When Literati Write the News

Children’s novels, particularly children’s fantasy novels, are the sorbet I serve up periodically to cleanse my palate when serious literature begins to overwhelm my taste buds. From time to time, everyone needs a breath of fresh air to alleviate a heavy load.

In a letter to William Dean Howells, Mark Twain once wrote, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”

The purpose of rhetoric can be to inform or to persuade, but it can also be to entertain. Sometimes I think literati forget that particular power of literature. That’s one reason I’ve chosen “The Poetry of Journalism” from the Freakonomics blog for the next ProfoundNet, with references to The Writers’ Haaretz. Here’s a snippet:


Last week, Israel’s oldest newspaper, Haaretz, took a one-off chance, temporarily replacing its workaday reporters with 31 of the country’s leading poets and authors. The writers, as writers do, ran amok. They filed epic front-page news reports on daily life in the first person; ruminated about childhood in an interview with the country’s defense minister; and delivered the weather report as a sonnet.

And yet, the Writers’ Haaretz also brought novelists’ perceptions and empathy to little-watched corners of society like a ward of cancer patients or a children’s drug rehabilitation center. These articles, wrote one review, “made it seem like there’s actually some hope to be reported in a country flooded with doomsday news bulletins.”

In addition to adding levity and novelty to the paper’s contents, the paper’s editor, Dov Alfon, saw the experiment as a way to cast a different perspective on the news.

“I think it is a humility lesson for journalists,” he said. He kept five writers in the newsroom in case of breaking news, but nothing big happened. So the authors’ accounts prevailed, gripping stories were printed and dozens of readers called in with praise.

“Thirty-one writers decided, what are the real events of the day?” he mused. “What is really important in their eyes? They wrote about it, and our priorities as journalists were suddenly shaken by this.”

What a great reminder that medium has a profound impact on the message and its reception. Thanks, Freakonomics, for pointing out a thought-provoking episode.

(See also articles in Forward and Haaretz.)

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One Response to When Literati Write the News

  1. […] is just now running the story (At Newspaper, Poets Report for a Day) that I wrote about last week (When Literati Write the News). And I thought I was […]

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