An earlier example is a story called Mrs. Kelly’s Monster about a brain surgeon’s battle in the operating room. It was published in The Evening Sun and received the first Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 1979. The author of Mrs. Kelly’s Monster, Jon Franklin, said it took him three days to report the story and 30 years to learn how to do it.
“Writing a work of dramatic non-fiction is the literary equivalent to brain surgery. You have to do all the things that authors do and all the things that reporters do – and do that honestly. It’s a discipline that takes years. Reporters, in particular, aren’t known for their patience,” said Franklin, the author of Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.
To better understand what literary journalism is all about, it’s useful to look at what doesn’t qualify as literary journalism and recognize that practitioners, students and teachers of literary journalism all seem to have their own definition of the genre.
A news story is made more human by a depiction of a toddler clutching its teddy bear as it is carried from a burning building. But, this doesn’t count as literary journalism. Feature leads on news stories, standard profiles, or articles about trends also fail to qualify as literary journalism.
For editors who have to run a newspaper as a business while satisfying readers, literary journalism may be a way to draw readers back and buck the trend of dropping circulation. In competition with television, radio and the internet, newspapers have lost their function of delivering what’s new. But they may find a new role – to answer readers’ cravings to be engaged in a community and in the lives of others through story.
Still, literary journalism makes other editors cringe and worry that the genre could be misused, leading to more distrust in the media.
For readers, most stories are more compelling if they are true, and literary journalism delivers the true story with the bells and whistles of fiction.