Module JG230

Literary Journalism

Module author

Tanni Haas

City University of New York

Learning objectives

After studying this module, you will be able to:

  • Define literary journalism and explain how factual and fiction writing can be combined;
  • Explain how literary journalism works,
  • Give an overview of the historic development of the genre, including key persons who established this genre;
  • Reflect this genre critically.
Study point 1
Reading extract Literary Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that Literary Journalism is important zu know

The term literary journalism refers to a form of writing that combines factual reporting with fiction writing techniques. In traditional journalism, the goal of the reporter is to outline who, what, when, where and why. A traditional journalist expresses the facts of the whole story without utilizing a point of view. Literary journalists immerse themselves in a story and create complicated structures, symbolism, voice and character development as strategies to convey a point of view. The other terms that have been used to describe this genre are "new journalism" and "creative nonfiction". 

The early examples of literary journalism date back to the nineteenth century. Following the Civil War, journalists began to challenge the notion that a reporter's job was to present a concise and objective truth. They chose instead to employ a new narrative style, much like fiction writing, in order to lessen the distance between the observer and the observed. Literary journalism began to receive critical praise because it breathed life into a story more effectively than regular journalism and yet avoided the sensationalistic style known as the "yellow press".

Some of the most prolific fiction writers in history began their careers as newspaper and magazine reporters. Many of these authors continued to write nonfiction pieces throughout their lives to make social commentary or to supplement their income. Covering everything from wars to social and political issues, these infamous authors breathed literary life into the true stories of the world. Two famous authors who are historically linked to this genre are Stephen Crane and George Orwell. 

Steven Crane regularly wrote for newspapers and also wrote fiction and poetry. He was frustrated by the lack of a narrative voice in the news and he brought literary flair to the pieces he wrote for the newspaper. A compilation of his literary sketches called "Wounds in the Rain" reflected what he witnessed while reporting from Cuba during the Spanish-American war. His use of realistic dialogue and detailed description in his reporting made his pieces popular with readers of the Worldmagazine. While his literary style informed his journalism, it was also clear that his journalistic integrity informed his literature. Stephen Crane did not witness the Civil War he described in "The Red Badge of Courage", his most famous novel, however it was evident that his in depth research of the subject created a strong framework for the story to be built upon. This masterpiece is also an example of literary journalism because it presents a truth that so many soldiers experienced in the Civil War.

George Orwell is widely known as the author of two of the sharpest satirical fiction novels in history: "Animal Farm" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four". His career as a writer was was strongly influenced by his own travel and his experiences in different countries. Through both his fiction writing and journalism he addressed imperialism, fascism and communism. Although he worked for the school magazine at Eton prior to age 18, Orwell did not do well academically. He decided instead to join the Imperial Indian Force and it was this experience that began to mold his political viewpoint. After leaving the India Imperial Force, Orwell lived in both Paris and London and tried to make a living with odd jobs. His time there opened his eyes to the struggles of the working poor and transients and resulted in his first major work called "Down and Out in Paris and London". His next book was called "Burmese Days" and it presented his personal experiences in Burma and a dark side to British colonialism. Orwell introduced the social and political concepts of the world through characters, symbols and narrative techniques. As a journalist, he conveyed the truth by utilizing the same strategy as he used in fiction writing. It was his skill at blending truth with creative writing techniques that marked his genius as a literary journalist. 

Media outlets in modern society continue to understand the viability of literary journalism. In a technically advanced world, competing for an audience is extremely challenging. Audiences have more information available at their fingertips and have a much shorter attention span regarding what they will spend time reading. This presents a true opportunity for literary journalists because they are able to employ creative storytelling techniques to engage readers. Like Crane and Orwell, having a passion for their topics and the ability to present them in an engaging style are key qualities that differentiate this type of journalist from them peers.