When journalism becomes a good story

June 14, 2010

The recent publication of “The Imperfectionists,” Tom Rachman’s  witty and entertaining little novel about a struggling English-language newspaper in Rome with a colorful staff, was a reminder that, even as newspapers face a tough economic climate, there’s still a good market for stories about them.

Maybe it’s because I want to find some glamor or intrigue or romance in my  profession, so I find it reassuring that writers are still able to spin entertaining tales about journalists.

So, in addition to “The Imperfectionists,” here’s a completely arbitrary and woefully incomplete list of works that either have journalists as major characters or have journalism as a backdrop to the action of the book.  There are no “how-to” or educational works here, though some of these do offer lessons in the ethics and practice of journalism.

–“The Year of Living Dangerously,” by Christopher Koch: Maybe it’s the romantic 1982 Peter Weir film adaptation with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver that makes this work so unforgettable to me.  A young Australian broadcast journalist, Guy Hamilton, arrives in Indonesia during the Sukarno era and joins a foreign-correspondent community marked by rivalry and the ability to consume large amounts of alcohol. Lots of romance and espionage intrigue and a plot to overthrow Sukarno. Hamilton finds himself way too close to the story.

–“The Lotus Eaters, “by Tatjana Soli: This newly published novel follows an American female photojournalist during the Vietnam War. As the title’s nod to Greek mythology indicates, the novel looks at how journalists are sometimes narcotized by the stories–particularly the wars—that they cover and find they can’t live without them.

–“1984,” by George Orwell: It’s been 61 years since it was published and 26 years since the title year passed into history. But the novel that gave us Newspeak, Big Brother and doublethink remains an inspiration for journalists who report on the world as it is–not how the Party decreed it to be.

–“The Quiet American,” by Graham Greene: What is it about Asia that gives us such great journalism books? Greene’s novel, set in the sunset of France’s war in Vietnam and in the dawn of America’s conflict, features a journalist, Thomas Fowler, who is finally forced to take a stand. But does he do it for the right reasons? And is it worth a life?

–“In Cold Blood,” by Truman Capote: I’m stretching the criteria here. A controversial and compelling “true-life novel” about the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, Capote’s book isn’t about a journalist or journalism; it’s a work of journalism that reads like a novel. Capote worked on the book for more than five years and the work–while challenged as inaccurate and ethically compromised by some critics–shows how deeply Capote immersed himself in the story. (The 2005 film “Capote,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in an Oscar-winning performance, explores Capote’s techniques.

–“All the King’s Men,” by Robert Penn Warren: This is a book I have been reading and re-reading for more than 40 years and I always discover something new in it. On one level, a tale of Willie Stark, a charismatic populist politician who descends into corruption, it’s also the story of Jack Burden, a journalist who begins by reporting on Stark, then becomes his personal aide. It’s a complex, multilayered novel that challenges the notion that a journalist can be a passive observer.

I said at the beginning that this list would be arbitrary and incomplete. Tell us what books about journalism have inspired you, enraged you, made you laugh, made you cry. As in all the best journalism, make sure there’s a good story.

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