The links below are to articles reporting on the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize 2018.
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The 2017 Pulitzer Prizes have just been announced, and this year’s winners of the prestigious award include Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre for his investigative report on the drug companies that flooded West Virginia with opioids and New York Times Magazine writer C.J. Chivers for his article about a veteran of the war in Afghanistan suffering from PTSD.
I’ve done research on award-winners for some time, analyzing Pulitzers granted since 1995 (the first year for which award-winning stories are available through the organization’s online archive). In studying the winning stories, we’re able to see what gets recognized as good journalism.
My research reveals something surprising: What distinguishes Pulitzer Prize-winning stories is not only painstaking journalistic work on important social issues, but also the use of emotional storytelling.
This is surprising because U.S. journalism has long championed its objectivity. And because objectivity tends to be seen as emotionless, emotional storytelling tends to be viewed as anathema to good journalism.
The winning stories, however, upend this narrative, showing that it’s possible to retain objectivity and also stir the feelings of readers.
An objective framework
The journalistic goal of objectivity first emerged around the end of the 19th century. It was motivated, in part, by a desire to broaden newspaper readership base by asserting the independence of the press from political parties and ideologies. And in order to maintain objectivity, the thinking went that journalism should be based on cold, hard facts. Journalists needed repress their own views and feelings.
According to standard practice of news reporting, the information should be delivered in an “inverted pyramid”-style lead paragraph, telling readers the most important facts first. The idea is that the objective style sends a strong signal about the independence and trustworthiness of journalism – something that, in the age of fake news, may be more important now than ever.
However, the objective style of journalism has been criticized for its dullness, for “freeze-drying the topic and manufacturing boring journalism.”
Instead of relying on the edicts of objectivity, award-winning journalism draws heavily on telling personal stories about people caught up in news events. My research shows that across hard news award categories – feature, explanatory, international, national, public service and investigative reporting – Pulitzer Prize winners eschew the standard “inverted pyramid.” Instead, they’ll often rely on what journalists refer to as an “anecdotal lead.”
An anecdotal lead draws the reader into a story with wider sociopolitical implications by illustrating how it affects a particular individual or group.
We see it in the winner of this year’s feature writing award, C.J. Chivers’ “The Fighter,” which shows the horrors of war by telling the story of one marine’s descent into violence after his service in Afghanistan:
“Sam Siatta was deep in a tequila haze, so staggeringly drunk that he would later say he retained no memory of the crime he was beginning to commit. It was a few minutes after 2 a.m. on April 13, 2014. Siatta had just forced his way into a single-story home in Normal, Ill., a college town on the prairie about 130 miles southwest of Chicago. A Marine Corps veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a 24-year-old freshman studying on the G.I. Bill at the university nearby, Illinois State. He had a record of valor in infantry combat and no criminal past.”
Similarly, the Associated Press won the coveted Public Service Pulitzer last year for a series exposing the grueling labor conditions in the seafood industry. The series opened with the experience of Burmese slaves forced to work in Indonesia:
“The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home. Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States. But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks – laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.”
By using personal stories to elicit empathy for individuals, these stories all enable us to understand how real people are caught up in the large, bewildering forces that drive our world.
Of the stories I analyzed, more than three in five used anecdotal leads, while just under one in five drew on the conventional inverted pyramid. Stories of individuals caught up in the news were featured in 62.4 percent of stories.
It’s a trend that has been remarkably stable since the mid-1990s.
This type of storytelling is just one of several markers of what I have referred to as a “strategic ritual of emotionality”: an institutionalized and systematic practice of journalists infusing their reporting with emotion.
However, this doesn’t mean that the journalists write about their own emotions. Instead, they “outsource” emotions to the people whose stories they tell. According to my research, stories often use emotional language – for example, quoting worried investors, frightened children, hopeful villagers or anxious parents – but never in reference to the journalist’s emotions. What this suggests is that award-winning journalism is able to both maintain its allegiance to objectivity and tell emotional stories.
I’m not the first to notice the emotionality of award-winning journalism. For example, the journalist and academic Susan Shapiro has criticized the “sob sister” style of journalism which of is “calculated to snag readers by the emotions and not let them go until they burst, on cue, into tears.”
What my research suggests, however, is that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism’s use of emotional storytelling is not merely focused on emotional appeals for their own sake. Rather, eliciting empathy from readers enables journalism to render abstract and complex events understandable and relatable.
In a world where our experiences and backgrounds are so varied, this type of storytelling is indispensable. And if journalism can successfully tap into universal emotions to bridge divides and elicit mutual understanding, such an achievement truly deserves an award.
Charlotte Wood has won the fourth annual Stella Prize for The Natural Way of Things, a dark and dangerous book shot through with a kind of feminist rage that – after decades of anti-feminist backlash – is long overdue.
In breaking with a nascent tradition of Stella award-winners donating their prize money to charity, Wood also raises the question of whether benevolence of this sort might be an unconscious by-product of the kind of guilt-ridden sense of inferiority suffered by many women writers.
Kate Grenville, for example, has often said that despite her many dazzling books – and her earliest works are among her best – she never considered herself to be a “proper writer” until she won the Orange Prize for fiction.
Wood told her audience, to great applause, that in a world in which the incomes of writers have plummeted to an unliveable degree that she would keep the kudos and the cash.
The money, Wood later told the Guardian, was “not just symbolic, and not just a gesture, but serious, practical and powerful.”
Wood’s book occupies a risky, dystopian terrain. Ten young women – all of them linked by media-hyped sex scandals involving powerful men – have been kidnapped and incarcerated on an isolated, broken down rural property, run by a mysterious security corporation.
They are kept in “dog boxes” behind electric fences by prison guards who preside over a brutal regime of re-education involving shaved heads, coarse gowns, semi-starvation and hard labour in the searing heat.
Wood’s novel deals with misogyny and the abuse of power. It is especially powerful in the way it deals with internalised misogyny of the kind that is habitually and unconsciously forged through women’s daily encounters with sexism.
It is particularly urgent in the way it conjures up the ghosts of contemporary sex scandals for which women have been both blamed and shamed – hyper-mediated scandals regularly consumed as cheap entertainment including those in the military, politics, football clubs, and in social media. It draws attention to the fact of violence against women, which it presents as both a cause and effect of sexual inequality.
The novel is unsentimental in its treatment of the female characters, and yet they must gradually assert themselves, and look to each other for survival.
The Stella judges said,
The Natural Way of Things is a novel of – and for – our times, explosive yet written with artful, incisive coolness. It parodies, with steely seriousness, the state of being visible and female in contemporary Western society…
The novel provokes serious and important conversations … [It] is a riveting and necessary act of critique … With an unflinching eye and audacious imagination, Charlotte Wood carries us from a nightmare of helplessness and despair to a fantasy of revenge and reckoning.
The A$50,000 annual Stella award recognises the excellence of women’s contribution to Australian literature.
Works shortlisted for the 2016 prize include Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms, a collection of short stories about teenage worlds, which is riveting for its intensity and reality; Fiona Wright’s startling series of essays on anorexia, Small Acts of Disappearance; Peggy Frew’s novel Hope Farm which explores the emotional fallout of the communal experiment through the eyes of a child; Elizabeth Harrower’s dark and complicated constellations of human behaviour mapped out in her short story collection, A Few Days in the Country; and Mireille Juchau’s searing novel about grief, loss and the aftermath of a young girl’s death from cancer, The World Without Us.
Wood’s decision to keep all her prize money also reflects the values of the Stella, which is designed not only to celebrate Australian women writers and to provide role models for aspiring female writers, but also in a practical way to bring more readers to women, thereby increase their sales, and through prizes provide,
[The] money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence and thus time, that most undervalued yet necessary commodity for women, to focus on their writing.
In this, Wood and the Stella follow the still provocative words of Virginia Woolf, who was, famously, one day greeted by two pieces of news. The first was that women were finally to get the vote. The second was that her aunt had died, leaving her an annual income.
Of the two – the vote and the money – the money, I own, seemed infinitely more important.
For, wrote Woolf:
A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.
The links below are to two articles reporting on the Pulitzer Awards that featured no prize for fiction and reaction to that decision.
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