In 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:
‘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.
‘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.
‘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’ 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’ 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’ 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’ 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.
‘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’ 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’ 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?