Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims & Mark Kramer

edited by Norman Sims & Mark KramerI picked up Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction because I’ve been experimenting with the genre.  Or so I thought.  The subtitle of this collection, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, both trained journalists, is indicative of the confusion inherent in the genre.  Nonfiction, as it turns out, appears in many different forms and styles.  This collection pays particular attention to what the editors call “Literary Journalism.” The essays in this collection are heavily researched and have the objectivity of journalism with the attention to language of fiction.  Almost.  There are places in which the research gets in the way of the crafting of language. Places, for example, where the author feels it necessary to list all eleven businesses along a particular stretch of a riverbank where the listing of two or three would have sufficed (and been less tedious).  And then there’s tone. The tone of these essays is so straight-forward and to the point that they run the risk, at times, of losing readers to boredom. I mean, if you’re going to write forty pages about river men in New Jersey, it had better be interesting.  And in the hands of a short story writer or novelist, it no doubt would. But it is clear that this choice of tone and complete transparency is a sort of unspoken rule amongst those who call themselves journalists first and writers second. And obviously some leniency can be given based on the fact that these writers are held to the truth in a way that writers in other genres are not. Sometimes, let’s face it, the truth is a bit boring.

Still, I found myself more intrigued than not in reading many of these essays which span topics from portraits of individuals and entire families to the farming industries in Russia and France or the history of the Corps of Engineers’ work on the Mississippi River.  It’s no surprise to me that the essays to which I felt most drawn were those that looked closely at and told the story of people – rather than those that helped explain how ice forms in rivers or the establishment of money market accounts in the eighties. Don’t hear me wrong – I liked those essays too. And it is perhaps the highest compliment I can give them by saying that I read the entire essay and enjoyed it. But still, it was the essays that formed a portrait in words of interesting (and not-so-interesting) people that kept me enrapt.

There are two essays in this collection that tie for my favorite. The first is titled “The American Man at Age Ten” by Susan Orlean. Here’s an essay about a 10-year-old boy. There is nothing exceptional about him. He is not famous for anything. And yet, through really skilled writing and an attention to detail, Orlean writes an essay that I couldn’t put down. There is no better description of Orlean’s essay than her opening paragraph:

If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks. We would wear shorts, big sneakers, and long, baggy T-shirts depicting famous athletes every single day, even in the winter. We would sleep in our clothes. We would both be good at Nintendo Street Fighter II, but Colin would be better than me. We would have some homework, but it would never be too hard and we would always have just finished it. We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn’t have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home…We would both be good at football, have best friends, and know how to drive; we would cure AIDS and the garbage problem and everything that hurts animals…We would have a very good life.

What I suspected I liked so much about that essay became even more solidified when I read Adrian Nicole LeBlanc‘s essay “Trina and Trina.”  LeBlanc writes about meeting sixteen-year-old Trina when her editor instructed her to write a piece on crack prostitution: “She was sixteen, six months into crack, holing up in a housing development with a thirty-two-year-old night security guard named Joe.” For three years, Leblanc follows Trina’s downward spiral into drug addiction, prostitution, jail and total isolation. Toward the end of the essay, LeBlanc writes: “Sometimes I get messages. I play back her voice on my answering machine and I miss Trina in those minutes–the irascible charm, the oddball wisdom, her hard honesty. Her words waft through my apartment.”

In the end, what turns out to be so engrossing about these particular essays is the plain and simple fact that the authors put themselves into the narrative. So many of the essays in this collection are pure journalism, what the editors call “long journalism” – pieces that require years of research, years devoted to following one particular story. And while those essays are interesting and, for the most part, hold my attention and educate me, it is the essay that includes the writer’s perspective, the journalist’s role, that resonates, that in some small way changes the way I see things or the way I feel. No doubt, it’s breaking the rules. It’s breaking the rules of journalism. But that’s what’s so great about “literary” journalism, like “creative” nonfiction: some of the rules can and should be broken.

By the time I read the last of the essays collected by Sims & Kramer in Literary Journalism, I realized that there is at least one form of nonfiction that I can scratch off my list of the kind of writing I’m doing. Defining where one fits in the broad and rule-riddled genre of nonfiction can be tricky. And while it’s clear to me that I’m not writing literary journalism, there are still things I can learn from having read this collection. Sims and Kramer did a good job of collecting a variety of essays in the genre, of illustrating how far afield one can go and still be considered a literary journalist. It is, for the most part, a good read too. And the essays that drag or don’t hold your attention? Well, you can just skip ahead to the next one that most likely will. I know I did.

3.5 stars on the Gabriel scale

4 thoughts on “Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims & Mark Kramer

    • Norm,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I was happy to stumble upon your collection at an important moment in my own writing career – namely, in the midst of a genre switch. I learned a great deal by reading the essays you selected. So, thanks. 😉

      And happy birthday, too!


  1. Nice review, Gabriel. This business of genre-bending is tricky, isn’t it? At one point you say, “So many of the essays in this collection are pure journalism, what the editors call “long journalism” – pieces that require years of research, years devoted to following one particular story.” When I read that, I immediately thought of Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” because Rebecca did, indeed, spend years researching and being devoted to that one particular story… but then she spun it with all the tools of a great fiction writer, with careful attention to characters, to the STORY, and it ended up being a shining example of CREATIVE NONFICTION. So, it doesn’t seem that the length of the piece or the amount of time and research that goes into it are what define its genre, but rather its VOICE. And maybe POINT OF VIEW, since, as you noted, it’s no longer journalism if the writer puts himself into the story, which is perfectly acceptable in creative nonfiction. All that to say, welcome to the world of CNF:-)

    • And what a world it is! But I think you’ve absolutely nailed it – it does boil down to voice (mostly) and, I think, attention to figurative language and word choice. I think any skilled CNF writer could re-write a few of the essays in the collection and turn them into gorgeous prose. It’s almost like the journalistic training gets in the way of the shaping of the essay, if that makes sense. That being said, several of the essays were extremely well-written (in terms of language and craft) and the only thing separating them from CNF, from my perspective, is the heavy focus on research. But even that’s debatable, isn’t it?

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