Detail, Filtering, & Rhetoric in Literary Journalism


A friend of mine from high school recently hosted an online Tupperware party. I was guilted into attending the so-called party, where the hostess first shared video demonstrations of Tupperware’s top-selling products before she released the link to actually shop for them through her online venue. At first, I was annoyed—I wanted to get to the link, purchase my requisite supportive-friend storage solution, and get on with my evening. Except, while I was waiting for the link, I watched the demonstration videos. One video showed an empowered mother using the Chop N’ Prep Chef to pulverize Cheerios into a dust that she sprinkles onto sliced avocado and other slippery fruits so her children can grab them more easily. Begrudgingly, I admitted to myself that this was innovative, but I have no children and am allergic to avocado, so I still had no immediate need for the Chop N’ Prep Chef. I kept watching videos, though, which progressed in rhetoric—vegetables still crisp after two weeks in FridgeSmart containers, a satiated family eating stuffed peppers and polenta freshly prepared in the TupperWave® Stack Cooker. Twenty minutes later, when the link finally came out, I was mentally ready to buy it all.

I did not—I only bought the Round Container and a small bowl from the Be Dazzled Wonderlier® collection. However, I could not shake how much the demonstrations helped sell me on the idea of Tupperware as a brand despite its high cost and stale reputation. Seeing the products in a catalogue or just online would not have been enough to convince me of the necessity for Tupperware in my life; it was the videos that did it, the stories that I could attach to the actual items and their prices. What is compelling about certain pieces of literary journalism is this same concept—it can provide particulars to things I previously only understood simply. The reason Luke Dittrich’s Esquire piece about Joplin, Missouri succeeds is because it gives us personal narratives, ways to see the first-hand effects of disaster in a way that news footage of wreckage or an AP report cannot give. I know this is a basic simile, but in the same way that seeing people use Tupperware in everyday life made me expand my thoughts on Tupperware, reading Hersey’s Hiroshima or Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns helped me more complexly comprehend events I thought I had already understood. Details tell a deeper story in literary journalism—they are what propels Hersey’s Hiroshima, Capote’s In Cold Blood, and even Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

When literary journalism is fully functioning, it lassos details and corrals them into a narrative that not only proffers fact, but gives “readers a more contextual, contingent, and engaging experience with news and information precisely because it uses reporting and writing conventions antithetical to conventional journalism” (Roiland 9). Instead of simply reporting facts, literary journalism shows them by taking “all the reportorial and truth-telling elements of daily journalism” and pairing them “with the rhetorical devices commonly associated with fiction” (Roiland 15). In other words, as Thomas Connery defines it, literary journalism “‘broadly and subjectively explores how and why’” by “what Alan Trachtenberg call[s] ‘a rendering of felt detail’” (15).  Yet, when we read journalism, we do not expect fictive accounts. Literary journalism demands “a journalistic verisimilitude” paired with its author’s “interest in subjective narration and the idea of experience” (Katz 463). Hiroshima does this exceedingly well. Hersey shows us victims: “a woman with a whole breast sheared off and a man whose face was all raw from a burn” (Hersey 33) who have no way to help each other and are in a place where some of the only remedies able to be offered are “wine and strong tea” (43). Hersey writes in a way that lets us see the direct effects of the cause we knew existed. When Hiroshima was first released in The New Yorker, even “Albert Einstein, one of the initial architects of the bomb  . . . wanted to purchase one thousand copies of the magazine for friends and colleagues, but could not acquire any” (Roiland 25). Though “Hersey’s story was not political, at least in the partisan or even nationalistic sense . . . it inserted itself into public discourse regarding the use of atomic weapons,” (26) which is another reason Hiroshima is successful—it lets its specific details make an argument that simple facts had not previously been able to.

Hersey’s “precise and unexpected details” (26) convey much more about the political landscape than a simple essay could have. Hersey does not have to employ his own rhetoric because work like this, true literary journalism, “provides fertile grounds for ethical and epistemological enquiry” (Morton 775) by itself. The writer does not have to do the work of arguing—the writer simply does the work of placement.

Luke Dittrich’s essay “”Heavenly Father!” “I love you all!” “I love everyone!” “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” “I love all of you!”” for Esquire does something similar. In the piece, Dittrich simply shares the narratives of “two dozen strangers [who] sought shelter in a gas station’s walk-in cooler” (Dittrich) when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011. Dittrich makes specific choices in the rendering of the essay, certainly. This is the aspect that makes it literary. He begins the section about Donna Barnes by splicing together her beliefs. First, “She believes in the Pentecost.” Then, “She believes that a bowl of Multi Grain Cheerios with low-fat milk is a good breakfast, and there’s no reason not to have it every single day.” Next, “She believes that seven weeks after the Resurrection the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, and she believes that it happened just the way the Bible describes it in chapter 2 of the Book of Acts.” Followed by, “She believes that a sliced banana is optional.” He continues with this juxtaposition until “She believes that God has already chosen the time and place of your death before you are born” and then “Donna Barnes enters the cooler on her hands and knees.” Dittrich’s use of this list works in characterizing Donna Barnes, but it also works in a broader way—every person in that walk-in cooler, no matter what they believe, was humbled and powerless on the floor of that room. Dittrich does not have to say that. He just assembles the facts in a way that implies it; he shows instead of tells. This is what makes his journalism literary instead of simply reporting. He assembles. Hersey does this, too—both writers curate and arrange the truth and, in turn, it serves as rhetoric without either of them having to argue with their own voices. They let the facts do the majority of the work.

They also both convey the tragedies they cover in an immediate way that shows direct impact instead of a generalized look, though Dittrich uses a slightly more contemporary form. Still, Hersey’s Hiroshima does not feel dated. Both Dittrich’s and Hersey’s journalism aligns with Hersey’s assertion that “‘The writer of fiction must invent. The journalist must not invent’” (Heyne 485) and they let their innovation come instead by employing fictional techniques to the organization of facts. What changes in Capote’s In Cold Blood and Larson’s The Devil in the White City is that both authors use not just the craft of fiction writing, but fictive narrative components as well. While an ambitious pillar of literary journalism, In Cold Blood is more of an example of what literary journalism is when it begins to veer off track.

To understand Capote’s In Cold Blood, it is important to also understand Capote’s other work: fiction, much of which is categorized as “roman à clef (literally novel with a key)” which is fiction that “has much in common with literary nonfiction, yet of all fiction bordering on fact the roman à clef least deserves the designation, in part because writers in this mode usually have ulterior motives in their identifications. They manipulate characters and events so that the reader will identify certain ones with real ones, but they do not want the responsibility that factual writing entails” (Huddleston 351). James Michener wrote about Capote’s Answered Prayers (published twenty years after In Cold Blood), arguing that the stories “presented . . . ‘a shocking betrayal of confidences, an eating at the table and gossiping in the lavatory . . . I can categorically deny the allegations he makes. A masterly study in pure bitchiness . . . Why did he do it?’” (Huddleston 354). Capote’s level of writing here is fine (if not petty) in fiction even though Michener dislikes it, but it becomes interesting to examine it in comparison with In Cold Blood. In In Cold Blood, Capote translates a narrative he has pieced together from newspaper writing, interviews (with those still alive), and diary entries, but there are still parts he cannot know and parts he asserts his opinion on, like the characterization of Perry Smith. What Capote does with In Cold Blood is what he does later with Answered Prayers, except critics call Answered Prayers what it is: a roman à clef, a story in which the characters are based off of real people but their actions and identities are sometimes fictional or exaggerated. What Capote should have done with In Cold Blood was to have written literary fiction with a key—a book that did not claim to be 100% factual, but one that was based on true events and embellished when there were gaps in information.

There is also the issue of agenda. It seems dually important that books marketed as non-fiction are completely non-fiction because, since “literary journalism is ‘at root a political and social movement’ . . . practitioners may conceivably have agendas that drive its intended meaning and associated truth-claims” (Morton 775). We see this in In Cold Blood with Capote’s treatment of Perry Smith, which is clearly marred by Capote’s own relationship with Smith. Throughout In Cold Blood, “Perry Smith becomes in almost every detail we are given a spooky embodiment of Capote’s early fiction,” which, alongside evidence of edited characterization, proves that Capote uses a scaffolding that is not wholly factual (Garrett). However, it might not be wholly Capote’s fault.

“The filtering of events through the writer’s own consciousness, oftentimes [result] in a fracture between the phenomenal world and the writer’s perception and recreation of it” (Roiland 28)—when writers like Capote convey their perceptions and recreations of what they’re reporting, they might not even be aware of how they are compromising the truth because they might only be able to render the present through their own personal lens (bias). Although “Capote damaged In Cold Blood by violating certain conventions of accurate representation,” the rules he was breaking were “his own” (Heyne 485) because he mentioned in his interview with George Plimpton that In Cold Blood was “immaculately factual” (Heyne 481). It is up to us to determine “its factual adequacy,” be it truthful in accuracy and/or meaning, which Heyne argues are the only two forms of truth (Heyne 486).

Capote’s error, though, is that “the influence of his inaccuracies upon the meaning of the book . . . is fatal” (Heyne 486). Because Capote’s “inventions concern Perry Smith . . . his precise motivations are at the thematic and aesthetic heart of the book,” (Heyne 486) which is what taints it. Capote markets his later work as fiction even when it is based on true fact because, I presume, he has learned that the lens through which he sees truth is obscured by his own opinion, and it is easier to allow for that when the people about whom you are writing are obscured to those who lack the key.

Part of what makes literary journalism journalism is that we are told it is. When reading, “the proper response is indicated by the type of story we think we are being told, and that decision in turn is influenced by factors such as our relationship with the storyteller, the social context . . . as well as by properties of the story itself” (Heyne 480). It is why I am never let down with an episode of the Kardashians, because I know exactly what to expect and the show’s writers do not stray from that. However, it becomes tricky to produce a response when we are told we are reading non-fiction but we are actually reading fiction. This is not to say that In Cold Blood commits errors that other literary non-fiction does not. Even Hiroshima, though its anti-war framed truth has not been nearly as criticized as In Cold Blood’s, “is not represented in a purely scenical (mimetic) form but also contains indirect style . . . which indicates a covert narrator” (Aare 119). Hiroshima “still contains summaries, single environmental descriptions and personal characteristics . . . [which affect] the text in a diegetic, that is, subjective, direction” (Aare 119). It is not that Hersey and Dittrich do not frame the stories they are reporting, because they do. The reason they are more true to literary journalism than Capote is that Hersey and Dittrich do not allow their framing or inventions to pierce the meaning of their work, which Capote does.

An acquaintance of mine is in the middle of writing a novel about World War II from the perspective of Germans in an attempt to show the humanity of Nazis. She brought a chapter to workshop and a few of my peers stayed silent during the critique, arguing that they would not even engage in any level of sympathy even though, when asked, the writer has argued that she is not sympathizing with so much as trying to show the complexities of the other side. She is not bending truth, but her situation brings up the question of advocacy in journalism, too. Is there a responsibility of a writer to preserve a certain part of history, to give a voice to the voiceless or the potentially misunderstood? And, if so, is there a line where it becomes inappropriate to advocate for a group? Hersey gives a voice to victims of the atomic bomb by showing characters who live normal lives one second and completely distraught ones a second later. Dittrich makes real the crippling destruction of the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri by showing just one tiny segment of the very normal people the storm influenced. Capote does not advocate for the family he is writing about so much as ends up advocating for one of the men who murdered them, which is, again, part of the reason his journalism strays. Literary journalism seems more pointed and effective when its details are framed to advocate for awareness and to give a voice to someone who has not previously had one, like Hersey and Dittrich, than to simply tell the details of a murder case, like Capote. In Cold Blood feels exploitative—in it, Capote gathers information from a dead girl’s diary and then shares it in a way that implies he knows what she thought and how she felt, like how he writes about how Nancy “deeply felt the daytime absence of her friend, the one person with whom she need be neither brave nor reticent” (Capote 33). There is truly no way he can know this.

Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City does this, too. Larson does not give a voice to victims so much as a spotlight on their killer, which is not inherently negligent, but does seem to make it a clearly different genre than Hersey or Dittrich’s pieces. The Devil in the White City succeeds on a line level. Larson uses devices of fiction throughout his work to curate a pace and momentum that propels its readers throughout the book. The chapters are short and keep us turning, and Larson uses just enough foreshadowing to keep readers curious. However, unlike Hiroshima or Dittrich’s Esquire piece, Larson’s story is not advocating for anyone in particular and offers no new insight into events. His transgressions are not as grievous as Capote’s—Larson at least attempts to add notations on areas where he fabricates information. In footnotes for a chapter in which Holmes murders Julia and Pearl Connor, Larson writes that he “constructed the murder scenes . . . using a combination of sources: fragments of known evidence . . . the detective work of other investigators . . . psychiatric research into the character, motives, and needs of criminal psychopaths; and testimony” (Larson 404).  He is crafty, though, and while he does neatly report a variety of information, his work still seems less relevant than all of the other authors’ because he injects his own interpretation of events throughout the novel without breaking the narration in each instance to note that he is departing from reported fact. Like Capote, he lets his own interpretation of events color the value he assigns to certain moments and characters. Unlike Capote, though, when readers judge Larson’s accuracy and meaning, the inaccuracies in the book do not affect its meaning (except for the inherent scaffolding of the two narratives together, which is certainly a result of Larson deciding those meanings were meant to meld).

Because there are “unique epistemic issues inherent in individual circumstances in the production of literary journalism,” (Morton 786) it is important to weigh the errors in representation and interpretation throughout the genre. I did not initially think that literary journalism was that much different than non-fiction essays or memoir, but reading Hersey and Dittrich alongside writers like Joan Didion make it clear that there are wildly opposing pockets of literary journalism that not only read differently, but have different goals. If we go by the definition that “intercultural understanding is [the] goal of literary journalism,” then each piece of literary journalism examined in this essay succeeds (Morton 785). However, that approach might be too simplistic (for instance, I could argue that a YouTube video of a British girl showing what she bought on her most recent shopping trip is literary journalism under this definition). Others argue that “literary journalism can help create the social conditions for a rational debate and improved discourse in the public sphere because of four characteristics: a focus on the ordinary, narrativity, authority and subjectivity. The ordinary equalizes. Narrativity engages. Authority personalizes. And subjectivity emphasizes” (Roiland 12). This seems organized, but others, though, are less prescriptive. One fringe theorist, Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, asserts that “the whole notion of fact versus fiction [is] obsolete” (Heyne 484). He continues to argue that “the ‘fictuality’ of contemporary life has produced narratives that cannot be taken as either factual or fictional but only as somehow both simultaneously” (Heyne 484). Because of this, writing can only be situated looking “inward or outward, toward the self-contained world of the narrative or the confusing, largely non-verbal world of real events” (Heyne 484). This is helpful in categorizing literature except for that he takes it one step further by noting how the non-fiction novel does not look in one direction but, instead, “balances between the two” (Heyne 484).

Zavarzadeh’s is not an easy position to take because it rests in a grey area of a genre that is traditionally black and white, which is also the problem with defining literary journalism as a whole. Literary journalism skews—via structure, timeline, emphasis, accuracy, language—basic facts. Some of this skewing is harmless, like in Hiroshima. Other skewing, though, like in In Cold Blood, veers too much toward the inner self to balance its end goal. After examining works that are largely objective alongside works that are more subjective, it would be easy to discredit the subjective works as not being literary journalism. Zavarzadeh’s definition helps save them, though, because they preserve still a specific moment of thought from their authors that help to show us a full picture of a respective truth—they keep the humanity intact despite their bias. Literary journalism, after all, “stands as a humanistic approach to culture as compared to the scientific, abstract, or indirect approach taken by much standard journalism” (Sims 12). To deny the human aspect of it, the literary flourish, the framing, the small bits of insight, would make literary journalism simply journalism again, so it seems like we should hazard the inaccuracy and continue attempts at literary journalism despite their grey areas.


Works Cited

Aare, Cecilia. “A Narratological Approach to Literary Journalism: How an Interplay between Voice and Point of View May Create Empathy with the Other.” Literary Journalism Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2016, pp. 106–139.

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood: a True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. New York, Random House, 1966.

Dittrich, Luke. “‘Heavenly Father!” ‘I Love You All!” ‘I Love Everyone!” ‘Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” ‘I Love All of You!”.” Esquire, 22 Sept. 2011.

Garrett, George. “Then and Now: In Cold Blood Revisited.” Virginia Quarterly Review, 1996.

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York, Crown Publishers, 2003.

Hersey, John et al. Hiroshima. New York, A.A. Knopf, 1946.

Heyne, Eric. “Toward a Theory of Literary Nonfiction.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 33, no. 3, 1987, pp. 479–490. Project Muse.

Huddleston, Eugene L. “Literary Nonfiction: Extending Its Definition.” The Midwest Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 3, 1992, pp. 340–356.

Katz, Tamar. “Anecdotal History: TheNew Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, and Literary Journalism.” American Literary History, vol. 27, no. 3, Oct. 2015, pp. 461–486.

Morton, Lindsay. “Not My People.” Journalism Studies, vol. 15, no. 6, 2013, pp. 774–788.

Roiland, Joshua M. “Engaging the Public: Toward a Political Theory of Literary Journalism.” Saint Louis University, 2011, ProQuest.

Sims, Norman. True Stories: a Century of Literary Journalism. Evanston, IL, Northwestern University Press, 2007.



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