An Alternative View of What to Read

AAN editors list their favorite writers

AAN editors dis Rolling Stone, praise the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and The Baffler emerges as a dark-horse favorite in a recent candid rap on writing by alternative weekly editors.

Pete Sherman, editor of Illinois Times in Springfield, Ill., sparked the exchange on the AAN editorial listserv by asking which writers he should recommend to his reporters and freelancers, “who want to write better but lack the inspiration.”

His colleagues around the country responded with some acid advice on who to read and why. The exchange makes a good summer reading list for anyone interestied in reading good non-fiction, and even some fiction.

Here goes:

“Everybody gives me crap about this, but I make my music/art freelancers read Spin,” says Kristen Sherwood, listings editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. “Yes, yes, it had a suck phase, but lately the short features (two-thirds of the book) are tight, modern, funny, informative and with enough kiss-off attitude to make me endure the taunting of my officemates, who are SO not as cool as me.

“I also make a point of exposing my writers to bad writing, like Rolling Stone and various See Me Feel Me Touch Me Heal Me literary ‘reviews,’ so they can see what I don’t appreciate.”

David Rolland, editor of the Ventura County Reporter, says, “Here are my staff’s (two of the snobbiest snobheads anywhere) suggestions: The Economist; John Simon, theater critic at New York magazine; anything Jamie Painter writes for Backstage West; The Journal of Irreproducible Results (hilarious spoofs on heavy natural science, written by heavy natural scientists); Science News magazine (brief, plain-English approaches to lofty reports on health, technology, biology and stuff); The Christian Science Monitor; the annual Best American Essays; The New Yorker; Harper’s [Magazine]; Calvin Trillin; Nick Hornby’s non-fiction stuff; Mary Karr; Umberto Eco; Adam Gopnik; Stephen Jay Gould. Good writing also in Vanity Fair, I think.”

John Threlfall, arts editor, Monday Magazine from Victoria, B.C., “If you can find it, the Canadian magazines Geist and sub-TERRAIN both have some truly exceptional writing. Failing that, Utne Reader (I know; it’s so obvious).

Noel Black, arts & entertainment editor at the Colorado Springs Independent, says, “WIRE Magazine out of the U.K. is the bottom line for music reviews.”

Bret McCabe, music editor at the Baltimore City Paper: “Not to sound too much like a media slut, but I read a little bit of everything in the A&E variety (which is, because it’s what I write/edit, usually where I pay attention most frequently to bylines). And so this’ll be pretty much all over the map.

“For me, Tom Carson is usually the only reason to read Esquire. He’s a Village Voice alum, (did music/TV stuff for it) and now does a TV/movie column. Always sharp. Always very well-written. And he has a very distinctive voice in his writing.

“Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone. I’m of the opinion that Sheffield is one of the more gifted music writers of the moment, but he doesn’t get the attention/have the sort of fans that many people have simply because he writes about straight-up pop music. But he understands the discourse and is funny to boot, and it makes for some of the best mainstream pop A&E writing around.

“From the New Yorker, I’m a big fan of Anthony Lane, Adam Gopnik, David Remnick, Rebecca Mead, sometimes Lillian Ross, always Henrik Hertzberg, Calvin Trillin, Calvin Tomkins, and the great art critic Peter Schjeldahl. (Tell people to read Alex Ross and David Denby to find out how to write about things in an pseudo-intellectual voice, if that’s what they want to do.) But my own personal favorite is Atul Gawande, who makes periodic reports to the New Yorker about medicine and medical education. Science writing is a hard thing to do compellingly, but he makes it look easy.

“At The New York Times, this is going to sound like boosterism, but I pretty much like almost all their regular critics. Not that I always agree with their opinions/criticisms/conclusions/what hhaveyou, but they have the decency to present their (at times lame-brained) ideas in well-written manners. … My favorite, for some reason is Jonathan Reynolds. He appears about every 3-4 weeks in the NY Times Magazine – and he writes about food. He’s very entertaining, quite witty, and brings a sense of narrative to food for crying out loud – and I usually find food writing about as compelling as dental floss. Last, but definitely not least, there’s Maureen Dowd. I heart Maureen Dowd.

“Arts criticism: Dave Hickey (varies), David Pagel (used to do stuff for Art Issues, don’t know where now), Doug Harvey, Libby Lumpkin.

“Movies: Jonathan Romney, Nick James, Geoffrey Macnab, Tony Rayns, Linda Ruth Williams, and Mark Sinker (Sight and Sound). It’s obvious, but Roger Ebert is one of the best movie writers at a daily right now and has been for some time.

“I think Chris Vognar at the Dallas Morning News is a level-headed movie and music writer, especially given the seriously conservative arts climate at the Morning News with which he has to deal.

“Ken Parrish-Perkins, the TV writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I think is one of the best in the country. Little known because the Star-Telegram has a relatively low profile – but he’s relatively young, African-American, and has a good eye for a wide variety of programming and is usually spot-on.

“Music critic Joe Gross at the Austin-American Statesman is admittedly a friend, but a tight writer and – because he’s still young – something you don’t see much of in writing about things hip: smart yet sincere. I know I can’t pull that off.

“At Spin, Jon Dolan. Sometimes his arch conceptual stuff gets in the way of his ideas, but he’s still fairly consistent.

“Freelancer extraordinaire Douglas Wolk is one of the best nuts-and-bolts music writers on the planet. He’s not a fancy stylist or somebody’s who is going to pull some crazy idea out of his ass. He’s just a total pro and perpetually competent. Ditto Sasha Frere-Jones.

“And finally, the old Ego Trip crew – Sasha Jenkins and Elliott Wilson. The two guys have forgotton more about hip-hop than most of us will ever know. And they’re savvy stylists to boot. (Jenkins does stuff for Spin, Wilson’s the EIC at XXL.)”

Jesse Fox Mayshark, editor of Knoxville, Tenn.’s Metro Pulse: “The classics, always start with the classics: ‘Up in the Old Hotel,’ ‘Slouching Toward Bethlehem,’ ‘Hell’s Angels,’ any Greil Marcus compilation (I like his short stuff more than his long stuff), any and all Pauline Kael compilations. And also Dorothy Parker, for attitude and class. And David Foster Wallace’s non-fiction (I don’t care what he thinks, it’s better than his fiction).

Andy Newman, editor of Pittsburgh City Paper: “Janet Malcolm, particularly her book ‘The Journalist and The Murderer.’ The fourth column of The Wall Street Journal. These are often really gorgeous set pieces. Pete Dexter is a fine novelist, and his ‘The Paperboy’ is an especially good novel and is about newspapering. I do think writers who really want to tell stories should steep themselves in contemporary fiction, and recommend anything written by Tim O’Brien, Russell Banks, Carol Shields, Richard Russo, Charles Baxter, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford.

“Also at the New Yorker, Susan Orlean. Sometimes she puts herself in her pieces more than she needs to, but some of her New Yorker stories in her new collection, ‘The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People’ are really first rate. There’s a story about a regular 10-year-old boy in there that somehow manages to be epic. There’s also a newish collection of New Yorker profiles – Lillian Ross on Hemingway, etc. – that is, of course, instructive to those of us aspiring to write profiles.

“And, of course, don’t overlook our own papers. It seems like the only time I end up reading much of what’s published in the awards book is When David Carr is using the stories to launch discussions at AAN seminars, but then I find myself going back to those stories and giving them to writers. I just reread that story from Westword about the bowler from last year’s book myself. I was writing a cover story and there was something I wanted to dangle out at the beginning of the story – Chekhov’s gun in the first act – but not really get to until much later in the story, and I remembered that being done particularly well in that story. So I read it and it helped. Inspiration from a publication in our own industry. Go figure.”

Marc Eisen, editor of Isthmus in Madison, Wis.: “David Brooks’ cultural reporting is the best, though he’s a staffer for the troglodyte, chest-thumping Weekly Standard. (You’ll also find him in The Atlantic.) He weaves the small acts of behavior into the larger themes of how Americans live their lives. I like how he never engages in the class putdowns so common to other cultural commentary. In some ways, Tom Frank of The Baffler (you’ll also find him in Harper’s) is Brook’s left-wing doppelganger. He’s another great cultural observer, particularly of the New Economy mania. Frank is a fine, arch stylist and has single-handedly stolen back the droll, Mencken-style social criticism from the New Fogies on the right.”

Andy Markowitz, editor of Baltimore City Paper: “Ditto, Marc, re: Tom Frank. He’s about the best there is right now on cultural/social/economic issues and a terrific, terrific writer. Generally speaking, The Baffler is something I’d simply hand out to people – many, many good writers can be found there.

“For magazine-style/profile writing, Peter Carlson in The Washington Post Magazine is very good. He did a piece on Tom Clancy eight or nine years ago that I still read every couple years or so, as a brilliant object lesson in how to do a profile on somebody who has made absolutely clear to you that he’s a complete asshole.”

Pete Sherman, editor of Illinois Times: “Among the many, many New Yorker writers you had mentioned, I had included Malcolm Gladwell, who I discovered I liked after I realized he had written several stories I was searching for and wanted to save. The standard Literary Journalism volumes are good primers, too.

W. Kim Heron, managing editor, Metro Times, Detroit: “I’d suggest, too, Constance Hale’s book ‘Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose,’ which goes under the hood of good writing with examples from the sorts of writers being discussed in this thread.”

Michael Tisserand, editor, Gambit Weekly, New Orleans: “I think the anthology ‘The Art of Fact’ really is the best place to send writers, as they can find their own inspirations and models and, ultimately, their own voice. I gave ‘The Art of Fact’ to my staff one year. I don’t think all of them returned it for store credit.”

The AAN Editorial listserv is private. AAN News obtained permission to publish these e-mails.