Doug Underwood is a University of Washington professor of communication. He answered a few questions about his latest book, “The Undeclared War between Fiction and Journalism: Journalists as Genre Benders in Literary History.”
Q: What is the concept behind this book, and the meaning of its intriguing title?
A: The book is about journalist-literary figures who have written both fiction and nonfiction, which have been in competition in the Western writing world since the beginnings of the modern newspaper and the modern novel in the 18th century.
There’s a lot of debate today about bias and where to find journalism you can trust. Those tensions began to show up a lot in the 1960s and the 1970s. New Journalism was a term developed by writers – mostly journalists – who wanted to blend journalism’s fact standards with fiction writing’s narrative style.
The movement was connected to the countercultural mood of those times – the protests, the sense that conventional journalism wasn’t revealing the truth about the Vietnam War. New Journalism is rooted in a notion that we’re still fascinated with today: Where’s the line between journalism and fiction? Norman Mailer labeled this rivalry “an undeclared war,” which I used in the book’s title.
Q: What advantage is fiction perceived to have over nonfiction in the telling or depicting of difficult truths? Is journalism viewed as so constrictive as to prevent writers from depicting news accurately and completely?
A: James Agee, who spent years working at Time and Fortune magazines, once called journalism “a successful form of lying.” I try to connect this viewpoint with the history and evolution of modern journalism.
The invention of the steam-powered printing press in the 19th century allowed publishers to sell newspapers to as many people as possible. To do this, they developed a “neutral” way of reporting – quote both sides of a controversy and let the readers decide what’s true. “Facts” were what other people said or did or what the journalist experienced first-hand or dug out of documents. This protected news organizations against libel and aligned journalism with the legal system, which doesn’t allow into evidence speculation about what other people are thinking.
However, the novel also became popular in the 19th century. Novelists created imaginary characters and explored the way people’s thoughts and feelings might not mesh with words and actions. The New Journalists wanted to blend the two literary forms. And that’s the controversy: How do you do that?
Historically, it’s tended to be novels that have been considered great literature. They have staying power – the stories reflect what Aristotle called the “timeless” and the “universal.”
Why is that? One reason is that nonfiction tends to rely on real events. As time goes by, those stories grow stale compared to the stories created in a writer’s imagination. This is what the New Journalists hoped to change – they hoped that their writings would survive as great literature. That’s why some scholars now call this form of writing “literary journalism.”
However, I argue that both journalists and scholars tend to define the genre too narrowly. If you include the great realistic novels written by ex-journalists – say Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” or Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” which were fictionalized accounts of real life crimes — you get a better perspective about how much journalism has influenced the literary canon.
Q: Let’s drop some names. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song” seem examples of the genre you describe. What are some others you feel successfully crossed genres?
A: I would argue that those books deserve to be in the literary canon, along with other such literary nonfiction (or semi-nonfiction, as their critics might argue) as Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and maybe Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
I would include some older narratives: Agee’s “A Death in the Family,” George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” Thomas De Quincey’s “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.”
However, I am fairly restrictive here. I am critical of scholars for too casually applying the term “literary” to narratives that don’t reach the level of literature. I think canonical status is rarer to achieve in nonfiction because its writing methodology is so much more restrictive.
Q: What is your advice to student writers in these matters of truth in fiction and nonfiction writing?
A: The narrative journalism course I teach at the UW has been a breath of fresh air. I get the best writing, I swear. I encourage the students to write outside the box of journalism training and stretch their story-telling methods. The students write about real things in their lives but in stylistic ways. It is a field where many of them can be successful. Narrative journalism is thriving. The public loves it.