The State of Narrative Nonfiction Writing
On May 6, 2000, the Nieman Foundation and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism convened a panel of journalists to discuss narrative journalism. This event occurred during a two-day conference focused on nonfiction writing that was part of the 2000 Lukas Prize Project Conference. This project honors the work and life of J. Anthony Lukas, who won two Pulitzers, the second for his narrative book “Common Ground,” in which he explored the personal and political dynamics of Boston’s school desegregation crisis through the lens of three families’ experiences.
Robert Vare, senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly who teaches a seminar on narrative nonfiction writing at the Nieman Foundation, moderated a panel discussion about narrative writing in books, magazines and newspapers. Participants on the panel included Walter Kirn, contributor to Time and literary editor of GQ, Alma Guillermoprieto, author and staff writer for The New Yorker, Michael Kelly, editor in chief of The Atlantic Monthly, and Jack Hart, writing coach for The Oregonian. Edited excerpts from their remarks follow.
Robert Vare: Welcome to the third and final panel of the J. Anthony Lukas Prize Project Nonfiction Writers Conference. Our panel will attempt to assess the health and well-being of long-form narrative writing in the worlds of books, magazines and newspapers.
Each member of this panel, I think it's fair to say, is deeply committed to narrative journalism. But each is also fully aware that this most challenging of nonfiction forms is also tremendously difficult to shepherd into print. We'll attempt to explore some of these challenges and also try to raise some key questions: What is the current marketplace for narrative nonfiction writing in books, magazines and newspapers? Is there an audience for narrative? And if so, who is that audience? Who are the writers, and what are the publications, that can be considered standard-bearers of this narrative form? And finally, what is the future of narrative writing? What new directions does narrative writing seem to be taking?
First, let's try to get one troublesome piece of business out of the way as quickly as we can. What do we mean by the term "narrative nonfiction"? And is it the same or different from other terms that are in use, like "literary journalism," or "creative nonfiction," or "extended digressive narrative nonfiction"?
To me these semantic wrestling matches that go on are a complete waste of time. I think what each term suggests is that this is essentially a hybrid form, a marriage of the art of storytelling and the art of journalisman attempt to make drama out of the observable world of real people, real places, and real events. It's a sophisticated form of nonfiction writing, possibly the highest form that harnesses the power of facts to the techniques of fictionconstructing a central narrative, setting scenes, depicting multidimensional characters and, most important, telling the story in a compelling voice that the reader will want to hear.
Nabokov, it will come as no surprise, had the most illuminating remarks about narrative. He wrote, "The term 'narrative' is often confused with the term 'plot,' but they're not the same thing. If I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died, that's not narrative; that's plot. But, if I tell you that the king died, and then the queen died of a broken heart, that's narrative."
So then, narrative nonfiction bridges those connections between events that have taken place, and imbues them with meaning and emotion. And this is the genre of nonfiction writing that Tony Lukas cared so passionately about and so classically embodied in all of his workin newspapers, magazines and books.
The current publishing climate for long-form narrative nonfiction, it seems to me, is a decidedly mixed one. To sum up, one of narrative writers' two traditional sources of support, the magazine industry, has been undergoing some unhappy cultural shifts of late. General interest magazines, in particular, have been weakened and show few signs of rebirth as a sanctuary for the narrative form. On the other hand, prospects for narrative nonfiction writers in the other traditional source, book publishing, are exceptionally strong right now, as any glance at the weekly bestseller list over the last five or 10 years will attest.
And in an equally exciting development, newspapers, which are energetically looking for ways to reinvent themselves and halt declining readership in an age of new media and the Internet, are increasingly embracing the narrative form, dedicating more and more space to features and multi-part series that put a premium on storytelling.
First, let's deal with the magazine picture. There are exceptions, of course. On occasion, the better regional publications like Texas Monthly and Philadelphia magazine still manage to publish narrative writing. Outside magazine, once you negotiate all that service material about backpacks and hiking boots, is also a fairly reliable source of high-quality narrative with such contributors as Jon Krakauer, David Quammen, Tim Cahill, and Sebastian Junger.
Every once in awhile a national magazine will spring a major narrative surprise, like Rolling Stone a few years ago, with this haunting piece by a writer named John Colapinto about the tragic life of an intersexual called "The True Story of John/Joan," which recently was published as a full-length book. Then there was Michael Paterniti's wild cross-country car ride a couple of years ago with a large chunk of Einstein's brain encased in formaldehyde in the trunk of his car, while the Princeton pathologist who had stolen that brain during an autopsy in the 1950's rode in the passenger seat. They were on their way to deliver the brain to one of Einstein's nieces who lived in Berkeley, California, who by the way didn't seem at all interested in repossessing this organ. That, too, is now a book, and American road literature will never be the same.
And whenever I think of exemplary narrative writing of the last few years in the magazine world, I think of David Foster Wallace's dazzling tours de force in Harper's, in which he relates his angst-ridden experiences aboard a cruise ship. He takes a seven-day cruise and pays an incredible psychic price as a result. And then at the Illinois State Fair, Wallace also examines the notion of fun, and poses the question, "Can manufactured fun ever really be fun?"
Besides Harper's and Outside, other magazines that occasionally venture into the narrative arena are Esquire, which has been somewhat revitalized under a new editor in recent years, and an unlikely place, but one which has consistently published high-quality narrative nonfiction over the years, Sports Illustrated. Earlier this month, Sports Illustrated was once again honored at the National Magazine Awards for a feature writing award to the talented Gary Smith, who I think is one of the most underappreciated writers in this country because he's sort of pigeonholed as a sports writer. But this was a piece that grew out of his examining a photograph of the Texas Christian University locker room before a climactic Cotton Bowl game against Syracuse and the great Jim Brown who was playing for Syracuse. Smith went and interviewed everybody who was in that photograph in the locker room and talked to them about how their lives had decisively changed from that moment as they left the locker room. It was just a brilliant piece of narrative writing.
But, in general, magazines have been letting down the cause of narrative for years, as general-interest publications, which were once the driving force behind America's fascination, you might even say love affair, with this kind of writing seem to be making a retreat from long-form storytelling. In the 60's, 70's and 80's general-interest magazines with major national audiencesThe New Yorker under William Shawn, Esquire under Harold Hayes, Harper's under Willie Morris, Rolling Stone under Jann Wennerall provided fertile breeding grounds for narrative writing. Norman Mailer's "The Armies of the Night," David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest," Michael Herr's "Dispatches," Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine," to name just a few of the many examples of narrative writing from those years, were all major works of narrative nonfiction that actually originated as magazine pieces. Now we seem to go the other way where it's the book contract that initiates the narrative nonfiction, and magazines pick up excerpts from those about-to-be- published books.
So I think it would be hard to argue with the conclusion that magazines have essentially abdicated their traditional role as custodians of this form. Part of the reason is certainly economics. For a long time, general-interest publications have been shrinking, and in some notable cases, dying off altogether. And of those that are left, few are financially self-sufficient. In response to dwindling ad pages and correspondingly pinched editorial space, editors are redefining their magazines around articles that are shorter, faster and, therefore, cheaper to produce, more reactive to the news. Topicality is becoming de rigueur. And magazines today are much more unapologetically preoccupied with the worlds of power and celebrity than they used to be.
They seem increasingly reluctant to afford their writers the big blocks of total-immersion reporting time that are essential to produce ambitious narrative work. As Richard Ben Cramer, the author of a great piece of political narrative, "What It Takes," a book about the 1988 presidential campaign, once put it to me in that wonderfully gruff voice of his, "The dirty little secret of magazine publishing today is that nobody wants to pay for the reporting. And that's why most magazines today aren't worth a damn."
Another factor in the de-narrativizing of magazines has to do with changing perceptions about readers and their attention spans. Many magazines editors have just decided that readers are simply too busy, overloaded by too many competing claims on their schedules. And that these readers will have neither the time nor the inclination to wade through slow-building, dramatically building narrative stories.
To cite perhaps the most notable case in point of this somewhat unhappy trend, I think that The New Yorker, which once virtually owned the narrative nonfiction field, subsidizing the elegantly written, exhaustively researched efforts of its impressive roster of narrative talents John McPhee, Joe Mitchell, Jane Kramer, William Finnegan, and Susan Sheehan. The New Yorker has, with a few exceptions, I think, backed away from publishing journalism that is driven by long-form storytelling.
In book publishing, conversely, narrative nonfiction shows every sign of being in the midst of something of a golden age. Anyone scanning the book reviews and bestseller lists of the last few years will encounter one example after another of strong narrative nonfiction, from Jon Krakauer's spellbinding adventure tales, "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild," to Jonathan Harr's compelling portrait of that Byzantine world of plaintiffs' attorneys in "A Civil Action." To Simon Winchester's fascinating account of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, "The Professor and the Madman." To Mark Bowden's electrifying reconstruction of the battle of Mogadishu in his book, "Black Hawk Down." To Sebastian Junger's disaster-at-sea drama, "The Perfect Storm." And to the rich portrait of Savannah's gay subculture in John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which, notwithstanding the author's troubling admissions about playing fast and loose with chronologies and facts, occupied a lofty position on the bestseller list for a record-shattering five years.
Each of these books combines strong commercial appeal with assured writing, suspenseful storytelling and provocative insights into human behavior under the most stressful of conditions. Add to these examples two path-breaking books in the literary memoir genre, Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes" and Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club." Those two books certainly touched off, for better and, in many cases, for worse, a virtual self-revelation industry in publishing. But I think with all these books we see a very clear demonstration that contemporary readers, despite all the competition for their time, do and will respond to true tales that are well told.
All of these books generated broad, popular interest and, for the most part, critical success as well, providing substantial rewards not only for their authors, but for the cause of narrative itself. The upshot, I think, is that narrative nonfiction writers today have much less trouble getting their work published in books than they've ever had in the past. And certainly much less trouble than they do in the magazine world.
On the newspaper front, the last decade appears to have been a healthy and even exhilarating time for narrative writing. Many newspapers, though certainly by no means all, are now freeing up their best writers to work on a single ambitious article or series of articlesto devote weeks, and sometimes even months, to research and reporting, structuring and conceptualizing, writing and rewriting. Even in an era of budget tightening, newspaper editors seem increasingly willing to subsidize the time and travel costs of these projects and to give writers a wealth of space to tell their stories in depth.
And, I think, for their part, newspaper writers are so eager to break away from inverted pyramids and tired feature writing formulas, they seem to be responding to their newfound freedoms with some unusually creative uses of narrative. And, I think, with the most recent Pulitzer announcements we saw two examples: Kate Boo's series in The Washington Post about the treatment of the mentally handicapped in group homes in Washington; and J.R. Moehringer's piece in the Los Angeles Times, a long piece about a Southern community inhabited by the descendants of slaves. Both of these pieces were shot through with narrative technique.
So, just to conclude, if the 1980's defined a streamlined razzle-dazzle newspaper era of USA Today-style news bites and factoids and charts and graphs, where the sidebar became the main event, the hallmark of the last decade has been a growing fascination with long-form storytelling. These newspapers are essentially putting back the word "story" into the term "newspaper story," restoring what newspaper writing had for so many years lackedaction, true-to-life characters, point of view, and voicea lot of those good things and writing techniques that, I think, only the shortsighted think belong exclusively to fiction.