Literary Journalism is a distinct, new genre. It is defined by its use of literary techniques generally associated with fiction to tell nonfiction narratives. It informs as well as entertains. Because it is a relatively new form, there is no body of governing rules. When writing a work of literary journalism, the only criterion that must be met is factuality.
When creating a narrative that is based on reality, while also being emotionally engaging, authors have a wide variety of tools to use. Characterization is one such technique that authors use to create narratives. By accentuating certain qualities and including specific dialogue in the narrative, authors are able to develop an actual person into a narrative character that contributes to the overall thematic structure of a work. Traditional forms of nonfiction do not often associate themselves with theme. Authors also implement structure when constructing a narrative. The order in which story elements are told has a distinct emotional impact on the reader.
Authors use both characterization and structure to create more elaborate narratives. In the first to chapters of this senior study characterization and structure in literary journalism will be examined. Analysis of the works will then be applied towards an original piece entitled Smoky Mountain Mafia Man. In regards to literary journalism any technique can be applied to a factual story. Any topic can be discussed or any story told. In literary journalism, authors choose real events and turn them into narratives that are informative and emotionally engaging.
Hometown: Maryville, TN
Major: Writing Communication
Senior Study Title: “Characterization & Structure in Literary Journalism, Featuring an Original Piece Titled ‘Smoky Mountain Mafia Man’”
Advisor: Mr. Kim Trevathan, Instructor of Writing/Communication
Exactly what is “Literary Journalism?” Aren’t the terms “literature” and “journalism” contradictory? Isn’t journalism that takes literary license also known as “fiction?” Such were some of the questions facing Christopher Gouge as he approached his Senior Study topic.
Literary journalism, also known as creative non-fiction, is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, although the genre has been around for some time. Literary journalism takes fact-based pieces and aims to tell a story using classic literary devices and elements. Symbolism, plot, and theme are usually reserved for fiction, but strong literary journalism artfully weaves these classic elements into writing that is still bound to fact and truth.
“My personal interest had always been newspapers,” noted Gouge, reflecting on the impetus of his study. “But when I really started looking at newspaper writing, I found that by nature it was quite dry. I’m a storyteller, and I had to find a way to merge my love of writing, and news, with telling stories and talking forever and ever!”
As most good stories reveal, an accident and a little luck played roles in Gouge’s discovery of literary journalism. Upon reviewing options for courses to fulfill particular general education requirements, the only applicable courses that meshed with his schedule were Bass Guitar, Tai Chi or Kim Trevathan’s Creative Non-fiction course. “It was a 300 level class and I had more fun in there than any other class I’ve taken at Maryville,” Gouge stated.
In fact, it was in this course where the third chapter of his study—the original work of literary journalism—began to take shape. Entitled, “Smoky Mountain Mafia Man,” chapter three began as a story for Trevathan’s Creative Non-fiction class. “The idea had been rattling around in my head for two or three years. It was the Creative Non-fiction class that gave me an outlet to put it into actuality.”
The story features Uncle Ralph, a real life character with urban-legend status among Gouge’s family. But in the telling of Uncle Ralph’s story, Gouge learned quickly that he would be writing about other individuals and that literary journalism, with its dedication to fact and affinity for character creation, might ruffle some familial feathers.
“I wrote about my grandmother and I had to worry about how she would respond to my portrayal of her. I was candid,” said Gouge. “Fortunately, she thought it was funny. Perhaps the sense of humor is genetic!” Gouge went on to credit his grandmother as being incredibly helpful in providing insight and information for the story. “She was the most honest person in the piece.”
Creative Senior Study’s generally fit a mold where the first two chapters are spent reading and evaluating criticism that will inform what the student creates for the third chapter. This allows creative Studies to challenge the student with both a classic academic component and an original creative component. For Gouge’s work, this meant looking at works addressing the themes of crime and family. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote; Honor Thy Father, by Gay Talese; This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolf; and For the Sins of My Father, by Albert DeMeo were all works consulted and examined for Gouge’s study, and these works were expanded upon during the second chapter of his work.
“I’m really glad I did my study in this manner, beginning with reading, research and criticism, because it provided a firm foundation for my own creative work,” said Gouge.
As usual, the Senior Study experience was a learning opportunity for both advisor and student. “Chris’ analysis on technique and craft was very strong and even made me consider new perspectives as I approach my own work,” said Trevathan. “Chris already has a distinct voice in his work, and that is something that most writers take a long time to find.”
As for that third chapter…"it keeps growing longer," commented Gouge. “I’d eventually like this story to turn into a book or a memoir.”
After graduation, Gouge plans on working two or three years at a public relations firm and then hopes to go to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a profiler.