BY SHANNON TIEN
As a member of the generation of young writers who are looking for work and suffering daily panic attacks about the future of journalism, I sometimes wish I had been born in the 1920s. That way, by the time I came of writing age in the 40s, I would have been able to pursue my chosen career at a time when it was actually possible to earn money and respect as a long-form journalist.
Back then, one could still produce clever cultural criticism from a Wi-Fi–free cabin in the woods, and the New Yorker might even pick it up. That acute anxiety that accompanies keeping up with one’s Twitter feed would have been, as yet, unimaginable. I could wear fedoras, smoke cigarettes, and sleep next to my typewriter (which wouldn’t emit the insomnia-producing, soft blue light of my phone, lying in wait to alert me if Tina Fey gets a parking ticket).
It’s easy to forget that back then, I would have had to deal with an alarming amount of sexism from my talented peers, who would naturally assume that my baby-making biology made it difficult for my brain to work as well as theirs. And even if I were a man, my successful writing career may very well have taken a German bullet to the face. Things are better now, I think.
Because of my chronic nostalgia for pre-Internet journalism, I’ve read a bunch of it, and I’m still holding onto the belief that, no matter how much our journalistic landscape transforms, there’s a more-than-nostalgic value in reading the journalists that came before us. And maybe I also believe that not enough of us are doing it. So, in one of the most difficult editing tasks of my life, I’ve compiled a list of the ten names that appear most prominently on my own bookshelf, as well as in conversations with other smart, young journalists.
- Mary McCarthy (actively writing from 1942–1989): Known for her quick wit and scathing liberal satire of the upper middle class, Mary McCarthy’s most popular novel, The Group (1963), is basically Girls, except with better opinions. However, MM was also a key member of the Partisan Review, which included Elizabeth Hardwick and Hannah Arendt (two other female essayists that you should totally read). She wrote prolifically about her opposition to the Vietnam War and McCarthyism. Start here if you want to be writing killer op-eds.
- Joseph Mitchell (actively writing from 1929–1996): The writing of Joseph Mitchell, also a long-time New Yorkerstaffer, is an excellent lesson in how to write the city beat, or at least write about a city. His interviews with fan dancers, voodoo conjurers, street evangelists, nudists, and female boxers basically conjure a 1930s New York City that no longer exists. In My Ears are Bent (1938), a collection of his pre-New Yorker journalism, Mitchell provides some shrewd interviewing tips: “Usually the best way to start an interview with a well-known person is to recall the worst thing you ever heard about him and ask if it is true.”
- Truman Capote (actively writing from 1943–1984): Read In Cold Blood (1965) before you report on any crime story, ever.
- M.F.K. Fisher (actively writing from 1937–1992): If you’re a food writer, you owe your profession to Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, pretty much the first person to write exclusively about food—outside the cookbook industry—and make money from it. Her food writing, often inspired by her travels outside of the United States, gained a cult following that included W. H. Auden. Her most popular book, How to Cook a Wolf (1937), paired recipes with philosophies on how to live happily during difficult times (i.e. the Second World War). If Instagram had existed in the 40s, M.F.K. would have had more followers than you.
- Joan Didion (actively writing from 1963–present): Good old JD, as I like to call her, weaves memoir with reporting in a way that produces some of the most satisfying, culturally relevant, and clever nonfiction I have ever read. If you want searing critiques of 1960s culture, investigative homages to 1970s California, uncomfortable reflections on what it means to be a nonfiction writer, or, like, the essay form in general, start with Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), move to The White Album (1979), and keep going. Didion is heavily inspired by another awesome lady journalist, Jessica Mitford, who is also worth a read.
- George Orwell (actively writing from 1933–1950): So besides writing some of the most famous dystopian novels of all time, Orwell was a prolific essayist and literary critic. If you’re ever looking for an example of how to write about being poor in London, he’s your guy. Most notable in regards to journalism is Homage to Catalonia (1938), his personal account of the Spanish Civil War, in which he served in 1937. This is commonly regarded as the book that taught new foreign journalists how to write narratively and to insert themselves into their stories. So basically, Gonzo journalism and the entire genre of creative nonfiction has Orwell to thank.
- Nellie Bly (actively writing from 1880–1922): Nelly Bly, a.k.a. the most badass investigative journalist of the Victorian era, faked insanity so she could study a mental hospital from within. On assignment for the New York World, she stayed at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island for ten days. Later in her career, she bet Jules Verne that she could travel around the world in less than eighty days, and made it in seventy-two. The New York World sponsored the story and Cosmopolitan even hired a female writer to compete with Bly. I bet no one who is reading this has gone to even slightly similar lengths for a story.
- Gay Talese (actively writing from 1953–present): Want to learn how to write an amazing profile? Read Gay Talese. He profiled all the people that mattered in the 1960s for Esquireand the New York Times, including Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio. Both pieces are widely considered to be some of the best examples of literary journalism out there. Know why? Because he never did phone interviews (and I’m guessing that includes email interviews as well). “I believe people will reveal more of themselves to you if you are physically present,” he wrote.
- E.B. White (actively writing from 1929–1970): Sure, he’s most famous for writing Charlotte’s Web, but did you know he was also a New Yorker staffer? That’s right, Elwyn Brooks White frequently contributed to the Talk of the Town and Notes and Comments, besides providing a body of essays that pretty much set the standard for writing about how great life is outside the Big Apple (i.e. on his saltwater farm in Maine). His most famous essay, “Here is New York,” originally published by Holiday magazine in 1949, basically predicts 9/11. Writing of the relatively recent addition of skyscrapers to the NYC skyline, he says:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges. . . . The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”
- John McPhee (actively writing from 1965–present): John McPhee, a.k.a. “how to write on a variety of subjects and get a Pulitzer.” McPhee wrote forTime and the New Yorker. His work is defined as a gentler version of Thomson and Wolfe’s “new journalism,” borrowing techniques from fiction to add detail and narrative, but rejecting stream-of-consciousness. The Pine Barrens (1968) profiles the history and people of a virgin forest in New Jersey, and is generally considered to be one of the best works of literary nonfiction of the 1960s. One of McPhee’s most famous students is Eric Schlosser, the guy who wrote Fast Food Nation.
This list could have included about eighty other amazing journalists who were writing legends before most of us were even born. But, in this trying, modern era, who has the time to read lists that include more than ten items? If you’ve read even one of the journalists on this list, you’re already on your way to becoming a better writer than you were yesterday. ♦
Image via Google Cultural Institute