Is Literary Journalism Making Us Stupid?

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:

  1. 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?”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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?
  5. 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.


44 thoughts on “Is Literary Journalism Making Us Stupid?

  1. If a carpenter builds a new room on your house, your friends won’t comment on the quality of the framing, the depth of the insulation, the twist of the electrical connections. They will only comment on what they can see when the work’s done. Botch that, and the carpenter gets a bad rep no matter how fine the rest of the work. Same with writing.

  2. I have never read a blog post which is as true as this one. I completely agree with you. What has happened to the old style journalism where you give two sides of the argument or discuss actual issues within society rather than trivial ones? I understand that giving your opinion and bias to an extent is important within an article/blog post but at the end of the day shouldn’t the topic be left open for the reader to dwell on and discuss themselves? Personally a great blog/article should leave a reader building up their own thoughts/feelings rather than being brainwashed by statistics causing them to think in a specific way! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, great blog post! 🙂

    • I will say that literary journalism is distinctly different than news journalism meant for the front page of a paper. However, thanks for sharing in my belief that the tropes of the genre are beginning to create sacrifices in accuracy! I do wonder, though: is literary journalism, perhaps, meant to be a long-form opinion piece, and we, the readers, should view it as such? Or, should we be demanding in-depth journalism that is also unbiased? Along those lines, how do journalists stay unbiased when they follow the same story for months, if not years? These are the things that keep me up at night!

      • I agree. I think we should take it as an opinionated piece of work the majority of the time because as you said, it is difficult not to be even the slightest bit biased when being a journalist because you do form an opinion on the topic when studying it in depth.

  3. This has a lot to do with semantics. I think that calling this “journalism” creates a stumbling block. Creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction might make it more clear what to expect from the beast. Thanks for your thoughts – truly, times have changed! Congrats on the FP!

    • Thanks! And yes, I agree that it’s about paradigm: am I, as a reader, demanding something of the genre just because it has the word “journalism” in the title?

  4. Yeah, good stuff here. I love literary journalism but at the end of every piece I feel that there is something slightly insidious going on. But isn’t that the same with essays or should I say, assay? Assay comes from the 13th century and means, “to try, endeavor, strive; test the quality of.” And it seems like this is what journalism is turning to but at what cost? We are replacing fact with narrative. We’ve always naturally done this on our own and at its worst literary journalism does this for us. So if we want to get at the truth of the matter we have to backtrack and get to the source while the source should have been reported on in the first place.

    There is hope however, if there are people who love literary journalism, that are suspicious of it then maybe there will be a renaissance of journalism. I just hope we don’t get so stupid that the Morlocks eat us for brunch before it is too late.

    Great article and title by the way.

    • Thanks! I love your comment, but I have to disagree on one point. I love the addition of narrative to journalism because I think that most news bites are part of larger stories, and I wish every piece of journalism could be as in-depth as most literary pieces are. However, you are right in pointing out that there is a cost to turning news into a story.

  5. This is an utterly brillinat blog post! I agree with it on many levels. However, with regard to Malcom Gladwell, I have to say, for a generation weaned on stories of what sounds like instant success, is the 10,000 hour rule not a good idea to follow? Is it not worth knowing that hard work is what really makes a man in the end? If one does accept that what Gladwell is advocating is a point of view (and not science rooted in hard evidence), as his more discerning readers surely will, then is it not worth putting that point across in a sensational manner so that more people manage to see “underneath the underneath”, as a favourite anime character of mine loves to say? Is it not better for his point to get across to as many people as possible?

    • Thanks for the compliment! While I do appreciate Gladwell’s ability to coin catchy phrases (all journalists try to do this; all journalists wish they were as good as Gladwell), I frown upon the frequency with which his own terminology becomes a tool for turning Gladwell’s personal opinions and interpretations into a fact. It’s easier to say “10,000 Hour Rule” than it is to explain the reasoning behind it. So, instead of, “In order to succeed, you must work hard and consistently at something (as my research has shown),” people hear, “In order to succeed, put in your 10,000 hours and you’re good to go.” Make sense?

      • It does. And I agree. I meant to say that in the particular case of the 10k rule, the sacrifice of the distinction between fact and opinion in the minds of laymen is worth the message being conveyed. Or so I feel.

      • But that’s so patronizing! I wouldn’t want to support a writer that treats me as a layman, would you?
        Also, your logic introduces a fallacy: the slippery slope. If writers need to write down to their readers, so to speak, at what point have they watered down or distilled their work to the point of changing what they’re saying? Or, vice-versa, by giving writers the benefit of the doubt — that they are smarter or more informed than the rest of us — are readers sacrificing their agency?
        Obviously, these thoughts are tangential to what you’re saying, but important considerations.

  6. Pingback: Is Literary Journalism Making Us Stupid? | Gram...

  7. “plain ol’ journalism represents a writer’s best stab at an unbiased truth” — It used to. That’s the way I was taught decades ago. But that kind of journalism seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. These days it’s mostly “advocacy journalism” — news presented with the appropriate bias, dictated by corporate owners. It’s hard to know where to find the truth anymore.

    As for “literary journalism,” the term was unfamiliar to me, but as you describe it, I would not call it journalism. It’s creative non-fiction, expository writing, or something else.

    • Literary journalism is a fascinating field! I will be posting my favorite pieces that would fall under the literary journalism category soon — keep an eye out for the post!

  8. “plain ol’ journalism represents a writer’s best stab at an unbiased truth” — It used to. That’s the way I was taught decades ago. But that kind of journalism seems to be going the way of the dodo bird. These days it’s mostly “advocacy journalism” — news presented with the appropriate bias, dictated by corporate owners. It’s hard to know where to find the truth anymore.

    As for “literary journalism,” the term was unfamiliar to me, but as you describe it, I would not call it journalism. It’s creative non-fiction, expository writing, or something else. Maybe “longform journalism.”

  9. I like the points you made. Perhaps you coined a couple new buzz-word phrases: “Pop-culture Science” and “Pop Journalism.”

  10. Reblogged this on MyT89 and commented:
    I like the way this guy point out his views on journalism because from what I saw mostly on local, basically if you are the government, you control any form of media like journalism.

    • Thank you for sharing my piece!
      First: I am not a guy. I am most definitely a woman.
      Second: I think you are talking about corruption at newspapers. This does not really apply to literary journalism. Most literary journalism is done for magazines, online culture sites, or is free-lance.

  11. Well, thanks for the sharing of this article, some part of the article makes me think about a good reading where it only simple and staight to the point.

  12. I think this kind of journalist is what drives me crazy everyday and stresses me out. I’m used to the old way of journalism so I find your title true honestly.

    I feel journalists are not doing their job anymore, they are acting like fans and advertizing some agenda.

  13. This is certainly a new way to look at literary journalism for me, and I can see how this view of it has encouraged it to creep into places where it doesn’t belong, like news journals. When I was learning creative nonfiction writing, we used the term “literary journalism” to define the essays we wrote that were not about our personal experiences. Anything that required us to interview someone else or do research that went beyond our personal knowledge fell under this label. It wasn’t meant to be biased or opinionated. It was just an accounting of the experiences of someone else or the history of a place, event, artifact, etc told in story format.

  14. Pingback: Is Literary Journalism Making Us Stupid? | Emma's World!

  15. Pingback: Eight Things: My Favorite Literary Journalism Pieces | Julia Zasso's Writing Desk

  16. What makes us stupid is by limiting ourselves to one source and only one source. Like that case of the American student in Italy who killed her British roommate. Would you say American media was unbiased in their news telling? Not, if you haven’t read anything else but theirs.

    The media is privately owned with private interests: among them, profit. They wouldn’t want to antagonize their main advertisers would they. Nope.

    There is REALLY no objective news reporting in the ideal sense of the word. And this is because the reporter is human, not a machine, and is totally incapable of being truly objective. Thus, I treat all news as amusement pieces: entertaining while being informative. Imperfect. Necessary. As human beings need their social networks, news, rumors, stories, information, secrets, confidential information — all have their values in keeping societies humming. And thriving.

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