Literary journalism and I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, it turns news into accessible narratives, and on the other, it gives the impression of being factual instead of emotionally truthful. Despite my inner turmoil, I have read a TON of literary journalism pieces, or articles. I prefer the term “piece” because it puts literary journalism in the creative writing camp, instead of the hard news world. My favorite pieces have always contained surprise, beautiful imagery, and emotional truth. I take them as interesting perspectives on topics that I am almost always completely ignorant of; I get the feeling that if I were to be an expert on a topic, and I didn’t write the piece itself, I’d find myself upset or betrayed by another writer’s experience.
So I present the pieces to you that I have enjoyed and found deliciously insightful and fresh. For all its faults, literary journalism almost always offers a fresh look; it is never old hat. I’ve enjoyed some of these pieces because of the unique way they choose to handle their stories — so, because of craft — or for the subjects themselves. Enjoy.
Literary Journalism Done Delightfully Well
- “Jonathan Lebed’s Extra Curricular Activities,” by Michael Lewis: This piece made me look at the stock exchange and the money world in a very different way. Lewis takes the traditional story of “Un-American Crook Takes Innocents to the Bank,” and turns it towards the Securities and Exchange Commission and Wall Street itself. Beware: you will think less of your own high school extra curriculars after reading this.
- “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan: Oh my, do I love J. J. Sullivan. Check out his book, Pulphead, for laughs and vulnerability and curious scenes that only he could get himself into. I was never particularly attracted to Axl Rose, until I read this piece and I thought about his beautiful, long hair and his mysterious, dark past. I, like Sullivan, fell in love with this grungy dude throughout the piece.
- “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese: Literary journalism is never short on enigmatic men to love; Sinatra is one of them. He’s as spunky and as smooth as you would expect, but there’s a sad undertone (isn’t there always?) of a mama’s boy who just can’t get his life quite right. Fun fact: Talese took notes for this piece on a shirt board.
- “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” by Joan Didion: This essay is for all those, especially of my generation, who romanticize the 60s as a beautiful and magical time. Didion shows the opposite of the kind of darkness you’d see on Mad Men; instead of drunken, existentially asleep business men, you follow drugged out kids without a hint of perspective. The whole piece unsettles you in a way that only wasted lives can.
- “Jumpers,” by Tad Friend: This is one of the first pieces I ever read that was introduced to me as literary journalism. It could also be described as place-based writing. Regardless, Friend creates a heartbreaking piece out of a place I had always seen as beautiful and peaceful before. Heights are a double-edged sword: both majestic and deadly, clear and evoking danger by just being what they are.
- “Sex, Drugs, and the Biggest Cybercrime of All Time,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely: I read this piece this summer during a moment of obsession over hackers. Erdely’s piece does a great job of capturing the weirdly glamorous and brilliant world of cyber criminals, alongside the quirky and sometimes damaged hackers themselves. Highly entertaining.
- “Ticket to the Fair,” by David Foster Wallace: I talk about DFW a lot on this blog because he is just so damn good. This story talks about my home state, Illinois, in a way that I don’t know it as: desolate and midwestern (being near Chicago gives me a different perspective). Though the story is (of course) hysterical, the ending is somber and sad in a way that only DFW can make me feel.
- “Papon’s Paper Trail,” by Adam Gopnik: Another haunting and sad piece, Gopnik explores what the Vichy regime means to France, over fifty years later. As a francophile, I really enjoyed an inside look at the french psyche. Gopnik’s book, From Paris to the Moon, is also worth a read.