Thursday, April 27, 2017

Crossing over

Our Spring Roundtable was fun and illuminating. The theme was "Literary Journalism and Religion, the subject of a course we've offered twice and will be offering again in the Fall. S, the instructor of that class put together this panel which included a prize-winning writer and a graduating senior in Journalism + Design who took the latest iteration of the course. What is literary journalism? It's a kind of long-form journalism like the oxymoronic "creative non-fiction," research- and interview-based work which employs literary styles and structures in its writing, like "scenes." S thinks literary journalism and religion have a special affinity. Both involve a kind of "crossing over" from a more neutral, naturalistic level to something else, the realm of belief or religious experience. Literary journalism is better able than straight journalism or testimonial to capture the mystery of this crossing.

I'm excited at our program's exploration of affinities with journalism of various sorts, as I have been about past explorations with the creative arts. But I confess to being a little unnerved at literary journalism's arms's length distance from "facts." This evening's fascinating exchanges showed how deeply committed these writers are to their craft as well as to the objects of their writing, but there's none of the self-suspicion now standard in the interpretive human sciences. Or maybe that's taken for granted. J, who writes for the New York Times and has published a book about demon exorcism among veterans haunted by our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that an "unreliable narrator" was key to her work. Unreliable yet still worthy of trust... it's an interesting approach to the humility which should attend any attempt to tell another's story. A genre which might otherwise seem to be part of our nihilistic post-fact landscape turns out instead to offer an antidote to it.

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