By Ben Cohen

Smack in the middle of fiction and nonfiction is literary journalism, a style that employs narrative techniques to report the truth or at least a version or two of it.

“Literary journalism is almost like fiction – except it’s true,” says Bill Reynolds, co-founder the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies and editor of its journal.

The style allows the journalist to eschew convention by writing the story in detailed scenes and from various perspectives.

“You could even write from the character’s point-of-view or in omniscient third-person,” Reynolds added.

I met with Reynolds in his office, decorated with posters of jazz musicians and stacks of yellowed newspapers, to learn about his philosophy on representing reality through text, and churn that conversation into a piece of literary meta-journalism.   

In his December RJRC presentation, Reynolds explained how literary journalists mirror the world to their readers “as it really is, as they see it.” He discussed philosophers Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre, who influenced him with their belief that human reality is the only reality we can access.

Given that literary journalism is a relatively new field, there’s lack of research on its theory. So Reynolds began his research tying phenomenology — the philosophical study of experiences and consciousness — to literary journalism.

“I was thinking about the literary journalist’s methodology and how it differs from that of the news reporter,” Reynolds said.

“The news reporter gets on the ground, goes to the press conference, goes to the fire – whatever it is – writes the story as fast as she or he can, files it and goes on to the next one. The kind of journalism I teach isn’t like that at all.”

Instead, the literary journalist comes up with a story idea and then tries to figure out how to tell it and which characters they’ll use to that end.

“Then you have to get these people to agree to let you have major access to their lives,” he added.

“After that, you have to do all the extra research because your editor is expecting you to almost become an expert in your little field,” Reynolds says. “It’s hours and hours and hours of work, and that means that the relationship between the main source and the journalist evolves over time,”

Reynolds spoke of philosopher Husserl’s phenomenological concept of reality bracketing, wherein “phenomena,” or objects in the world as we see and experience them, are unpacked and divorced of their symbolic meanings.

“Husserl has this idea that reality is like an onion – layered,” Reynolds explained, likening the interview process to “peeling to get to the next layer of reality.”

“As you keep digging and interviewing and talking and you get to another layer, so the story starts to evolve and the truth is a little different,” he added.

Reynolds says we expected great literary journalists of the 20th century, such as Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote, to have a point of view and to “make a decision about what reality is.” Readers want reality to be filtered through a writer’s consciousness, he said. At some point in the onion-peeling process, we want journalists to say, “I got it, I know the truth, and that’s what I’m going to write.”

While bracketing is faulty from a philosophical point-of-view, it works for literary journalism. We’re conscious creatures experiencing a reality spiked with symbols, meaning and thoughts. That’s why writers who distill life into stories with characters, conclusions and perspective are valued.  

The writer Mario Vargas Llosa asserted that the novelist is a god because he or she gives life to their characters, kills them and decides everything that happens in between. Given what Reynolds suggests, perhaps the literary journalist is a sort of lesser deity in the context of their work, one who records the machinations of their own god, influencing the story by choosing how it gets told.

By Ben Cohen

Are fiction and journalism compatible? Can a journalist also be a fiction writer or poet?

My Double Life: Journalists who also write fiction and poetry, a panel hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre last month, showed that yes, some people really can do both.

The panel brought together three journalists with side careers in creative writing: Angela Misri, Waubgeshig Rice, and Marsha Barber. Professor Emerita and well-known literary reviewer Suanne Kelman moderated the discussion. You can watch the whole panel below:

How do you manage the work-work balance?   

Angela Misri, who writes YA detective fiction while also working as digital director at the Walrus, drew a parallel between news and creative writing: Both mediums have their own logic and structure. The key to switching between them, she says, is to “apply different rules when you’re writing different things.”

Misri’s book, Pickles vs. the Zombies, about house pets who fight the undead, isn’t grounded in reality, but its world still has rules – cats can’t fly, and animals can’t talk to humans.

“I’m working within the rules of that fictional world. When I do journalism, there are very distinct rules about that,” she said.

“As long as I know which rules I’m writing for, I don’t have any trouble sitting and writing in those worlds.”

Novelist and CBC radio host Waubgeshig Rice says going from writing hard news to fiction is all about changing his environment.

He’s been in a CBC newsroom for more than a decade, he said, and “in that space, it’s always about the facts, the truth and getting things done properly.”

But “once I’m out of that, when I’m sitting down to do my creative writing at home or in a café or pub, it’s a much different environment, so I can switch gears more easily.”

While Rice’s creativity flourishes in certain spaces, Barber’s is tied to time. She says she always writes her poems late at night and revises them in the morning. The rest of her day is devoted to teaching and journalism.

Creativity in journalism … and  journalism in creativity

Philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Journalism achieves the same ends, but operates under a strict anti-lying policy.

But Ryerson Professor and poet Marsha Barber said there are parallels between poetry and some forms of broadcast journalism.

“I’ve seen broadcast scripts that look like poetry,” said Barber, who was formerly a senior producer with CBC TV’s The National. “They’re very sparse, the writing is very concise, very clear. In terms of writing, I don’t think the worlds are very separate.”

Barber  says writing poetry is about “striving for the truth, the same way you are in journalism.”

“I don’t see them as completely opposed worlds by any means,” added Barber, who most recently published the poetry collection, All the Lovely Broken People. “I think there are places where the worlds come together.”

Rice says working in journalism has helped his literary storytelling. With the encouragement of his editor, he drew on his broadcast skills, which helped his new thriller, Moon of the Crusted Snow, move at a quick pace.

“(Moon of the Crusted Snow) had to focus on the action, which is what we tend to do in broadcast journalism,” he added.

What can fiction do that journalism can’t?

Rice says journalism hasn’t allowed him to dive as deeply into historical issues as he would like, specifically as they relate Indigenous people.

“We’re at a crucial time now where Canadians are learning more and more about history and what has happened to Indigenous people on this land,” he said. “We need to be able to offer up that context. Telling a story in 1.15 minutes on the radio or two minutes on TV, it’s nearly impossible to get to the proper context.”

Although the characters, settings and surroundings are made up, Rice says it’s the real historical context that binds his work together. Moon of the Crusted Snow is about a displaced, post-apocalyptic Anishinaabe community that endured residential schooling and the trauma of the Sixties Scoop. Rice says telling real stories through fiction allows him to more creatively highlight colonial injustice and extend historical understanding, rather than just “rehashing dates, legal issues and historical facts.”

Processing, representation — and fun.

For Barber, poetry is her “lifeline,” and how she processes the world.

“We all have our forms of self-expression and creative expression,” said Barber. “For me, it’s always been about words. In poetry, there’s a lot of revision, so you’re polishing and you’re polishing, and that’s part of what I get out of it; taking something that’s very raw and processing it until it’s something that, occasionally, on a really good day, I can be proud of.”

Fiction writing is about representation for Misri. “Growing up I didn’t know I could be an author,” she said. “As an Asian woman, I assumed I’d be a doctor or an engineer. I think seeing me on stage is important for my group of humans, who I can encourage to come on stage as well and write.”  

Fiction also allows total narrative freedom. “(Fiction) is fun,” says Rice. “Especially when you’re writing about the end of the world. You can blow everything up if you want to. You can’t do that as a journalist.”

Speakers:

ANGELA MISRI is a journalist and fiction author based in Toronto. She has written for the Globe and Mail, CBC, and The Walrus and writes the popular Portia Adams Adventure detective series. She has taught at Ryerson for six years, in the journalism program, and she is the Digital Director at The Walrus. Her latest book is called Pickles vs the Zombies and will be published by Cormorant in the fall.

WAUBGESHIG RICE is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His first short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge, was inspired by his experiences growing up in an Anishinaabe community, and won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2012. His debut novel, Legacy, followed in 2014. A French translation was published in 2017. His latest novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was released in October 2018.

Waub got his first taste of journalism in 1996 as an exchange student in Germany, writing articles about being an Anishinaabe teen in a foreign country for newspapers back in Canada. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002. He’s worked in a variety of news media since, reporting for CBC News for the bulk of his career. In 2014, he received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for excellence in First Nation Storytelling. He currently hosts Up North, CBC Radio’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. His proudest roles are as dad to Jiikwis and husband to Sarah. The family splits its time between Sudbury and Wasauksing.

MARSHA BARBER is a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Before that, she was a documentary maker at CBC’s The National. Her third poetry book will be published by Borealis Press later this year. Her work has appeared in such periodicals as the Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, FreeFall, The New Quarterly, The Walrus and The Prairie Journal. She has won many awards for her writing and is on the FreeFall Poetry Contest winners list for 2017. She has also been longlisted for the national ReLit prize and shortlisted for the international Bridport Poetry Prize and the Montreal International Poetry Prize.

Moderator:

SUANNE KELMAN is Professor Emeritus at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, where she taught for 21 years. Before joining Ryerson, she worked at CBC Radio and Television, and the Globe and Mail. During her years of teaching, she continued to freelance at those outlets and many others. She still writes for the Literary Review of Canada, and has a review in this year’s January/February issue. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life.

Speakers:

ANGELA MISRI is a journalist and fiction author based in Toronto. She has written for the Globe and Mail, CBC, and The Walrus and writes the popular Portia Adams Adventure detective series. She has taught at Ryerson for six years, in the journalism program, and she is the Digital Director at The Walrus. Her latest book is called Pickles vs the Zombies and will be published by Cormorant in the fall.

WAUBGESHIG RICE is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His first short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge, was inspired by his experiences growing up in an Anishinaabe community, and won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2012. His debut novel, Legacy, followed in 2014. A French translation was published in 2017. His latest novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was released in October 2018.

Waub got his first taste of journalism in 1996 as an exchange student in Germany, writing articles about being an Anishinaabe teen in a foreign country for newspapers back in Canada. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002. He’s worked in a variety of news media since, reporting for CBC News for the bulk of his career. In 2014, he received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for excellence in First Nation Storytelling. He currently hosts Up North, CBC Radio’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. His proudest roles are as dad to Jiikwis and husband to Sarah. The family splits its time between Sudbury and Wasauksing.

MARSHA BARBER is a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Before that, she was a documentary maker at CBC’s The National. Her third poetry book will be published by Borealis Press later this year. Her work has appeared in such periodicals as the Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, FreeFall, The New Quarterly, The Walrus and The Prairie Journal. She has won many awards for her writing and is on the FreeFall Poetry Contest winners list for 2017. She has also been longlisted for the national ReLit prize and shortlisted for the international Bridport Poetry Prize and the Montreal International Poetry Prize.

Moderator:

SUANNE KELMAN is Professor Emeritus at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, where she taught for 21 years. Before joining Ryerson, she worked at CBC Radio and Television, and the Globe and Mail. During her years of teaching, she continued to freelance at those outlets and many others. She still writes for the Literary Review of Canada, and has a review in this year’s January/February issue. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life.

Watch the 2019 Atkinson Lecture from Ryan McMahon, “We become the stories we tell ourselves: Indigenous realities in media today.”
 
Ryan McMahon is host of Canadaland’s Thunder Bay podcast and an Anishinaabe comedian, writer and media maker. He spoke at Ryerson University on April 4, 2019.

How the world’s biggest news agency struggled (and sometimes failed) to cover news from Hitler’s Germany.

In this presentation, based on original archival research, Gene Allen outlines the pressures that foreign journalists working in Nazi Germany faced in the 1930s, and examines the compromises that the Berlin bureau of Associated Press made to keep threats of expulsion at bay. AP’s experience raises questions that remain highly relevant today, as authoritarian regimes around the world use versions of the methods pioneered by the Nazis. Where should journalists draw the line — or should they draw a line at all — between reporting all the facts and maintaining a position that allows them to get at least some of the news? And how open should journalists be — as AP was definitely not — about the compromises made, and the justification for them?

WHEN: Wednesday, April 3 @ 1 p.m.
WHERE: The Catalyst, Rogers Communications Centre 230
WHO: You! All are welcome.

Bring your lunch, if you’d like. Light snacks will be provided.

This is a free event hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

 

It’s March. You’re stressed. Take a pause to try mindfulness meditation and learn about research into its benefits for journalists and journalism students.
 
Featuring Ann Rauhala, journalism professor and FCAD Teaching Chair at Ryerson University.
 
When: Tuesday, March 19, 2019
12:00 – 1:00 P.M.
Where: The Catalyst, Rogers Communications Centre Room 230
Bring your lunch and friends. All are welcome!