10 books, Book lists

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?

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Richard Hine

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is author Richard Hine, whose debut novel Russell Wiley Is Out to Lunch — a corporate satire set in the New York media industry — was one of the first original manuscripts to be acquired and published by AmazonEncore. I reviewed it last month and found it a fast-paced, hugely comic read.

Richard’s fiction has previously appeared in numerous literary publications, including London Magazine and Brooklyn Review. He is also a winner of and two-time finalist in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest, and an interview of him appears in The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book.

Richard was born in London, but has lived in New York City for more than 20 years. Do visit his official website, which is a wonderful spoof on a traditional newspaper, for further information.

Without further ado, here’s Richard’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:

Joseph-Andrews A favorite book: Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

As a teenager in England I read mainly contemporary fiction. I devoured horror stories by Stephen King, James Herbert and others. I couldn’t get enough comic fiction like The World According to Garp and Catch-22. But nothing quite prepared me for Henry Fielding.

I read Joseph Andrews when I was 20. I was blown away. Not least by the thought that the book was nearly 250 years old. I loved everything about it – from the detailed descriptions in the Table of Contents to the bawdiness of the plot, to all the authorial tangents and social commentary Fielding packed in. Not having read many 18th or 19th century novels at the time, I was amazed at how contemporary it felt—which is probably the same as saying that I, like Joseph Andrews, had grown up a bit too oblivious to the hypocrisy, manipulation and mendaciousness of the world.

The book is filled with memorable characters, not just Joseph and Parson Adams, but also Lady Booby, Madam Slipslop and Joseph’s true love, Fannie. It’s fantastic, picaresque, thought-provoking, and everyone should read it! I enjoyed Fielding’s Tom Jones, too, but it couldn’t quite live up to Joseph Andrews for me.

Remains-of-the-day A book that changed my world: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

By the time I read The Remains of the Day I had lived in New York for a couple of years, so I was still suffering from residual culture shock—and becoming more and more immersed in American media. This was a novel that shook me up on many levels. I just thought it was brilliantly written and incredibly psychologically perceptive. I could really relate to the whole notion of clinging to a delusion of Englishness. Most of all, though, I think I was ready to receive the message that it’s really possible for people to live an entire life believing in something, investing all their hopes and dreams, all their sense of purpose and self-worth, into something that’s just a made-up fantasy. Of course, we now know from scientific studies that people who are more realistic about the world are more inclined to depression, so perhaps there’s something to be said for some forms of delusion.

Ballad-of-peckham-rye A book that deserves a wider audience: The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

I only started reading Muriel Spark after reading her New York Times obituary in 2006, which made her sound like a very interesting person as well as a writer worth reading. Also, my girlfriend Amanda Filipacchi’s novels are often compared to Muriel Spark’s, and because she doesn’t write them fast enough, I had to find something else to read. I read of few of Spark’s novels before The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It became my favorite of hers not just because of the way it satirizes the British class system (which I always enjoy), but because the character of Dougal Douglas (a.k.a Douglas Dougal) is more than just devilishly immoral. He’s quite possibly the devil himself.

Thanks, Richard, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve not read any of them, although The Remains of the Day is in my To Be Read pile, where it’s been sitting for about five years! I’ve read a handful of Spark’s novels and really enjoyed them, but I do feel the need to ration them out. I don’t want to be in the position where I have no more Spark novels left to read! Mind you, perhaps it’s now time I dust off my Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Ballad of Peckham Rye that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a year or two.

What do you think of Richard’s choices? Have you read any of these books?

Amazon Encore, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Richard Hine, Setting

‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine

Russell-Wiley-is-out-to-lunch

Fiction – Kindle edition; Amazon Encore; 296 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Having been a newspaper journalist in the past, I am partial to novels that are set in newspaper offices. Richard Hine’s Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch certainly fits the bill, but this is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side, this one 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, a New York-based publication, which was formerly owned by Burke-Hart Publishing, but which has recently been subsumed by the Ghosh — “pronounced ‘gauche’, never ‘gosh'” — Corporation.

Russell’s role involves helping the paper’s sales people 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. And the only strategy anyone seems intent on is a short-term one in which cutting costs and letting people go is the only way to ensure growth.

We read in our own and other newspapers how Larry Ghosh intends to return Burke-Hart Publishing and its flagship publication, The Daily Business Chronicle, to a new era of profitability. We read in management memos that we are looking to change the DNA of our division. We witness the influx of new managers, consultants and free-floating strategists — people who seem to speak a different language than we are used to and who measure success by different metrics.

Despite all the doom and gloom — advertising revenue is down 40 per cent — Russell turns down a job offer with Google six months before their IPO, because he “thought newspapers still had a role to play: helping us make sense of the world at least once every twenty-four hours”. His decision to stay with the Chronicle is aided by a promotion, an upped bonus target and a misguided sense of loyalty.

But as the newspaper’s financial situation worsens, Russell, who is in his late 30s, realises he might have made a mistake. He’s stuck on a “slow train to obscurity” and needs to get out. Or, as he so eloquently puts it, he is…

…stuck in the world of middle management. Navigating my way through a world defined by hiring freezes, reductions in force and faux-generous severance packages. Buried under an increasing workload. Getting calls from out-of-work former colleagues still looking for jobs—while the headhunters have all gone quiet. I’ve dug myself into a hole. I assumed my performance would speak for itself. I had faith that management would recognize and reward good work. Then I sat back and watched as other people—aggressive, hard-charging, permanently networking types—charged ahead. I let it happen. Why? Because I was too busy digging my hole to do anything else. I didn’t have time to deal with all the networking. I didn’t realize the subtle difference between being labeled a high performer instead of a high potential. But that’s all got to change. I can’t sit back anymore.

On the home front, things aren’t much better. His relationship with his wife of nearly 13 years is fraught, and it’s got to the point where he keeps track of how many days it’s been since they last had sex. (When the book opens it has been “twenty-five days. Nearly four weeks. I’m not supposed to be keeping tabs anymore”.)

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. This is a good example:

We like to promote collegiality. Our performance management system is directional, based on the personal, nonscientific observations of departmental managers. There’s no penalty for poor performance built into our grading system. We don’t have the annual cull of the lame, the weak and the unproductive. When business gets bad and layoffs come, we start to panic. We reduce headcount randomly. We’re just as likely to eliminate star performers or reliable workers as we are to chop away the real dead wood.

I realise much of what I have quoted in this review might make the book sound awfully heavy going, but Hine writes with a lightness of touch that makes Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch a delightful read. Like most novels set in a newspaper office, it’s full of comic moments. It’s something to do with the kooky characters that people these places that make it prone to harvest in this way. Take Barbara for example:

She’s worked here since 1975 and seems not to have updated her wardrobe or her job skills since then. Because jobs at my level no longer justify full-time assistants, Barbara is supposed to support my entire department. But beyond the fact that she sometimes answers my phone and offers to transfer people into my voicemail, I simply don’t have any work I can give her with confidence. […] Despite all that, Barbara has taught herself the skills she needs to upload digital photographs of her grandchildren and email them to her friends and family around the world. She is also, I am told, an expert at placing last-minute bids in online auctions for a certain kind of collectible porcelain figurine.

There are plenty of other characters in this book which will seem uncannily familiar to anyone who has worked in an office or managed staff. Hine has also successfully captured the daily politics and shenanigans that go on (he paints a rather withering, but pitch-perfect, description of a consultant brought in to solve the Chronicle‘s woes that had me tittering over my Kindle).

While the plot is relatively simple — will Russell escape imminent disaster and live to see another day (or career)? — this is a fast-paced, hugely enjoyable, read. My only quibble is the horrible cover that makes this book look cheap and nasty. I’d never pick this up if I saw it in a shop.