Why doesn't Britain have a culture of serious non-fiction journalism like the US?by Susan Greenberg / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 all, many people in Britain write fiction on the strength of the kudos they hope to win if the work gets published. Why don’t they think there is a pot at the end of the non-fiction rainbow?
The main reason is the belief in Britain that literature is, by default, fiction. Occasionally, pieces of fact-based literature even get reclassified as novels once they are judged to be “good”—Alain de Botton has described how the publisher of his first non-fiction book tried to brand it as a novel. “There’s a feeling in Britain that to be a writer is to be a novelist,” he said.
Literary figures such as Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens and George Orwell are given their due as novelists, but their substantial body of journalistic work is left largely unrecognised. In journalism degrees, classes on literary journalism are rare, while in creative writing degrees there are few places that provide a sustained look at non-fiction in all its forms.
Why is fiction valued in British culture and not the literature of fact? One answer lies in the legacy of Romanticism, which came to define creativity in opposition to industry. The creative imagination, writes Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory, was “loftily removed from any sordid social purpose.” In America, by contrast, creativity became a way of understanding first-hand experience, making Americans quite comfortable with the concept of “creative non-fiction.”
There are some signs of change. The Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction writing was televised last year for the first time and a British “Pulitzer,” proposed by the new Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, may provide another incentive to writers of non-fiction. The increased number of journalism courses in higher education is already providing encouragement and support for those who want to take it more seriously. But these are only the first steps.
We can do more to recognise the potential of non-fiction, like fiction, to aim for a standard that will stand the test of time. We can allow that all writing, factual or not, is constructed and shaped—that all good writing is creative—and still test our stories against reality. We can provide more outlets for literary journalism, more prizes, better financial rewards, and a real determination to end the dominance of our “fast” news culture. Only then will a genuine “slow journalism” movement emerge.