Reporting fiction

Reporting fiction

Nexus

In this world of real truths and imagined facts, shreekumar varma draws on personal experience to understand the nexus between journalism and literature. 

Dreams: Most journalists  nurture the desire to write a book.We know how ‘new journalism’ was born in the sixties, confidently clutching the hand of fiction, even as fiction itself was trying to look real by speaking the language of
journalism.

There’s the famous story of how Tom Wolfe racked his brains to write a formal feature on South California’s hot rod racing culture for Esquire, and finally in despair posted his thoughts in a letter to editor Byron Dobel to see if he could suggest a way out.

The letter incorporated Wolfe’s own perceptions of the brave new cult, his emotions and wonder; how was he to express all this in the standard, staid language of current journalism?

Dobel removed the words ‘Dear Byron’ and published Wolfe’s thoughts as is where is. It was an acknowledgement that reportage badly required a more personal language when called upon to record alternate scenarios. The incident is recognised as one of the key moments when journalism shed its shackles and stretched out its limbs.

Others shared glory, like writers Truman Capote and Hunter S Thompson. The movement split, as movements do, into several nitpicking schools of thought; but the face of journalism had changed forever. The nexus between imaginative fiction and reported reality was established. And it worked (in terms of growth) to the benefit of practitioners of both kinds of writing, who often crisscrossed and invaded each other’s territories.

For instance, Capote left behind his literary celebrity status in New York to investigate the mass murder of a Kansas farm family, a small inside page news item that had tickled his curiosity. He’s said to have got so involved that he went as far as to manipulate and influence the two convicted murderers so that his book about the case could reach an appropriately satisfying conclusion and probably also meet its publishing deadline. Here, journalism was as creatively handled as any work of fiction. In fact, here was a writer who took up real events and made them “just so”.

Journalistic jabberWhen I was a newspaper journalist in Bombay in the late 70’s, most of my colleagues who thought beyond the publication wanted to get into public relations.

Today, most journalists want to write a book. I often wonder whether the skills I picked up during those days have influenced or improved my creative writing. Most people tend to think, as Arnold did, that journalism is “literature in a hurry”. I prefer to think it’s a training ground for the creative writer.

In those days, we had a ‘mofussil page’ which was like a laboratory for the cub. You could do all your experiments here, and having honed your skills, you graduated to other pages in the paper. I remember the hilarious howlers and bloopers that surfaced through the tribulations of raw, embarrassed junior subs let loose on this page. Not satisfied with subbing, I then asked for reporting assignments. My first was the inauguration of a bank’s branch in a luxury hotel. I was passionately welcomed and introduced to many celebrities and people of consequence, including film director Basu Bhattacharya. I interacted heartily with them and typed out a long, meaty piece. My visions of an illustrious reporting career were dashed next morning when I saw a two-line report
under the headline, ‘Branch inaugurated’.

Later, while reporting, I ran into interesting people and events that could very well be the stuff of fiction. I wrote a couple of stories based on them, and kept in store many that I wish I could have written about. My second lesson after the one from ‘Branch inaugurated’: A journalist may be a good follower of stories, but unless he’s also a good teller of stories, he’s simply running in the same place. Your art included selection, collection and imparting the breath of life. It required imagination as well as technique.

While the collective wisdom of civilians dismissed journalism as easy living, I was now a
battle-scarred veteran who realised its true practice required both sweat and spark.

Medium and manner

I first wrote short stories, developed a yen for journalism somewhere along the way, and then returned to fiction, more enriched, without ever letting go of journalism’s coat-tails. In a way, like ‘new journalism’, I straddled — and benefitted from — both genres. You could put it this way: journalism is reflected reality while literature is imaginative creation that ricochets off reality. Both genres require an appropriate medium and manner.

A journalist asks questions before venturing into a story. He or she describes, defines and pinpoints. There’s an awareness of background and a curiosity about the future. It is this attitude that brings edge and clarity to a story. A writer can bring alive his imaginative story by bringing a similar attitude to the writing table. On the other hand, a journalist can bring his peripheral vision to enhance what he’s focussing upon. Either way, they’re both telling stories.

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