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Literature in a Hurry: What's in a name?

Kim Ukura

It occurred to me this week that I'd never actually bothered to explain where I got the idea for the name of this column, Literature in a Hurry.

Coming up with the name of a column ended up being one of those things that was put off and put off until about 3 p.m. on the Friday before my first column was supposed to print. I had nothing. I perused an online thesaurus, trying to come up with an interesting word that would sound nice with "Kim," but wasn't getting anywhere. Trying to rhyme with my last name would have been even more absurd.

So I did what I'll often do when I'm struggling for inspiration - head to Google and look for famous quotes on a subject. There are many awesome and less-than-awesome quips out there about journalism that I considered, but I kept coming back to one of my old favorites: "Journalism is literature in a hurry."

This particular phrase is widely attributed to British poet and social critic Matthew Arnold. I've never been able to find the original source for the saying - to be honest, I've never tried very hard - but it's one that I've always loved because it eloquently and succinctly explains the chief challenge of working at a news organization.

On the one hand, journalists are writers. Different kinds of news stories require different styles of writing, but I don't know any journalist that doesn't think being able to write well is a key part of their job. And many of us one day dream of making the leap from newsprint to the printed page, at least in some capacity.

Many talented and well-respected journalists have gone on to write beautiful works of narrative nonfiction, using the strengths of fiction - plot, setting, characters and dialogue - to tell complicated and compelling true stories.

Some of my favorite journalist-turned-authors that I wish everyone would read include Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Anne Fadiman (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down), Deborah Blum (The Poisoner's Handbook), Michael Lewis (The Big Short), Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns), Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) and Barbara Demick (Nothing to Envy).

I could go on and fill this entire column with just book recommendations, but I'll cut myself off there before things get too out of hand.

Back to my main point: On the other hand, a news organization is a machine, and the newspaper is a beast that endlessly needs to be fed. Yes, our newspaper only publishes once a week, but we have a website that is just as hungry for content as any daily newspaper that we're working to keep satisfied.

Journalist want to write the best pieces possible, but are always rushing behind deadline just a bit, hurrying to get everything finished.

I've always loved that a notion about journalism from the late 1800s can stand the test of time, still offering a relevant thought about the nature of the industry hundreds of years later.

The ongoing challenge is to balance strong, compelling news writing with the time constraints that come from feeding the beast, day in and day out. News writing really is literature in a hurry, as best we can do it.