Literary Journalism and War

« Literary Journalism and War »

Director: John Bak


Description: Few would dispute that the violence of war is one of the most horrific experiences to which the human community is exposed. Yet, in modern journalism discourse, we have tended to objectify war to a safe, sublimated distance. In effect, we have made of war a euphemism, which, as the poet Joseph Brodsky observed, “is, generally, the inertia of terror” we do not wish to acknowledge. This is why some journalists turn to a literary journalism to account for war, and why the genre is so necessary, even critical, because it helps us to perceive better through the aesthetics of experience the monster of war we have created. This project proposes first to establish the parameters of the term literary journalism (creative nonfiction, realistic novel, memoir, reportage, journalisme d’immersion, etc.) and the notions of war (only ‘hot’ wars or ‘cold’ wars as well that include cyber wars or political hedging?). Second, it will examine how those wars have been covered differently by literary journalism than by the traditional press. Third, it will analyze various examples of literary journalism from countries around the world to see if literary journalism unifies humanities in how it covers war, all the while the war that is covered further divides us. Topics included will be case studies of wars from colonialist Africa to World War I to Russian’s involvment in Chechnia and research in the form of conference talks, seminars or publications will examine how literary journalism tries to balance the bloody with the banal in war reporting.

Period: 2012-2017

Goals & Output: Following up on a recent book that I co-edited which tried to define literary journalism in an international context, this project would put that book to practical use in using some of its theories in application to war coverage in the nontradition press. As of now, there is no research in the world to my knowledge that deals with literary journalism as a research object, let alone LJ and war.

The project actually began, informally, last year with invitations extended to two speakers from abroad (USA and Germany) who dealt with the topic in various ways. John Hartsock (SUNY, USA), a major scholar of literary journalism, presented the talk “War, Literary Journalism, and the Aesthetics of Experience” on 8 March 2012, which focused on the paradox of dealing with the horrors of war reporting through details of the banal. LJ editorialize through the details, and often these details are banal with respect to the backdrop of war but it is those banal details that allow us to humanize an inhuman concept of war and brings the readers closer to the tragedy of war. To shock them with horrific details does not allow a reporter to capture the horrors effectively as a photo can do visually. So LJ uses the banal and the everyday (a woman in Hiroshima puts winter coats on her children just after the bomb is dropped although it is summer) because we can identify with these daily routines, we position ourselves in the subject’s place, therefore narrowing the gap between their horror and our reading of it.

The second talk by Soenke  Zehle (Saar-Universität) was titled  “Secrecy Wars: New New Journalisms and the Cultures of Anonymity”. Zelhe explored the role of the new new journalists, whose literary journalism is more fully researched than its new journalist brethern’s of the 1960s and 1970s, and how these second generation literary journalists are helping us to understand the data overload that we are faced with daily. Two examples that Zelhe provided were Michael Lewis’s books The Money Culture and Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity. The latter is about understanding the financial crisis, and it was so well analyzed that it began to inform governmental policy on predicting the financial crisis. He also discussed how various journalists are wading through the piles of important documents and information data that has been uploaded by the whistle-blower website Wikilinks. The literary journalists are forming narrative patterns around the hundred thousands of documents so that we can understand what the data means. Without these narrative frameworks, the documents would mean little to the general public, who would hardly invest the months of reading time necessary to understand what sensitive information the documents are exposing.

The two talks helped set the parameters on how to define wars, cold and hot alike, and this will have to be handled first before the fuller project can be explored. I have put together a panel for the next IALJS conference in Finland that will bring in an additional four speakers who will deal with “trauma journalism” and the effects on war literary journalism on the writers who produced the stories, as well as on literary journalism’s efforts to sway colonial publics of their need to engage in wars abroad.

Potential partners & Funding possibilities: The long-term plan is to seek ANR funding, probably in one of its blanc calls for projects. For the moment, the partners are many (coming from England, the US, Spain, Brazil, and Argentina) but they remain on the individual, as opposed to the institutional level. Oxford University (Wolfson College) has a research center on “Life Writing” and they are holding a conference this week on “Life Writing and War”; I have already been in touch with the center, as well as with the conference organizers, and they are keen to join forces (to what extent I do not yet know) on the project. I have a lot of connections in the LJ field and there is great potential for the project in terms of conferences, seminars, and books. But there is also the potential for doctoral students and post-docs. For example, I was already contacted by a student who did her master’s in Journalism at NYU and who would like to do a thèse with me on LJ and War (Vesna Stuchly). Another student (Manuel Ruiz Rico) from the University of Sevilla in Spain contact me, wanting to work on a post-doc here in IDEA (if we get funding) on LJ and war. A PhD student (Matthew Wheavil) from the University of Glasgow who is working on reporting of the Iraq War heard about the project and would like to contribute. Finally, I was invited by the presitgious Collège de Bélgique to give a talk on 8 Oct. 2013 on literary journalism and war reporting.