A novel way to learn more about journalism

What do journalists know of love? Who can tell? But James Meek, who has worked as a journalist since 1985, as a freelance and for The Guardian, has just won the prize for a ‘literary love story’awarded by Le Prince Maurice, one of the top hotels in Mauritius.

His winning novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, whisks its love affair between two journalists reporting from Afghanistan at the end of 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11.

One detail stands out. Each morning, we are told, our protagonist squats over the outhouse hole and imagines his money belt breaking and him having to retrieve it from the Marscape of ordure down there. That’s not the detail. This is: ‘When he left London the pouch contained 12,000 dollars.”

Meek reported for The Guardian from Afghanistan on the war against the Taliban in the autumn of 2001. Are we being told that this is what the average correspondent was toting, concealed in their trousers? That’s the distraction of novels by journalists, about journalism – the temptation to look for hints about how the journalism was done.

Another novel, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, pushes us up against another conundrum, as well as another love story. The conundrum in this case involves a war photographer caught up by the question of what responsibility he owes to the people he has photographed.

His love affair ended when his amour, another war photographer, stepped on a roadside bomb. Now, burnt-out and perhaps already looking for death, he is tracked down by a former soldier featured in one of his prize-winning photographs. The soldier explains that he has come to tell him of the consequences of that exposure – in all senses – and then kill him.

Again, Pérez-Reverte has been a journalist, a war correspondent for Spanish newspapers and magazines for 20 years, and he has assured questioners that the horrors described stem from his own experiences. Again, there are inconsequential details – a smiling Lebanese taxi driver, for example, to whom the photographer ‘was paying two dollars commission for every good photo he helped him get”. Is that, indeed, how it is done?

And then a third novel, Born Yesterday by Gordon Burn. Gordon Burn, too, has worked for The Guardian as well as writing Happy Like Murderers about Fred and Rosemary West. Born

Yesterday takes us through the journalism of 2007 – Madeleine McCann’s disappearance, Gordon Brown stepping up as Prime Minister. And again there are these details.

At one point, the person about whom the story is being told – a writer – travels to Sedgefield for the by-election to pick Tony Blair’s successor as MP. He makes a list of items picked up from the late shop, then ‘next he felt he should add a description of the room where he was going to be for several nights in case at some time in the future he should need to recall the details”. Is that how it is done?

Maybe it’s pure coincidence that three novels by journalists which all feature journalism should come along so close together. Maybe this isn’t the way they are meant to be read. But there’s something to be said for finding another way of learning about journalism from people who have been doing it.

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