Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Advanced Non-Fiction Writing

ENGL 145.301
instructor(s):

This class is an intensive course in creative non-fiction writing. It is offered on the presupposition that no bright lines divide reporting from criticism, profiling from reviewing, and that the best cultural journalists practice all of these, sometimes all at once. By way of example, we will read and study representative (and inspiring) works by the old masters (Lytton Strachey, Edmund Wilson, George Orwell), the mid-century moderns (Dwight MacDonald, Kenneth Tynan, early Pauline Kael and Tom Wolfe) before moving on to our best contemporaries (Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Adam Gopnik, Claudia Roth Pierrepont).

Along the way we’ll try to answer the salient question of non-fiction journalism: How do you coax the essence of a person or an idea or a body of work to reveal itself to you? How do you reveal that essence to your reader? To get to the heart of the painter David Salle, Janet Malcolm interviewed Salle on and off for two years. To capture the essence of the Reagan White House, Joan Didion conducted no interviews, relying instead on her own astonishing skills as a political and social clairvoyant.

One overriding goal of the class will be helping each of us discover what blend of skills –reporting, researching, voice-driven critique –best suits each of us as writers (instructor included). An additional focus will be the actual practice of engaging editors via your pitch letter –i.e., how does your email emerge out of the mass of daily anonymous correspondence, and engage a harried and overworked gatekeeper?

Ideally, every student will leave this class a.) with a firm sense of the canon of great recent non-fiction writers; b.) with a developing confidence of their own particular strengths as a non-fiction writer, and c.) with a total grasp of how to pitch a good idea. To that end, the writing assignments will include one reported piece (with interview), one review, one “critical profile,” and a sample pitch letter.

The class will be visited regularly by practitioners from Slate, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc.

Those interested in taking the course should email by attachment as soon as possible one or two samples of their best prose to Molly O'Neill at mollyo@writing.upenn.edu
Include the last 4 didgits of your SS#. Permit is required by the instructor.