The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part I)
EVERY NEWSPAPER REPORTER at some point in her hectic career flirts with the idea of cutting loose to write a novel, just as every novelist dreams in his wretched solitude of a more gregarious life at a daily newspaper. This is to a great extent due to the misperception that the pasture is greener on the other side of the literary fence, but there is also a deeper sense that there exists the same blood-bond between the reporter and the novelist as there exists between twins who have been separated at birth and raised at opposite ends of the globe; naturally one dreams, even if mundane realities prevent it, of dropping one’s job and setting off for the willies in an oh-brother-where-art-thou trek for the long lost twin.
There is also the fact that every writer—or at least the anxious, competitive, insecure sort of writer, which accounts for a hefty chunk of the good ones—is continuously measuring his or her life by the lives of past writers, and any glance at the biographies of canonized writers will suggest that a ‘real’ writer should not be a virgin in either reporting or fiction. Of course this is baloney and many of the best fiction writers have never been reporters, and the same holds vice versa. But the myth nonetheless remains, and so the leapfrogging of writers between fiction and reporting goes on, only further perpetuating the illusion that there is some essential bond between the two.
From afar it appears that such an invisible umbilicus exists: both the reporter and the novelist write about human life, even if the novelist may sometimes do so in disguised form; they are both committed, at least in creed, to that academically reviled notion called truth; when not writing they often find their pleasure and distraction in drink, though rarely with the excess and tragic dissipation of the 20th century writers; they are vain, ambitious, childish creatures whose noble swellings in their writings are rarely reflected in their lives; they share with priests the feeling that they, unlike most of the world, are onto something big; they scorn authority even though in their own way they are more power-hungry than politicians; and though this is more true of novelists, they suffer poverty and low social status because they also suffer under the illusion that eventually—albeit in a post-mortem resurrection—the world will recognize them as the literary titans they think they are.
But one need only be a committed fiction writer as well as a reporter for a spell to realize that it is not the umbilicus they share, but the epidermis; the internal change required to transition from a reporter to a novelist, or vice versa, is comparable to that of a midwife taking up a new career as an executioner. They may both write, but besides that they have as much in common as do the ballet soprano and the Tuvan throat singer. The novelist turned reporter is akin to a hermit turned circuit lecturer or a holy fool turned Ombudsman.
Now traditionally, the switchover takes place from reporting to novel writing, but I happened to come at it from the other end; instead of falling through the rabbit hole into fiction, I crawled up out of Wonderland into the glaring meat-and-potatoes sunshine of ‘the real world.’ Of course the weird Cheshire cat, the rabid queen, and the strung-out timekeeping hatter are merely blunt and colorful portrayals of real life characters and Wonderland is simply our no-nonsense land observed by someone who is not sleepwalking. But even if the novelist and the reporter are ultimately dealing with the same world, their work and life could not be further apart.
To begin with, the novelist, unless commissioned, has no deadlines except self-imposed ones, which are rarely followed strictly. A novelist can struggle over a paragraph for six hours and still feel like progress was made or can whittle away a whole week squirming in front of a blank screen without losing his job. A reporter, meanwhile, on average has to research and write three stories a day—often important or complicated ones, or on unfamiliar topics—which means scanning the archives and other newspapers for background, doing any necessary fieldwork, tracking down officials behind their defensive shield of secretaries, getting all the phone calls in, keeping an ear on the radio for breaking stories and an eye on the fax machine for press releases, translating all the interviews and text if working in a foreign-language press, figuring out the ‘angle’, and then “hammering out” the stories, which may not in the end be merely a journalese action-verb phrase since a veteran reporter and a skilled carpenter can probably pound out an equal number of nails and words per hour.
The next obvious distinction is that the novelist writes in solitude, alternating between ecstasy, ennui and depression, while the reporter usually works in a large noisy newsroom without the privacy or breathing space to permit either boredom or depth of feeling; the closest a newsroom gets to silence, which is not very close, is when the daily deadline approaches. Then the chatter and banter subside and the furious typing begins. It is astonishing how much raucous five or six reporters can make on computer keyboards. The typewriter may be an extinct species in the newsroom, but the boisterous bang-it-out style remains the typing standard.
The two differences that I have so far mentioned—that novelists work alone and have the leisure time to dally, while reporters work in a beehive and must produce without pause—may be superficial, but they reach into one’s core. The novelist, while in the thick of a novel, only has one foot in the flesh-and-blood world. The rest of him is swallowed up in the story. Outwardly he is alone, but inwardly he is enmeshed in and consumed by the lives of his characters, which are not his for very long since he soon becomes theirs. Because he need not dash off the novel by seven p.m., or by next year for that matter, he has time to observe the characters, to listen to them, to allow the flesh and sinew a chance to form over the bones.
With time and nurture the characters grow larger and fiercer, more vivid and vital, while the so-called real world, with all its walking ghosts and humdrum agitations, recedes to a dreamy background, a loud sunny place by the beach where the novelist surfaces for a few breaths before diving back down into the reefed caverns of the story. The result is that during this tumultuous gestation period, the novelist is semi-absent from the world, just as he would be if suffering from a severe sickness. He may even degenerate into a social imbecile. Financial woes and family obligations will naturally intrude and shorten these writing bouts, but the general picture holds: the novelist, while working on the novel, has more in common with a zombie or a misanthrope than with the ancient Greek ideal of the active and responsible citizen.
The reporter on the other hand is a social and political creature, bound up whether she likes it or not in officialdom and in daily life. Unlike the inward and socially inept novelist, the reporter is the ultimate cross-class socialite, talking at once with government ministers and striking miners, bird watchers and poachers, Nobel Laureates and butchers, Neo-Nazis and human rights activists. On one day she may report on a National Guard training exercise and a beer pouring competition, and on the next day on a packet of government energy measures and on an old man who shot a priest in the head outside the church over a boundary dispute.
But the animated and hectic life of the reporter means that she spends time with everyone except herself. Whereas the novelist suffers from an excess of solitude and grim soul-staring, the reporter suffers—like the partied-out party animal—from an excess of socializing and of day-to-day hullabaloo. The excess may be good for learning to get along in the world and to speak fluidly, but the reporter is so busy holding a mirror up to the world that she has no real opportunity to turn it upon herself. Even the reporting style, with its sober third-person narration (According to police sources, the 12-year-old boy who drove the Mercedes into the eucalyptus tree was….) and the subsuming of the individual into the newspaper (The Defense Spokesman told the Fourth Night yesterday that an investigation is currently…) is an effort to annihilate any sense that there is an individual behind the article.
Whenever the reporter is not rushing about to ‘gather material’ and ‘get quotes,’ she is striking keys at high speeds. Working at a daily newspaper is like flutter-kicking upright in a pool with your arms extended overhead: you can keep your head above water only if you keep kicking. There is no space in the world of the reporter for that decadent, self-indulgent, pansy pastime known as writer’s block. The reporter may occasionally face writer’s cubes, which she will then gruffly kick aside, but the blocks are for the leisured novelists, who only haul them out because they are looking for something to rest on with an easy conscience. Nothing can better draw out the Muses—even if they croak instead of sing—than a deadline.
There is, however, one type of reporter who may lapse into writer’s block. I am talking about the fresh novelist-turned-reporter. That reporter, still a newcomer to the art of machine-gun writing, occasionally falls back into the quicksand writing habits of his former self—and often at the very worst time.
The second and final part of this essay is the December 4 posting
- The Reporter vs. the Novelist (Part II)
- Lament for Michael Kilburn (Part I)
- Booze Therapy
- From Kibera to Mara