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Reader Question: Well-Known Literary Journalism?

by Kim on September 28, 2010 · 17 comments

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I got one of my first e-mails from a new reader yesterday, asking about literary journalism. I ended up writing a rather involved response, which I thought other people might find interesting. Here’s the question:

Hi!  I just found your blog, it has been very helpful.  I am trying to get into literary journalism, I have read a lot of Mark Bowden’s work.  Can you suggest a few of the more well-known books in this genre to get started with!

And here’s a slightly edited and improved version of what I had to say (links go to my reviews, if applicable):

Thanks for sending an e-mail. I’m glad you’ve found my blog helpful. I love reading literary journalism, but I don’t know that I’m a good enough writer to actually do it myself. But, reading the best certainly can help. I’ve actually never read Mark Bowden, but I looked him up and it looks like he’s written some great books.

In terms of well-known books in the genre, it sort of depends if you want contemporary writers or the “originals” of literary reporting.

Some of the early writers (the 1960s-ish, when narrative nonfiction in the United States took off) include:

  • Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
  • Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)
  • Norman Mailer (The Armies of the Night, although I’ve just read his magazine writing)
  • Truman Capote (In Cold Blood)
  • Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).

I haven’t read all of their books, just bits and pieces, but anything by them would be a good start.

There are a lot of contemporary writers doing literary journalism. It really depends on what type of literary journalism you want to focus on. Some of my favorites, who write on a variety of subjects, include:

They all have more books than that, those are just suggestions of ones that I’ve read or heard good things about

If you’re looking for magazine pieces rather than entire books, the Best American Series does a couple books every year that would be good – Best American Essays and Best American Magazine Writing. They’re usually awesome collections of long-form journalism. The 2010 editions just came out, but I usually find used copies of earlier editions at used bookstores when I’m browsing the clearance sections. (Edited to Add: Best American Magazine Writing is actually put out by the American Society of Magazine Editors, not the Best American Series).

Current magazines that do good long form stories include Wired, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Wired is the only one I get right now, and they consistently have great stories. I’m sure there are others, that’s just what’s coming to me right now.

One website that is good is http://longform.org/. Every day they post a few great long-form journalism pieces, past and present, which gives a nice variety of styles and types.

That’s all I can think of right at the moment. If you have more specific topics you’re interested in or types of books you’ve really liked, I can think of more books that would be interesting — those suggestions are really just the teeniest example of contemporary book-length literary journalism.

I’ll throw out the same offer to all of you: Are there any topics or styles you’re especially interested in? Name something, and I’ll try to put together some suggestions of classic or contemporary literary journalism (narrative nonfiction) for you to explore. Alternatively, and glaring omissions to my hastily thrown together lists?

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy September 28, 2010 at 6:41 am

Phew, that is a crazy awesome list! Glad to see you’ve included Kidder there :) So many great options.

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Kim September 28, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Amy: Thank you, and it’s not even close to being comprehensive. It’s pretty weighed with my personal preferences (which are clearly awesome ;) )

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Amy September 28, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Well CLEARLY awesome yes :D

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Care September 28, 2010 at 7:45 am

Many of these are my favorites and the ones not on my tbr already will be added soon!
I also thought of this one: Salt by Mark Kulansky but I’m sure many many more out there (duh)

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Kim September 28, 2010 at 7:22 pm

Care: I have heard of that one, but not read it. I was just thinking about it the other day when I was trying to come up with a Narrative Nonfiction 5 list of books about a specific element or thing of some kind. Good suggestion!

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Vasilly September 28, 2010 at 8:58 am

I would love to read more narrative non-fiction. I have The Lost City of Z on my shelves now. Any suggestions?

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Kim September 28, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Vasilly: Hmmmm… I’d suggest The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, because it takes place in sort of the same time period as that one. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer might be good, since it’s also an adventure story about people who go to extreme places.

Those are the two that come to mind now, but I’m pretty tired so I’ll keep thinking.

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Charlie September 28, 2010 at 9:33 am

I think some of the articles I read in The Times would come under this category but unfortunately you have to pay nowadays for online access.

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Kim September 28, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Charlie: Some newspaper also do good long form writing. I’ve been impressed with New York Times Magazines cover stories, recently. Paywalls are annoying, but I sort of get why newspapers are starting to adopt them.

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Trisha September 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Charles Bowden always comes to mind when I think of this type of writing. If you haven’t read him, I highly recommend it!

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Kim September 28, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Trisha: Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look him up!

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Ash September 28, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Joan Didion certainly. I’ve read quite a bit of her work and I’m reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem right now. Great list- I love several of these writers!

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Kim September 29, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Ash: Slouching Towards Bethlehem was my first Didion, and I enjoyed it so much. She’s such a great reporter and writer. Her recent memoir, the title is escaping me now, was good too.

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Maphead September 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm

I LOVED Newjack ! Happy to see it on your list. Fear and Loathing is one of my all time favorites. Another one my favorites is There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz

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Kim September 29, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Maphead: I have There Are No Children Here on my TBR list. I bought it awhile ago because I was so excited to read it, and then it just slipped down the list.

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Rachel September 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I’m a huge fan of anything Sebastian Junger does, but I just finished WAR and that was amazing.

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Kim October 3, 2010 at 10:19 am

Rachel: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve never read Junger, but heard good things.

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