It’s not news that some fictional characters work in the media. The casts of more than a few literary works contain reporters, columnists, bloggers, TV hosts, and other information/entertainment purveyors.
Those media people can be major protagonists, secondary characters who objectively or not so objectively observe what the main characters do, or just bit players. They’re smart, curious, driven, idealistic, investigative, crusading, accurate, sloppy, biased, cynical, pompous, abrasive, or egotistic — or several of those things, and more.
And they don’t just appear in post-19th-century novels. I recently read Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and among the most interesting characters is journalist Henrietta Stackpole. She’s friends with the novel’s American-in-Europe protagonist Isabel Archer, and provides a valuable perspective as a “modern woman” watching Isabel struggle with the constraints placed on most females back then. And unlike the wealthier characters who just talk and visit in that stellar James novel, Henrietta actually works for a living!
Moving to the 20th century and another gender, we have cynical journalist Will Farnaby checking out a utopian society in Aldous Huxley’s last novel: Island. Are the words “cynical” and “journalist” almost redundant? In many cases, but there are also many nice media people — including the very talented writers in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists organization of which I’m a member.
Columnists appear in novels such as Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — with the latter book’s Jack Burden becoming an aide to Huey Long-like politician Willie Stark and playing a crucial role as the book’s narrator. He’s also an example of the way many media people cycle in and out of politics.
“Miss Lonelyhearts” is the alias of a male advice-giver who gets depressed from the painful letters he has to read. The late twins Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren handled that burden a lot better in real life, and didn’t get into the trouble West’s character did! Landers was even the subject of a play a few years ago — David Rambo’s The Lady With All the Answers.
The most famous play about journalism might be Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page, which of course was also adapted for the screen.
Perhaps the most famous reporter in recent fiction is none other than the nasty, at times weirdly charming Rita Skeeter of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. A biased tabloid reporter who would do just about anything for a scoop.
Speaking of that last word and sensationalistic reporting, there’s Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop.
Among the other literary works featuring journalists is Robertson Davies’ Murther & Walking Spirits, whose newspaper threesome includes a still-existing-in-a-way murdered man, the murdered man’s widow, and the murderer who had been sleeping with the murdered man’s wife. National Enquirer material!
Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection contains another trio: a man, the woman he divorces, and the younger woman he takes up with. The last is a glamorous, obnoxious TV host.
Fictional TV reporters also frequently make cameo appearances in novels, with one example being the smug, faux-sweet Tina Ultner in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.
Print-media people can have small roles, too — as is the case with Alabama newspaperman Braxton Underwood, a racist who nonetheless was prepared to prevent a lynching in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
Can comic book cartoonists be considered media people? If so, there are two memorable ones in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay who are loosely based on Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the real-life “Superman” creators so monetarily exploited by corporate men in suits.
An honorable mention in this post is the real-life Nellie Bly, the famous journalist with a literary connection: She tried to circle the globe faster than the fictional Phileas Fogg did in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and finished her 1889-90 trip in just over 72 days.
What are some of your favorite literary works featuring media people in big or small roles? And given that there aren’t a huge number of such characters in fiction, you’re also welcome to discuss nonfiction books by or about media people, or discuss real-life media people you like best or least!
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For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.
I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.