No. Of course it isn’t. I crafted my headline with a purpose: catch eyes, incite feelings, and bring people to my work. I did exactly what Nicholas Carr did six years ago when he published his now insanely famous article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic Monthly. Carr wasn’t out to prove that Google, the tool he used for his success, destroyed modern minds. He just wanted to talk about the way that Google changed modern thought and action. I could argue that all good writing discusses the change and evolution of thought. So why did Carr frame his article the way he did?
Literary journalism, the category under which Carr writes, is in a boom cycle right now. For those who don’t know, literary journalism, a subset of creative nonfiction, “demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show that an author is at work,” according to Norman Sims in his anthology, “the Literary Journalists.” Suddenly, everyone’s heard of David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe. People read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion in English class. I’ve even taken a literary journalism course in college and loved it. Literary journalism combines the best of the news world — interviews, research, and relevance — with the gifts of narrative and interpretive wiggle-room.
But that “wiggle-room” makes me uncomfortable. For me, and many others, plain ol’ journalism represents a writer’s best stab at an unbiased truth. Literary journalism is a completely different animal. It advocates for emotional truth, sweeping conclusions, and the tailoring of information. The literary journalist is first and foremost a storyteller, not a fact-keeper. The journalism I learned about in my high school newspaper class is very different from what I read in blogs, magazines, and books today. Which is to say, I feel like most of my news is beginning to adopt the format and style of a literary journalism article.
From what I’ve read, the template goes like this:
- Pick a subject whose story represents a universal human truth. Carr’s article is a great example of taking an emotional truth — the fear that friends are secretly enemies — and applying it to humanity’s thrust into the digital age. People love computers and use them every single day, so they must be suspicious of the effects of technology. Carr preys upon that insecurity with his title, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
- Begin with an image that reader knows, and then turn it on its head. Doug Fine’s “Too High To Fail” begins with a cop responding to a burglar alarm going off on a local farm — a local cannabis farm, that is. Fine goes on to describe the lush, green beauty of the cannabis farm and the jolly-good relationship between the farmer and the cops. Immediately, the reader knows that the rules of the world in “Too High” are different from their own.
- Support claims with unwavering evidence rooted in data, science, and testimony. Malcolm Gladwell is the king of this one. All of his books and articles use a combination of statistical data, interviews with subjects and experts, and his own creation of scientific social laws: “Law of the Few” from “Tipping Point” and “the 10,000 Hour Rule” from “Outliers.”
- Find an easily digestible resolution. Notice how I didn’t say solution. Resolutions resolve things, put them to bed, and ease the reader’s mind. Solutions take work on the reader’s part. I actually have to do something with a solution. Michael Pollan told me in his book, “In Defense of Food,” to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Great. Easy enough. It may seem like a solution, but really, how much does it actually call me to action?
- End by telling the reader how to feel about the subject. This what I struggle with the most. In my own literary journalism course, after my first article workshop, my professor asked me to fix my ending. “You’ve gotta tell us how you feel so that we know how to feel.” I wondered why I couldn’t just tell the story well enough so that the reader could reach their own conclusion. Isn’t that my job as a writer? Give people information so that they can find out something new about themselves?
Every genre has its tropes. So what’s is my big problem with literary journalism? There’s the obvious issue of turning personal narratives into pop-culture “science,” as Malcolm Gladwell has done time and again. It forces the author to shock and reveal information to the reader, making excitement and sensationalism more important than fact. The literary journalism article becomes the written equivalent of a political cartoon: illustrative, clever, but ultimately an over simplification of things. But there’s a subtler, more insidious feeling like bile creeping up the back of my throat; I am really scared that I’m being conditioned to expect and prefer this kind of writing all the time. I have enjoyed every single one of the articles listed immensely. They made me feel smarter, wiser, and emotionally connected when I finished. And I have no intention of ceasing my lit journalism consumption.
So what’s going to happen to literary journalism? Should it revert to a time when it was more literary, less journalism, and focused on human experiences? Should we distinguish between research-based literary journalism and interview-based? Should we just slap disclaimers on every book and article?
I don’t know. Pop journalism and literary journalism are here to stay, and I don’t really mind. Maybe I’m the one that needs to change; I need to learn to take the Michael Pollans and Malcolm Gladwells of the world with “the proper portion of salt,” as Jason Kottke wrote. And maybe, as a writer myself, I can learn the lit journalism rules, and then break them.