UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

True stories : literary journalism and the making of social knowledge Keats-Osborn, William


One way of thinking about culture is as a means through which structured relationships between people, objects, or meanings are reproduced over time. Using the case of literary journalism, I examine this process by investigating how members of the social world involved in producing literary magazine features collaborate to anticipate the responses and criticisms of an as-yet-unknown public audience by theorizing about the principles and methods particular readers will likely use to make sense of the article once it’s published. This project is based on forty-three primary and over a hundred and seventy-four secondary interviews, in addition to a variety of lectures, articles, panel discussions, and archival materials, selected instrumentally for their capacity to illuminate typical cases, and analyzed using an abductive logic. It traces the production of a typical magazine feature from conception to publication, through the activities of reporting, writing, editing, and fact-checking. I highlight that although reporters and editors develop an embodied capacity for doing their work in roughly the correct way through experience as contributory members of the social world, each member’s idiosyncratic background leads to divergent conceptions of right and wrong in any given interaction; solutions to these disparities have to be negotiated by reference to social objects that are understood to be commonplace among members (including “rules” of genre, structure, fairness, identity, and facticity). As members work toward a consensus, the text-in-progress is revised to account for the members’ divergent ways of seeing, and it develops a capacity to withstand an increasingly diverse range of potential readings; at the same time, any individual’s conception of the rules is clarified. By the time the text is published, and the response of a public readership can be observed, the piece can be read in conjunction with the public response as evidence of the existence and nature of cultural schemas that were purported to have governed its development, thus providing a resource for applying the rules correctly to future projects. This approach highlights how the form and content of even a true account of reality is structured by the obdurate character of social accountability.

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