Why doesn't Britain have a culture of serious non-fiction journalism like the US?by Susan Greenberg / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
There is a concept in marketing called “the end of the middle.” The idea is that because we can now get goods and services of reasonable quality at the cheap end of the market, the middle of the market loses share as people are only prepared to pay more if they get something truly luxurious or special. Hence, for example, the growth of the “slow food” movement.
Does this concept apply to information? We get basic news cheaply, on air and online. In the middle is traditional print journalism, the sector that is losing readers. At the luxury end, there should be a growing market for essays, reportage and other non-fiction writing that takes its time to find things out, notices stories that others miss, and communicates it all to the highest standards: “slow journalism.”
There certainly seems to be some appetite for such content in Britain, reflected in rising sales for literary non-fiction books and growing audiences for new forms of documentary. But it has yet to translate into any dramatic changes in publishing. Newspapers may be becoming more magazine-like, and therefore in theory more hospitable to slow journalism. But they are also adopting an increasingly narrow definition of “entertainment,” in an attempt to make themselves more accessible. In the magazine world, Granta provides a prestigious platform for reportage and travel writing, but it is very nearly on its own—Prospect being another exception. The internet provides a new outlet, but seldom the money to support costly research.
Many ambitious non-fiction writers now turn to writing books. But as the New Yorker writer Jane Kramer has said, literary non-fiction “isn’t a talent that can be honed in a garret. It needs constant, and often expensive, engagement with the world.”
Britain clearly lags behind the US in serious non-fiction journalism. Writers here look jealously at 10,000-word features in Rolling Stone, eclectic “fact pieces” in the New Yorker, expansive investigations in the Atlantic and high-status non-fiction prizes such as the Pulitzer. In US higher education, non-fiction is routinely included in creative writing degrees and both literary and “narrative” journalism are firmly on the map of journalism education.
The difference is partly economic. America’s scale makes it easier to sustain minority tastes—1 per cent of a big audience is still big—and its publications are closer to the world’s centres of political and cultural power. But there are other factors at work. After…