Writers and editors throw the term narrative journalism around loosely, and many don’t really know how to define it. Here’s my own short definition: narrative journalism is reported nonfiction that uses the techniques of fiction to enliven the story. Those techniques might include scene-setting, character sketches, and extended dialogue (rather than quotes gathered through interviews). A work of narrative journalism requires an artful structure that gives the story an arc or some kind of dramatic progression. The writer is present as a narrator and not just as an invisible, objective witness.
Here is a sampling of some of the best works of narrative journalism that have been published in books. (Get reading!)
Collections of Narrative Journalism
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Beacon Press 1984 (original published in 1955).
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Non-fiction by Joan Didion. Everyman’s Library 2006
The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now by Alma Guillermoprieto. Vintage 1994.
Talk Stories by Jamaica Kincaid, with a foreword by Ian Frazier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2001.
The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling. North Point Press 2004 (original, 1956).
The John McPhee Reader by John McPhee (Edited by William L. Howarth). Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1982.
Fame and Obscurity by Gay Talese. Ivy Books 1995 (original, 1970).
Anthologies of Narrative Journalism
The Best American Magazine Writing edited by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Columbia University Press annual series
Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories: America’s Best Writing 1979-2003 edited by David Garlock. Wiley-Blackwell 2003.
The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. Scribner 1997.
The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present edited by Phillip Lopate. Anchor 1997 (original, 1994).
The Princeton Anthology of Writing edited by John McPhee and Carol Rigolot. Princeton University Press 2001.
Best American Essays of the Century by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. Houghton Mifflin 2000.
Best Newspaper Writing edited by the Poynter Institute. Poynter Institute Press annual series
New York Stories: Landmark Writing from Four Decades of New York Magazine edited by Tom Wolfe and the editors of New York Magazine. Random House 2008.
Book-Length Works of Narrative Journalism
Black Man’s America by Simeon Booker. Prentice Hall, out of print (originally published in 1964).
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Vintage 1994 (first published in 1966).
The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro. Alfred A. Knopf, three volumes to date (first volume originally published in 1982).
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass. Available online at www.gutenberg.org/etext/23 (original published in 1845).
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997.
We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. Picador 1998.
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. Ballantine 1993 (original, 1972).
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway. Scribner 1996 (original, 1932).
Hiroshima by John Hersey. Vintage 1989 (originally published in 1946).
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin 1998.
The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes. Vintage 1987.
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Bay Back Books 2000 (original, 1981).
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian LeBlanc. Scribner 2003.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton & Co. 2003.
The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music by Steve Lopez. Putnam Adult 2008.
Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail by Ruben Martinez. Picador USA 2001.
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. Vintage 1989 (original, 1966).
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. Ballantine Books 1999.
Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner. Penguin 1993 (original, 1986).
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes. Simon & Schuster 1995 (original, 1986).
Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,. Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2007 (full version originally published in 1989).
Remembering Denny by Calvin Trillin, with foreword by John Gregory Dunne. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2005 (original, 1993).
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman. Presidio Press 2004 (original, 1962).
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Penguin Classics 2007 (original, 1941).
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. Picador 2008 (original, 1979).