Literary Journalism and War

 Project director: John S. Bak Image1

Project Partners: Oxford Centre for Life-Writing (Wolfson College, Oxford University), Medill School of Journalism (Northwestern University), ReSIC (Université Libre de Bruxelles), and Experimental Media Lab (Academy of Fine Arts Saar)

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Project Sponsor: International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS)

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 turnIALJS logo to 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 (not only ‘hot’ wars or ‘cold’ wars but also other conflicts, such as cyber wars). 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 the humanities in how it covers war, all the while the war that is being covered divides us further from each other. Topics included will be case studies of wars from colonialist Africa to World War I and from Russia’s involvment in Chechnia to America’s military engagements during the Arab Spring. Research in the form of conference presentations, seminars and book and journal publications (a special issue of Literary Journalism Studies will be edited) will examine how literary journalism tries to balance the bloody with the banal in war reporting.

The long-term project will be to disseminate the project’s research findings to various communities. An online, interactive website will provide a database of literary war journalism written throughout the world. Internauts will be able to click on a country in Europe or Africa, select a site where a war was centralized, and access the various literary journalistic pieces written about that particular site by literary journalists of multiple nations. Additional media will be made available as well, including manuscripts, notebooks, letters, photos, and videos linked to the war and the journalistic piece.

Period: 2014-2017

Goals & Output: Following up on a recent book, Literary Journalism across the Globe, 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 nontraditional press. As of now, there is no research center in the world that deals exclusively with literary journalism as a research object, let alone with literary journalism and war.

Program 2012-13

The project actually began, informally, in 2012 with invitations extended to two speakers from abroad (USA and Germany) who dealt with the topic in varying  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. Literary journalism editorializes through its 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 bring 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 literary journalism 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 time) 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 (Academy of Fine Arts Saar) 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 in the war against privacy. 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. I put together two panels in May 2013 for the IALJS 8 Congress in Tampere, Finland, that brought an additional nine speakers who dealt with 1305_IALJS-8_poster“trauma journalism” and the effects of literary war journalism on the writers who produced the stories, as well as with literary journalism’s efforts to sway colonial publics of their need to engage in wars abroad. Panel titles included (click on the link to see a video recording of the panel):

Image1“Literary Journalism at War: Strategy and Immersion”,

“Literary Journalism and War: Words Bloody and Banal – I”

 “Literary Journalism and War: Words Bloody and Banal – II”

Lastly, on 8 October 2013, I presented the following talk at the Collège Belgique in Brussels as web site listingpart of a seminar series titled “Journalisme littéraire et grand reportage: La passion du réel ou l’écriture-vérité”:

Le reportage, le journalisme littéraire et le new journalism au front de la guerre

The talk, held at the Palais des Académies, was organized by Isabelle Meuret of the Université Libre Bruxelles and sponsored by the Belgian academicienne Valérie André.

Program 2013-14Image1

An IDEA Seminar Series evening is set for 3 December 2013. Talks include Deux écrivains-journalistes belges dans la guerre d’Espagne: Mathieu Corman et Charles d’Ydewalle” by Paul Aron (Université Libre de Bruxelles) and “Journalism of attachement ? La Guerre d’Espagne vue par Gellhorn, Viollis, Taro by Isabelle Meuret (Université Libre de Bruxelles).

poster LJ and WW 1A one-day conference will be held on 7 June 2014 on the topic of Le journalisme littéraire et la Première Guerre Mondiale / Literary Journalism and World War I. Speakers from France, Belgium, England and Germany will be invited to participate. The conference will be sponsored in part by the Conseil Général, which is currently applying for World Heritage recognition from UNESCO for various sites in Lorraine related to the Great War. Click here to see the book proposal.

Literary Journalism and World War I: Marginal Voices, the first volume of the ReportAGES book series (General Editor, John S. Bak), was published in November 2016. Edited by Andrew Griffiths, lj-wwi-coverSara Prieto and Soenke Zehle, the book combined external articles with a few of  those read at the 2014 conference. In addition to the nine scholarly articles, the book reprints original extracts of literary journalism from World War I, as well as a short contextual gloss, both of which will soon be made available online in the ReportAGES project web and app. project.

Program 2014-15

A full, two-day conference will be held from 5-6 June 2015 on the topic Le journalisme poster colloque 5-6 juinlittéraire et les guerres en Afrique : perspectives coloniales, décoloniales et postcoloniales / Literary Journalism and Africa’s Wars: Colonial, Decolonial and Postcolonial Perspectives. This conference, which will be held on the Nancy campus of the Université de Lorraine, hopes to bring together scholars of literary journalism, reportage, le journalisme littéraire, jornalismo literário, el periodismo literario, literaire non-fictie, giornalismo letterario and literarische Reportage from England, the U.S., France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany to discuss a topic that has received little attention in the academic community: Africa’s colonial wars at the interdisciplinary crossroads of literature, history and journalism. Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the magazine XXI and author of three reportages on the Rwandan genocides, L’inavouable, La France au Rwanda and Complices de l’inavouable, will be the conference keynote speaker.

In posterMay 2014, I put together another panel  for the annual IALJS  Congress, this time held at the American University of Paris. The panel title was “War, Tragedies and Disasters in Literary Journalism” and included talks on World War I trench journals, “Militainment in the Context of War Literary Journalism” and “Euclide da Cunha’s Os Sertões: Literary Journalism of a Place and Time,” a reportage about the Brazilian Civil War.

You can view the entire panel by clicking here.

Program 2015-16

A full, two-day conference will be held from 13-14 June 2016 on the topic “Literary Journalism and Latin LJ and Latin America's WarAmerican Wars: Revolutions, Retributions, Resignations.” The conference will be held at Wolfson College, WCRC_logo_6Oxford University. The keynote speaker will be Argentinean journalist and scholar Roberto Herrscher Rovira (Universitat de Barcelona), whose books Los viajes del Penélope (2007) and Periodismo narrativo (2012) show the importance literary journalism has in the practice and history of Latin American letters.

In addition to this conference on Latin American wars, a series of seminars and panels at the biennial ESSE on literary journalism and civil wars filled out the ReportAGES project. On 24 November 2015, the IDEA Seminar Series invited two Spanish scholars to discuss the topic “Literary Journalism and the Spanish Civil War.” Xavier Pla (Universitat de Girona) gave a talk on the Catalan literary journalist, “Josep Pla et le canon du journalisme littéraire en Espagne”and Margarita Navarro Pérez (Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia) presented the talk “At the Crossroads of Literary Journalism in Spain: Eyewitness Accounts and Collective Memory of the Civil War in Murcia.”

Then in August 2016, at the ESSE Congress in Galway, Ireland, I co-sponsored two panels:

  • Seminar 46: “Reportage and Civil Wars through the Ages,” co-convened with Alberto Lázaro (University of Alcalá, Spain), and
  • Round Table 1:“Literary Journalism and Immigration: A Stranger in a Strange Land,” co-convened with David Abrahamson (Northwestern University, USA)

“Reportage and Civil Wars through the Ages”

The Cambridge Companion to War Writing opens with an acute statement: “How war is written about concerns every individual”. In the case of civil wars, public concern and academic interest has grown in recent decades, since they have a huge impact both within their own societies and on an international scale. Papers are invited which investigate how English texts about civil wars are written. This seminar will cover a wide range of issues, including literary genre, narrative strategies, censorship, propaganda, gender roles and perspectives, from medieval warfare to more modern conflicts in America, Ireland, Finland, Austria, Spain, Greece, etc.

“Literary Journalism and Immigration: A Stranger in a Strange Land”

Literary journalism – a genre of nonfiction prose that lies at the conceptual intersection of literature and journalism – can be the best vehicle to tell a certain kind of story that reporting often neuters of its emotional appeal and literature inevitably elevates to universal heights that efface its individualistic nature. It can be argued that the cause célébre of the last few decades or so has been immigration, the ineluctable endgame of colonialist agendas. The discourse is global, poignant and often marked by nativism, racism and even violence. The proposed session will focus on ways in which a variety of national traditions of literary journalism have dealt with the immigrant experience, in particularly on how various perspectives (both by individual authors and in national traditions) have explored what it means to be – or, perhaps more importantly, to be view by others as – a stranger in a strange land.

For a summary of both ESSE panels, click here.

 

Program 2016-17

Based on the success of the Latin American Wars conference in Oxford in June and the ESSE panels in Galway in August of 2016, a fourth conference of the ReportAGES project, lj-and-civil-war-poster-newentitled Literary Journalism and Civil Wars: Reportages and Civil Wars through the Ages,” is currently being planned for May 2017 to be held at the Universidad de  Málaga. Since the marca%20umaSpanish Civil War is one of the civil wars most covered by literary journalists, it was agreed in Oxford that this conference would be held in Spain. A few colleagues from the Oxford conference who also attended the ESSE panel a few months later have conducted research that dovetails with the scholarship to be offered at the Málaga conference, on which IDEA and its ReportAGES project remains the principal partner. For a summary of the conference papers, click here: Literary Journalism and Civil War, A Conference Report from Malaga, May 2017

Also during this academic year, I will be working alongside colleagues from Brazil (and other countries) to apply for a “Projet de recherche collaborative – International (PRCI)” grant funded via a bilateral accord signed by the ANR and the FAPESP (Fundação de Amaro à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo). “From Reportage to Jornalismo Literário: A unespHistorigraphy of the French Influences on Brazilian Literary Journalism,” or JorLit for shortwill be a 48-month research project linking scholars from France, Spain, Portugal, the US, and Brazil who will be looking into the genealogy of Brazil literary journalism. Drawn from a proposal recently submitted to the Université d’Etat de São Paulo “Júlio de Mesquita Filho” (UNESP) – in partnership with the Consulat Général de France in São Paulo and the Institut Français du Brésil (IFB) – in response to their call for the program “Chaires Franco-Brésiliennes dans l’Etat deSão Paulo,” JorLit will respond to Axe 5: “Cultures, création, patrimoines” of the ANR’s Défi 8: “Sociétés innovantes, intégrantes et adaptatives.”

 

Doctoral and Post-doctoral Research linked to ReportAGES; The project has drawn the attention of international doctoral students and post-doctoral students.

Federico Casari, currently teaching at the University of Tübingen, has chosen to work with the ReportAGES project on a post-doc project entitled “Italian Literary Journalism.” He applied for a two-year Marie Sklodowska-Curie Action grant. Although the proposal was not accepted this year (he will resubmit it for next year), he was awarded the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions Seal of Excellence. This quality label is awarded to all proposals submitted to the MSCA Individual Fellowships Call that scored 85% or more but could not be funded from the call budget.

A recent PhD graduate, Antonio Cuadero, from the Facultad de Ciencias de la Comunicación of the Universidad de Malaga, will begin working with John S. Bak for ReportAGES on a one-year post-doc project that will look into the crónica in literary journalism in Ibero-América.

Lilian Juliana Martins, a third-year PhD student from the State University of São Paulo “Júlio de Mesquita Filho” (UNESP), will be working with John S. Bak in Nancy from August to December 2017 as a Visiting Researcher. Her residency in Nancy — entirely funded from a research grant through Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES) —  will allow her to advance the theoretical nature of her thesis, entitled « Jornalismo Literário em Antônio Callado: a literatura na construção da narrativa jornalística sobre o Brasil », which examines the literary journalistic features of O Esqueleto da Lagoa Verde, Vietnã do Norte: o outro lado da Guerra and Revolução piloto em Pernambuco.

 

Partners & Funding possibilities: The long-term plan is to seek ANR funding. And recently, the project consortium of fifteen universities, institutes, and cultural entities has submitted a dossier to the H2020 “Reflective Societies: Cultural Heritage and European Identities” (Reflective-5 action: “The cultural heritage of war in contemporary Europe“). For the moment, the individual partners are many (coming from England, the United States, Spain, Brazil, Portugal, and Argentina, to name but a few). On the institutional level. the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing at Wolfson College, Oxford University (UK), the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (USA), the ReSIC center of communication studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Belgium), and the Experimental Media Lab at the Academy of Fine Arts Saar (Germany) have accepted to join the project. The OCLW is a research center on “Life Writing” which held a conference in 2013 on “Life Writing and War” and which will hold a future conference on literary journalism and war and sponsor a visting scholar. The Medill School, through the partnership of David Abrahamson there, has agreed to offer the School’s services to the project. Isabelle Meuret will be the liaison with  ReSIC, and Soenke Zehle will join us from the xm:lab. The IALJS will always be a central sponsor to project, offering its support when available.

The project will also dovetail with the Conseils Généraux de Meuse et de Meutre-et-Moselle‘s dossier project destined for UNESCO, “Paysages et sites de mémoire de la Grande Guerre”. In the spring of 2014, IDEA will sponsor a one-day conference on literary war reporting in and eastern France during World War I. Two talks are already scheduled for 3 December 2013 to further the discussion of literary journalism and war begun back in 2012 with the IDEA Seminar Series.

In the long term, the project will also seek to produce university degrees based on the research conducted. There is potential for doctoral students and post-docs. A web designer will also have to be contracted to design, construct and runImage1 the website linked to the project of disseminating various documents related to particular sites of literary war reporing (allowing open access to the texts themselves, but also letters, photos, memorabilia, etc. linked to the creation of those stories).