Forethoughts: True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism by Norman Sims

Although I’ve loved literary nonfiction for quite some time now I’ve never featured it much on RobAroundBooks. That is until now, with the relaunch of RobAroundBooks, where literary nonfiction finally gains a deserved position as one of the main literary forms that I’m choosing to focusing on. So to kick things off what better book to hone in on than a publication that deals with the history of literary journalism, written by a professor who is considered to be THE leading authority on the history of the form. The book is True Stories (Northwestern University Press), the professor is Norman Sims, and I bring to you now my brief forethoughts on the book before I venture into it.

Let’s begin with the cover blurb:

Literary journalism has risen, fallen, and risen again during the past hundred years. True Stories details the cultural conditions, the competing journalistic forms, and the innovative writers that shaped literary journalism’s destiny.

The book examines the work of early practitioners, the difficulties encountered during the rise of journalistic objectivity, the burst of activity during the Great Depression, and the formation of a creative oasis at The New Yorker in the 1930s through the barren 1950s, as well as looking at the personal involvement of New Journalists during the 1960s. Sim uses extensive interviews with contemporary writers to argue we need literary journalism if we hope to achieve a nuanced and complex view of our world, one that captures diverse perspectives and achieves an accurate and artistic presentation of experience.

I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on literary nonfiction – at least not yet – but after reading this blurb it looks as though I’m going to get a good grounding, and hopefully a good few pointers on which practitioners of the form I need to focus on. Sims looks to have covered the full sweep of the twentieth-century and the fact he uses interviews with contemporary writers only looks to add to the value of this book. It all looks pretty promising.

One of things I’m really trying to establish in my head early on, is a full understanding of the term, ‘literary nonfiction’. I’ve read many definitions of the term but so far every one of them has been somewhat fuzzy and vague, to the point where I can’t even explain it all that well myself. I know of course that it’s the craft of presenting nonfiction in a more creative way, using prose that has a more literary tone to it, but I can’t really expand much further. So I really hope to come out of the other end of this book, not only having a good knowledge of how literary nonfiction developed during the twentieth-century, but also with a complete understanding of the form, from someone who is able to explain it to me in simple terms while illustrating it with good examples. Professor Sims actually says himself that there is a problem defining literary nonfiction, and that it’s easier for him to ‘show than to tell’, so I’m hopeful that he is going to show me.

As I said in my opening paragraph, Professor Norman Sims is considered to be the leading expert on the development of literary nonfiction in the twentieth-century. He’s studied the form for over 30 years, and has taught the subject at the University of Massachusetts since 1978. During this time he has published a number of books on the subject. He is the editor of The Literary journalists and Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, and coeditor with Mark Kramer of Literary Journalism.

Sims clearly knows his stuff. He looks to eat, sleep and breathe literary journalism, and I can think of no better hand to lead me through the wonderful world of literary nonfiction. Looking at his photo he looks to be a thoroughly decent chap too. In fact I know he’s a decent chap because RobAroundBooks has had the brief pleasure of his company in the past. I featured Sims’ book in a Daily Bookshot post last year, and he dropped in to say Hi, and answer my question on whether True Stories was the definitive word on literary journalism? As gracious as you might expect Sims to be he suggested that John Hartsock’s A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form may be a better candidate. It has sat on my ‘to buy’ list ever since. Sims also took the time to tell me about Joseph Mitchell who spent some time with Sims in the years leading up to his death. If you’re a regular at RobAroundBooks then you’ll know that I can never say enough good things about Mitchell, and so it was a delight to have Sims tell me a little about him. You can read what he said, in this post.

It’s at this point that I would normally close there forethoughts, telling you to return in the not too distant future to read my review on True Stories (please do so, and also keep an eye on my Reading Journal for any incidental comments), but I want to give the final word in these forethoughts to Norman Sims himself. I think the blurb for this book does its job reasonably well in piquing interest, but I came across something even more inspiring online, quoted from Sims himself, talking in relation to his book on his profile piece on the University of Massachusetts Amherst website. It is this quote I finish with:

When we look back at American journalism of the past century—or more—we discover that the leading texts are literary journalism: Jack London writing about poverty, tramping and Alaska; John Reed writing about wars in Mexico and Eastern Europe, and revolution in Russia; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos writing from Europe about World War I and its aftermath; James Agee, Edmund Wilson, Martha Gellhorn and George Orwell writing about the Great Depression and war in Europe; John Hersey on Hiroshima; Joseph Mitchell writing about New York City; Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion writing experimental narratives during the turbulent sixties; Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, John McPhee, Ted Conover, and many others on recent portraits of everyday life and cultural communities. For me, each of these names carries a distinctive style and voice. It’s like reading the menu in a restaurant and then savoring the food.

Northwestern University Press | January 2008 | $24.95 | PAPERBACK | 424 PP | ISBN: 0810124696

Find out more about Norman Sims:

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).