Literary Journalism: Yet Another Name for Creative Nonfiction

Yesterday I watched a video by Simon and Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp. In it, he referred to Susan Orlean as the Tom Brady of literary journalism. Here’s the video if you want to watch it.

Sigh. Really? Another term? Literary journalism. What is it?

If only everyone agreed. According to Karp it is creative nonfiction. But he doesn’t like the term creative nonfiction because it implies that this one type of nonfiction is creative and the rest is not.

According to the Purdue Writing Lab, see the article here, it is a form of creative nonfiction. These essays require research into the topic and, thus, are beyond the immediate world of the writer.

Pfft. These are not especially useful definition in my not-so-humble-opinion.

It helps to start out with an understanding of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction tells a story.  It may be an essay, a memoir or a picture book, but it is a story.  It just happens to be a nonfiction story.

One of my favorite examples is The House that George Built by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Rebecca Bond. It is a picture book that tells about the steps that were taken by Washington and others to erect what we now call the White House. Everything in the book is nonfiction but the story is told in a creative, engaging way. There are characters. There is a plot, after all those characters have a goal. And there is a setting.

The tricky thing is that you have to find each and every fact. Dialogue? You have to have a source. Setting details? Again, you need that source. You don’t include absolutely everything about a particular topic. After all, you’re telling a story so you leave out those details that don’t fit. But the ones that do are woven together in an engaging nonfiction story.

Given the praise she received from Karp, I’m definitely going to give Susan Orlean’s books a try.


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