Breaking the newsroom shackles: Journalism as a foundation for fiction

How does a career in journalism affect a writer when they come to create fiction? Journalist-come-novelist Russell Eldridge offers his take on the question to northerly editor Barnaby Smith.

George Orwell, PG Wodehouse, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Will Self, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Eliot, Samuel Johnson and of course Ernest Hemingway – here is a tiny fraction of the authors who had a background in journalism before turning their hand to fiction. The conventional wisdom is that learning the ropes of journalism offers an excellent foundation from which to attempt fiction – even if that fiction is a stylistic or linguistic experiment, and is deliberately a subversion of journalism’s tenets of storytelling. Sometimes the rules that are broken are a tribute to those rules.

Journalistic writing can of course teach succinctness and economy, structure, the art of realistic dialogue and indeed the intricacies of grammar and diction. But is journalistic writing – particularly news writing with its strict, compact parameters – always helpful for a fiction writer? I know that on the occasions I have held roles that demand extensive and repetitive news writing that follows the ‘who-where-when-how-why’ model (the ‘inverted pyramid’ technique), it has been extremely difficult to completely free the mind of this formula for straightforward reportage when attempting writing that requires imagination and a broader stylistic scope. It was as if adherence to those journalistic habits could have a dulling effect on one’s, to use a word I loathe, ‘creative’ faculties.

But surely a balance between the discipline of reportage and a more expansive literary sensibility can be achieved when it comes to journalists attempting fiction. Local novelist and Byron Writers Festival board member Russell Eldridge is expertly placed to comment on this highly subjective question. Eldridge’s acclaimed debut novel, Harry Mac, was published in 2015 and was described in a northerly review as ‘mixing a great story with timely observations on the human condition’. Eldridge is the former editor of the Northern Star and over the course of a long and illustrious career in journalism has worked on both metropolitan and regional newspapers in Australia and South Africa.

As you were writing Harry Mac, and any other fiction, to what degree did you notice your style taking on certain features of journalistic or news writing?

In my early years of fiction writing, the tendency was to get all the facts in – exposition. Journalism teaches you to tell, not show. As I read and wrote more, I learnt how to develop character journeys, narrative arcs and the art of the slow reveal. By the time I started Harry Mac I’d already written two full-length manuscripts (one remains in draft stages, and one was submitted and rejected). I’d pretty much got journalism out of my writing system, but still dropped in slabs of exposition, which a canny editor jumped on and I cut and rewove the information to much better effect.

Conversely, is your style in any way a reaction against your journalistic writing?

Not at all. Journalism has always incorporated a variety of forms – courts, crime, social, politics, features, columns. Each of these places different demands on a journalist’s skills, flexibility and creativity. I found my writing voice in journalism. And journalism changes all the time. Writing styles of as recently as twenty or thirty years ago were different to now. Vocabularies of writers and readers are shrinking, and the technical rules we lived and died by now seem quaint.

“Vocabularies of writers and readers are shrinking, and the technical rules we lived and died by now seem quaint.”

What, in your opinion, are the positive ways that a background in ‘traditional’ journalism – particularly news writing where objectivity is prioritised – can influence a fiction author’s writing style?

Journalism can be a kind of apprenticeship, learning a variety of research skills, the basics of clear, accurate writing and ethical considerations. The tyranny of deadlines is a wonderful lesson for writers. Along with that, discipline, as in ‘Just do it, for God’s sake’.

Journalism teaches you not to be precious about your writing. Your work is hacked by the subs every day, it is critiqued by everyone from the cleaner to your peers, bosses and the reading public, and your faults are paraded in the letters columns.

Finding the nub, or truth, of a story. Observation: You learn to note the telling details which inform and enrich a story. Specificity: Write something definite, don’t generalise. Tight writing: When it’s said, it’s said. Journalism is all about telling a story, no matter how briefly. And people are at the core of every story.

And how might it hinder them?

The daily grind and deadline pressures can make your work formulaic. You don’t always get to develop a story as much as you’d like. A sensitivity to authority and the law. Concern about harming people by your stories. Reacting against journalism and overdoing ‘style’ and becoming writerly.

Are many journalists just frustrated novelists?

Not really. They’re different mindsets. I’ve known brilliant journalists who had no interest outside their craft. The majority of journalists are hardheaded workaday people. The worst are newsroom labourers, loading up their barrow with clichés and pouring them into a computer. Journalists are often approached to be ghostwriters because of their craft, research skills, work ethic and discipline. Some go on to write non-fiction because it’s an extension of what they do – biographies, memoir, true crime, politics.

One of the most interesting journalists-come-novelists was Theodore Dreiser, who disliked working as a reporter both because of its reductive, sensationalist nature and because, for him, the rules of ‘objectivity’ were designed to perpetuate the ruling system and the interests of commercialism and capitalism that, to quote one critic, provides only ‘supposedly realistic accounts that deny the individual either autonomy or alternatives’.

With this in mind, in your experience, does the flexibility of ‘literary’ style allow you to confront the complexity of certain issues and themes that journalism does not allow?

Absolutely. But remember that newspapers were started by businessmen to make money, not serve some altruistic purpose. There has always been a tension between the ‘rough draft of history’ and the commercial imperative. And it’s stating the bleeding obvious to say that journalism perpetuates the ruling system – if it didn’t, there would be no advertising and no money to pay journalists. A standard bearer for fearless journalism, the Guardian, lost $112 million last year and is slowly going out of business. And many writers have used newspapers or journalism to launch or support themselves such as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

Ernest Hemingway once said that working on a newspaper could be good for a budding novelist ‘if they get out of it in time’ and that after a point journalism becomes ‘a daily self-destruction for a serious writer’. Can you relate to this at all and did you ever find yourself frustrated by the limitations of journalistic style whilst working on a paper?

Hemingway’s self-destruction had more to do with ego than journalism. He used journalism (and his wives’ money) to set himself up as a writer. I suspect ‘budding novelists’ working in journalism are there for the pay packet. The artistic limitations of journalism are largely self-imposed. If you’re an interesting enough and skilled enough writer there are plenty of newsroom opportunities to explore your writing – features, columns, and even a well-crafted news story. My earliest influence was the Daily Mail sportswriter Ian Wooldridge back in the 1970s. His humour, observation, irony and human understanding were as acute as any novelist.

Were you writing fiction alongside your career in journalism? If so, how easy was it to switch from to the other?

In the 1990s I started the writing degree at Southern Cross University and was fortunate enough to have Jean Bedford (Sister Kate, Country Girl Again) as tutor and mentor. I wrote an entire first draft of a novel manuscript while holding down one of the toughest jobs in journalism – chief of staff. I had no problem switching between worlds, in fact it was a wonderful outlet. When I was promoted to editor it all became too much and the manuscript went into the bottom drawer, where it remains. I waited years to start a new manuscript.

Patrick White said he wanted to prove that Australian fiction ‘is not necessarily the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’. To what degree has journalistic style infiltrated the writing of Australian novelists in recent years?

There’s an implied put-down of journalism in White’s statement. That aside, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the specifics of the question. But what I do observe is how all forms of writing – journalism, fiction and so on are influenced by the social and economic times. Journalism is becoming shrill and sensational in a desperate attempt to win market share as its commercial model is swept away by the tide of social media and other online clickbait. Likewise, book publishing is increasingly market-driven, so your manuscript is assessed for what segment it slots into and how well. And everyone’s looking for the next Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey to pay for publishing the other books. Markets are also sensitive to the new conservatism and pressure of identity politics. Writers like Charles Bukowski would be shunned by publishers. The Merchant of Venice would be rejected. There’s a social media army out there quivering with anticipated outrage at the next transgression.

In your reading, are you one for experimentation and idiosyncrasy with style or do you prefer prose that strives for realism, perhaps influenced by journalism?

I read almost anything. Doesn’t matter what route the writing takes to move us or reveal truths. I’ve loved William S. Burroughs’ weirdness, Kurt Vonnegut’s playfulness, Terry Southern’s absurdity, Virginia Woolf’s daring. Flann O’Brien stills cracks me up. I baulk at overworked imagery: I love Annie Proulx, but occasionally gag on too rich a diet of herringbone sunsets. When I’m writing, I rat through my bookshelves and re-read successful books to see what makes them work, or not. I recently picked up Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms after an absence of forty-odd years. I enjoyed the clean writing, the relentless bluntness of his sentences, the writer’s fearlessness in finding and sticking with his voice. But the repetition and an emotional pragmatism repelled me too.

What advice would you give to a young person embarking on a career in journalism today, who sees journalism as possible step on a path to writing fiction one day?

Learn the journalistic basics – they’re building blocks for any form of writing. Take a moment every fortnight to genuflect before your paycheque. And do what any aspiring writer should do – read read read and write write write.

Byron Writers Festival