The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Matthew Rubery

Journalism involves a range of writing practices not easily distinguishable in some instances from those used by novelists. Historically, the distinction between the two kinds of writing has often been a source of controversy. The term journalism was introduced into the English language in the 1830s, although the traditions of this form of public communication were well established by that point. Since the seventeenth century, journalism has evolved from the private exchange of intelligence to the public dissemination of information through various media including print, radio, television, and the internet. Before the printing press, news circulated in the form of speech and written manuscripts, and from the sixteenth century onward the earliest printed news was in many ways a record of the informal exchange of information, known as gossip or rumor (see PAPER AND PRINT). The first newsletters were translations of foreign events, natural disasters, and supernatural occurrences. In 1621, for example, Thomas Archer produced the first English “coranto,” or newsbook, a digest of foreign news translated from Dutch. The development of news written about the contemporary world at regular intervals, as opposed to occasional reports about singular events, was a key step in the eventual separation of journalism from literature (C. J. Sommerville, 1996, The News Revolution in England). Another important distinction was the claim to be based on facts.

The relationship between fact and fiction was a fundamental literary problem before the eighteenth century. Ben Jonson's play The Staple of News (1625), for example, ridicules printed news as a means to cheat people out of their money. History and fiction blur together in many narratives from Greek and Roman times until the sixteenth century. No real distinction between fact and fiction in the modern sense of the terms would have been tenable in these early centuries. The words “newes” and “novel” were used interchangeably throughout the seventeenth century to describe a wide variety of writing, such as ballads that might or might not be true (L. J. Davis, 1983, Factual Fictions, 48). There was still no clear distinction between news and fiction when Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, considered to be one of the first English novels, was written in 1719. Defoe was merely following convention in his novels when claiming to be relating an overheard story or to be the editor of a lost document (see FRAME). As both a journalist and novelist, Defoe treated fact and fiction as almost indistinguishable. His Journal of the Plague Year (1722) presents itself as an eyewitness report of the Great Plague of London (1664—66), when it is actually a fictionalized account written several decades after the event. (Born in 1660, Defoe was a child at the time.) The distinction between journalism and novels, or factual and fictional narratives, would become more firmly established throughout the eighteenth century.

The Newspaper Novel

Literary and journalistic traditions have been closely related in America and Britain since the nineteenth century. Many American novelists, including Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, Jack London, Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright served apprenticeships as journalists before turning to fiction, and journalism influenced their later writing. For example, Ernest Hemingway's terse style is often attributed to his experience as a reporter for the Kansas City Star (S. F. Fishkin, 1985, From Fact to Fiction). Many of these former journalists turned to fiction due to doubts about the ability of conventional journalism to capture the complexities of experience or to engage readers at a suitably emotional level. These writers often blur the line between factual reporting and fictionalized storytelling, as in Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872), a semi-autobiographical account of a stagecoach journey across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains (see LIFE WRITING). The journalism of Stephen Crane likewise featured invented characters and dramatic dialogue. Crane was known to chronicle the same incident in multiple genres, as when he retold the story of his shipwreck in a newspaper article, magazine piece, and the short story, “The Open Boat.” While journalism was often a prelude to fiction, the reverse was also true in Crane's case. He did not see a battlefield until two years after writing The Red Badge of Courage (1895), an exceptionally realistic depiction of a young man's experiences in the American Civil War (1861—65).

In Britain also, involvement with journalism was the rule rather than the exception for nineteenth-century authors, virtually all of whom wrote for the press at some point during their literary careers. One has only to take the example of Charles Dickens, who worked in journalism in some capacity throughout his entire career. He began as a freelance journalist writing anonymous reports for the morning paper The British Press. After learning shorthand, he worked as a parliamentary reporter amid fervent debates over electoral reform. Sketches by Boz (1836) is a collection of the descriptions of urban life he wrote as a reporter for the Morning Chronicle. Journalism continued to play a prominent role in his career as a novelist. Under his editorship, Bentley's Miscellany first published Oliver Twist in its pages from 1837 to 1839. Two other magazines edited by Dickens later in his career, Household Words and All the Year Round, encompassed fiction, verse, and documentary reportage of the sort that had long featured in his fictional narratives. Nowhere else could readers get first sight of the serialized novels A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861; see SERIALIZATION).

The growing influence of journalism is evident in a number of nineteenth-century novels that treat the press as a key theme. Working for the press is a crucial stage in the protagonist's development in Honoré de Balzac's Illusions Perdues (1837—43, Lost Illusions), Dickens's David Copperfield (1850), and William Makepeace Thackeray's Pendennis (1848—50). Some novelists borrowed their ideas straight from the pages of newspapers. Victorian novelist Charles Reade kept clippings from the London Times and other newspapers on which to base the improbable plots of his sensation novels in the 1860s. The deprecatory label “newspaper novel” was used during this period to describe a subgenre of fiction derived from actual criminal reports taken from the newspapers (see GENRE). In some cases, the press even took its stories from novels. Joseph Pulitzer's New York World commissioned the journalist Nellie Bly to beat the imaginary travel record set by Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873).

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a number of novelists addressed the growing influence of the press as a potential crisis for serious literature. The sensational press is satirized in Anthony Trollope's The Warden (1855), Henry James's The Bostonians (1886) and The Reverberator (1888) and, later, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop (1938). George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891) provides a highly pessimistic account of a literary community overrun by commercial interests associated with the newspaper press. The novel's title makes an unflattering comparison between contemporary journalism and an eighteenth-century London street synonymous with hacks writing for commercial rather than artistic purposes. Gissing's novel depicts the growing divide between literature and journalism toward the end of the nineteenth century, as the growth of the mass media challenged literature's influence. The hostile reaction toward the mass media by twentieth-century artists is, in part, responsible for the retrospective demotion of journalism as a form of writing in favor of privileged artistic forms such as the novel. Oscar Wilde humorously described the division, noting: “journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read” (1905, “The Critic as Artist”). Many early twentieth-century modernist authors expressed outright hostility toward the press for its disregard of literary standards (see MODERNIS). The newspaper became a familiar stylistic trope for experimental authors like James Joyce, who playfully incorporated newspaper headlines into his novel Ulysses (1922) as a way of using the techniques of the mass media against itself.

The New Journalism

Journalism continued to influence novelists in the U.S. and Britain throughout the twentieth century. The muckraking journalism of the reform period 1890—1912 often exploited elements of fictional narrative in their vivid exposés of big business and government corruption in the U.S. The best-known example is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), a novel whose graphic depiction of the meat-packing industry was partly responsible for the passage that same year of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The “reportage school” of the 1930s and the Federal Writers' Project used narrative forms to chronicle the suffering of America's poor during the Great Depression (1929—39) in works such as Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which combines pictures and text originally written for a magazine article on white sharecropper families in Mississippi. Some of the twentieth century's most influential nonfiction was written by British novelist George Orwell, whose Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) and Homage to Catalonia (1938) are set apart from other documentary investigations by a distinctly personal voice. These narratives rely heavily on dramatic, in-depth reporting that influenced many writers later in the century.

The New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s combined techniques hitherto associated with either fiction or nonfiction genres. While there were a number of precedents, the beginning of the New Journalism has been linked to the publication of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965) and Tom Wolfe's newspaper articles written in an experimental style for the collection The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1964). Capote was one of many novelists who turned to documentary forms as an alternative to fiction in the 1960s. In Cold Blood, an account of the murder of a Kansas farm family, defies classification as either fiction or nonfiction, despite the author's six years of meticulous research into the crime. He coined the term “nonfiction novel” in a series of interviews describing his work as a fusion of journalistic and fictional narrative forms. This approach was influenced by John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946), an attempt to write a novelistic factual narrative about the aftermath of the atomic bomb. Norman Mailer also combined elements of fiction and nonfiction in works such as The Armies of the Night (1968), subtitled History as a Novel, the Novel as History. These attempts to re-create true events in the manner of narrative fiction emphasized the degree to which nonfiction was capable of the moral seriousness of the novel (J. Hollowell, 1977, Fact & Fiction, 11).

Wolfe's “Manifesto,” in his anthology The New Journalism (1973), advocated the need for journalists to go beyond the limits of conventional reporting in order to represent the turbulent events of 1960s America. He identified four narrative devices borrowed from realistic fiction to chronicle contemporary events: (1) dramatic scenes instead of historical summary, (2) complete dialogue instead of occasional quotations, (3) multiple points of view instead of the narrator's perspective, and (4) close attention to status details. Use of these literary techniques enabled journalists to provide PSYCHOLOGICAL depth to a degree not usually possible in newspaper reporting based solely on facts. The voice of the New Journalist was avowedly subjective in opposition to the objectivity expected from reporters since the beginning of the twentieth century. Other writers associated with the New Journalism include Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Breslin, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese. While Wolfe argued that journalism had surpassed the novel in terms of literary merit, critics have dismissed the New Journalism as “parajournalism” for claiming both the factual authority of journalism and the fictional license of the novel (Macdonald). Other critics expressed concern about turning reportage into mere entertainment, distorting facts through fictional devices, and replacing objectivity with egoism. However, some literary critics consider the New Journalism to be a genre of fiction whose lineage extends back to nineteenth-century writers such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, and Stephen Crane (J. Hellmann, 1981, Fables of Fact). Most recently, a new generation of writers influenced by the reportorially based, narrative-driven nonfiction associated with the New Journalism, has been labelled the “New New Journalism” (R. S. Boynton, 2005, The New New Journalism).

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Definitions of the Novel, Detective Novel, Realism.


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2. Conboy, M. (2004), Journalism.

3. Hartsock, J. (2000), History of American Literary Journalism.

4. Hughes, L.K. and Lund, M. (1991), Victorian Serial.

5. Hunter, J.P. (1990), Before Novels.

6. Law, G. and Morita, N. (2000), “ The Newspaper Novel,” Media History 6: 5—17.

7. Macdonald, D. (1965), “ Parajournalism, or Tom Wolfe and His Magic Writing Machine,” New York Review of Books, 26 Aug.

8. Wolfe, T. and Johnson, E.W., eds. (1973), New Journalism.