The feature story is a potent and vital form of literary non-fiction. Here, Anthony Cockerill charts its evolution through the years.
Of all the different ways to tell stories, the feature article is one of the most compelling, especially when it’s in the right hands. It’s a mainstay of contemporary journalism: a set-piece at the core of a periodical amidst the recurring content, opinion columns and advertisements. A good feature story is authentic, without artifice or illusion, even though it can be as immersive as any great novel.
The feature article has more in common with the essay than traditional reportage, but unlike most essays, it is more akin to narrative. It makes productive use of story-telling strategies usually found in fiction. It is grounded in places and people. It offers an in-depth exploration. It’s a useful vehicle for the investigative journalist, but not all features are necessarily investigative in nature — a feature story might profile a noted person, or it might find a particular angle which illuminates a bigger issue. Like all great stories, a great feature exploits the reader’s pleasure in delayed gratification, as they engage willingly in the pleasure of being the passive participant of the narrative.
The essay is perhaps the earliest antecedent for the feature article, but the essay resists easy definition. Most people associate the form with the academic assignment — a means of assessing someone’s understanding of their studies — or perhaps the scholarly essay, published in disciplinary journals. But an essay — exploratory in both purpose and tone — can be critical, persuasive or personal in scope and all of these have influenced the evolution of the feature article.
When we read accomplished essayists such as Michel de Montagine, George Orwell and Clive James, we’re aware of a strong sense of subjectivity and enquiry. The essay writing process goes hand in hand with the process of developing thinking, which surely reflects the emergence of the form — the essais — as a way ascertaining and articulating opinion in an age when editing and redrafting was more difficult.
If the essay was a literary forebear, the advent of printing took the form to the masses. Printing by mechanical, moveable type spread knowledge and ideas in forms such as the tract, the pamphlet and in time, the newspaper and increased the franchise of literacy throughout Europe.
The daily newspaper is the taproot of modern journalism. Dailies mainly date to the eighteen-thirties, the decade in which the word ‘journalism’ was coined, meaning daily reporting, the jour in journalism.Jill Lepour, ‘Does Journalism Have A Future?’, The New Yorker
The Daily Courant, edited by Elizabeth Mallet, was Britain’s first daily newspaper, first published in 1702. Mallet claimed to provide only facts, to let the reader make up their own minds about events, demanding her authors ‘…relate only matter of fact; supposing other people to have sense enough to make reflections for themselves.’ This approach characterised news reportage throughout the 17th century, when contributions to newspapers were largely supplied by correspondents.
For the 18th century, it is possible to speak of a ‘literary’ journalism… the news was (no longer) at the centre of their activity, but rather its incorporation into larger narratives or extensive arguments.Jürgen Wilke, Professor of Journalism, Johannes Gutenberg University
Jürgen Wilke, Professor of Journalism at Johannes Gutenberg University, has argued that the emergence of opinion journalism — the point where essay meets newspaper article — occurred in the 18th century. Newspapers became what he calls ‘organs of public opinion’. Wilke attributes this change to the failure of the Commons to renew the Printing Act in 1695, which had a direct impact on the freedom of the press. At this time ‘…the printer was responsible for the news… whereas the authors themselves oversaw the essay section and other sundry contributions. They… could also publish critical articles and voice their own opinion.’ As well as the daily newspaper, the period saw the gestation of the magazine — a monthly digest of news, review and commentary for the educated public. Although by no means the first, The Gentleman’s Magazine, first published in London in 1731, was the first periodical to use the enduring generic term. The ‘magazine’ evoked the idea of the armoury: a storehouse of powerful ideas and knowledge.
‘Many authors in the 18th century tried to gain a foothold in the booming sector of journal publishing,’ says Professor Wilke, ‘often writ[ing] other types of journalistic articles, for instance, essays and literary contributions to weeklies, which described themselves in their titles as journals.’
In the United Kingdom, compulsory education and the expansion of the electoral franchise in the 19th century led to growing literacy amongst the population. The repeal of the stamp tax in 1855 and the advent of the rotary press, combined with the availability of cheaper paper, facilitated a huge growth in the popularity and reach of both newspapers and magazines. Typical of the newly popular mass circulation magazine was Tit-Bits, published by George Newness, a miscellany of material gathered from a variety of sources and short fiction. The 19th century was also the age when scholarly journals expanded and the critical review emerged, in forms such as The Edinburgh Review and Quarterly Review. Charles Lamb’s Essays first appeared in The London Magazine, which was first published in 1820.
The content of periodicals at this time was essentially a combination of essay and exposition. A scholarly tone dominated and there was little sense of narrative. The editorial voice of The Spectator, founded in 1828, was expressed using the third-person personal pronoun ‘we’, implying an authority and collective understanding in line with the Enlightenment values of the time. This was evident as late as 1903: ‘We note with no little satisfaction that the feeling against Mr. Chamberlain’s proposals for taxing the food of the people is increasing every day.’ But by the following decade, the third-person pronoun — the editorial ‘we’ — had fallen out of style.
Casting an approving eye across the Atlantic in 1886, The Spector noted that Harper’s Monthly Magazine, established in 1850, ‘continue[d] to be worthy of [its] high reputation. Mr. Blackmore’s new story, ‘Springhaven,’ which… depicts the England that successfully resisted the first Napoleon, promises to be as good as anything that has recently come from the same pen. Under the title of ‘Their Pilgrimage,’ Mr. Dudley Warner gives a very lively account, slightly tinged, perhaps, with caricature, of American summer jauntings. ‘The New York Exchange’… tak[es] us behind the scenes of commercial life on the other side of the Atlantic for which this magazine is noted.’
First edited by James Russell Lowell, The Atlantic Monthly was founded in 1857. ‘Our Birds, And Their Ways’, published during that inaugural year, gives an interesting account of the habits of birds native to America. ‘Among our summer birds,’ begins the article, ‘the vast majority are but transient visitors, born and bred far to the northward and returning thither every year.’ The article occasionally makes use of the first-person style (‘I have seen crows in the neighbourhood of Boston every week of the year…’) and on occasion, direct speech (‘My friend the ornithologist said to me last winter, “You will see that they will be off as soon as the ground is well covered in snow…”‘) But these stylistic choices are rare. There is very little to discern by way of the influence of fiction.
Investigative journalism and social commentary
If the rule of the 19th century periodical feature was scholarly exposition, one notable exception was Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens’ own journalism is notable for blending, stylistically at least, fiction and non-fiction. The critic Michael Dirda has written that while ‘there is a good deal of fancy in Dickens’ reportage, the second half of Sketches by ‘Boz’ consists of what are, in fact, out-and-out short stories.’ In these vignettes, Dickens created a particularly literary form of journalism which gave him an opportunity to craft the characteristic social commentary which was, of course, was similarly conspicuous in his fiction. This wasn’t to everyone’s taste. In 1853, The Spectator published a scathing review of Dickens’ Bleak House, accusing him of ‘amusing the idle hours of the greatest number of readers; not, we may hope, without improvement to their hearts, but certainly without profoundly affecting their intellects or deeply stirring their emotions.’ This scathing indictment perhaps illustrates the division between the intellectualism of the established society periodicals and the nascent ‘populism’ emerging at the time, pioneered in British journalism by William Thomas Stead.
As the editor of The Pall Mall Gazette, editor and social reformer Stead paved the way for the investigative journalism which remains, to some degree, part of the feature article as we know it: eye-catching headlines, subheadings and visuals. Even more importantly, Stead influenced the tropes of this journalism, pioneering the newspaper interview and the subjective presence of the writer within the text, such as in his reportage of the famous Eliza Armstrong case, an important example of a journalist creating news to write about, rather than merely reporting events. In the USA, the sensationalism of Stead was paralleled in the journalism published by William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer, owner of the New York World. These developments prompted a visceral response from some critics, notably Matthew Arnold, who pejoratively called Stead’s output ‘New Journalism’. This was more than simple grumbling: the emergence of the popular press instigated a debate about the value of journalistic objectivity.
Adolph Ochs, who bought the New York Times in 1896, must have been a man from the same school of thought as Matthew Arnold: he banned comic strips and gossip columns from the newspaper, and in doing so, focused the publication’s efforts on objective journalism, raising the profile of the newspaper and establishing its international reputation. That same year, The New York Times Magazine was first printed under the auspices of Ochs, establishing the magazine as an outlet for photo-journalism and features.
People and their stories
At a time when Freud was developing his theories of the unconscious and painters like Picasso were experimenting with Cubism, journalists were also developing a greater recognition of human subjectivity.Walter Dean, American Press Institute
Despite inroads into a more literary style of journalism made by the likes of Dickens, as a whole, literary influences in the form continued to feel restrained. The tone of ‘Golf’, a feature in The Atlantic Monthly in 1902, feels predominantly like an essay rather than a story. Although there is a strong sense of authorship and a slight sense of irony (‘Empire, trusts, and golf — these are the new things in American life…’) and although structured like an essay that ranges around its subject, narrative is largely absent.
Writing in Nordicom Review on the featurisation of journalism, Steen Steensen, Professor of Journalism at Oslo Metropolitan University, has argued that the feature article as we understand it in its modern form is a creation of the 20th century. It certainly seems to be the early years of the 1900s in which we can begin to discern an approach to the feature article that emphasises people and their experiences. In The Atlantic Monthly printed a polemical essay about animal experimentation from John Dewey in September 1926. ‘In Jerusalem a great Jewish university is being slowly developed,’ wrote Henry W Nevison in the same publication in May 1927. There is a sense that the stories and the pursuits of people were beginning to take centre stage.
National Geographic Magazine was a scholarly journal until 1905, when it became known for what it continues to do well — extensive pictorial content and photojournalism — under the editorial control of Gilbert H Grosvenor. In 1905, the magazine published a feature article called ‘The Purple Veil’, subtitled ‘A Romance of the Sea.’ Clearly, there are the beginnings of a narrative approach. The ‘purple veil’ of the title, as the article later reveals, is the egg mass of Lophius piscatorius, or the goose-fish. ‘Off the New England coast,’ begins the article, ‘a curious object is often found floating on the water, somewhat resembling a lady’s veil of gigantic size and of a violet or purple colour. The fishermen allude to it generally as “the purple veil,” and many have been the speculations concerning its nature and origin.’ There is a pleasing sense of immersion, a sort of ‘cold open’ that is unabashedly designed to hook the reader.
In ‘The Date Gardens of the Jerid’, written by Thomas H Kearney and published in National Geographic Magazine in 1910, the author begins with the immersive, sense of place opening that the magazine is known for: ‘With its feet in the water and its head in the fire, as the Arab proverb has it, the date palm is at home in the vast deserts that stretch from Morocco to the borders of India.’ After this initial scene setting, the author segues into exposition, telling us: ‘Some years ago, I visited these oases in order to obtain palms for the date orchards which the National Department of Agriculture has established in Arizona and in the Colorado Desert of California.’ This juxtaposition of vibrant image and elucidation continues to be a key structural technique in feature stories today.
Brazenly literary in style, lyrically crafted and undoubtedly novelistic, Florence Craig Albrecht begins ‘Channel Ports – And Some Others’ in 1915 by describing a maritime voyage:
‘The sturdy old vessel is coming into port after an eventless voyage. Seven days of ceaseless plowing through a shimmering sea, under a great round dome, now radiant light, now dusky velvet, star-sprinkled. The Scillys have floated by, foam-washed, mist wrapped, fairly islands in a magic world all cloud and water.’‘Channel Ports – And Some Others’, Florence Craig Albrecht
Albrecht has embraced a literary narrative and established a strong sense of place. There is also a clear omniscient point-of-view at work here that evokes the establishing shot of a film in style. This embrace of immediacy in the story-telling — and of movement — feels very much inspired by moving image.
Morris Markey wrote ‘Gangs’ in The Atlantic Monthly in March 1928. Again, the sense of people and place is palpable:
‘On a pleasant evening, not many weeks ago,’ writes Markey in his opening paragraph, ‘a young man bearing the rather picturesque name of Little Augie was standing with a friend on the street corner in New York’s lower East Side. The friend was facing toward the curb, and suddenly, he gave a cry of warning. Little Augie swung about in time to see an automobile charge down upon him.’‘Gangs’, Morris Markey
From this evocative opening scene, Markey goes on to explore the backstory; to fill in some of the detail behind Little Augie’s death. The writing is composed of scenes and exposition which are woven together. Furthermore, these scenes and expository components are structured together in longer narrative sequences, divided by Roman numerals. Clearly, there is an emerging sense of the fictional form and its associated stylistics exerting a strong influence in the composition of the text.
Just as Dickens’ journalism had been characterised by aspects of narrative befitting a novelist, in the early decades of the 20th Century, Ernest Hemingway also began his writing career in the newsroom. Hemingway’s experiences writing journalism famously influenced his fiction. Taking the nod from the style guide at the Kansas City Star, where he worked as a reporter after leaving high school, his fiction became known for its objective narrative perspective and lucid sentences. Conversely, Hemingway’s reportage had always been literary. It had sketches, descriptions, characters and a sense of narrative which set the inverted pyramid of the news story the right way up. In his article ‘At the End of the Ambulance Run’, a newspaper article for the Kansas City Star from 1918, Hemingway begins his copy with the ominous action of a short story:
The night ambulance attendants shuffled down the long, dark corridors at the General Hospital with an inert burden on the stretcher. They turned in at the receiving ward and lifted the unconscious man to the operating table. His hands were calloused and he was unkempt and ragged, a victim of a street brawl near the city market. No one knew who he was, but a receipt, bearing the name of George Anderson, for $10 paid on a home out in a little Nebraska town served to identify him.‘At the End of the Ambulance Run’, Ernest Hemingway
This is an approach to storytelling usually found in fiction, where the writer lures the reader, leaves them to work out what is or isn’t fundamentally crucial, then builds to a climax. It is essentially the structural and stylistic opposite of the classic inverted pyramid, which condenses news, summarises and foregrounds the most important part of the story.
In 1933, by this time established as a writer of fiction, Hemingway was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by Arnold Gingrich, who had founded Esquire that same year. ‘[He sent Hemingway] a blue sports shirt and a leather jacket, promising to pay him $250 each for articles about marlin-fishing in Cuba, lion-shooting in Tanganyika, bullfighting in Spain, and other manly subjects,’ said Carlos Baker, writing in The New York Times in 1967.
Hemingway has been seen as a profound influence on what was to be called ‘New Journalism’, and although he was undoubtedly a totemic figure, something was happening that was bigger than one person: an undercurrent of fictional stylistics gathering strength in literary journalism, the stylistics of which itself was influenced by cinema, as is evident in Stewart H Holbrook’s ‘Life of a Pullman Porter’, published in Esquire in 1939:
One October evening in 1937 a stunning blonde of about thirty took a Pullman compartment on a Great Northern train leaving Portland, Oregon for Seattle. She was a tall, graceful woman, modishly dressed in dark blue, right up to her earrings, and the porter who was on her car still thinks she was the handsomest woman he has ever seen.
An hour or so later, as the train was leaving Longview, Washington, the lady rang for the porter and handed him a letter in a pale blue envelope. “I want you to be sure,” she said with emphasis, “to mail this at Aberdeen and nowhere else.” She gave him a quarterStewart H Holbrook, ‘Life of a Pullman Porter’
Alongside feature journalism, in the 1930s Esquire ran short-stories in abundance, as well as ‘semi-fiction’ – an interesting idea that involved real stories, fictionalised for publication. The influence of moving image in writing in this period can be felt palpably. The introduction to Laura Marcus’s essay, ‘Cinema and Modernism’, notes that modernism was ‘concerned with everyday life, perception, time and the kaleidoscopic and fractured experience of urban space. Cinema, with its techniques of close-up, panning, flashbacks and montage played a major role in shaping experimental works.’ As authors of fiction embraced the possibilities of the new medium, their stylistic influences were felt keenly in the work of feature journalists of the era.
‘Movies were already by then a part of the culture… motion was a part of the new vocabulary… for the first time in conventional reporting people began to move. They had a journalistic existence on either side of the event,’ wrote Michael J Arlen in The Atlantic Monthly in 1972. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of the cinema on literary non-fiction, just as the cinema profoundly influenced Modernist fiction during those years.
The influence of ‘New Journalism’
‘Joe Louis at Fifty’ wasn’t like a magazine article at all. It was like a short story. It began with a scene, an intimate confrontation between Louis and his third wife.Tom Wolfe, Bulletin of the American Society Newspaper Editors, 1970
Matthew Arnold had disparagingly used the phrase ‘New Journalism’ to describe the evolving journalism of the 19th Century that was characterised by a different more sensational discourse and subject matter. In the 1960s, the American journalist Tom Wolfe used the appellation to describe his perception of a shift in the style and framing of the journalism of a cluster of writers in the period who would work in a much more literary style, espousing ‘truth’ over ‘facts’. Unlike Arnold, however, Wolfe certainly wasn’t being disparaging. In fact, there was an element of braggadocio at play. ‘New Journalism’ in Wolfe’s opinion was revolutionary, and Wolfe was one of its biggest proponents.
‘Wolfe wrote that his first acquaintance with a new style of reporting came in a 1962 Esquire article about Joe Louis by Gay Talese,’ wrote James E Murphy in The New Journalism: A Critical Perspective. For Wolfe, Talese was the first to apply fiction techniques to his reporting. But Dickens had done so, as had Hemingway and many others. Experimenting with personal narrative and the blurring of fact and fiction was hardly new. If we were to take Tom Wolfe to task for over-egging the contribution of the New Journalists, we wouldn’t be the first. To argue that New Journalism isn’t exactly new is what Michael J Arlen has called ‘a favourite put down’. In The Atlantic in 1972, he argued that ‘there’s been a vein of personal journalism in English and American writing for a very long time.’
I wonder if what happened wasn’t more like this… that despite the periodic appearance of an Addison, or Defoe, or Twain, standard newspaper journalism remained a considerably restricted branch of writing, both in England and America, well into the nineteen twenties… then, after the First World War, especially the literary resurgence in the nineteen twenties — the writers’ world of Paris, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. — into the relatively straitlaced, rectilinear, dutiful world of conventional journalism appeared an assortment of young men who wanted to do it differently.…Michael J Arlen, ‘Notes on the New Journalism’, The Atlantic Monthly, May 1972
Once Tom Wolfe graduated, argues Arlen, ‘burdened like the rest of his generation with the obligation to write a novel’, he made an important discovery: ‘the time of the novel was past… [a] fairly profound change was already taking place in the nation’s reading habits… most magazines, which had been preponderantly devoted to fiction, were now increasingly devoted to nonfiction.’
Gay Talese’s article, ‘Frank Sinatra Has A Cold’, published in Esquire in April 1966, is, quite rightfully, a staple of journalism students’ reading lists. Denied the opportunity to talk to Sinatra, Esquire editor Harold T. P. Hayes nevertheless kept Talese on the job. Talese ‘bounc[ed] from hope to despair to paranoia and back as he work[ed] furiously to deliver the goods by shadowing the notoriously controlling Sinatra and talking to everyone who might be able to shed light on the entertainer without setting off any alarms,’ wrote Frank Digiacomo in Vanity Fair in 2006. The distance between Talese and Sinatra became the story itself, and offered Talese an angle on Sinatra’s volatile temper and fragile ego. Scenes from Talese’s time observing Sinatra are adroitly rendered:
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.
Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.
‘Hey,’ he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. ‘Those Italian boots?’
‘No,’ Ellison said.
‘Are they English boots?’
‘Look, I donno, man,’ Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.Gay Talese, ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold’
Stylistics of contemporary feature stories
…feature journalism is best understood as a family of genres that has traditionally shared a set of discourses: a literary discourse, a discourse of intimacy and a discourse of adventure.Steen Steensen, Professor of Journalism, Oslo Metropolitan University
The ubiquity of the overtly literary feature article and the associated stylistic choices has waned since the New Journalists’ heyday. Today’s feature stories feel less self-consciously ‘fictional’ than some of those New Journalism classics. They are lighter on direct speech and tend toward more reported speech. Dialogue tags are usually in present tense, which conveys immediacy but which loses some of the fictional notes that resonate soundly in Gay Talese’s writing. Despite this, the methods of story-telling associated with New Journalism continues to exert a powerful influence on the feature story, especially in terms of narrative structure and style.
The scene is at the heart of the feature story, and these scenes are clustered into sequences, a legacy of the influence of cinema. We can see the legacy of this in the discourse of contemporary feature writing: the narrative structure, the sequences of scenes, the evocation of people and places, the importance of the story in moving the writing forward.
Lee Gutkind has explored the structure of the feature story in detail in his 2012 book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. The structure of the feature story builds to a sense of climax — this could perhaps be a revelatory moment of insight. Gutkind makes the case for the importance of the scene ‘to communicate ideas and information as compellingly as possible,’ to keep the reader engaged through powerful story-telling, around which exposition can be arranged.
Writing for GQ, Jonathan Heaf begins his profile of Harrison Ford prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with a brutal, in-media-res opening paragraph:
‘I don’t want all this to take all f*ing day.’ The words Harrison Ford, 73, not so much spoke as snarled at me yesterday afternoon while discussing our lunch plans are still, 24 hours later, smarting like refined sugar hitting an exposed tooth cavity.Jonathan Heaf, ‘Harrison Ford on his change of heart about Han Solo’, GQ, January 2015
This appears to confirm some uncomfortable truths about Ford that Heaf — and by extension, we as readers — might have expected: Ford is invariably grumpy; Ford is an ungenerous interviewee; Ford is a formidable challenge. But by the end of the profile, having woven the narrative (his meeting with Ford, a ride in his Tesla Model S, lunch) with interview and exposition, Heaf describes telling Ford how much he’s looking forward to watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens:
He smiles. I turn to walk back to my rental and that’s when I hear it. “Me too, kid.”
I very nearly glance back. Kid. He called me kid. For the first time all day, a flicker. One word, that’s all I needed. That ‘kid’, uttered in that tone, in his voice, fires my memory banks like a proton torpedo fired into a thermal exhaust port.Jonathan Heaf, ‘Harrison Ford on his change of heart about Han Solo’, GQ, January 2015
The centrality of the writer creates a kinship with a reader who has grown up with the same cultural tropes and shared, mimetic reference points. The structure of the writing allows Heaf to demonstrate the journey toward intimacy alluded to by Steensen. The Observer Magazine publishes around three features a week. Some are essentially pieces of investigative journalism into topics such as healing crystals (‘The New Stone Age’ by Eva Wiseman, June 2019) and Britain’s big cats, (‘Here, Kitty?’ by Mark Wilding, April 2019). Many, however, tell us something bigger about society in general: Eva Wiseman explores the well-being industry (‘Feel Better Now?’, March 2019). Joanna Moorhead learns about art therapy in prisons (‘Brushes With The Law’, May 2019). Alex Moshakis probes the big business of house plants (‘The Bloom Economy’, June 2019).
Some recount authentic, personal experiences — of sexuality (‘What My Queer Journey Taught Me About Love’, Amelia Abraham, May 2019) or of racing pigeons (‘Home to Roost’, Jon Day, June 2019). Other stories are contrived, for example, Emma Beddington transforms her dog into an Instagram star (‘Meet The World’s Most Unlikely Insta Star’, July 2019). There are often profiles of notable individuals, such as comedian Sara Pascoe (‘I wanted To Be Prime Minister’, Rebecca Nicholson, August 2019) and crossword writer Anna Schectman (‘Why It’s Hip To Be Square’ by Alex Moshakis).
Some tell really interesting stories — the fashion historian who solves crimes (‘Call The Fashion Police’, Eva Wiseman, March 2019). Others are about trends: the television box set (‘Why Box Sets Suck Us In’ by Will Storr, April 2019) and the male wellness sector (‘The Evolution of Man’ by Alex Moshakis, March 2019). Within each of these stories is really engaging content, things we can identify with, references we can share with the writer. The feature article has an important role, bringing people’s stories into play to lead us toward bigger truths and illuminating aspects of our culture and society.
If these features adopt Steensen’s ‘discourse of intimacy’, perhaps the travel feature best exemplifies the ‘discourse of adventure’. The writer Dan Richards, who specialises in travel and adventure, visited Finland’s Pellinge archipelago for 1843 (December 2019/January 2020) to explore the landscape that inspired Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin children’s books. Richards writes compellingly about the outdoors (his contribution to Holloway, which he co-authored with Robert Macfarlane, is lucid and lyrical) and here, he evokes the sparse beauty of the archipelago in his search for the places where Jansson lived and worked. The notion of a ‘search’, a sense of discovery at the heart of the narrative, is a crucial element of the ‘discourse of adventure’, even if for Richards, the island which inspired the Sommarboken [The Summer Book] remains elusive. Just as with Gay Talese’s search for Sinatra, here the adventure is the momentum of the narrative, even if the sought-after moment must be deferred.
Where are we now?
The turn of the twentieth century was marked by one of the most important cultural thresholds in society: the advent of the motion picture. Michael J Arlen is surely right when he argues that this was the significant moment when the feature article began to take on a sense of movement; when showing, rather than telling, came to the fore. It was only natural that writers should turn to fictional narrative as the toolkit. The importance of human subjectivity as central to aesthetic experience was a profound sea change that reflected wider socio-cultural changes: the decline of trust in authority, the erosion of the Enlightenment meta-narrative.
The essay, that long-established form of literary non-fiction, remains a crucial, vibrant form in its own right that can often be found in the package of the published ‘feature’. But the codes and conventions of narrative story-telling have become synonymous with the feature story, what Lee Gutkind prefers to call ‘creative non-fiction’.
Just as the influence of cinema was keenly felt, no doubt the influence of the web and the convergent device will begin to influence the adaptation of the feature story. The modus operandi of the ‘Mojo’ — the mobile journalist — asks the question of what the role of the feature article in today’s fast paced world might be — and the extent to which it can compete with the immediacy of images, video and the flow of social media feeds.
But just because we like our news reportage raw doesn’t mean we’re turned off to the payload of a great story. Steen Steensen has argued that feature journalism is transforming traditional ‘hard news’ in a process he calls the ‘featurization of journalism’ — the increasing dominance of feature-style journalism in newspapers. This, he writes, is often viewed by academics as an erosion of the social function of the press, ‘divert[ing] journalism towards what might interest the public instead of what is in the public’s interest, hence weakening the role of the news media in a democracy’. However, Steensen goes on to argue that in fact, the traditional genres of hard news and feature journalism have become entwined to some degree, in terms of discourse and social function, bringing ‘enlightenment and insight into complex and quintessential matters of culture and society.’
Steensen goes on to caution that the general transformation of news into something more ‘consumer-oriented, intimate and fiction-inspired’ might create a conflict of ‘intentions and expectations’. This is a judicious caveat in our post-truth culture. The feature story continues to feel like an urgent, exciting and relevant way to tell the stories of the people and places in our world. It will continue to stand as an important social function if we adhere to Lee Gutkind’s injunction to ‘be true to your story, true to your characters, true to yourself.’
Gutkind, Lee (2012) You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, Boston: Da Capo Press.
Harrington, H.F. (1912) Essentials in Journalism: A Manual in Newspaper Making for College Classes, Boston: The Athenaeum Press.
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