Tom Rachman's top 10 journalist's tales

From Scoop to All the President's Men, the novelist chooses his favourite stories of a troubled trade

Tom Rachman has been a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune. His debut novel, The Imperfectionists, is published in paperback this week.

Buy The Imperfectionists from the Guardian bookshop

"I never set out to write a novel about journalists. I had worked for several years as a reporter and editor, yet all the while longed to write fiction. And the last thing I wanted was for my day job to creep into my daydream. But as I invented characters and plots, I couldn't deny that another storyline was unfolding before me. The press was in catastrophic decline. This cornerstone of our culture was changing before my eyes, and no one to my knowledge was chroncling it in fiction.

"So, I took a crack at it, settling on a title, The Imperfectionists, that – considering the newspaper disgraces of late – sounds a little more accurate than I'd ever intended.

"Generally, depictions of the journalist fall into two categories: journalist as hero or the journalist as rat. Neither fit my own experience. The press corps, I found, was flawed, amusing, smart, fumbling, witty – and a range of adjectives beyond. So I wrote characters (not based on my former colleagues, I must add) that to my mind authentically captured that world. Among my favourite books on the journalist are the following 10, a hodge-podge of fiction, non-fiction and anthologies, starting with my pick for the greatest press novel of all."

1. Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Published in 1938, this satirical masterpiece recounts the misfortunes of a timid young writer of articles about the English countryside who, by mistake, is dispatched to cover civil war in Africa. Disaster follows, as do the most memorable scenes in the genre, enough to console generations of bumbling foreign correspondents.

2. The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

An essay on the tangled relationship between reporter and subject, an affair that often begins with seduction and ends with betrayal. I read this in journalism school and was transfixed; only later, on the job, did I realise how insightful it was.

3. The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Fowler is a middle-aged British correspondent in the professional habit of watching others' suffering from a distance. When he encounters an idealistic young American with plans to fix Vietnam, Fowler must decide whether to act. As relevant today as when published in 1955.

4. All the President's Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

The account of two young Washington Post reporters who uncovered the Watergate scandal, leading to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Probably the most exalted moment in modern journalism, and an inspiration to many a reporter who followed.

5. Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn

This amusing newspaper novel from 1967 is set in the era when "Fleet Street" was a real place. Frayn, who worked at the Manchester Guardian and the Observer, recounts the less-than-grand foibles of a nameless newspaper's nature and crosswords department.

6. A Treasury of Great Reporting edited by Louis L Snyder and Richard B Morris

Subtitled "Literature under Pressure," this anthology collects work from nearly 400 years, showing how much the job has changed yet how consistent are its finest principles, particularly the aim of casting light on hidden misdeeds and untold human stories.

7. Floater by Calvin Trillin

A witty tale by this longtime New Yorker writer about a magazine journalist who toils as a "floater," meaning he must take assignments in different departments, depending on who is out or otherwise indisposed. Terrific characters. Sadly, Floater is out of print.

8. Personal History by Katherine Graham

The moving memoir of a hero of American newspapering who was thrust into power in 1963 when her manic-depressive husband, the publisher of The Washington Post, committed suicide. In a male-dominated business, she was viewed with scepticism yet took her husband's job and led the paper to glory.

9. The Best of Granta Reportage

At the intersection of hard news and literature, reportage is the work that most hacks dream of and few are lucky enough to do. This anthology starts with a classic, "The Soccer War" by Ryszard Kapuściński, and includes fine work by Ian Jack, Martha Gellhorn, John le Carré and others.

10. Psmith Journalist by PG Wodehouse

A silly but amusing yarn about an English dandy who takes charge of a weekly publication in New York and produces campaigning pieces about the slums. Hardly a realistic primer on life in the news business, this novel does offer a bit of light relief – welcome in these dark times for the traditional press.


Tom Rachman

The GuardianTramp

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