Would you rather read a book by a journalist – or a writer?

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I’ve read a few books by journalists recently, and they have raised in my mind the question of whether journalists make good authors … and vice versa. Or, perhaps put less judgmentally, whether the craft of journalism lends itself to the craft of book writing.

It seems to me that journalists are at a disadvantage in that they have so much to tell.  They’ve been there, seen it, heard it, watched it, interviewed it, read it. The desire to get the story out must be excruciating.

Yet, most of the books I think of that people love – "Gone with the Wind," "Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby," "Harry Potter," Steven King – don’t seem to work from a point of urgency. They start at a distant point – Ashley Wilkes’ barbecue; under the stairs – and wend slowly toward an excruciating conclusion. It’s a whole different experience of reading, and, I would think, writing.

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To be fair, I’m comparing apples and oranges, nonfiction and fiction. And obviously many great writers jump back and forth between genres: George Orwell, Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson. But, I have to say, it’s Animal Farm I remember, not Homage to Catalonia.

The distinction between a writer and a journalist came up in a recent interview I did with Neil Sheehan, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and a National Book Award winner. His books on the Vietnam War and the Cold War are among the most novelistic I’ve read by a journalist; yet, when I asked him what he considered himself, he answered confidently, “A journalist-turned-historian.”

“I’m not a writer,” he said. “I don’t have the turn of mind for it.”

I’d like to open up the comments on what readers perceive this “turn of mind” might be. The issue appears important to me as a book reviewer, because it establishes a yard stick as to how readers measure their experience. What do you expect from a book by a journalist as opposed to, well, a writer?

It also seems important because as the news business dries up, working three years on a book might be a better proposition than pumping out stories for a daily or weekly. Journalists have always been staples on the Barnes and Noble table. Will we see more of their faces on back covers in years to come?

At the same time, readers are increasingly taking in information in short, quick bursts (the entire tapestry of Iran can now be understood in sequences of 160 characters or less). Does this mean journalists, with their training in catchy leads and bottom-line-first writing, may come to establish the new golden mean for books, and what my mother calls the James Michener style of storytelling, in which no present-day action can be explained without starting at the dinosaurs, will become extinct?

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. 

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