Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

The perfect story: do all journalists want to become novelists?

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I’ve written one “perfect” story in my life. It’s a bold claim but it’s ironic because the story in question is a Japanese fable about Perfection. I wrote it when I was 15 years old. Before the story materialized I had spent the previous two weeks or so thinking about it late at night while I was in bed. Slowly the rough outline or arc of the story took shape and I kind of vaguely knew how it might turn. But here’s the thing: I didn’t actually know what the story was or what the story would be. But over the two weeks it was what I thought about during the day and before I fell asleep.

Hemingway and a small tiger. Hemingway started his career as a journalist.

Ernest Hemingway and a small tiger. He started his career as a journalist.

Then one afternoon at school, while I was in some form of detention, I decided to write the story, for an English assignment. I was in the library with a few other miscreants. And I just started writing – in longhand, with a blue Biro on lined paper. And what came out was 99% perfect. The story was rounded, full, and did what the story set out to do. My English teacher read it out in class and I distinctly remember the enraptured silence as the story gripped my fellow pupils, and the applause once it ended – the applause! And she showed it to the other English teachers who also praised the story.

But before you tire of this anecdote, here’s the point: I have never, in the 11 years since, been able to reproduce anything approaching the same level of effortless flow, the ease with which that story seemed to shape itself, the logic and momentum, the plot and the ending all taking shape as the Biro made its way across the page. As if brain, arm and pen were one single entity all directed toward the inevitable creation of that story.

*

I have dabbled in fiction from time to time. I love reading it and I adore the formative literature that I read in my formative years; as all readers do. I would love to be able to write fiction but I can’t and I would not want to be a mediocre novelist. Perhaps if I spent the next ten years writing, practicing, reading, writing practice short stories, novels, I would eventually attain, like a craftsman, a talent capable of writing a semi-decent novel. But I know that I do not have the required energy to do that.

There is a mystery and a magic about the fictive. It’s about transformation. Lately I have been once again dabbling in fiction but what I write tends toward the autobiographical. And I know that what I write lacks the power and magic of the fictive.

*

Journalism is not fiction. That’s for both practical and ethical reasons, obviously…But journalism shares fiction’s DNA and that’s because both forms tend to work as stories. Journalists like to talk about the reports and features they write as “stories”.

“Yeah, that was a great story, good job”, said the editor to the reporter (never); “So I read this amazing magazine story the other day”….

The journalist who goes on to write novels or has one uncompleted, pages worn, in his desk drawer is a staple cliche; the one where every journalist is carrying around some half-finished manuscript for the next great book.

Now, not every journalist wants to be a writer – in the sense that they write for themselves rather than for journalism. And that’s fine. But personally literary achievement is something to which I aspire. To me the Ezra Pound maxim that literature is “news that stays news” rings true.

In fact I sometimes find how journalists like to think of themselves as arrogant and off-putting. Journalists like to think of themselves as “speaking truth to power”, upholding democracy, and how it’s a calling, the messengers from the frontline of history. But the truth is far more benign: the truth is only a tiny minority of journalists have the chance, are in the business, of doing that, and then only a minority of that work actually upholds those aggrandizing claims.

What’s far more frequent is that usually journalists are beholden in their work, and in their lives, to the news cycle. They are tied to whatever events are happening and bound to happenstance and novelty. If a man bites a dog, the journalist has to interview the man, find the dog, go home, write about it, and file it to his editor. And then tomorrow people read about it and the day after that the newsprint becomes wrapping paper.

This is not to undermine the brilliance of some reporters out there who can find, locate and transmit incredible stories. It is rather to caution the more self-aggrandizing thoughts of some of my youthful peers whose claims can be hubris disguised as half-truths.

*

Literary journalism is a great genre. In the same way I think psychology is a great science in the fact it has to find its worth, standing and integrity within the strict confines of scientific method, when its ultimate aim is to explain the chaotic naturalness of the human mind and the human condition means it will always be irreconciled to be also an imperfect science.

That tension, that nuance in finding the small provable beauties within such tiny gaps is a truly noble endeavour.

And so in literary journalism we find similar tensions.

The literary journalist wants to direct a narrative – building narrative tension, introducing characters in vivid scenes, have story-moving dialogue, great themes and great endings. But they have to do this without the superpower of invention. Everything they write has to be provable, factual and truthful.

My university dissertation was on literary journalism; the difference between truth and fact; Ernest Hemingway; and about ascertaining whether there was a literary form (a ‘third way’) that moved beyond journalism but stopped just short of the fictional – but that occupied the same hallowed literary ground as great fiction.

Eventually I settled, blandly, on the essay form, which is a remarkably flexible form. I also honed in on two writers: John D’Agata and his book ‘About a Mountain’; and John Jeremiah Sullivan and his magazine story ‘Getting Down to What’s Real’.

I cited, in my dissertation, an online review of Sullivan’s book Pulphead, which collects his essays, and contains the aforementioned magazine story. I cite it again to explain, partly, what I meant about that ‘third way’:

There’s a question often raised in the non-fiction world about ‘truth’. James Frey betrayed it; Truman Capote padded it. Sullivan plays with it. One of the best moments in the collection comes when Sullivan is speaking with Miz, a former Real World cast member who makes his living patronizing bars and clubs:

I was like, “Mike” — that’s his real name — “doesn’t this lifestyle wear you down?”

He goes, “Yeah, but I take care of myself. First thing, dude: I don’t mix my drinks. If I’m drinking vodka, I keep with vodka. Shots make that hard, though. Somebody hands you a shot, it’s hard to be like, ‘Can I have something else?’ But for the most part…”

“But what about your soul?” I said. “Does it take a toll on your soul?” He looked down at his drink.

Psych! I didn’t ask him that.

Leaving alone the mimicking tone that Sullivan adopts in this piece — itself a stroke of mastery, and Sullivan’s shifting voice is rightly praised by James Wood — the genius of this moment is in how Sullivan uses an untruth on the page to expose the deeper truth of his profile’s reality. Sullivan doesn’t ask the question because, in part, Miz isn’t truly capable of answering it. Yet by allowing the question to exist on the page, tongue and cheek as it is, the stakes become real for the reader. It is perhaps no mistake that in an essay about fake reality, titled “Getting Down to What’s Real”, the most real moment is itself fake.

— Robert Carver, idiommag.com

*

I cannot write fiction, I am unable to flow in that stream. But I am capable of writing nonfiction and essays and memoir and travel writing and although they are all lesser arts compared to the greatness of fiction that is the truth. I care about journalism but I care about beauty too.

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