Lost and bound: literary journalists turn to books

Now that literary journalism is all but gone from magazines, many writers are choosing to walk a perilous tightrope to books. Good luck with that. This week we feature Meghan Davidson Ladly‘s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Andrew Westoll was on a mission. His motorboat, loaded with food and supplies, pushed upriver. Along the banks of the Sipaliwini River the foliage was dense, the layers of varying shades of greens and browns occasionally reverberating with bird cries. He was deep in the neotropical jungle of southern Suriname, the least-travelled country in South America. But as he and his crew wound their way up the river, his mind was on something even more rare.

Westoll was searching for the okopipi, an unusual frog species known for the potency of its poison and its blue colour. Once traded on the exotic species market, the okopipi is now endangered. During his four-day journey to the home of these frogs, Westoll realized that he had the makings of a non-fiction book.

After glimpsing the elusive amphibian, Westoll’s initial search was complete. Still, another had just begun. While on that river in the remote jungle he had evolved from a freelance journalist into a non-fiction author. He’d now have to embark on the mission of writing his book and getting it published.

Westoll is far from alone; the worlds of journalism and publishing have long collided in Canada. But his quest to make a career out of writing books would prove as rewarding and perilous as his adventures in the rainforest.

With fewer and fewer publications in this country willing or able to publish literary journalism, more and more writers are turning to nonfiction books. But the magazine and book-publishing industries are two separate businesses with different editorial standards and expectations of success. The apparent freedom of writing books comes with new challenges. And certain stories can end up homeless, unable to find a place in magazines or books, which is bad for writers and their readers.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, literary journalism flourished in this country. Saturday Night published stories as long as 10,000 words, and Toronto Life, Chatelaine, Maclean’s and others ran pieces that were 5,000 words or more. Today, the space for feature writing is shrinking. Fewer publications are willing to run long-form writing, and when they do, the pieces have much lower word counts than 20 years ago. While 6,000- and 7,000-word stories still appear, they are the exception rather than the norm. So the non-fiction book is increasingly the dominant place for this type of journalism. Read the rest.