Friday, July 10, 2015

Journalism vs. literature

During my long career in journalism, I was never under any illusion I was creating literature. Sometimes it was good journalism. Sometimes it was bad journalism. Mostly it was acceptable journalism. But literature? Never.

So I was a little surprised while reading Jon Winokur's Writers on Writing, a collection of quotations from writers, to find several entries comparing (or contrasting) journalism with literature. Here they are:

Journalism is literature in a hurry. - Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold
It is because journalism must be done in a hurry, especially when it involves daily newspapers, that it so rarely meets the standard of literature. Magazines, which have more forgiving deadlines than newspapers, usually offer a better quality of writing. I am often impressed with the writing in Sports Illustrated, a weekly magazine. Is it literature? I couldn't say, but it certainly is good journalism.

The work of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens becomes more impressive when you consider that they were under deadlines to produce so many chapters of their novels each month or each week because they appeared in periodicals before they were published as books. These people were, in effect, journalists who produced literature on a regular basis.

The difference between journalism and literature is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. - Oscar Wilde

This is an exaggeration, but it does contain a germ of truth. Few people do read great literature, especially when it is not required reading in classrooms. Of course, in today's world, few people read journalism either.

The distinction between literature and journalism is becoming blurred; but journalism gains as literature loses. - W.R. Inge

Is Inge saying that journalism is getting better while literature is in decline? Inge died in 1954 when he was in his 90s, so he must have been talking about journalism and literature as they were about 100 years ago. This was, I believe, a time when journalism was improving significantly, though I hardly think literature was declining. It was changing significantly, however, thanks to such writers as William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. When I read the book Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies & Triumphs a few months back, I noticed some extraordinary examples of newspaper columns, many of which probably might be classified as literature, although the definition of literature is itself a bit blurry.

Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once. - Cyril Connolly

Well, OK, that's a pretty good definition.  Literature does not have a fixed meaning. It can mean different things to different people, or even different things to the same people at different points in their lives. The meaning of literature is something that can be argued about. Journalists, on the other hand, must make their meaning clear enough so that virtually everyone who reads an article will understand the same thing, and after just one quick reading..

Journalism is more about conveying facts, while literature is more about conveying truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment