10 books about journalists

10-booksIn response to yesterday’s tragic events in Paris, where two terrorists stormed the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shooting dead 12 people — eight of them journalists — and injuring 11 others, I thought I would republish this list, which first appeared on my old Reading Matters blog in 2011.

I am a trained journalist and have spent my career working in news rooms and magazine offices, so freedom of speech is a value I hold very dear. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of my favourite novels are about journalists working on newspapers and magazines. I call these “newspaper novels” but they could equally be called “journalism novels”, “print media novels” or “novels about journalists”.

Because the newspaper game is a funny old lark, these novels lend themselves very well to humour and satire. And typically they’re peopled with rich and intriguing characters, because the business seems to attract oddballs and eccentrics, the likes of which you don’t see anywhere else.

Here’s my top 10 novels about journalists (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name) — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

KeepersofTruth The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins (2000)

This is an interesting look at what it is like to be a journalist on a small town newspaper. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Collins’ novel is part thriller, part crime mystery. Set in midwest America in the late 1970s, the novel charts the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline — and examines the difficulties that confront reporters when they must write about the people they know. The narrator, Bill, is a young misfit journalist working at The Daily Truth who finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed by a local murder. The story takes a dark turn when Bill becomes a suspect. This is a dark, brooding story, written with passion and fury.

MyTurnToMakeTheTea ‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Set during an era in which journalists carried out all their reporting in person — not by telephone or email — and then typed up their stories on clunky typewriters, this is a revealing insight in to life on a provincial newspaper. It’s also a fascinating account of the petty dramas that occur when working in a newsroom. There isn’t much of a plot, instead it reads very much like the diary of a young reporter, called Poppy, learning the ropes on the Downingham Post. The book largely works by showing how Poppy’s misconceptions about journalism fall by the wayside as the practicalities of producing a weekly newspaper fall into place. It’s a terrific read and peopled by a cast of wonderful characters, including a sexist editor who poo-poohs Poppy’s idea to introduce a woman’s column and publish letters to the editor that would be of interest to a female readership.

TowardsTheEnd Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn (1967)

This is a hilarious account of what it was like to work on an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. At the heart of the story are two journalists — the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one!

Slab-rat ‘Slab Rat’ by Ted Heller (2001)

I read this long before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review, but this is a wickedly funny — and very realistic — look at what it’s like for a cynic to work on a glitzy magazine filled with fake, career-climbing people. Zac Post is so desperate to be promoted that he’ll resort to pretty much anything to be noticed by his bosses. If that means doing underhand, morally dubious things, then so be it. This is a story as much about office politics as it is about journalism. And it’s a scathing satire on what people will do to get ahead in life, love and business. Highly recommended.

Russell-wiley-is-out-to-lunch ‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine (2010)

This is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side it looks at the advertising and publishing side. The story is told in the first person by Russell Wiley, the sales development director on the Daily Business Chronicle, whose objective is to sell more advertising pages. But it is an uphill battle. The industry is in terminal decline. There’s not enough new readers to replace the ones that are dying off. While the book is essentially an insightful look at what happens when traditional media fails to adapt to the digital age, you don’t need to know anything about the way in which newspapers are run to enjoy it. Anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate environment will find much that is familiar here.

Bilton‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin (1997)

This is a deliciously funny read about Bilton, a grumpy journalist, who inadvertently becomes a media sensation when he throws a cup of coffee in the face of the British Prime Minister. Bilton’s action is billed as heroic, but what no one quite realises is that it wasn’t preplanned or motivated by politics — Bilton was simply drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. As his stardom increases, and the prime minister’s popularity continues to slide, Bilton begins to lose his integrity — and the shocking truth threatens to come out. The strength of the book is the clever way in which it pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, showing how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion.

The-Spoiler ‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee (2011)

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. When the younger has to interview the older, a culture clash ensue — not only are they worlds apart in age and experience, the way in which they ply their journalistic trade is radically different. By pitting the two women against each other, McAfee is able to demonstrate the changing face of newspaper journalism in an original, adroit and hugely humorous way.

Shipping_news ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx (1993)

Following the untimely death of his wife, Quoyle moves from New York to Newfoundland. He takes his two young daughters with him and tries to start afresh in the town of his forebears. He finds work on the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, where he’s employed to write the shipping news — hence the book’s title — and report on local car accidents. While this isn’t a strictly newspaper novel — it’s more of a heartwarming story about rebuilding your life after a tragedy and finding friendship in unexpected places — it does include many journalistic insights, such as Quoyle’s penchant for viewing his life in headlines and the paper’s tendency towards plagiarism and typographical howlers. I read it not long after it won the Pulitzer Prize (hence no review — this was a decade before I began the blog) and still have fond memories of it.

The-Imperfectionists ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman (2010)

A fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, this hugely popular debut “novel” is actually 11 interlinked short stories focusing on the employees of an English-language newspaper in Rome. In between each chapter, Rachman charts the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 through to its peak in the early 1980s — when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high — and then describes its slow decline as circulations and revenues decrease and closure looks imminent. And while much of the content is a tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism, there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; while the obituary writer, who has been sidelined in his career, doesn’t recover his motivation until someone close to him dies. This is an entertaining read, one that provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.

Scoop ‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Scoop is billed as the funniest novel ever written about journalism — in fact, it’s safe to say it is the standard bearer for newspaper novels. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular novels about journalists that you’d recommend? What is missing from my list?

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36 thoughts on “10 books about journalists

  1. I’ve only read The Shipping News and The Imperfectionists from your list. Thanks to you, I’ll be reading some of these.
    I’d add Hunger by Knut Hamsun, but especially Death and the Penguin by Kurkov, for its newspaper/obituary section alone.

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  2. I’m assuming you left off Hash, by Torgny Lindgren (reviewed on this site), because you wanted to keep the list to 10 and his “journalist” turns out to be more a fantacist. Still, it raises some interesting questions about the trade.
    I’d add an American classic, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It is a collection of linked short stories of characters who live in the small town — the link is that the narrator is a reporter on the local newspaper. Not really a “newspaper” book, but it has some similarities with the weekly newspaper ones on your list — and is a truly brilliant book (it would be on my list of top 10 best American fiction all-time).
    And if you can find it since it is long out of print, William Weintraub’s Why Rock The Boat (1961). Weintraub hung around Montreal with Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and Mavis Gallant, among others. It has been many years since I read it, but memory says it is as funny as the Frayn and Rachman on your list. In fact, I think I’ll troll around to find a used copy.

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  3. Thanks for the suggestions, Amy, both books have been on my wishlist for quite some time. I’m especially intrigued by Death and the Penguin, which I’ve only ever heard great things about.

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  4. To be honest, I forgot about Hash! But you’re right, there are aspects of that novel which call journalism into question: what is the truth and how do you report on it truthfully?
    Thanks for the other suggestions. I’ll see if I can hunt them out.

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  5. I recommend a wonderful, very funny book called The Midnight Examiner. It’s about reporters on a tabloid, scandal sheet in New York during the late 1960’s early 1970’s. Very funny, but out-of-print. I’ve left a link to my review for you just in case.
    http://readywhenyouarecb.blogspot.com/2008/12/midnight-examiner-by-william-kotzwinkle.html
    You’ve got an interesting list and the titles in the comments also look good. The only other one I can think of is His Girl Friday which is a movie with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

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  6. Great list Kim, I have got Scoop, The Spoiler (which I started but someone ordered it in from the library so I had to give it back) and My Turn To Make The Tea (bought from your recommendation) on the TBR and must get round to one of them soon.

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  7. I don’t think I’ve read any of those, but I immediately thought of the classic movie His Girl Friday! It’s SUCH a fun, smart film. 😀

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  8. Thanks for the suggestions, Craig — I hadn’t heard of either book. I particularly like the sound of The Columnist, and must check if it is available this side of the pond.

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  9. I can’t recommend any journalism books (the ones I’ve read are ones you’ve already covered!) but I am very excited to see a Monica Dickens in that list. My mother-in-law recently lent me One Pair of Hands, which I found to be very, very funny. I’ve now added One Pair of Feet and My Turn to Make the Tea to my wishlist (I’ll be looking both up in my library online catalog once I’ve finished typing this). I feel like saying to my MIL: how come you never told me about Monica Dickens before? If you haven’t read anything else by her, I would recommend One Pair of Hands.

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  10. I would add “Miss Lonelyhearts” by Nathaniel West, published in 1933; it’s a memorable, poignant tale of a reporter, who writes a personal advice column in the pre-Dear Abby era.

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  11. You might also try my newspaper novel, “The Hurricane Murders,” set in South Florida in ’98. One reviewer called it “an elegy for print.”

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  12. To prove that life on local newspapers used to be great (and hilarious) add Michael Green’s Don’t Print my Name Upside Down and Angus McGill’s Yeah, Yeah, Yeah to the Monica Dickens. Then there’s Green’s autobiographical Nobody Hurt in Small Earthquake.

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  13. This is a great way to celebrate the work of journalism, indeed yes, the pen is mightier than the sword:)
    I’ve read some of these (The Keepers of Truth, The Shipping News and Scoop) but I shall be hunting out the Frayn and the one by Monica Dickens, and I have had Death and the Penguin on the TBR ever since Stu reviewed it!

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    • Thanks, Lisa. This will help kick-start something I’ve been putting off for awhile: importing my top 10 lists from the old blog (there’s about a dozen).

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      • Have to admire your dedication with the transfer, it’s been a huge undertaking.
        When I transferred from Blogger, all I had to do was to click a couple of buttons and everything was imported for me, comments, pictures, and all. If I’d had to do what you’ve had to do I think I would just have abandoned the old blog!

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        • Well, I could have just clicked a couple of buttons and imported the whole thing, but it wouldn’t have worked with the design of the template… plus, Typepad works by categories and WP seems to work by tags — and I hadn’t tagged a thing! I figured it would be easier to concentrate/keep the content I was proud of and just break it up into chunks: reviews first, then add Triple Choice Tuesday and book lists over a period of time rather than try to do it all at once and then have a mental breakdown! LOL.

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  14. Ive only read The Shipping News ( which dare i say i didnt like all tbat much) and Scoop….what about The Sportswriter by Richard Ford ….or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ? A really lovely and positive way to celebrate the freedom of the press…great post .

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    • Thanks, Helen. I’ve not read The Sportswriter… must rectify that at some point, and of course The Bell Jar is a great read, but I always think of that as a coming of age/mental illness type novel rather than a journalism one – but you’re right, it is set largely in a magazine, isn’t it, so perhaps it should be included.

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  15. The first one that came to mind was The Imperfectionists, which I loved. Others: The Quiet American by Graham Greene, All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism by Andrew Marr.

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  16. Excellent response, Kim, and a very fine list. I’ve read several of these but not the Hine which is now on my TBR list. Just want to add my voice to the Death and the Penguin fan club.

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  17. I missed this in 2011 – and again in January… so grateful for the link today from your review of Bright Lights, Big City. A list I’ll be popping back too in 2016 as stories about the essential folk who report the actual stories are compelling.

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