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What Makes for Good Reportage?

It's late summer and a new issue of Granta has just hit newsstands and bookshops. It's an unthemed issue full of wonderful things, including memoir from Mary Gaitskill and Rupert Thomson, fiction by Tamas Dobozy and Kenzaburo Oe, and reportage by novelist Rana Dasgupta.

Reportage is often regarded as the most exalted form of journalism, yet it is, after all, no more than writing that is concerned with the reporting of news or events.Reportage is often regarded as the most exalted form of journalism, yet it is, after all, no more than writing that is concerned with the reporting of news or events. (Even John Carey, in his introduction to The Faber Book of Reportage (1987), admits that "Before editing a book of reportage you need to decide what reportage is.") Its etymology is French, from — not surprisingly — reporter (meaning, not surprisingly, to report). Its primary purpose is to account, through an eyewitness, for something observed or documented. Unlike its sister art, investigative journalism (which became fashionable in the 1960s and '70s following the Watergate scandal and often sets out to give an eyewitness account of something while exposing a hitherto obscured "truth"), reportage purports to simply show something, the account of which is inherent to the act of display itself. If investigative journalism is a guided missile with the Rottweiler's instinct to sniff out the jugular, reportage is more like, well, just a regular old missile, shot out in the direction of something with no sense of its ultimate aims or purposes other than to report back.

However, as any seasoned reader of reportage knows, inscribed within the observations of a reporter are a set of authorial motives which seek to gently nudge the reader towards particular assumptions. "Genuinely objective journalism," writes the American journalist T. D. Allman, "not only gets the facts right, it gets the meaning of events rights."

Rana Dasgupsta is one such brilliant purveyor of this craft. In "Capital Gains," Dasgupta's interviews with members of India's anglicized upper class, members of India's new super-rich and with the editor of a prominent Dehli magazine — someone associated with the intelligentsia who stands elsewhere on the social horizon — provide an eyewitness account of life in the new India, but also manage to determine the moral context in which the actions of these people and the events of their country can be judged.

"Over the last few years," writes Dasgupta, "provincials have become Delhi's dominant economic group, with many millionaires, and a few billionaires, among their number, and networks of political protection that make them immensely more influential than those who have become rich on a salary." The anglicized class of doctors and dentists — businessmen educated at American universities and PR gurus with British passports — which the Western press all too often depicts as the urbane "face of the 'new India'" is, according to Dasgupta, becoming marginalized from Indian society. They see Delhi as "backward"; they object to Bollywood music being played in nightclubs. Yet they cannot ignore the power and influence of India's "nouveaux riches," most of whom quietly bought up land outside Dehil in the 1980s as the city's development and planning agency focussed its attentions exclusively on the capital, and have sold it to commercial developers like Microsoft. Out of the tension born from the rift between these two ruling classes of the new India is not simply a new social economy, but a schism which excludes rural India, some 800 million people.

Dasgupta is hardly the first the write about how the transformation of the Indian economy has reconfigured the social landscape, but his probing interviews with four Dehilites are revealing for their psychological perspectives on a phenomena (capitalism) that appears devoid of any impulse beyond a simple desire to make money. "Do you think anything will come of all this money they're making?" asks Dasgupta. "Do you think they'll try to leave behind a legacy?" Tarun, the editor of the weekly news magazine, is more than pessimistic. "They don't care about their legacy! This is a Hindu society: I'm back for a million more lives — how much fuss am I going to make about this one?" Like any good reporter, Dasgupta doesn't comment on this statement. Instead, he concentrates on his subject ("Tarun is never lost for words," he writes, "but as we talk I get the feeling that he too is becoming disillusioned") and allows Tarun to offer his own explanations ("To find a reason big enough for such a startling predicament, Tarun burrows into history. 'It all goes back to colonization: we're a damaged people.'") before articulating his own assumptions to his readers through the implicit and conversational form of the rhetorical question: "I can't disagree with his morose assessment of what is happening around us… but is it true, as he implies, that north Indian Hindus as simply programmed by their history and religion to be rapacious?" For all his searching and questioning, Dasgupta remains firmly outside the interpretative core of his own piece, yet filters the information to his readers to ensure that he "gets the meaning of events right."

Getting "the meaning of events right" may sound like an impossible task. Who, for instance, decides what that the "meaning" is?Getting "the meaning of events right" may sound like an impossible task. Who, for instance, decides what that the "meaning" is? Who resolves whether or not a writer gets it "right"? My own view is that it's the reader. That if a piece of writing manages to open up a line of enquiry that succeeds in being drawn out in various directions, "meaning" occurs; that if that line can be drawn around a particular subject (as opposed to underneath a particular subject), a more balanced plain on which meaning can be discerned emerges.

Near the beginning of the much-anthologized piece of reportage "The Fall of Saigon," published in 1985 in Granta 15, James Fenton explains why he wanted to go to Vietnam. "I was impressed, overawed, by the scale and age of the subject: a war that had been going on for longer than I had been alive… I had read some books in preparation, but the effect of doing so was only to make the country recede further." A great piece of reportage does the opposite: it brings a country (an event) to the forefront. But it's not simply the vehicle of the "eyewitness" that distinguishes great reportage from unanimated passages in books. It also, according to John Carey, must be "concerned primarily with the qualities of writing and observation displayed." "Nothing," he continues, "is important — or unimportant — except as it is perceived."

At Granta, I read a lot of proposals for reportage pieces, and indeed pieces themselves. Almost without fail, the subject is alluring. Dispatches from war-torn countries and provinces; explorations of liminal places; searching enquiries into unresolved stories. More often than not, though, works of reportage can feel overly self-conscious about their status as such, probably because we wrongly assume that reportage must adhere to — and rely on — certain conventions associated with the form (stock descriptions of landscape and an excess of often pointless detail used to evoke atmosphere; overly long interviews to give the piece authority; a pseudo naïve narrator whose experience of writing the piece is meant to mirror the reader's experience of reading it) and this often occurs at the expense of the writing. In the same way that it is more interesting to me to read a novel in which nothing happens but is told beautifully, I always learn more from a piece which sets out on a journey and allows the journey itself to become the central point of the piece.

Certain writers make for wonderful company on these journeys (Janet Malcolm and Norman Lewis, to name just two) because their powers of observation are so astute and because they make a distinction, through the way they write, between "reportage" and "reporting." If the former is a kind of narrative nonfiction — a creative enterprise which finds a bridge between language and the reality that language must describe — the latter can be said to do the opposite: to simply employ language to denote facts. In brilliant reportage, facts and feelings mingle together in mutually illuminating ways which serve to "get the meaning of events right" and in truly brilliant reportage, the "meaning" is never didactic and never ambiguous.

"Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice," wrote Martha Gellhorn when she visited Dachau in 1945. "They have no age and no faces; they all look alike and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky."

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Rosalind Porter is an editor at Granta and co-editor of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence from the Edge of Modern Romance. She lives in London.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Four Letter Word: Invented...
    New Hardcover $17.25
  2. Granta: The Magazine of New Writing... New Trade Paper $16.99

Rosalind Porter is the author of Four Letter Word: Invented Correspondence from the Edge of Modern Romance

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