narrative journalism

Beach reading, bed reading, book reading

II’m just back in California after leading a writers retreat on the beach where I grew up, in Hawai‘i. So it’s time to share some good reads and to let you know about a few cool updates on this Web site. Oh, and to let you know about the next retreat!

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The Art of Fact

I recently had to spend a morning in traffic court (don’t ask), so I grabbed one of those books that has been on the shelf forever but never read. This one was The Art of Fact, an anthology edited in 1997 Ben Yagoda and Kevin Kerrane. In the Preface to The Art of Fact, Yagoda defines the mysterious genre of “literary journalism, which includes “fly on the wall” reporting, first-person tales, and lots of style.

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Best of narrative journalism (articles)

Interested in exploring narrative journalism by reading some of it? I’d call these the “classics” among essays and articles. They are listed chronologically, so that you can trace the evolution of the genre over three centuries. The first selection is a chronicle of a day in the life of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The last is a two-part series that marries the best of investigative grit with literary writing.

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What the heck is narrative journalism?

I’ve taught narrative journalism at Harvard, organized conferences on the subject, written criticism about it, and practiced it for more than 20 years.

Yet the term “narrative journalism” makes me cringe.

But we do need a name for articles and books that tell true stories, and do it artfully.

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Best of narrative journalism (books)

Writers and editors throw the term narrative journalism around loosely, and many don’t really know how to define it. Here’s my own short definition: narrative journalism is reported nonfiction that uses the techniques of fiction to enliven the story.

Here is a sampling of some of the best works of narrative journalism that have been published in books.

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A-lists, e-books, and the iPad

Some chewy bits and pieces to offer you this week. First, kudos to David Finkel, whose book The Good Soldiers was just named the recipient of the Anthony Lukas prize. I’ve long been an admirer of Finkel’s narrative journalism, which came to my attention when I edited the Nieman Foundation’s Narrative Digest. The Good Soldiers offers an interesting counterpoint to The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins.

How will books like these fare in the future, as traditional publishing adapts to new technology? Read about that and a list of tips from a writer/editor pal of mine in California.

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Try a little frisson with your nonfiction

An intriguing collection of unlike things ends up on the New York Times list of 100 notable books each year. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review about the blurring of fiction and nonfiction claims that nonfiction is losing its “frisson.” I hardly agree—see my essay in Talking Story—but if you need further convincing, go no further than the NYT’s top 100.

Here is the Connie Cull…

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Is true fiction just true fraud?

A recent piece in the Columbia Journalism Review set me on edge. In “The Rise of True Fiction,” my colleague Alissa Quart writes about a trend she perceives in the literary landscape: “an increase in the blurring of neat and certain categories of ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’ into something that we might call ‘true fiction.’”

I would recommend the essay to anyone practicing fiction, nonfiction, or memoir, with some caveats.

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Critiquing Ken Burns

I’m fascinated with writing that uses the techniques of fiction to enliven nonfiction, whether in print, online, or on the radio or in documentary films.

Ken Burns is hard to ignore—not just because his The National Parks: America’s Best Idea preempted PBS prime-time programming last week—but also because he has the chops and the resources to do great narrative journalism. I mainly agreed with Mary McNamara’s LA Times review, but while watching endless footage of razorlike mountains and verdant plains, I couldn’t help muttering, “Does it have to be so long?” “Could the writing have more frisson?” “Can Ken Burns do tone that isn’t elegiac?”

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