Leila Guerriero: 'My advice to emerging journalists: read more'
One of the most prominent female journalists in Latin America, Argentinian reporter Leila Guerriero is the editor of “Cuba on the Verge,” a compilation of journalistic essays about continuity and change in contemporary Havana.
Today, have you already gone on Twitter to check the latest news? Updated the CNN website on your laptop? Checked the alerts on your cell phone? Read the daily newsletter that your favorite media outlet (I guess it’s AL DIA News) sent to your email?
In today's journalism, the quick and the visual prevails. Nobody seems willing to spend a lot of time reading an article anymore. But, according to Argentinian journalist Leila Guerriero (born in Junín, province of Buenos Aires, in 1967), a champion of journalism in Latin America, the situation is not that different from when she was young.
“There has always been a certain 'reading crisis,' even when I started in this profession more than 25 years ago, and social media did not even exist,” she said during a book presentation in Madrid in May.
The “reading crisis” may have started even earlier:
"When I was a child, around 8 years old, I was already an avid reader, but my friends from school did not read. I did not grow up in a reading world. That did not happen until I was 20 years old, when I was already at the university," said the well-known Argentine journalist on the occasion of the second edition of her non-fiction book “Plano Americano,” a compilation of profiles of prominent figures of the culture world in Latin America (only available in Spanish).
"The reading indexes in Latin America were always low," said Guerriero. "So if someone starts writing with the purpose of 'conquering' the reader, or trying to give him some kind of educational or teaching lesson, I would say it's not useful... This is not the task of journalism, but rather of the state, which is responsible for education."
With more than 25 years of experience on her back, Guerriero has written for several media outlets, such as La Nación and Rolling Stone (Argentina); El Malpensante (Colombia); the newspaper El Mercurio (Chile); the newspaper El Universal and the magazine Gatopardo (Mexico). She is also the author of several reporting books, such as "Los suicidas del fin del mundo," "Frutos extraños," and "Plano americano," which has just been reissued by Anagrama Publishing House (available in the U.S. from August 30, only in Spanish at the moment).
In the United States, Guerriero is known mainly for her books translated to English, such as "A Simple Story: The Last Malambo," where she recounts life in a town in the interior of Argentina focusing on a local dance contest (malambo is a traditional dance among the Argentine gauchos).
Guerriero has also managed to gain a foothold in the U.S. reading market for being the editor of "Cuba on the Verge: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and Across the Country," a careful selection of journalistic chronicles about Cuba written by prominent Spanish-speaking and English-speaking writers. Each author offers his or her instantaneous vision of Cuban society over the last decade, coinciding with a moment of important political and social transition.
The topics covered in the book are very broad, from politics and art to music and baseball, although the turning point was the visit of the former U.S. President Barack Obama to the island.
Among the journalists that Guerriero chose to include in the book are the young Cuban chronicler Carlos Manuel Alvárez (Matanzas, 1989), who wrote a series of reports on what it means to belong to the last generation of Cubans educated under Fidel Castro’s government; the Colombian-American writer Patricia Engel (author of the bestseller "Vida"), who recounts the changes in Havana through the eyes of a taxi driver; the famous New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson, who wrote a story about being a foreigner in Cuba during the Special Period; or the Cuban author Leonardo Padura, who reflects on the island's obsession with baseball.
According to Guerriero, the 12 journalists selected for "Cuba On the Verge" are proof that quality journalism still exists, despite the invasion of social media and the dictatorship of brevity and immediacy.
"Journalism goes beyond breaking news, for me it's like an artisanal process," said Guerreiro at Casa América Madrid. "We must claim back the role of the newsrooms, because journalism is still a process made by people, and it should not depend on the platforms or formats where it is published. I think we should put the focus back on the quality of information, the only way for journalism to persist is making sure that quality is above all."
For Guerreiro, the second edition of her book "Plano Americano" - a cartography of portraits that have marked Latin American literature and the Latin American art scene - is a good excuse to reclaim the need for quality journalism, the need to leave immediacy and quickness on the back burner.
"My journalistic method is quite classic: I conduct research work in the most exhausting way possible, to the point of becoming obsessed. In an interview, I try to accumulate as much material as possible: I record everything, from the initial 'good morning' to the last 'good night and see you later,'" she explained. Once the research is finished, she then closes herself somewhere to start writing. “And when I finish, I read and reread, read and reread...”
In “Plano Americano,” she wrote exhaustive profiles of diverse characters from the Latin American culture world, ranging from the incendiary Chilean poet Nicanor Parra to the Uruguayan Idea Vilariño, one of the members of the so-called Generation of 45; the filmmaker Lucrecia Martel or the violinist Dolly Muhr, last wife of the Uruguayan writer Juan Carlos Onetti.
"I chose profiles that I thought could be read without losing interest or relevance for many years, because books, in opposition to articles, are things that last in time," said Guerriero at Casa América Madrid.
Recently, Peruvian writer and Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said that Guerreiro’s book "Plano Americano" showed in a convincing manner "that journalism can also be considered a fine art and produce works of high value without renouncing at all to its primary obligation, which is to inform."
"It is true that my texts are a little at odds with current journalism, so driven by this sense of urgency," admitted the journalist, whose particular style, based on exhaustive research, has been called the "Guerriero method."
But when it comes to the art of writing, the journalist believes there are few secrets. "My advice to journalists who are just starting would be just one thing: if you want to write better than the standard, you should read a lot," she said. "I think that we read very little in this profession, many of us just read the newspapers, and that is not enough".
Personally, Guerreiro believes that reading fiction and poetry can help journalists a lot: "Poetry, for example, teaches us how to save words while saying a lot," she said, citing among her favorite poets Nicanor Parra, Idea Vilariño and Claudio Bertoni.
As for fiction, Guerreiro says she is a huge fan of American literature, especially 20th-century American literature: Richard Ford, Truman Capote, Scott Fitzgerald, but also contemporary authors, like the French novelist Emmanuel Carrère, “who moves in an interesting field between fiction and non-fiction," or Lorrie Moore, an American, who has a very special style of telling stories.
“The truth is,” she admitted, “that if you like to read, it is impossible to have a shortlist [of all the authors you like].”