is, What It Is Not

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

This morning, over at Critical Mass (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), Geoff Dyer reveals the five “works of literary journalism” that he likes best. Dyer won the Circle’s 2011 criticism award for Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a collection of essays. It’s not his fault that his list of favorites is dull and vapid. The classification of “literary journalism” is dull and vapid.

As a term, literary journalism is first cousin to “literary fiction,” another dull and vapid classification the republic of letters could do without. Apparently, literary journalism is fancy journalism, highbrow journalism. It is journalism plus fine writing. It is journalism with literary pretensions. But here’s the thing about literary pretensions. They are pretentious. They are phony. Good writers don’t brag about writing literature, which is a title of honor. Good writers accept the moral obligation to write well — that is, they subjugate themselves to the demands of the text under hand — and they leave the question of literature, the question of lasting value, up to the literary critics.

The word journalism does not denote a genre, but a venue. Journalism is what gets printed in journals and their digital successors, including blogs and even Twitter. Literary journalism is periodical writing about literature. I am a literary journalist, because I write about books for COMMENTARY. Edmund Wilson is the patron saint of literary journalists. But when he wrote book-length criticism that was not originally conceived as a series of contributions to the journals (Patriotic Gore, for example), Wilson was no longer writing as a journalist. And when he wrote journal pieces like those collected in The American Earthquake but originally published in the New Republic (about “the arts of the metropolis, from Stravinsky conducting Pétrouchka to Houdini, nightclubs and burlesque shows, Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush, the painting of O’Keeffe and George Bellows,” as his biographer describes them), Wilson was no longer writing as a literary journalist.

Most of what gets referred to as “literary journalism” is some combination of history and travel writing — history because it undertakes to determine what happened in a past, travel writing because it depends upon first-hand observation in addition to documented evidence. Those who object that journalism (of any kind) is not history are doing little beyond disclosing their own prejudices and assumptions. “The question in history,” Michael Oakeshott wrote, “is never what must, or what might have taken place, but solely what the evidence obliges us to conclude did take place.” Thus the historian and the journalist share the same obligation — an obligation to the evidence. What did take place might have taken place five minutes or five centuries ago, but as long as it belongs to the past, historian and journalist share the same interest in it.

Nor do their objectives differ, no matter how far apart their methods and prose might seem to put them. Oakeshott again: “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.” Both historians and journalists recreate the past in the name of reporting what the evidence obliges them to conclude took place. Historians may claim to be more comprehensive and objective; “literary” journalists, to be more compelling and timely. But these claims are justified merely by the fact that some historians and some journalists have bought into them. They are self-advertisements, not logical distinctions.

There is no reason for anyone to repeat them, nor to compile lists of their favorite “literary journalism.”

Read Less

Yale’s History Department Losing Students

Yale’s history department was once the flagship of the university. In academic year 1999-2000, for example, Yale had nearly 350 tenured faculty members, more than a third of whom were in the humanities. More than one-third of these, in turn, were historians. History was by far the most popular major.

How much a decade can alter the landscape: The history major is in sharp decline if not freefall with the slack picked up by the social sciences: political science and economics. History Department chair Laura Engelstein has said she wants to get to the bottom of the hemorrhaging program. “If it reflects something that we could change, we would want to change it, but it’s not clear what exactly is causing this to happen,” she told the Yale Daily News.

Read More

Yale’s history department was once the flagship of the university. In academic year 1999-2000, for example, Yale had nearly 350 tenured faculty members, more than a third of whom were in the humanities. More than one-third of these, in turn, were historians. History was by far the most popular major.

How much a decade can alter the landscape: The history major is in sharp decline if not freefall with the slack picked up by the social sciences: political science and economics. History Department chair Laura Engelstein has said she wants to get to the bottom of the hemorrhaging program. “If it reflects something that we could change, we would want to change it, but it’s not clear what exactly is causing this to happen,” she told the Yale Daily News.

The faculty has floated a few theories:  Frances Rosenbluth, an administrator for the social sciences, suggested students are attracted to the social sciences because students “seem drawn to questions about how the world works.” Some history faculty members suggested that perhaps “structural changes” could rectify the problem. The department has responded with cosmetic changes, defining “pathways” to better structure the students’ program.

Alas, the department appears to be missing the elephant in the room. History was popular when it was relevant. Back in the 1980s, when I first visited Yale, the department was at its peak, sporting such professors as Paul Kennedy, Jonathan Spence, Donald Kagan, Michael Howard, Gaddis Smith, Robin Winks, Ben Kiernan, and John Blum. Earlier stars included C. Vann Woodward and Firuz Kazemzadeh. Throughout the 1990s, when I attended Yale as both an undergraduate and graduate student, the department prided itself on eschewing trendy academic theories and keeping to the basics. “Theory is for those who do not have libraries,” one faculty member quipped. I believed it. After all, when in my freshman year, I took H. Bradford Westerfield’s “Introduction to International Relations,” the Iron Curtain had just crumbled but Westerfield could not be bothered to change his syllabus. It was a lesson on just how irrelevant trendy theories could be. Meanwhile, at academic conferences, history graduate students from other universities would sometimes quip that Yale sported the “Department of Military and Diplomatic History,” as if that were somehow a bad thing. Certainly, I gained exposure to economic and social history—indeed, my dissertation strayed into those fields—but more traditional methods always provided the framework.

Cracks began to appear in the 1990s. When the American political historian John Blum retired, he was replaced by a series of historians who focused far more on social history. As retirements and deaths took their toll, the character of the department changed. Social history became paramount. Englestein’s bio, for example, describes how she focuses on the “social and cultural history of late imperial Russia, with attention to the role of law, medicine, and the arts in public life. She has also explored themes in the history of gender, sexuality, and religion.” Asian specialists can pick from faculty members focusing in social and cultural history in pre-modern China or infanticide in Japan; whereas the new crop of American historians focuses on such topics as the history of home healthcare workers, “biological motherhood in America,” American Indians in northeastern United States, or race in California. As Paul Kennedy nears retirement, John Gaddis is the main exception to prove the rule. Regardless, their International Security Studies program increasingly appears to be a spin off, if nothing else to insulate it from those in the university hostile to grand strategy.

Perhaps it’s time for Yale’s history department to consider the obvious. They are losing enrollment because they have pigeonholed themselves into irrelevancy. Yale students are intellectually curious, but the department no longer provides them a path to satiate their curiosity. Not all fields are created equally, nor can one encourage sub-specialization endlessly within the faculty without hurting the cohesive whole.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.