Are American writers better journalists than novelists?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about over the last week or so since I began to read In Cold Blood (which clearly isn’t a novel, but rather the birth of the true crime genre) – that in general the American novels that are most highly regarded take a more journalistic bent than others. It’s hard to think of an American author embracing magical-realism or other literary forms as (for me) the defining nature is often the directness of the language.

Now admittedly this could be a side effect of the types of book I’m attracted to reading (I’ve usually got one fiction and one non-fiction book on the go at any one time), but even with authors like James Ellroy (where the work is definitely a fictional version of America) the language is very much the matter of fact style used by journalists. Likewise; Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird all feel grounded in the real, a reportage of events rather than fiction. Returning to In Cold Blood, the seeds of the true crime drama can be seen, but there’s a degree of fiction to the writing that means it’s not entirely comfortable in the genre.

The only possible reason I can think of is that there’s more of a cross-over between newspapers and publishing in the US – Capote, Steinbeck & Wolfe are all as well known for their journalistic essays as well as their books, indeed some of their best known works were originally serialised in newspapers & magazines, maybe as a result of which the brevity and realism was required.

Why am I wondering about this? I don’t really know, but I thought I’d share. One last thing – this has led me to the existence of Wolfe’s essay “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast”, and for that I’m grateful.

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