Journalism, even literary journalism, has taken some big hits in recent weeks and months … heck, for more than a year. The liberal press. Biased broadcasters. Reporters with agendas. Yes, journalists have heard it all—and have, in some instances, helped create the problem. I myself have been called a “liberal puritanical nanny” (guess this guy didn’t know the meaning of oxymoron), as well as pathetic, self-pitying, and manipulative. In fact, in a comment on my recent piece on assault and harassment in the workplace, I was told that I was not attractive enough for this to have actually happened to me.
Of course, articles such as the now-debunked sexual assault allegations in Rolling Stone magazine haven’t helped the cause of literary journalism, the very definition of which includes the words “nonfiction” and “facts.” True literary journalism is what Purdue University describes as researched, fact-driven essays, and some of my own favorite literary journalists include Joan Didion, Walt Whitman, Nora Ephron, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Orwell. These writers have brought us everything from Whitman’s comparative politics in 1871 to Didion’s current explorations of cultural chaos and social disenfranchisement.
Literary journalists often challenge us with their opinions. Sharply crafted. Sizzling with controversy. Stinging with censure. Roxane Gay is one of these, appearing regularly at “intersections of identity and culture” on the pages of The New York Times. Gay, an associate professor of English at Purdue, became a contributing writer for the Times in 2015, and her opinion writing—and reactions to it—have demonstrated more clearly than ever to me why literature matters. Gay’s columns have dealt with the tough subjects of campus rape (with actual facts and research), violence against blacks, and the presidential election, and she is often scourged, or worse, as biased for her strong positions.
Here’s the thing, though: bias is preference, and preferences are judgments, and judgments are opinions. Hence the term opinion writing. And through this role, as judge, literary journalists such as Roxane Gay—in the grand traditions of Hemingway and Norman Mailer, for example—make an impact. In 2014, when Gay was also a visiting author at Lighthouse, she was heralded by Time magazine: “Let this be the year of Roxane Gay … [who] directly confronts complex issues of identity and privilege.” The Guardian praised Gay’s ability to “see around corners” and to recognize “other points of view while carefully advancing her own.”
Sure, we all have our judgments, our preferences, our biases. Writing to advance these views, to see around corners, makes for good journalism, and good journalism is good literature. That’s why, in my recent “Writing About What Matters” workshop for grade-school students in the Lighthouse Young Writers Program, we examined the differences between fact and opinion. We explored others’ points of view, and practiced advancing our own. We wrote to inform, to persuade, to ask for action. We wrote with intention.
And, inevitably, I was blown away (literary journalistic term) by the depth of our young writers. It’s no surprise that students this age have opinions, nor that the topics they choose—family, friends, country, women’s rights, female empowerment—reflect the world in which we as adults also operate.
Our wrap-up discussion, however, enlightened me the most. What about opinion writing, I asked them, is different from your other writing, from other literature you enjoy? One young fiction writer said that, in creating imaginary people and happenings, she’s not writing something as truth that someone else would typically challenge. Another student was intrigued to use both fact and her own ideas in nonfiction essays, saying, “I never believed I could do that before.”
But when one of our young writers mused—“because some people will always disagree with us”—that opinion writing is both purpose and risk, I knew I had found another, and perhaps more significant, definition for literary journalism … and another reason why literature matters.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Andrea Doray is a journalist, essayist, and poet who knows why free speech and freedom of the press are in the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Doray teaches in the Lighthouse Young Writers Program, and often learns as much from her students as they might from her.