One would think that, for the already successful novelist, a move into nonfiction — particularly journalism, but also essays and, to a lesser extent, book criticism — would be considered a negative one, something not only a touch degrading but also constrictive, like a Florida man devoured by his own pet python. Consider the advantages, however, that nonfiction can offer the famed novelist:
1. It is almost certainly easier for them to pitch their stories to powerful editors at marvelous publications.
2. They can negotiate for a higher payment than the rank-and-file journo.
3. They may have the chance to write on something they care about deeply or which they truly feel can make an impact on the world — the classic journalist-as-crusading-hero ideal.
4. They are freed from the laborious burdens of creation. Even God rested on the seventh day.
What follows are some of my favorite nonfiction pieces written by writers of, predominantly, fiction. I have tried to avoid ringers, including Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, who earned their fame in magazines before “graduating” to fiction, and Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote, who are most famous for their nonfiction works despite being fiction writers as well. (There is at least one instance of these rules being flaunted, but it's my list.)
An article/existential treatise on the moral implications of devouring a marine delicacy, with hints of history, biology and sociology included in classic maximalist style, Wallace's trip to the Main Lobster
Festival is that rarest of things: a piece of writing that not only conquers two subjects so doctrinal that their main proponents (foodies and animal rights activists) are often tossed aside as dogmatic radicals, but manages to do so in a way that doesn’t insult the zealot's passions or the regular reader's sensibilities. “Consider the Lobster” is on food but not salivating, on ethics but not pontificating, and comes with a generous side of footnotes.
“Letters from Liberia” finds Smith painting the painful healing of the titular nation and its irrepressible would-be saviors at Oxfam with the same powerful hand as her fiction. She arrives in Liberia amidst storm-lashed darkness, to a place where the natives are “only the very poor or the very powerful” and the middle class, fueled by NGOs, struggles desperately for progress even as they sit in the Mamba Point Hotel and talk about Liberia and its struggles with “college town levels of self-reflexivity.” Notes on the emerging thoughts of gender equality and the nature of democracy are high points, if not the main point, which is Oxfam and the NGOs’ efforts to restore education to a country whose systems had been stripped down and slagged. Smith's travels to schools past "skinny pigs" and trash fields are heartbreaking, but not in the usual sense; the students she meets are exasperated, tired, knowledgeable of their place in the world and what is required for them to be lifted out from it. This notion — so often lost on aspiring first-world Samaritans, lost in paternalistic, unintentional-yet-insulting thoughts on their world vis-a-vis whomever they are seeking to aid — that people know what is best for themselves even without an NGO to proffer it is perhaps “Letters” most important aspect.
McInerney takes his place in the long line of chroniclers of the Manhattan downtown muse with this profile of Chloe Sevigny on the cusp of fame. In addition to its parallels with Tom Wolfe's “The Girl of the Year” and Ariel Levy's “Chasing Dash Snow,” McInerney's profile is now perhaps most enjoyable for its anachronisms. Sevigny's jellies sandals, the ur-90s fashion accessory, are haute when she and McInereny meet in St. Mark's Place. She, fresh from a Margiela show, the film Kids and Italian Vogue, proclaims to not be interested in becoming an actress, planning on going to college for design. Harmony Korine pops up, and skateboarders in the audience will find an offhand reference to a dearly departed legend. (If nothing else, this piece is surely a literary high water mark for the Washington Square Park skateboard crowd.) While sending a novelist to profile a teenage muse for one of our more important publications may seem trivial at best and insulting — to both readers and McInerney — at worst, keeping abreast of the goings on in New York's underground, especially before the predominance of the Internet, was not a job to be taken lightly.
Of all these selections, this one may perhaps come closest to breaking the rules set forth above. While Flynn was at EW before becoming an exceptional thriller writer, it would be a stretch to say she was as well-known then as she is now. This selection may also be the weakest (depending, of course, on one's tastes); while her contemporaries on this list were working for the most unashamedly erudite of publications, Flynn had to write for the much more populist EW — and it shows. But that same tempered tongue is also what makes “Men and Myth,” about the making of the movie Troy, so intriguing. The blend of boiler-plate entertainment writing and blocks of Hollywood quotes, when juxtaposed with the Didion-esque opening, showcase a writer with a gift for conflating the literary and the popcorn which would eventually lead to her rightfully popular novels.
An in-depth look at Tony Blair's last days in office, Amis takes readers not only beyond the press line and security cordons but into the hearts and minds of betrayed Labour voters and their elected official. In obliquely wrestling with the Iraq War, Amis, by virtue of tiptoeing rather than dancing on Blair's ignominious historical grave, makes the notion so much more threatening. It is akin to seeing brief flashes of the shark's fin, rather than jumping up all teeth and maws and black soulless eyes. Amis's withering observations (he notes that this was a prime minister who answered to a diminutive) and penchant for slipping in puns (Amis on Anglo-American relations: “This is a tradition that goes back, with certain fluctuations, to Churchill and the termination of Britain's imperial weight”) make Amis the journalist a delightful read, very much the equal — and perhaps the better — of his colleague Hitchens.
No one outside Norman Mailer wrote about the sport of boxing as well as Oates. Simple humanity and byzantine politics is the struggle which drives boxing, and Oates brings that constant roiling to the forefront in an examination of what could only be considered a terrible dud of a fight: Mike Tyson's bout with James “Bonecrusher” Smith. While most sportswriters came away grumbling, eviscerating the spectacle for failing to be just that, Oates looked deeper, into the paradoxical nature facing Tyson's opponents. This was a time when to actually fight Iron Mike was to be almost certainly destroyed; ergo, the best bet for a fighter may be to not fight at all, so as to leave with one's brain, if not one's record, intact.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work has been seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, Paste Magazine, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter, @BDavidZarley, or on his website, bdavidzarley.com.
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