'Literary Journalism ... It's News That Stays News': A Conversation With Barry Siegel and Amy Wilentz
The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award winners on teaching literary reportage, how Donald Trump's presidency was a boon for journalism programs, and the power of storytelling.
Classes and programs on literary journalism studies are emerging and thriving around the world, each with its local take or global perspective. As scholars try and test different methods and formats, experiment with new pedagogical tools and techniques, think of expanding the canons, and promote inclusive approaches, I was curious to see how those who pioneered a still-to-this-day unique, full undergraduate program in literary journalism in the United States could enlighten us about the promises and possibilities of such educational ventures.1 Hence, this conversation with Barry Siegel and Amy Wilentz, from the University of California–Irvine.
Important to note is the program in literary journalism at UC–Irvine is housed within the English department, a home base that bears relation to the specific attention attached to language. Besides its distinguishing badge of excellence in narrative writing, the program reflects the hybridity of literary journalism itself, with an equally solid offering of workshops and classes in reporting. Many institutions now provide courses in literary journalism, but rarely as a comprehensive program. For instance, the extension of the University of California–Los Angeles features an online introductory course in literary journalism, while other institutions offer courses at the master’s, not undergraduate, level.2 By way of illustration, the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University offers a master’s literary reportage program.3
My immense gratitude goes to Barry Siegel, director of and a professor in the program, and to Amy Wilentz, a distinguished professor on their faculty. They both generously shared some of their precious time to provide insight into their experience and expertise, now that the program has been running successfully for more than 15 years. UC–Irvine started its three-year comprehensive course in literary journalism in 2003, with Siegel at the helm. Since then, a few professors have joined in, students have responded, and bright days lie ahead, with a growing demand for storytelling skills across disciplines. Adaptability is the order of the day, with students’ needs receiving special attention, and professors standing by their standards of quality and high principles.
Siegel is an acclaimed writer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and longtime contributor to the Los Angeles Times. He teaches reporting, non-fiction narrative, and the history and theory of literary journalism. His latest book, Dreamers and Schemers, published in 2019, details and chronicles how the 1932 Olympic Games changed Los Angeles and triggered the city’s stunning expansion.4 Wilentz, a former Jerusalem correspondent for The New Yorker, is an award-winning author who writes on Haiti, contributes to The Nation, and teaches personal essay writing, climate literature, and nature writing.5 Other instructors are Carol M. Burke, Miles Corwin, Amy DePaul, Christopher Goffard, Erika Hayasaki, Patricia Pierson, and Hector Tobar, all teaching a variety of theoretical and practical skills.
Shortly before California was forced into lockdown to contain the coronavirus, we sat for lunch in Los Angeles, blissfully unaware this would be one of our last authorized social gatherings for a while. Their enthusiasm for the program is both palpable and inspirational. No need to ask them whether literary journalism qualifies as a discipline, or that sort of captious question. The gist of the program lies in the making of their craft — reporting and writing — that is, the essence of good literary journalism. Most striking in the conversation is the resourcefulness and commitment of this small-sized staff, and their unwavering devotion and attention to students and to the UC–Irvine community at large.
Our conversation took place on March 9th, 2020, at a restaurant in Toluca Lake, Los Angeles. It was recorded, transcribed, and edited for clarity where necessary. I stayed true to the most agreeable meandering of the conversation into a variety of subjects, and later introduced and complemented it with notes from previous research and information collected from the program website at UC–Irvine.6
Isabelle Meuret: How did you come up with a program in literary journalism at UC–Irvine?
Barry Siegel: My only exposure to university is that I had taught one semester at the University of Southern California as a journalist in residence from the LA Times. That was a journalism school. When I was approached by UC–Irvine, back in 2003, the idea that was being promoted and created by the English department, and was going to be housed there, was that all non-fiction narrative was worthy of being regarded as literature. It was a body of literature worth a degree program inside the English department. This spoke to what our interests were.
Meuret: More and more creative and non-fiction writing classes are created around the world. Why do you hold on to “literary journalism” rather than teach “longform writing” or “storytelling”?
Amy Wilentz: Barry always says about our workshops that we have all these different names for them but, really, they are all about narrative, storytelling.
Siegel: The power of storytelling.
Wilentz: So why do we hold on to literary? Because we don’t want to be swept into a dustbin of facts, solely, so that you’re just forgotten in history, and you don’t mean anything, and your work doesn’t have any standing in the way literature ostensibly has in the long run.
Siegel: Enduring — it’s news that stays news.
Meuret: Is it also linked to the origins, the fact that it was published in literary magazines?
Wilentz: That’s what I taught at Columbia [University], where I was an adjunct professor. I taught their magazine journalism class. It was kind of half professional, and half literary journalism. So, we put together a new magazine. The kids had the idea for the magazine, and we put it all together. And then they wrote it and designed it. It was every aspect of magazine. But of course, Columbia had the money.
Meuret: Robert Boynton is leading a literary reportage program at NYU. But you pioneered the literary journalism program at UC–Irvine, right?
Siegel: We were first — the literary reportage at NYU is a graduate program. Ours is an undergraduate program, but NYU is probably the closest approximation to what we are doing. It came after ours.
Wilentz: Iowa also has a program in creative non-fiction.7
Meuret: Yes, but you are the only ones to hold on to “literary journalism.” Is it your signature?
Siegel: We are the only undergrad degree program in any kind of journalism program in the UC system, and the only undergraduate literary journalism program in the country. What was happening is that the school of humanities back then invited all the departments to come up with proposals for new majors and new programs, and part of that was to attract new students into the humanities. And our English department, which is well-known for critical theory…
Wilentz: Yes, even Derrida, unbelievably…
Siegel: Here is how this happened: The person they put in charge of the committee to try and come up with proposals for new programs is a professor in the department of English, Linda Georgianna, who herself was a medievalist. She was casting about her ideas and it so happened, coincidentally, that her college roommate (when she went to college) was Madeleine Blais, who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts. She is a well-known literary journalist. It’s just her happening to tell her proposal, and it was the beginning.
Meuret: Interesting to see how things come together. Are your students joining the program because they are disappointed with “legacy” or “traditional” journalism?
Wilentz: I don’t think they think like that. I have a fairly clear view of who our students are. A lot of our students are sons and daughters of immigrants, so they don’t think about “legacy” journalism.
Siegel: They are first-generation college students.
Wilentz: Yes, and they are the first persons in the family who speak English fluently. They may not have read a lot of English. They are not a class of first-generation students who are big readers, or who have read all the old English classics, and who “love” literary journalism. They are not like that. They are coming to this sort of “weird,” almost “ancient” study to them, but they know it also has excitement. And they get very excited about the reporting, except that it’s hard, because they are also well brought up by immigrant parents who don’t want them to get into trouble. So, they would not dare to ask an important person, “How much money do you actually make?”
Siegel: Or, “How old are you?” I cannot get my students to get ages into their stories because they are too shy or polite to ask. Amy is absolutely right. But let me add that UC–Irvine’s body of students is strongly children of immigrants — about 60 percent — but that’s not everybody. Often students are there because they want to do journalism and that’s the only place to do it.
Meuret: It is a first entry point to journalism?
Wilentz: Yes, and they do go on. Those students will go on and some actually do journalism.
Siegel: Yes, they catch it. Besides my workshop, I teach a core course in the evolution of the field, the evolving ethics of the field, so I sit there with maybe 50, 60 students, and I’m trying to define literary journalism and — you know, the subjective prism of the writer — and there’s a certain segment of that class that is more conventional mainstream than we are — you know, “objectivity” is the god and “biases,” the devil — so, these are people whom we introduce to the possibilities of literary journalism.
Wilentz: Sometimes I ask my students: Did you enjoy the class? And they say, “Yeah. It was really interesting, but it was more like an English class because we read books. I thought we read only articles.” They read non-fiction books.
Meuret: You manage to make them read?
Wilentz: I wouldn’t go that far. Some of them read, but usually it’s the readers who read.
Siegel: As I tell my students, I don’t know how you can be a writer without being a reader, and so yes, we are dealing with a generation that is not a reading generation in the way we were, but the foundation of our workshops is reading exemplary models, then peer review. We peer review each other, so there’s that kind of reading, but we also X-ray exemplary models of literary journalism.
Wilentz: Also, you respond. I arrived there some 13 years ago. When I first got there, I tried to sort of teach like a Harvard [University] professor, because that’s how I had learned. I dictated to them, I told them what to read, I expected them to do the assignments. That didn’t work. So now I have conversations with them, even in my lecture classes, and although I will assign whole books, I also now assign two, three chapters, conclusions, and they can digest that.
Siegel: That’s a compromise. You cannot get any of that close reading if you assign eight books, or whole sections. And I want the close reading.
Meuret: Increasingly we talk about the “demise” or “failure” of journalism. I suppose it is connected to the current climate and politics. Still, do you see even more enthusiasm on the part of students because we are in an age of activism? Are students keen on advocacy journalism?
Siegel: When we first started, the projections were way off. We thought we could gather just a few majors, and we were inundated from the start. Inundated. Where we slowed down was with the great recession, and the concurrent implosion in the field, in the profession. And now we are dramatically seeing increases again.
Wilentz: It’s the [President Donald] Trump bump. All the name-calling of journalism has caused young people to look at journalism and say, it matters.
Siegel: I was provided with numbers with the latest applications for UC–Irvine — I don’t know how that will reflect, but there is a dimension of that that has to do with what is going on.
Meuret: The zeitgeist.
Wilentz: Yeah, the zeitgeist. It’s all the digital stuff, social media, that is affecting journalism.8
Siegel: We have a lot of majors who are interested in journalism as a tool for social change and social justice, but we also have the artists, the poets who are just drawn to it, or to literature, as writers.
Wilentz: That’s exciting. Sometimes it’s older students who are getting to this program, who are much more interested.
Meuret: In one of your course descriptions, for the personal essay, you advise that the workshop is not “a psychological group session.”
Siegel: We are against navel gazing. But most of it is under the supervision of Amy. It’s pretty regulated.
Wilentz: And also “don’t whine.” It’s not what we are here for.
Meuret: You currently have a minor and major component, and you are planning to create an MA degree. What would be the added value, compared to the undergraduate program?
Siegel: The main thing is the fact that the students in the undergrad program combine a series of three advanced workshops. In each one they write some kind of a narrative. Each one of those workshops is 10 weeks long: Fix on a subject, gain some access for the reporting, climb into the reporting, come back out and start your draft. The greater advantage of a master’s program is that you can work on a major project, perhaps even a book, over the course of an entire year.
Meuret: You have a rich program. Students have electives — nature writing, true crime, digital and cultural narratives, travel literary journalism, race writing, and immigrant narratives — to name just a few. Do you also include other formats, like radio, or film?
Wilentz: We are small and underfunded.
Siegel: We are small. I also would love to have a workshop in photojournalism. Really, it’s a matter of limited faculty, so we can only offer X, Y, Z, and we can do A, B, C. But that said, we have offered radio storytelling workshops. It all depends on who is around, who is available to teach. We’ve done a radio storytelling workshop that would be sort of a model for This American Life during class. As for film, there is a film and media studies department.
Wilentz: Often our students are double majors.
Siegel: We do. What we do with all of these things, we incorporate them into the courses. If you go into the LJ 100 advanced reporting class, you’ll see that one of the components is podcast, for instance, or even video, or documentary. We will also have master classes throughout the year in which we bring somebody in to run a one-day or a two-hour workshop. We brought a photojournalist from the LA Times, for instance.
Wilentz: And there is also Erika Hayasaki’s digital conference every year or other year.
Siegel: The way we resolve the small-sized faculty and still commit to a whole class is, we try to enrich the curriculum with master classes or components inside the program.
Wilentz: Clearly, we haven’t got anything like USC has. USC has broadcast, media, newsroom. To me, there is a lot of showmanship. There is a lot of reliance on hardware. They have great people there, of course. But our program is much more content-based.
Siegel: Ours is much more specialized. It’s great to have those resources. What really attracts students to literary journalism is the fact that we are smaller and specialized in what we do.
Meuret: Focused on the craft of writing.
Siegel: As much as we require that foundation of reporting, that’s only half of it. We are equally focused on the writing.
Wilentz: And they’re both hard to get the students to do.
Meuret: You seem to be close to the law school. You also have contacts with the history department. Now, to teach immersion, essential in literary journalism, do you work with sociologists or anthropologists? Are you trying to reach out to other departments?
Siegel: We should say that interdisciplinarity has been the priority of the entire university. There is a lot of encouragement to do that, and, for instance, the Center for Storytelling that we’ve been proposing, that’s exactly what it’s for, it’s to transcend the boundaries of our own programs or our own schools even; in fact, transcend the campus and into the community.
Meuret: Something more organic?
Wilentz: More general than what is expected of journalism.
Siegel: Yes, the idea is that people have stories to tell, but they don’t know how to tell them. We talk of sociologists, but also of scientists, doctors. This is exactly what we are trying to do.
Wilentz: And criminology.
Siegel: Yeah, criminology. I did an experiment in my workshop. A student who was not even a major or in the school of humanities wanted to enroll in our workshop. But this was a student who was a major in criminology, a bright and accomplished student. I rolled the dice. She brought an original, different perspective but also had instinctive storytelling talent, because she is a reader. And she has now added literary journalism as a minor. We work closely with the academy and the public. We feel a great affinity with, certainly, historians. Some of our workshops are not only based on reporting. I teach a workshop that is mainly archival research, rather than reporting out on the streets.
Wilentz: Next year, maybe, I’ll teach the lyric essay, because all the time when they are reporting a story or when they are doing their personal essays or memoirs, I’m trying to get them interested in intellectual aspects of what they are reporting. So, if they are reporting a story about a dad, who is an alcoholic, and the grandfather was too, I tell them, what if you can take a breather and do some research online, and in the medical school, about addiction and alcoholism, and add that to deepen the story. If I teach the lyric essay, then I could combine the personal, the research, and the reporting. I mean, we always try to get them to do a certain in-depth research on their reporting stories.
Siegel: What we are often trying to do is to propose that they think of their stories on at least two levels, as having a foreground and background, a narrative track that is running through a world, and we want them to use that narrative track as a window onto that world. So, you need to research not only your foreground, narrative track, but the world that it opens up onto. The best of them get that. The writing part of it has to do with the weave. If you sat in the first week you would never think that anybody would be able to tell a story. The two words I hear are “stressed” and “overwhelmed.” But writing is rewriting, and, at the end of the day, it’s amazing to see how many of them pull it together.
Meuret: The problem with training is that it is about tools and techniques, yet there’s much more to it than that. How do you deal with ideas?
Wilentz: Barry says writing is rewriting, rewriting. I tell them writing is thinking. You have to think. And you hate it. You don’t want to have to think: What is my story about?
Siegel: I try to get them to keep their hands off the writing and think it through. I usually tell them the two biggest reasons for having a problem writing the story are: there is a problem with the reporting, or I haven’t figured out what my story is about, or both. So we try to force them to go there and try hard.
Meuret: You cover almost every topic or area of interest. What about gender?
Wilentz: We should do that, because really, practically, every class I teach is about gender. A lot of my students are interested in this. One of the things about gender is that you may teach it or not teach it, per se, yet your students bring it to the table, to the reporting.
Meuret: You cover race, immigrant narratives, as well as nature and travel writing.
Siegel: Hector Tobar, who has joined our program part-time, is also in Chicano, Latino studies. He’s added a whole other dimension to our program in the last couple of years.
Wilentz: We try to stay current, and we try to give our students the opportunity to write about the issues that they care about, but we are still trying to be classic, also.
Siegel: We have no apologies about that. The storytelling, what you are focusing on, the elements of narrative, are the main elements. Certainly, they propose what they will write about. Our job, in terms of what we are evaluating, has to do with the stuff they need to be able to write. In my workshops, students peer review each other’s story proposals. In the winter, I teach the larger classes, and I have all the majors in front of me, and I’ve done it for years, so you certainly can see the evolution of the students. I do hear gender every now and then and, in general, identity.
Wilentz: And I’ve had to change all book lists for classes, because the classics are often, you know, just barely postcolonial British men. I have eliminated so many of them, even Bruce Chatwin, who’s a good gender-fluid person. And so, I’ve had … it’s hard for me because a lot of the younger people’s writing … OK, you’re really interesting, but do I really love your writing? Is the writing good enough? But I feel it is so important for my students to see that their view is represented, their kind of person is represented. That is more important for them in their growth as journalists, to see and read, than me to represent my own perfect grammatical…
Siegel: That’s why we have a wide range of classes. I teach history, the evolution of the field’s history, and I say at the start of the class, “OK, there’s going to be a lot of dead old white men in here, because that’s how it started. So, we are going to start with Jack London, Stephen Crane, George Orwell.” That’s right in the first week. That’s the canon, but then it’s an ethics class, and so they jump in, they denounce it. And more and more, in recent years, you see them willing to do it.
Wilentz: Actually, that’s really fun to have the canon, because then they get angry. It’s a rather conservative group of kids, traditional and family based. I taught a class on the literature of journalism, so journalists writing about being a journalist, fiction, and non-fiction. I was surprised to see how many of them would start with the n-word that we are not allowed to say in America. And I would just start to eliminate canonical works because they were just too unacceptable.
Meuret: Are you including “new new journalists” like William Langewiesche or Susan Orlean?
Siegel: Oh yeah. We had Susan Orlean come to campus. We’ve had Ted Conover too.
Meuret: So, you are expanding the canon. Do you teach any foreign writers?
Siegel: We can do more of that.
Wilentz: I wanted to teach Kapuściński, but then he made too much stuff up. I am teaching an African writer [Helon Habila] in my climate literature class, this coming term. He’s Nigerian. I’m excited about that. I feel there are certainly way too many English ones.
Siegel: [Svetlana] Alexievich, a literary journalist winning a Nobel Prize. We could do more.
Wilentz: In America, you don’t have to have foreign writers. I teach a lot of Asian-American writers.
Siegel: We cross lists, but we don’t have to go abroad…
Wilentz: …to get all these different points of view.
Siegel: Send us a reading list, please!
Meuret: Are you teaching an L.A. canon? You both write on Los Angeles.
Wilentz: A great book is Writing Los Angeles by David L. Ulin. It’s a collection of excellent writing.
Siegel: He’s great. In fact, he taught a course for us called “Writing L.A.” There’s a canon of historians who have written about L.A., but then you also have Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler … fiction writers.
Meuret: Rebecca Solnit?
Wilentz: Solnit is more Northern California. She is so exceptional. She is a big theoretical influence.
Siegel: Solnit is absolutely incredible, the way she weaves together different dimensions.
Wilentz: I like the idea of sending students out to the world.
Siegel: The fundamental thing that they experience in our program is that they are pushed beyond their known world, asked to make sense of that foreign world, and come back with a coherent compelling story about it. That makes it unique.
Wilentz: A lot of them live in some island communities of their own groups. Some feel so tied to their world here.
Siegel: Now to just add a wrinkle to what I just said, increasingly what we are seeing, and that comes across in our conversations with students, particularly in the ethics class, is, “Are we allowed to write about the Other?” We are going to address that next.
Meuret: I experience the same problem when I’m teaching African-American literary journalism. Students increasingly question our legitimacy.
Siegel: This is the white privilege going into this. We teach Joseph Mitchell and one of his pieces, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” a classic. Students challenge his legitimacy as a white man going into a Black community.
Wilentz: And then inventing it!
Siegel: The other one that comes up, and that we are also teaching, is the famous Gay Talese profile of the boxer Floyd Patterson, “The Loser.”
Wilentz: You have to read William Styron on Nat Turner; it’s all about legitimacy. Could he write it in the first person? Styron wrote about Black men because he was friends with James Baldwin.
Siegel: These are legitimate questions, but then my question back is, if we can’t push beyond our own world, how can we do what we do?
Richard Keeble’s recent exhortation to not only ditch our obsession with evaluating literary journalism as a genre or discipline, but to implement radical responses to democratize it, and help it thrive, has certainly hit home. Being part of this conversation, it is obvious to me that Siegel and his team at UC–Irvine have nailed it. Because they understand that the “imaginative impulse lies behind the journalistic bug,” and work hand in hand with both scholars and practitioners, and, most importantly, cater to a diverse audience in a collaborative manner, their program is a most welcoming venue to learn and be critical of literary journalism. Surely there is always room for expansion, as diversity also means joining a global conversation, with its own exciting encounters, challenges, and promises.
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A version of this story was first published in the December 2020 issue of LJS, a peer-reviewed journal from the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, a multi-disciplinary learned society whose essential purpose is the encouragement and improvement of scholarly research and education in literary journalism (or literary reportage).
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Meet: About the Author
Isabelle Meuret is an associate professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, where she teaches English in the media, the cultures of the Anglophone world, and narrative journalism. Her research fields are comparative literature and literary journalism, and she was a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society in 2019–20.
For a comprehensive survey and discussion of literary journalism in education, see Jeffrey C. Neely and Mitzi Lewis’ “Literary Journalism and the Pedagogy of Liberal Education.” While their chapter focuses primarily on the offerings in literary journalism education in the United States, they also include information collected from respondents from 27 other countries.
William Dow and Roberta Maguire provide similar and other examples in their introduction to the Routledge Companion to American Literary Journalism.
The leader of the literary reportage program at New York University is Robert S. Boynton. For Boynton’s view on teaching literary journalism, see his keynote address at the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies’ annual conference organized in May of 2013 at the University of Tampere, Finland. The text was pub- lished as “Notes Toward a Supreme Nonfiction: Teaching Literary Reportage in the Twenty-First Century.” Boynton also wrote the foreword to the Routledge Companion to American Literary Journalism.
Siegel’s earlier books include A Death in White Bear Lake: The True Chronicle of an All-American Town and Manifest Injustice: The True Story of a Convicted Murderer and the Lawyers Who Fought for His Freedom.
As Siegel also said elsewhere: “The nature of the business model for journalism has kind of imploded since the first year. Obviously, the internet has just changed everything. Newspapers were full of advertisements that now appear online. A huge change is simply the shift to the digital world. The opportunities for students are different — there are still great opportunities, but they’re different. I faced a situation where you had to climb a fixed ladder with gatekeepers, whereas now, if you write something great, you can just put it out there and it gets noticed. So there are exciting new opportunities. One of the things we’ve done is mix more digital and multimedia. We have to adjust to the changing world and help prepare our students.”