Strategic Fictions? John Buchan, The Times and the Ypres Salient

Griffiths, Andrew (2017). Strategic Fictions? John Buchan, The Times and the Ypres Salient. In: Griffiths, Andrew; Prieto, Sara and Zehle, Soenke eds. Literary Journalism and World War I: Marginal Voices. ReportAGES. Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, pp. 55–75.

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Abstract

John Buchan is widely known as an author of thrillers and adventure stories. His reputation as a writer of the First World War is much more limited and much more problematic. Both individually and as one of the collective of British writers who wrote in support of the nation’s wartime propaganda effort, Buchan has been subject to harsh criticism. Only recently has work by Kate Macdonald begun to trace the detail of Buchan’s war writing, which included reportage, fiction, poetry and history. As Macdonald has pointed out, Buchan’s reputation as an authority on the conflict, though high at the time, is ‘now routinely shredded’ (Macdonald 181). This chapter challenges that critical consensus, arguing that Buchan made a genuine effort to communicate the reality of the war and that he did so by use of techniques and strategies central to modern definitions of literary journalism. To condemn Buchan for the limitations of his war writing is to fail to grasp the conditions under which he worked. As John S. Bak has argued in relation to global literary journalism, ‘critiquing state-controlled presses for squashing unsavoury truths or spinning damning facts is to ignore the wider issue that, culturally speaking, we all just value truth and fact differently’ (5). The wartime valuation of truth and fact certainly differed from modern scholarly valuations. However, as Bak also suggests, the limitations imposed by war also stimulate the kind of experimentation with literary technique characteristic of literary journalism (6). Reading John Buchan’s May 1915 correspondence for The Times through the paradigm of literary journalism scholarship, this chapter argues that Buchan broke with existing journalistic traditions and experimented with literary strategies in order to connect his readers to the conflict.

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