The Nieman Foundation and Columbia University’s
Graduate School of Journalism convened a panel of
journalists to discuss nonfiction narrative writing
during the annual conference that honors the work
and life of journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning
author J. Anthony Lukas. Speaking as the new editor
in chief of The Atlantic, Michael Kelly described how
he intends to oversee “at least some rebirth of serious
or ambitious narratives in at least one magazine.” He
then commented on some assertions about narrative
writing in newspapers and magazines.

The first assertion is that most people who write for
newspapers or for magazines cannot write a narrative.
And the reason is that they cannot or have not
learned to write that which is at the core of narrative, which
is physical description and dialogue. The second assertion is
that it has to some degree always been thus, but that it has
gotten more so in this century and particularly in the last 30
or 40 years. And the third assertion is that the reason boils
down to the lamentable, in this context, invention of the

This century has been, among other things, a century of
the camera. I think one effect has been to encourage writers
and editors, at least subconsciously but pervasively, to adopt
a kind of group belief that the great traditional role of the
correspondent, as the observer of things who describes what
his or her senses perceive, need no longer be fulfilled by a
writer. There was no point in fulfilling it because the camera—first the still camera and then the moving camera—would do it better than we could. And we, in our role, in our
19th century role as correspondents, as people who would
go to places and send back dispatches saying, “Here’s what
the battle looked like,” or, “Here’s what the eruption of the
volcano looked like,” and so on, that we had sort of lost our
reason, or that reason, for being.

This is not universal. It’s certainly not articulated and
certainly not everybody believes in it. But I think that it has
come to be a pervasive thing in America’s newspapers and
magazines, and I’ve seen it in my own life. When I wanted to
go off and write dispatches on the Gulf War, I had a very
simple model in mind. I wanted to write the classic
correspondent’s dispatch: to simply go to wherever I could
go, see what I could see, hear what I could hear, and write only that. I would not attempt any analysis of the war, not
attempt any reporting beyond that which grew directly out
of the events before me, and to file it in dispatch form for
whomever would buy it.

When I went flogging this idea around to various agents
and editors, it was pretty roundly rejected, and not only
because I was an unknown writer and it was a perfectly
reasonable idea to reject me, but because, as various people
said to me, frankly, the whole idea was wrong. That this was
a war that was going to be filled with cameras. The first night
of bombing, there would be cameras there. There would be
cameras throughout the war. Everything that could be described
would be seen in many cases in real time, so the idea
of filing a dispatch that a reader might read a week or even
a month later was pointless, and sort of an anachronistic

I see this also in the writing that comes to me as an editor.
The thing that I most lament, and causes me most grief in
manuscripts that come in from professional writers, from
good writers, is the stunning lack of physical description. A
writer will go to some interesting, fascinating and dangerous
place, and will file a piece that will contain a great deal of
terrific reporting on all sorts of levels—interviews, analysis
and so on—and the story will simply be bereft of physical
description, of the colorful, vivid scene painting that readers
continue to love. It’s a myth that readers have turned away
from this and that in the age of the picture and now the age
of Internet, that readers don’t want it.

Readers of books, but also of magazines, every chance
they get to reward this kind of writing, they show it over and
over again. They do want descriptive writing, but very few
writers—or relatively few, even in the kind of manuscripts
we see at The Atlantic—seem to know how to do this. And
this leads me to what I think is one of the long-term
unfortunate effects of the camera on writing and that is the
institutional effect on newsrooms.

I think Robert [Vare] is right to say that in newspapers
today there is some renaissance of narrative writing. There
are pieces, there are serious projects that are narrative and
that are excellent. But it’s notable that when Robert talked
about that he spoke exclusively in terms of projects, big
ambitious projects that newspapers undertake. These are
projects that are intended to attract attention, to showcase
the newspaper, maybe to win some prizes, and so on. What
he didn’t talk about was the day-to-day structure, the intellectual
structure, if you will, of the city room. And that, I think, has changed. I don’t think there’s been much of a
renaissance in that and, even if there is, it will take years to
reverse what I see as the damage.

My father was a newspaper reporter, a tabloid man at the
old Daily News in Washington, and he was very much of a
sort of writer that newspapers used to be filled with and used
to greatly encourage and to treasure. He was somebody who
would wander into work, sit around cracking wise with
other people cracking wise, and then go off and cover a set
event that other reporters would be at. But he’d do so with
the understanding that he was to come back with the angle,
the funny story, the feature treatment of it that would set his
piece apart from the straight news guys. Or he’d just go off
and wander around the city and come up with some story,
some slice of human life feature.

There were three papers in Washington in those days, and
there were half a dozen people who did exactly this sort of
work. One of them was Tom Wolfe. And every day readers
were treated to this kind of sketch writing; this was the
shortest form of narrative, and readers loved it. And the
people who ran newspapers knew that readers loved it, and
they encouraged these people whose essential talents were
not as reporters but as writers, physical description guys,
and dialogue. They encouraged them and rewarded them
and valued them.

I used to go and watch my father at work on some days.
I’d go down there on Saturdays when he would do essentially
nothing for most of the day. He’d talk to his friends,
drink a few beers, then go to the circus, come back, and write
up 800 words. Everybody would laugh, and then he would
go home. This is why I went into journalism. It seemed to be
the ideal life and neither my father nor anyone else told me
I was witnessing the vanishing of an era, as if he was a buggywhip
manufacturer, and that had seemed to me a good line
of work to get into.

Newspapers, I think, at least in part because of this sense
that the camera does this kind of work, somehow over the
years quit valuing, promoting, encouraging, hunting for this
kind of talent, the sketch writer. And the result, you can see,
I think, in every paper you pick up as a reader, in almost every
story. In my father’s time in newspapering, not every political
reporter who worked in every paper in the country could,
to put it mildly, write the kind of stuff, in terms of physical
description, that [A.J.] Liebling wrote in “The Earl of Louisiana,”
in which he catches this marvelous picture of Earl Long
mopping his brow with a handkerchief dipped in Pepsi-Cola
on a hot summer night in the South.

And, of course, not everybody, not anybody could do that.
But newspapers were filled with people who thought that’s
what they were supposed to aspire to. And the political
columnist for even a second- or third-rate newspaper knew
that when a presidential candidate came through town, and
he went out to cover the speech, that one of the things that
he was supposed to do was to paint some kind of theme of
what this man looked like and what he sounded like and
something to capture the spirit of the crowd and so on. You
could read through a year’s worth of political writing in the
presidential year we’re now in, read across the country,
newspaper to newspaper, and not find that.

This is true also in feature writing, in the kind of quick-profile
writing such as the movie star who comes to town and
you catch a quick interview and so on. And the result of this
institutionally, in no intentional or planned way, has been to
sort of destroy what was a kind of literary farm system in
which all around the country there were people who were
trying, aspiring to what Liebling could do, consciously or
unconsciously. Whether they were thinking of Liebling himself,
they were aspiring to this. They were learning this craft
in small newspapers, and then, if they were good, the system
that valued them would find them, would reward them, and
would promote them. They would get to a better paper and
a better paper, and if they kept learning the craft and they
kept getting better they would end up in magazines, where
they were greatly valued, and they could make a great deal
of money and become stars.

The entire system told people who wrote for a living, in
the journalistic sense, from the first day of the job, that they
could chart a course on the strength of their writing, on the
strength of their ability to describe things in a way that other
people couldn’t, describe them with more color or more wit,
describe them in a way that was funnier than other people
could do. And that if you did this, this would be quite
systematically rewarded and encouraged and lead you up to
a path to magazines and ultimately books. That farm system,
somewhere along the way, broke down.

I hope that it is coming back to some degree in newspapers,
but I think judging from what I see in manuscripts, it
is a long road back. I know an awful lot of people who write
professionally who simply don’t understand that if you’re
describing, you know, a couple of Serb paramilitary thugs
sitting in a room drinking slivovitz and talking, that you need
to do something more than write that they’re sitting there
and drinking slivovitz and talking. You need to tell people
what everything looks like.

The almost mechanical nature of doing this is something
that many writers that I talk to don’t know. For instance, they
don’t know that if you want to describe something in
physical exactitude, and you’re going to be writing days or
weeks or, in some cases, months later, that you need a
notebook that is filled not just with people’s words but with
physical descriptors. You need to have described the person’s
face and his clothes and everything about it or else you won’t
be able to do it later. It is almost as if a kind of school for
writing, at least for narrative writing, has been lost because
of the loss of this core talent, the ability to describe things.

I hope it gets better.

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