Thursday, December 02, 2004

A bad essay, but a good point

The text that follows is the "professional essay" that I sent off as part of my application for an internship with the Detroit Free Press. I don't know that it really does what they asked me to do--describe my journalistic experience, my journalistic influences, my journalistic plans and goals, and I don't, in all truth, really have any of those--but I did get to talk a little about books, and public book writing. So it wasn't entirely a waste of time. Thus, here it is:

Literature and journalism were once inseparable. Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens published their novels as serials, with readers following from cliffhanger to cliffhanger in the Paris and London papers of their day. Decades before he won the Nobel Prize, Ernest Hemingway served an apprenticeship at the Kansas City Star. Before the Second World War, news writing was considered an essential part of a novelist’s training. Today, the presence of journalists such as Bob Woodward and Seymour Hersh on the nonfiction besteller lists belies the deep divisions that have emerged between those who write to inform and those who write for art.

As with all estrangements, there is blame enough to go around. The universities play their part. English and journalism are taught in separate departments, often in different colleges altogether. (At my alma mater, Michigan State, English was in the College of Arts & Letters, while journalism was in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.) Literary writers bemoan the grade school reading level of the average newspaper. Journalists scoff at contemporary novels that are not only overblown, but often intentionally obscure.

There is a third, often-neglected party in this estrangement: the reader. After a few highly publicized incidents of journalists giving in to their worst fictional impulses (Jayson Blair, New York Times, we’re looking at you), readers are deeply skeptical of the agendas and reliability of major news organizations. After decades of plotless, confusing, "postmodern" novels, readers have too often lost patience and given up entirely. Movies and video games compete with novels as entertainment. Television and radio compete with newspapers as sources of information. When readers stop reading, everyone loses.

Of course, it is important to remember that as deep as the divisions between literature and journalism may be, the situation may far better be described as an estrangement than a divorce. At their best, books and newspapers still serve as complements, and the success of writers such as Bob Woodward should serve as an example of how much the two great print formats still have to offer each other, and more importantly, to readers.

One of the great qualities of journalism is its constant examination of its role and duty to the public. The New York Times responded to the Jayson Blair fiasco, in part, by appointing a public editor, whose sole job is to report to the public on the Times’ biases, real and imagined, and its successes and failures in fulfilling the public trust. Newspapers would provide a great benefit for readers if they performed the same function for literature. Journalists need not attempt to replace or supplant literary critics, who are usually best left to their own obscure corner of academia, but most readers would welcome a frank and knowledgeable companion on their expeditions into the bookstore. And expeditions they are! Too many people are intimidated by the glut of new titles arriving daily, and readers are rightly jealous of their limited reading time. Better to spend $7.50 and two hours on a mediocre movie than $30 and twenty hours on a disappointing book.

Much has been made among literary writers about the decline in newspaper space devoted to book reviews, but more reviews are not the answer. In a sense, there are simply too many titles published now for reviews alone to serve the reader effectively. When appropriate, books need to be treated as public figures, and subjected to similar scrutiny. Newsworthy books should be covered, and their claims should be fact-checked. Too often, books exist in their own isolated universes. Newspapers are uniquely suited to stand as sentinels, and the reader would benefit if journalists considered the world of literature as part of their public trust.

1 comment:

Tim said...

[Putting on my editorial cap/Asking for clarification]

I'm a little confused by how you're using "literature" and "literary," partly because your argument doesn't quite go where I had expected it to go.

As I see it, there are at least two distinctions that need to be made more explicitly -- one of medium and one of genre. Newsprint and books are different media, fiction and nonfiction are different genres. Literary fiction can appear in and be well-suited for newsprint (19th-c. serials) and journalistic nonfiction can appear in and be well-suited for full-length books (Woodward and co.). But usually journalism appears in newspapers and fiction in books. (Magazine and journal writing is another beast, albeit one that might present a solution to the dilemma: think of the kind of literary journalism in The New York Times Magazine, for example.)

Another distinction introduced is a third, somewhat less tangible idea of method, whether it's Hemingway learning his craft or Tom Wolfe calling for "a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping Baroque country of ours and reclaim its literary property." [See for a clever essay on Wolfe's feud with Mailer and Updike over just this issue.]

Anyways, to make a long story short, the idea that journalists can and should act as public sentinels over newsworthy books, including fact-checking (I'm assuming we're talking about nonfiction, right? although sometimes fiction authors could use a little scrutiny themselves) doesn't really need to go through these detours. What I'd like to see is a more thorough treatment examining why this is important/necessary, how it could be done, and how it would work.