Epistemic Responsibility and the Literary Journalist
Victoria University of Wellington
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Prof. Harry Ricketts
Dr. Nikki Hessell
The primary purpose of this thesis is to examine the role of epistemic responsibility in the practice of book-length literary journalism. Literary journalism offers a powerful alternative to mainstream journalism. Its narrative mode and storytelling techniques open possibilities of representation often closed by traditional reporting practices. Subsequently, literary journalists have attracted criticism for unorthodox modes of representation and attendant “truth claims” in many texts. In this thesis I draw on the work of epistemologist Lorraine Code to highlight the tension between the branches of ethics and epistemology, and argue that holding them apart for the purposes of explication yields important insights into the practice of literary journalism. I argue that criticism of literary journalism has at times conflated ethical and epistemic concerns, resulting in censure of the practitioner on primarily moral grounds. While such a critique is often valid, I propose that it can mislabel problematic cognitive processes as moral deficiencies.
A re-examination of significant controversies raised by literary journalism shows disputed areas stemming from epistemic “blind spots”. These “blind spots” are often characterised as ethical lapses, but I argue that framing criticism in this way inhibits progress in sound practice. Recurring controversies over works by practitioners such as Janet Malcolm and Australia’s Helen Garner bear this out. I also offer close readings of three works of contemporary US literary journalism through their paratextual frames. The limits of transparency are demonstrated here, including the fact that disclosure can hide more than it illuminates. Code’s “epistemic responsibilist” approach is subsequently presented as an important addition to literary journalism scholarship, as it offers a sound foundation for reflexive practice—for both writers and critics. Using this approach, I offer critical readings of the “truth claims” in three contemporary US texts: Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (2003), Dave Cullen’s Columbine (2009) and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).
A secondary aim of this thesis is to characterise contemporary Australian book-length literary journalism. Using Code’s concept of an “epistemic community”, I propose that the nature of national discourse influences the voice of the Australian literary journalist, as revealed by anxiety over representation in the texts under analysis. These texts highlight the pressures of subjectivity on truth, which results in a destabilisation of “truth claims”. In comparison with the US practitioners analysed, their three Australian counterparts analysed place less emphasis on disclosure transparency, and rely more heavily upon self-presentation as seekers, rather than discoverers, of knowledge and truth. I further maintain that these three texts represent a dominant national function of book-length literary journalism. Issues of national identity are bound up in the relationship between the land and its people, and are evident in the work of Margaret Simons, Chloe Hooper and Anna Krien, three of Australia’s most notable literary journalists. Through the lens of a civic dispute, each of these practitioners join one of the most pressing cultural issues in contemporary national discourse, that is, to explore what it means to be “Australian”.
Morton, L. J. (2013). Epistemic responsibility and the literary journalist (Doctoral thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand). Retrieved from https://researcharchive.vuw.ac.nz/handle/10063/2789