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?

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