We tell true stories, mostly. And all the better for it.

by John Carey

What follows is an extract from John Carey’s introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage, 1987. Here he explains the distinction we have to think of between writing truth and writing fiction. When Carey refers to reportage he does so in the broad sense, meaning live, on-the-spot news journalism.


…if we ask what took the place of reportage in the ages before it was made available to its millions of consumers, the likeliest answer seems to be religion.

Not, of course, that we should assume pre-communication age man was deeply religious, in the main. There is plenty of evidence to suggest he was not. But religion was the permanent backdrop to his existence, as reportage is for his modern counterpart. Reportage supplies modern man with a constant and reassuring sense of events going on beyond his immediate horizon (reassuring even, or particularly, when the events themselves are terrible, since they then contrast more comfortingly with the reader’s supposed safety). Reportage provides modern man, too, with a release from his trivial routines, and a habitual daily illusion of communication with a reality greater than himself. In all these ways religion suggests itself as the likeliest substitute pre-modern man could have found for reportage, at any rate in the West.

When we view reportage as the natural successor to religion, it helps us to understand why it should be so profoundly taken up with the subject of death. Death, in its various forms of murder, massacre, accident, natural catastrophe, warfare, and so on, is the subject to which reportage naturally gravitates, and one difficulty, in compiling an anthology of this kind, is to stop it becoming just a string of slaughters. Religion has traditionally been mankind’s answer to death, allowing him to believe in various kinds of permanency which make his own extinction more tolerable, or even banish his fear of it altogether. The Christian belief in personal immortality is an obvious and extreme example of this. Reportage, taking religion’s place, endlessly feeds its reader with accounts of the deaths of other people, and therefore places him continually in the position of a survivor – one who has escaped the violent and terrible ends which, it graphically apprises him, others have come to. In this way reportage, like religion, gives the individual a comforting sense of his own immortality.

If reportage performs these social functions it clearly has a social value comparable to that which religion once had. Its ‘cultural’ value, on the other hand, has generally been considered negligible with certain favoured exceptions such as Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which are allowed to be literature because their authors also wrote respectable literary hooks. The question of whether reportage is ‘literature’ is not in itself interesting or even meaningful. ‘Literature’, we now realise, is not an objectively ascertainable category to which certain works naturally belong, but rather a term used by institutions and establishments and other culture-controlling groups to dignify those texts to which, for whatever reasons, they wish to attach value. The question worth asking therefore is not whether reportage is literature, hut why intellectuals and literary institutions have generally been so keen to deny it that status.

Resentment of the masses, who are regarded as reportage’s audience, is plainly a factor in the development of this prejudice. The terms used to express it are often social in their implications. ‘High’ culture is distinguished from the ‘vulgarity’ said to characterize reportage. But the disparagement of reportage also reflects a wish to promote the imaginary above the real. Works of imagination are, it is maintained, inherently superior, and have a spiritual value absent from ‘journalism’. The creative artist is in touch with truths higher than the actual, which give him exclusive entry into the soul of man.

Such convictions seem to represent a residue of magical thinking. The recourse to images of ascent which their adherents manifest, the emphasis on purity, the recoil from earthly contamination, and the tendency towards a belief in inspiration, all belong to the traditional ambience of priesthoods and mystery cults. Those who hold such views about literature are likely, also, to resent critical attempts to relate authors’ works to their lives. The biographical approach, it is argued, debases literature by tying it to mere reality: we should release texts from their authors, and contemplate them pure and disembodied, or at any rate only in the company of other equally pure and disembodied texts.

The superstitions that lie behind such dictates are interesting as primitive cultural vestiges, but it would be wrong to grant them serious attention as arguments. The advantages of reportage over imaginative literature, are, on the other hand, clear. Imaginative literature habitually depends for its effect on a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ in audience or reader, and this necessarily entails an element of game or collusion or self-deception. Reportage, by contrast, lays claim directly to the power of the real, which imaginative literature can approach only through make-believe.

It would be foolish, of course, to belittle imaginative literature on this score. The fact that it is not real – that its griefs, loves and deaths are all a pretence, is one reason why it can sustain us. It is a dream from which we can awake when we wish, and so it gives us, among the obstinate urgencies of real life, a precious illusion of freedom. It allows us to use for pleasure passions and sympathies (anger, fear, pity, etc.), which in normal circumstances would arise only in situations of pain or distress. In this way it frees and extends our emotional life. It seems probable that much – or most – reportage is read as if it were fiction by a majority of its readers. Its panics and disasters do not affect them as real, but as belonging to a shadow world distinct from their own concerns, and without their pressing actuality. Because of this, reportage has been able to take the place of imaginative literature in the lives of most people. They read newspapers rather than books, and newspapers which might just as well be fictional.

However enjoyable this is, it represents, of course, a flight from the real, as does imaginative literature, and good reportage is designed to make that flight impossible. It exiles us from fiction into the sharp terrain of truth. All the great realistic novelists of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Zola – drew on the techniques of reportage, and even built eye-witness accounts and newspaper stories into their fictions, so as to give them heightened realism. But the goal they struggled towards always lay beyond their reach. They could produce, at best, only imitation reportage, lacking the absolutely vital ingredient of reportage, which is the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened.

When we read (to choose the most glaring example) accounts of the Holocaust by survivors and onlookers, some of which I have included in this book, we cannot comfort ourselves (as we can when distressed by accounts of suffering in realistic novels) by reminding ourselves that they are, after all, just stories. The facts presumed demand our recognition, and require us to respond, though we do not know how to. We read the details – the Jews by the mass grave waiting to be shot; the father comforting his son and pointing to the sky; the grandmother amusing the baby – and we are possessed by our own inadequacy, by a ridiculous desire to help, by pity which is unappeasable and useless.

Or not quite useless, perhaps. For at this level (so one would like to hope) reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend – in both directions – their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. Bur since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are – and ought to be – more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.

Dorian shows the artist the dreadful fruits of his handiwork

From The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.

This extract perfectly shows the dark brilliance of Wilde’s gothic writings and the horror visited upon the painter of the now infamous portrait. As for Dorian himself, for the first time he seems curiously cold and detached.

He passed out of the room and began the ascent, Basil Hallward following close behind. They walked softly, as men instinctively do at night. The lamp cast fantastic shadows on the wall and staircase. A rising wind made some of the windows rattle.

When they reached the top landing, Dorian set the lamp down on the floor, and taking out the key turned it in the lock. ‘You insist on knowing, Basil?’ he asked, in a low voice.


‘I am delighted,’ he murmured, smiling. Then he added, somewhat bitterly, ‘You are the one man in the world who is entitled to know everything about me. You have had more to do with my life than you think.’ And, taking up the lamp, he opened the door and went in. A cold current of air passed them, and the light shot up for a moment in a flame of murky orange. He shuddered. ‘Shut the door behind you,’ he said, as he placed the lamp on the table.

Hallward glanced round him, with a puzzled expression. The room looked as if it had not been lived in for years. A faded Flemish tapestry, a curtained picture, an old Italian cassone, and an almost empty bookcase, that was all that it seemed to contain, besides a chair and a table. As Dorian Gray was lighting a half-burned candle that was standing on the mantel-shelf, he saw that the whole place was covered with dust and that the carpet was in holes. A mouse ran scuffling behind the wainscoting. There was a damp odor of mildew.

‘So you think that it is only God who sees the soul, Basil? Draw that curtain back, and you will see mine.’

The voice that spoke was cold and cruel. ‘You are mad, Dorian, or playing a part,’ muttered Hallward, frowning.

‘You won’t? Then I must do it myself,’ said the young man; and he tore the curtain from its rod, and flung it on the ground.

An exclamation of horror broke from Hallward’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous thing on the canvas leering at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! It was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not yet entirely marred that marvelous beauty. There was still some gold in the thinning hair and some scarlet on the sensual lips. The sodden eyes had kept something of the loveliness of their blue, the noble curves had not yet passed entirely away from chiseled nostrils and from plastic throat. Yes, it was Dorian himself. But who had done it? He seemed to recognize his own brush-work, and the frame was his own design. The idea was monstrous, yet he felt afraid. He seized the lighted candle, and held it to the picture. In the left-hand corner was his own name, traced in long letters of bright vermilion.

It was some foul parody, some infamous, ignoble satire. He had never done that. Still, it was his own picture. He knew it, and he felt as if his blood had changed from fire to sluggish ice in a moment. His own picture! What did it mean? Why had it altered? He turned, and looked at Dorian Gray with the eyes of a sick man. His mouth twitched and his parched tongue seemed unable to articulate. He passed his hand across his forehead. It was dank with clammy sweat.

The young man was leaning against the mantel-shelf, watching him with that strange expression that is on the faces of those who are absorbed in a play when a great artist is acting. There was neither real sorrow in it nor real joy. There was simply the passion of the spectator, with perhaps a flicker of triumph in the eyes. He had taken the flower out of his coat and was smelling it, or pretending to do so.

‘What does this mean?’ cried Hallward, at last. His own voice sounded shrill and curious in his ears.

‘Years ago, when I was a boy,’ said Dorian Gray, ‘you met me, devoted yourself to me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained to me the wonder of youth, and you finished a portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. In a mad moment, that I don’t know, even now, whether I regret or not, I made a wish. Perhaps you would call it a prayer ….’

‘I remember it! Oh, how well I remember it! No! The thing is impossible. The room is damp. The mildew has got into the canvas. The paints I used had some wretched mineral poison in them. I tell you the thing is impossible.’

‘Ah, what is impossible?’ murmured the young man, going over to the window, and leaning his forehead against the cold, mist-stained glass.

‘You told me you had destroyed it.’

‘I was wrong. It has destroyed me.’

‘I don’t believe it is my picture.’

‘Can’t you see your romance in it?’ said Dorian, bitterly.

‘My romance, as you call it …’

‘As you called it.’

‘There was nothing evil in it, nothing shameful. This is the face of a satyr.’

‘It is the face of my soul.’

‘God! What a thing I must have worshipped! This has the eyes of a devil.’

‘Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him, Basil,’ cried Dorian, with a wild gesture of despair.

Hallward turned again to the portrait, and gazed at it. ‘My God! if it is true,’ he exclaimed, ‘and this is what you have done with your life, why, you must be worse even than those who talk against you fancy you to be!’ He held the light up again to the canvas, and examined it. The surface seemed to be quite undisturbed, and as he had left it. It was from within, apparently, that the foulness and horror had come. Through some strange quickening of inner life the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away. The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful.

His hand shook, and the candle fell from its socket on the floor and lay there sputtering. He placed his foot on it and put it out. Then he flung himself into the rickety chair that was standing by the table and buried his face in his hands. ‘Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!’ There was no answer, but he could hear the young man sobbing at the window.

‘Pray, Dorian, pray,’ he murmured. ‘What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.’

Dorian Gray turned slowly around and looked at him with tear-dimmed eyes. ‘It is too late, Basil,’ he murmured.

‘It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we can remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow’?’

‘Those words mean nothing to me now.’

‘Hush! don’t say that. You have done enough evil in your life. My God! Don’t you see that accursed thing leering at us?’

Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him. The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than he had ever loathed anything in his whole life.

A portrait of Dorian Gray, by Mercuralis

A portrait of Dorian Gray, by Mercuralis

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Dorian Gray hides his picture

From The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.

These extracts come from the 1890 text, before Wilde was obliged, in the interests of propriety, to introduce edits that would tone down any allusions to ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. 

In the first Dorian, still reeling from the death of the actress Sybil Vane, has decided to hide the now loathed painting in his attic and is awaiting the arrival of the workmen he has summoned to move it. At the start of this extract it is Dorian’s housekeeper, Mrs Leaf, who is speaking.

Dorian Gray

A portrait of Dorian Gray, by Mercuralis

‘The old school-room, Master Dorian? Why, it’s full of dust. I must get it arranged and put straight before you go into it. It’s not fit for you to see, Master Dorian. It is not, indeed.’

‘I don’t want it put straight, Leaf. I only want the key.’

‘Well, Master Dorian, you’ll be covered with cobwebs if you goes into it. Why, it hasn’t been opened for nearly five years, not since his lordship died.’

He winced at the mention of his dead uncle’s name. He had hateful memories of him. ‘That does not matter, Leaf,’ he replied. ‘All I want is the key.’

‘And here is the key, Master Dorian,’ said the old lady, after going over the contents of her bunch with tremulously uncertain hands. ‘Here is the key. I’ll have it off the ring in a moment. But you don’t think of living up there, Master Dorian, and you so comfortable here?’

‘No, Leaf, I don’t. I merely want to see the place, and perhaps store something in it, that is all. Thank you, Leaf. I hope your rheumatism is better; and mind you send me up jam for breakfast.’

Mrs. Leaf shook her head. ‘Them foreigners doesn’t understand jam, Master Dorian. They calls it ‘compot.’ But I’ll bring it to you myself some morning, if you lets me.’

‘That will be very kind of you, Leaf,’ he answered, looking at the key; and, having made him an elaborate courtesy, the old lady left the room, her face wreathed in smiles. She had a strong objection to the French valet. It was a poor thing, she felt, for anyone to be born a foreigner.

As the door closed, Dorian put the key in his pocket and looked round the room. His eye fell on a large purple satin coverlet heavily embroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth century Venetian work that his uncle had found in a convent near Bologna. Yes, that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing in. It had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead. Now it was to hide something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of death itself, something that would breed horrors and yet would never die. What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the thing would still live on. It would be always alive.

He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told Basil the true reason why he had wished to hide the picture away. Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry’s influence and the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament. The love that he bore him—for it was really love—had something noble and intellectual in it. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when the senses tire. It was such love as Michael Angelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him. But it was too late now. The past could always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future was inevitable. There were passions in him that would find their terrible outlet, dreams that would make the shadow of their evil real.

He took up from the couch the great purple-and-gold texture that covered it, and, holding it in his hands, passed behind the screen. Was the face on the canvas viler than before? It seemed to him that it was unchanged; and yet his loathing of it was intensified. Gold hair, blue eyes and rose- red lips—they all were there. It was simply the expression that had altered. That was horrible in its cruelty. Compared to what he saw in it of censure or rebuke, how shallow Basil’s reproaches about Sibyl Vane had been!, how shallow and of what little account! His own soul was looking out at him from the canvas and calling him to judgment. A look of pain came across him and he flung the rich pall over the picture. As he did so, a knock came to the door. He passed out as his servant entered.

‘The persons are here, monsieur.’

He felt that the man must be got rid of at once. He must not be allowed to know where the picture was being taken to. There was something sly about him and he had thoughtful, treacherous eyes. Sitting down at the writing-table, he scribbled a note to Lord Henry, asking him to send him round something to read, and reminding him that they were to meet at eight-fifteen that evening.

‘Wait for an answer,’ he said, handing it to him, ‘and show the men in here.’

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I like words

This story is a letter from a writer looking for work. I found it on a brilliant website called letters of note. It shows creativity and hutzpah in spades, of course, and also expresses very nicely the taste, feel and smell of words, their endless range and versatility.

Dear Sir,

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave ‘V’ words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh