No News Is Bad News, by Isaac Bashevis Singer

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From “Journalism and Literature,” an essay that appears for the first time in English in the collection Old Truths and New Clichés, which will be published next month by Princeton University Press. Singer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. Translated from the Yiddish by the author.

I know of writers who consider it a tragedy to earn a living from journalism. They claim that it wastes their free time and that journalism is generally harmful to literary creativity. They argue that a journalist becomes accustomed to writing in a hurry and not weighing and measuring every word, and that the means and methods of journalism are contrary to creativity. The experiences of this writer suggest a different approach.

I wrote my best works in the midst of a journalistic hullabaloo, often right in the editorial offices between one article and another. My novels The Family Moskat and The Manor were published in installments in the Jewish Daily Forward, and I prepared a new chapter virtually each week for publication the following Saturday. It is true that I later reworked them, but the bulk of the work was done in a hurry while the editor and typesetter demanded copy.

Dostoevsky was an outstanding journalist, and while his writings contained journalistic elements, they apparently did them no harm. Tolstoy would have surely been a master at journalism had he applied himself to it. Chekhov wrote almost all his sketches for magazines. Maupassant and Zola had close connections with the press, and Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman were journalists as well.

The first rule of a journalistic piece is that the writer provide something new. The newspaper is an organ of news. It may sound paradoxical, but the same holds true in literature, albeit in a broader sense. Every good work of literature must contain an element of information. Readers must feel that a writer provides them with some sort of revelation, a fresh approach, a different mood, a new form. A work that does not literally renew readers, that offers them no new outlook, no new facts, new types, new characters, new forms—such a work is worthless. Quite frequently, literature introduces us to a new type of society. A good literary work may be compared to a journey to a strange land.

Yet there is an even more significant element shared by the two. Good literature, like good journalism, strives to provide facts without superfluous interpretation. If this isn’t true today, it has been true until now and, I believe, will be true in the future. It is not incumbent upon authors, nor upon journalists, to interpret every phenomenon they describe, to fit it snugly into the chain of cause and effect.

The great masters of literature adapted themselves to the limitations of the newspaper writer. It is a fact, for example, that Dostoevsky never made clear why Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, decided to commit murder. Raskolnikov remains an enigma, as does every murderer.

When scientists have something to say, they reckon little with the patience of their readers. No one expects a physician writing about skin disease to be interesting or entertaining. They keep on writing until their subject is exhausted.

The picture changes completely when it comes to writing news. No matter how important a news item may be, journalists must contend with their readers’ patience. Editors reject reams of news copy because, in their estimation, it would bore readers.

The same is true of literature. No matter how deep a literary work may be, if it bores the reader, it is worthless. In this area, literature goes even beyond journalism. The modern newspaper is made up of different sections for people with diverging interests. The reader of the sports section may not be interested in the financial section, and vice versa. In literature, no sections exist. The whole book must interest the reader.

Many writers who fear journalism attempt, both consciously and unconsciously, to sever the natural connections between journalism and literature. But literature has nothing to fear from good journalism. The good writer is almost always also a good journalist.


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