As regular readers will know, I am a fan of non-fiction books which focus on a place, person, movement or era and help us – by the power of the writing – to get “under the skin” of events. There has been a (rather bitter) controversy in certain American literary circles about whether “literary journalism” is an appropriate term of this genre. There is apparently a website for International Association for Literary Journalism Studies which tells us that for the purposes of scholarly delineation, our definition of literary journalism is ‘journalism as literature’ rather than ‘journalism about literature.’ One of the (rather smug) contenders in the controversy – who has written several books about the issue – offers a more detailed definition
Typically, literary journalism involves immersion reporting (sometimes for a year or longer), the active presence of the author’s voice in the narrative, and it uses the tools long associated only with fiction, such as elaborate structures, characterization, and even symbolism, but with the added requirement of accuracy. Literary journalism often deals with ordinary people rather than celebrities or politicians. Such long-form narratives stand in contrast to the relatively hurried forms of standard journalism. I use the term to describe the work of Edmund Wilson, James Agee, Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe.
Sad but typical that all examples are (North) American. He might have included writers such as Norman Lewis; Neal Ascherson; William Dalrymple; Arundhati Roy; Geert Mak; or the rather neglected Dervla Murphy.
But the term does seem a bit ambiguous if not contradictory – “journalistic” implies articles (rather than books) and is a put-down term - and “literary” a rather pretentious one. And who decides whether a work deserves either (or both) of these epithets? VS Naipaul won the Nobel prize for literature; wrote a powerful book about Islam Among the Believers which has all the features of literary journalism – but Naipaul is neither a journalist and only rarely writes articles. And there are many academics who write superb prose-works aimed at the general public eg Simon Schama.
Apparently the more general term is “creative non-fiction” – which I think is more appropriate. But what about the phrase "deep writing" which I found myself using in September?
Coincidentally, I have been reading two books which illustrate, I think, the range and power of such a genre. Geert Mak’s An
Island in Time – the biography of a village; and Rachel Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern – a journey in Russian History
Mak IS a journalist (Dutch) – but has written wonderful books about
Europe; and . Amsterdam
For An Island in Time he spent a year in a rural part of The Netherlands he had known in his childhood. Let one of the reviewers give you a sense of the book -
The lure of education, of easy money, of city life and hedonism affected the children of Jorwert, just as it did those of the French mountain youngsters or those in the Spanish plains. Schools struggled and then closed. Shops followed them. Churches remained the focus, but in protestant northern Europe they didn't have the hold they had in the catholic south – which isn't to say the whole Jorwert didn't put aside their personal faiths the day the church tower collapsed and set about figuring out how to rebuild it! Mak examines all of the issues in true journalistic fashion, supporting his arguments with academic study and local example.
It is the local anecdotes, however, that bring the book truly to life and make it worth reading. It really is about Peet who died among the cabbages with his leek bucket beside him. It is about the annual play that commandeers the solicitor's garden… and it is about that same solicitor ensuring that property changes into the right hands when it comes on the market. The real people that make the place what it is.
It is about the stories people tell. Reading "An Island in Time" is very much like sitting at your father's or grandfather's knee and hearing tales of how it used to be. Those tales survive in villages, because villages are really just overgrown families. Word of mouth is passed on and down the line.Like families, villages are hotbeds of dissent and squabble. When planning decisions come up, battle lines are drawn and comments made in the resultant public meetings will determine outcomes of totally unrelated events for years to come. Some things are never forgiven. Small things, usually. The wrong things.
Being 'one of them' enables Mak to enter into the lives of the people of Jorwert. They trust him with their stories. Does he betray that trust? I don't think so. His take is a very sympathetic one. He rarely takes sides, and clearly understands the natures of the pressures and problems. He made me love the place, and its people. He made me care about the fact that their way of life is being lost and that, no matter how many city folk decide to downsize and go back to the land, no matter how genuinely they try to enter into village life, they will never truly succeed – because their motivations have entirely shifted by virtue of their urbanisation.
Polonsky, on the other hand, is an academic who lived in the Nineties in an apartment block still referred to by Muscovites as “the Party Archive” from its years as a resting place for Communist Party officials. Her discovery of the annotated books of a high-level Soviet apparachtnik set her off on a literary journey which she captures in the beautifully-written Molotov’s Magic Lantern. The best of its reviews puts it like this -
On the floor above hers lay Vyacheslav Molotov’s old flat, with his Stalin-era furniture and the remains of his book collection, annotated and catalogued by the owner in violet ink. It turns out that the loathsome Molotov – who signed off more names for execution during the purges than Stalin, and of whom Stalin remarked (rather wittily): “If Molotov did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” – was a passionate book collector, who read poetry and whose favourite writer was Chekhov.
There is a dispiriting theme in Polonsky’s book, of cultivated, well-read people who commit terrible crimes: the Nazi collaborator and possible war criminal Boris Filistinsky who later, under the name Filippov, had a long and respected career as a poet and editor at an American university. What is one to make of these characters, who love the humanities, and epitomise inhumanity?
Also in Molotov’s apartment is a magic lantern, for which Polonsky finds an apposite quotation from Anna Akhmatova: “Memory is structured so that, like a projector, it illuminates discrete moments, leaving unconquerable darkness all around.” Molotov has a terrifying capacity to forget. When questioned in later life about those whose lives he signed away, sometimes thousands in a day, he is vague: “I can’t remember… I think he got mixed up with the Right-wingers… What does it matter?” Much of contemporary
seems happy to collude with this amnesia. Russia
Yet this book celebrates those few who refuse to forget, and whose efforts illuminate even the darkest moments of the past.
As Polonsky travels in widening circles away from
, down to Moscow in the south, Taganrog and Arkhangelsk in the north, she encounters the dark side of Russian history. The image of a “Lend-Lease” American bulldozer shovelling frozen corpses into a Gulag grave has huge power; and the great chronicler of the Gulag, Varlam Shalamov, observes Murmansk ringed by towerblocks “like watchtowers, guarding the prisoners”, and draws the sombre conclusion that “the watchtower of the Gulag zone was the architectural symbol – the principal idea – of his time”. Moscow
Much of Molotov’s Magic Lantern can be read as an ode to books and reading. The 19th-century philosopher and librarian Fyodorov believed that “to study meant not to reproach and not to praise, but to restore life” – both to subjects and to readers. In Soviet times many were sustained by study, finding inventive ways to discuss forbidden preoccupations. Shalamov describes the hunger for books which is almost as unbearable as the pains of starvation. “There is no sweeter thing,” he said, “than the sight of an unread book.”
Later he transformed his suffering into crystalline prose, quite as adept as Chekhov’s. One wishes that Molotov had been forced to read it, although no doubt he would have responded with his usual mulishness: “1937 was necessary.”
Polonsky’s interests are eclectic, ranging from obscure 19th-century poets to contemporary propaganda pamphlets. The latter she fillets with dry wit: unpleasant publications sponsored by the FSB (KGB in new guise) which spell out Russia’s primal supremacy, and the Roerich Movement’s New Age prophecies, “rich in pseudoscience”, which warn of danger from Europe, “noting in passing that the sun sets in the west and scenes of the Apocalypse appear on the western walls of Russian churches”. Contemporary politics does not really interest her, but by sifting through the layers of irrationality and prejudice in Russian culture she achieves a more profound understanding of Putin’s
than many other foreign observers. Russia