The evergreen essay – What is old is new again in the written word
One of the few bright spots in an uncertain, and at times bleak, media world is the increasing confidence that reading is not dead.
Far from it. People are reading more than ever. It is unusual these days to be in a public space and see someone whose eyes are not fixed on a little screen at arm’s length, checking for the latest updates in their own carefully curated space. News from around the world and down the road, gossip from friends and notice about things to do, places to go, is constant and growing exponentially.
What is more surprising though is that many people are not just reading short snips, or messages encoded in the preferred language of twitter or sms, but turning to screens to read long essays, immersion journalism, features, reports, profiles and much more.
The idea of reading a Griffith REVIEW or New Yorker essay of 5000 or more words on the screen of an iPhone seems counter intuitive, but in the new screen based world it is happening all the time.
This may not be the most comfortable experience, it may not maximize memory retention, or guarantee that all the nuances of such a long piece are fully absorbed, but it is the new normal, every day all around us. The screen generation is full of omnivores hungry for information and insight – constantly scrolling and searching, dipping in and out, reading to the end and commenting.
And as befits omnivores they are not confined to one flavour or method. A taste of an essay on the phone screen on the way home, may be sufficient to come back to later on a tablet, computer or even old-fashioned paper. The constant sifting and sorting of information opens countless possibilities – both in terms of the access to information and the way it is organized and distributed.
What this signals is that what is old is new again and more available than ever. It is also morphing in exciting ways to add images, sound, interactivity – though at the heart of any successful piece of long form journalism is a skilled writer who is can gather and marshal information and draw on a wide range of literary traditions and styles.
For years I paid extortionate amounts of money to subscribe to my favorite international magazines and journals. They would arrive erratically, sometimes close to the publication date, sometimes weeks or months later – but they were generally worth the wait, full of riches unlike anything regularly produced in this country even when the print media companies were richer than they are today. Now I receive my New Yorker, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Atlantic and others, at exactly the same time as readers in distant places, and can have real time conversations with them about the pieces we read, about the content, about the structure, about the issues raised, the methods of crafting the writing and its supporting materials.
Interest in long form journalism is not really surprising. It has been there since the great essayists of centuries past – a part of the rich mix of form and content that has shaped journalism for centuries, evolving with changing technology, and helping readers (as well as the writers) to make sense of the world in which they live.
I was a journalism student when the so called New Journalism burst into print and changed what we imagined journalism: immersive, discursive, combative, sometimes self indulgent, sometimes brilliant, raising and addressing big ethical issues, providing insight into many more worlds and subjects than could otherwise be done, drawing on literary techniques of narrative, character, dialogue in a way that was a polar opposite to the perfectly crafter inverted pyramid news story pitched at the mythical (and somewhat dim) child on the Clapham bus.
An older generation of Australian journalists took to the freedom and possibilities of this style with enthusiasm – honing their craft and bringing complex tales to life, immersing themselves in the subject and producing thousands of words for the then fat weekend papers. They were craftsmen and women, elegant stylists who welcomed the chance to ‘grow on the page’ – many went on to write books, others made films and documentaries, looking for ways to bring complex stories to life.
Interest in long form journalism is not really surprising.
It has been there since the great essayists of centuries past.
As with all fads, so the New Journalism passed, but the memory lingered on.
During the 1980s when I was teaching journalism at UTS one of the most popular and enduringly influential courses I taught was one, which combined the techniques of literary and investigative journalism. In those distant pre-internet days the students learnt research methods that now seem arcane, and studied the literary techniques of story structure, narrative, character and voice – and combined the research and the writing in their final projects. It was a big ambitious subject, immersed in the best writing produced in this country, some from Britain and Europe, but underpinned by the deep and long history of such writing in the USA, where some of the greatest literary stylists preferred to think of themselves as journalists – because a true story had so much power. Like an earlier generation, many of them persisted with this style of journalism in print, television, and by writing books.
An almost self conscious and determined attachment to long form journalism in its many styles and forms continues in the USA – the Neiman Storyboard at Harvard interrogates the form, posts regular discussions on its site, and brings and analytical approach to the writing, at Columbia University the Roundtable project provides opportunities for students and others to pursue long form writing and reach international audiences.
All this writing is grounded in the best techniques of writing, and investigation, and produces work that moves and informs.
It is particularly interesting to see how the writing is now being enriched with sound and image, moving pictures, commentary, and beautiful design. Last year John Brand won the Pulitzer Award for Feature writing for Snowfall his extraordinarily evocative work on the deadly avalanche at Tunnel Creek near Seattle in Washington. At the heart of the piece is his narrative of the disaster and the people and place – but it is immeasurably enriched by the images, audio and other material that brings it to life on the screen in a way that even the most beautifully crafted coffee table book would struggle to do.
Similarly the wonderful piece of interactive journalism produced by The Guardian here on the Tasmanian fires, Firestorm, which won the Walkley for multimedia journalism, demonstrates the power of such story telling. Jon Henely’s writing, like that of John Brand, remains at the heart of the work – it is the capacity to craft and write about complex and moving subjects with skill, insight and deep knowledge that keeps people reading.
It is the writer’s eye and ear that drives these projects. The same can be said of the two Griffith REVIEW essays that won Walkley’s last year. Kathy Marks’ extended report Channelling Mannalargenna was a hugely ambitious undertaking – she set out to understand Aboriginal Tasmania – and did so with extraordinary insight and elegance. For those brought up to believe that Trugannini was the last Aboriginal Tasmanian, the contemporary reality and the historic truth needed to be retold. Kathy’s approach to her work is to read everything she can, including obscure academic texts, interview widely and be there. This combination of diligence and persistence paid off. That she was able to craft a narrative, build characters, provide a sense of place and reach her own conclusions in a diligent and fair minded way, ensured that this report was not just another stab at a complex story – but a worthy winner of an important award.
Similarly Melissa Lucashenko’s long feature, Sinking Below Sight – Down and out in Brisbane and Logan, was based on one of the oldest forms of literary long form journalism – immersion. She writes about a world she knows and has lived, so that the authenticity of the story, and the nuance of the characters, is extraordinary powerful. George Orwell set the bar high with Down and Out in Paris and London, but he was not off the place he wrote about in the way that Melissa is. But Melissa is also a highly skilled and literate writer – she has absorbed the lessons of her craft and honed them to a high degree – and applied the techniques to her journalism and fiction.
That is one of the big lessons of long form journalism – the best readers make the best writers. There is a lot to be learnt from what others have done, to unpick the structure, to pay attention to the details of the form as well as the information that will animate the shell. At its best it is a true fiction that takes readers into another world, rather than leaving them on the windowsill looking in.
The tools for learning how to do this are now easily accessible – the best the world has to offer is there on your screen. Even if there is not a lot of money to be made from the effort that needs to be expended, this is journalism that does not become wrapping for fish and chips, or cyber junk – it endures, and through its quality and rigor changes understanding and sometimes lives.
It is also great fun to do.
Julianne Schultz AM FAHA is the founding editor of Griffith REVIEW www.griffithreview.com
This essay was first published as ‘Reading Between the Lines’ in The Walkley Magazine, March – May 2014 45- 46 and was reproduced with permission.