Forethoughts: The Art of Fact edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda

The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (Simon & Schuster) may have been published in 1997 but it still stands as one of the finest anthologies on the subject of literary nonfiction. So what better book to complement my read through of Norman Sims history of the twentieth-century development of the form – True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (you can see my forethoughts on that book, HERE)? I believe this anthology will not only help me improve my own knowledge of the subject, but it will also help to lay the foundations for my new focus on literary nonfiction at RobAroundBooks. Join me then as I offer a few forethoughts on The Art of Fact and reveal something of the contents, while telling you about the beautiful minds who are behind the book.

OK, to get a grounding on what The Art of Fact is about, let’s begin with a quick look at the cover blurb:

The Art of Fact is a historical treasury tracing literary journalism back to such pioneers as Defoe, Dickens and Orwell, and to crime writers, investigative social reporters, and war correspondents who stretch the limits of style and even propriety to communicate powerful truth. Here an extraordinary range of styles – the elegance of Gay Talese, the militance of Marvel Cooke, the station-house cynicism of David Simon, the manic intelligence of Richard Ben Cramer – illuminates an extraordinary range of subjects. From large public events (Jimmy Breslin on the funeral of JFK) to small private moments (Gary Smith on the struggles of Native American basketball player), these readings – sad, funny, and most of all provocative – offer the double pleasure of true stories artfully told.

Well, this may be a fairly standard piece of blurb writing which was designed – as these pieces are – to generate some excitement for the book, and I think to some extent it does. There is mention of some big literary nonfiction names here i.e. Richard Ben Cramer and Gay Talese, but what strikes me as fascinating is that Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens are labelled as ‘pioneers’ of the form. This is interesting because personally I would have classified literary nonfiction solely as a product of the twentieth-century. Of course I’m not naive enough to think that the form just sprang out of nowhere – it has to have roots in the past somewhere – but I’m surprised to discover that those roots stem, according to Kerrane and Yagoda, from these two (maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked because Dickens and Defoe were journalists themselves, after all). Regardless, I’m curious to discover (if I can) just what kind of influence these ‘pioneers’ had on the literary nonfiction today.

Browsing this anthology I can see straight away that most of the entries are extracts from longer works rather than standalone creations. I’m not particularly bothered by this because I think the editors have skimmed the cream from the top of the milk so to speak in order to illustrate certain points. That’s fine, at least it’ll give me a taster of these larger works for now, and if I want to I can revisit them in full at a later late.

So what’s contained in this anthology? Well, you can see the full contents at the foot of these forethoughts, but to clarify first of all, Yagoda states in his preface that the pieces that were chosen – or at the very least shortlisted – were the ones that had, in the first place, met certain criteria. Firstly, all pieces of literary nonfiction had to meet the fundamental principle of being 100% factual, so out went things such as Joseph Mitchell’s Old Mr. Flood (which in effect features a composite character), and John Gregory Dunne’s Vegas (which is as much fiction as it is fact). Secondly, the pieces had to be pure reportage i.e. the journalists are working from gathered factual material and not just from memory and ‘sensory observation’, Thirdly, is something which Yagoda refers to as ‘currency’ i.e. the story is written as close to the time of the event as possible because as the gap between event and writing about it widens, so the event starts to creep into the realms of history.

From the whittling down process the final decision on what to include in the anthology came down to one important element of literary nonfiction – innovation. In other words, the pieces had to demonstrate a new kind of creativity in their construction, while dispensing with the ‘codified standards and agreed-upon shapes’ of mass-produced twentieth-century journalism.

So it’s clear that selection for The Art of Fact was stringent and well considered and it’s no coincidence that I, even with my limited knowledge of literary nonfiction, can spot inclusions from many of those who are believed to be masters of the form. Truman Capote, A. J. Liebling, Hunter S. Thompson, James Agee, Ted Conover and Tom Wolfe are all featured, as is Joseph Mitchell, the man who made me fall in love with literary nonfiction in the first place. I’m also delighted to see that Steinbeck, Hemingway, Orwell and Joan Didion made the cut, even though they are not writers who I would immediately associate with the form (I’m sure their inclusions in this anthology will teach me otherwise :)).

What’s also interesting about The Art of Fact, is that the editors have chosen to divide the entries in the anthology into four distinct subsections. The first subsection – ‘Pioneers’ is self explanatory and it contains the entries from those who preceded the established form of literary nonfiction. As we have seen, the cover blurb already mentions that Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens are considered ‘pioneers’ and my curiosity is further piqued to find the likes of Stephen Crane and Jack London also among the inclusions in this opening section (but then again they were journalists too, weren’t they? :)).

The second subsection – ‘Telling Tales’, contains entries from those reporters who have gathered their research – either from being on the scene or from primary sources – and have then woven that factual material into something which either resembles the narrative novel, or as something a little more direct i.e. an enhanced ‘fly on the wall’ account of events. Either way the presence of the journalist is not felt in these pieces.

By contrast, the third subsection – ‘The Reporter Takes the Stage’ – very much puts the reporter in the spotlight of his/her piece. The pieces in this section are from journalists who have broken one the guiding principles of their profession, and they have made their presence felt in their reportage – along with their personal thoughts and feelings – and often with profound results.

The final subsection – ‘Style as Substance’, contains pieces from those journalists who have developed their own unique style of literary nonfiction, be it in the way in which they use a distinctive voice to relate their story, or in the use of an innovative structure on which to deliver it.

Well, I’ve spoken a little about the structure and content of The Art of Fact and it’s now time to tell you something about the beautiful minds behind it. I’ll be honest from the outset and tell you that I know very little about Kevin Kerrane, and I’ve certainly never read any of his writings. I do know however, that he is something of an academic genius. He is a professor of drama, journalism and Irish studies at the University of Delaware.

Ben Yagoda on the other hand I do know, mainly through his book The Sound on the Page (Harper Collins), which has given me great delight and much guidance in the past. Like Kerrane, Yagoda is another respected academic teaching at Delaware, where he specialises in English, journalism and writing.

It was through Kerrane and Yagoda’s professional partnership at Delaware that the idea for the Art of Fact anthology was born. Tired of having to spend countless hours at the photocopier, or in negotiations about copyright agreements, the two professors decided they would take matters into their own hands, and create a sourcebook which would aid the students who enrolled on their literary nonfiction course.

This brings me nicely to revealing my biggest fear about this anthology – that it’s going to turn out to be nothing more than a dry, insipid academic tome which will put me to sleep quicker than any prescription drug. That said, I think it’s going to be anything but sleep-inducing. Not only does Time Out New York tell me on the cover this could be ‘the world’s most readable textbook’ :), but as we’ve seen from the range of entries, and the process with which those entries were chosen, there’s something select and ‘cream of the crop’ about this anthology. So rather than bore me to death The Art of Fact should invigorate me, and deepen my love for literary nonfiction (that’s what I’m hoping anyway).

Of course the proof of the pudding is in the eating so they say, so my next move is to set off on my journey through The Art of Fact. I aim to record my journey through this anthology in the same way that I do with any other collection or anthology. I will read and review each entry as I proceed (linking to the contents below as I file each review), before returning at the end to give my final review on the anthology as a whole. I’m well aware however, that unlike a short story anthology the aim of The Art of Fact is to educate and enlighten, and I will keep this in mind every step of the way. You will be reflected in my individual reviews, and in my final review of the anthology as a whole. Also keep a close eye on my reading journal, because there’s a good chance I’ll be passing comment on this anthology via that too.


:: Contents of the The Art of Fact ::
(links lead to individual reviews of each literary nonfiction piece, when posted)

  • Daniel Defoe from The True and Genuine Account of The Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild
  • James Boswell from The Life of Samuel Johnson
  • Henry Mayhew – Watercress Girl
  • Charles Dickens – The Great Tasmania’s Cargo
  • Walt Whitman from Specimen Days
  • W. T. Stead from If Christ Came to Chicago
  • Stephen Crane – When Man Falls, a Crowd Gathers
  • Stephen Crane – An Experiment in Misery
  • Richard Harding Davies – The Death of Rodriguez
  • Abraham Cahan – Can’t Get There Minds Ashore
  • Abraham Cahan – Pillelu, Pillelu!
  • Jack London from The People of the Abyss
  • Morris Markey – Drift
  • Hickman Powell from Ninety Times Guilty
  • Walter Bernstein – Juke Joint
  • John Hersey from Hiroshima
  • W. C. Heinz – The Day of the Fight
  • Lilian Rose from “Portrait of Hemingway”
  • Norman Lewis – Two Generals
  • Gay Talese – The Silent Season of a Hero
  • Truman Capote from In Cold Blood
  • Tom Wolfe from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
  • Piers Paul Read from Alive
  • Tracy Kidder from House
  • Sylvester Monroe and Peter Goldman from Brothers
  • Bob Greene – So…We Meet at Last, Mr. Bond
  • Gary Smith – Shadow of a Nation
  • Richard Ben Cramer from What It Takes
  • George Orwell – The Spike
  • Marvel Cooke from “The Bronx Slave Market”
  • A. J. Liebling from The Earl of Louisiana
  • Al Stump – The Fight to Live
  • Norman Mailer from The Armies of the Night
  • Hunter S. Thompson from “The Scum Also Rises”
  • Ron Rosenbaum – The Last Secrets of Skull and Bones
  • Ted Conover from Coyotes
  • James Fenton from “The Snap Revolution”
  • John Simpson – Tienanmen Square
  • Bill Buford from Among the Thugs
  • Rosemary Mahoney from Whoredom in Kimmage
  • Lawrence Otis Graham from “Harlem on My Mind”
  • Dennis Covington from “Snake Handling and Redemption”
  • Ben Hecht – The Pig
  • Ernest Hemingway – Japanese Earthquake
  • James Agee from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
  • Martha Gellhorn – The Third Winter
  • George Orwell – Marrakech
  • Joseph Mitchell – Lady Olga
  • Rebecca West from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
  • John Steinbeck from Once There Was a War
  • Jimmy Cannon – Lethal Lightening
  • Jimmy Breslin – It’s an Honor
  • Tom Wolfe – The Girl of the Year
  • Joan Didion – Los Angeles Notebook
  • John McPhee from The Pine Barrens
  • Michael Herr from Dispatches
  • Ryszard Kapuscinski from Another Day of Life
  • David Simon from Homicide
  • Svetlana Alexiyevich from Boys in Zinc
  • Michael Winerip – Holiday Pageant: The Importance of Being Bluebell

Simon & Schuster | August 1998 | $20.00 | PAPERBACK | 560 PP | ISBN: 0684846306

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).