Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘book review

Review: Letters to a Young Journalist

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Inspired by Mario Vargas Llosa’s Letters to a Young Novelist, this immensely readable book is thought-provoking, wise, and, for the young journalist who already knows the basics, extremely nourishing.

Written by Samuel G. Freedman, an author and journalist, whose day job is teaching at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, the introduction is enticing: “Thirty years ago, when I was a good deal like you, I drove off to start my first job as a newspaper reporter….I was a few months short of nineteen then, and I didn’t even own a white shirt or navy blazer for the occasion.”

Published November, 2011. 206 pages. “Structure liberates writing”.

This is not a book to learn the building blocks of how to structure an article or the process of reporting. For that I recommend ‘Feature Writing: A Practical Introduction’ and ‘Good Writing for Journalists’, both of which were excellent education. But Freedman does provide inspiration and rock-hard nuggets of wisdom.

Although coming from an era few student journalists would recognize now — of local newspapers with individual departments covering crime or arts for example — those with a literary bent will appreciate chapters focused on reporting or writing or career.

One section entitled In Praise of Gradualism struck me as a much needed antidote to impatience. In it he says that for those in their early twenties the important thing is to develop your day-to-day skills, even if it’s at a small and humble publication.

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”

He goes on to cite several named journalists, a few of whom he taught, who went on to work at the likes of Rolling Stone or The New York Times, charting their personal qualities and rise to eventual success, remarking how each internship or lowly job was important to the opportunity that followed.

The emphasis here is on the individual drive to become better: “What looks like spontaneous creation…is so much more often the end result of an assiduous work ethic and a conscious effort to develop skills”.

Some may find the book too high-minded, American or preoccupied with art and literature, but then you come across lessons like this: “what does the article intend to say? What one central idea would animate the article, a decision that guided the remaining reporting in a more focused, channeled way”.

This is a short book with insights that illuminate every so often, and though parts may at times be preachy, it was a deep comfort to be reminded of journalism’s ambitions and a career choice that can offer some of the slow satisfaction of art.


Other book reviews:

Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

War Reporting for Cowards


Review: Apologies To My Censor: The High & Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China

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It’s a rare thing indeed to read a book and find yourself identifying so readily with its content, so easily comparing its narrative to your own direct experiences, placing yourself as a direct heir to the protagonist, and so very greedily lapping up the chapters as if you’ve already lived through its pages.

But that’s what reading Apologies To My Censor was like. It is an autobiographical account by Canadian journalist Mitch Moxley of his time as a journalist in Beijing. The first half focuses on his move to Bejing, when he takes up a post as writer/editor at the China Daily, China’s oldest English-language newspaper. The second half documents his freelance adventures in China, after his China Daily contract expires.

The book covers a five year span, from 2007 to 2012. We follow Moxley from his disaffected, lonely, depressed state as a 20-something journalist not happy with his lot, in the freezing winter of Toronto, to Asia, where he briefly dabbles in freelance journalism covering Vietnam and Japan among other places, and to Beijing where he spends his time seeing out his Twenties.

304 pages. Published July, 2013. Author Mitch Moxley, 31, on random China adventures: “…experiences so beguiling and bizarre that they stay with you forever; rare moments when you are fully aware, fully present”.

This was a personally resonant book for me. Although I am somewhat younger than the author, I too decided to head to Beijing, in 2012 (while Mr. Moxley was still in the city), and found the place to be uniquely rewarding in terms of experiences and journalism.

Moxley’s time working at China Daily is richly intriguing. The daily newspaper is mainly staffed by Chinese journalists, and has to follow the murky waters of official state censorship, but Moxley, hired in a wave in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, gets a sweet deal that includes free accommodation and free plane tickets home.

In fact, his ‘work’ at the paper is minimal, he edits a few articles here and there and readily admits that most of his time is spent browsing websites, trying to work on his own freelance stories and Facebooking. He even has the balls to ask for a pay rise.

He is also keenly aware of the ‘journalism’ committed at the newspaper: “I would be like a media Batman: propagandist by day, journalist at night”. But he has enough sense not to take his role, and the moral fripperies, too seriously. His descriptions of his fellow foreign colleagues are also brazenly sharp – painting them as morally dubious cigarette and alcohol abusing veterans who’ve drifted around Asia from paper to paper.

Beijing is largely seen through the prism of partying and its run-up to the 2008 Olympics which is used as a major narrative device in the book. It was comforting to see Moxely’s inclusion of his romantic life in the book, a massive component of expat life especially in China, but sometimes neglected in other accounts. For a young man or woman, it is often an enjoyably indispensable aspect and there was much pathos in the author’s bittersweet descriptions of his dalliances with women and one “Krussian” (A Korean-Russian) who he falls into an intense relationship.

The accounts of trying to make it big, of trying to make your name as a writer and journalist were equally appreciated. When Moxley says “I wanted big stories” – he hits on the ego-driven and intense ambition of many a young gun writer, and those in Beijing nowadays. Although comparisons of noughties Beijing to 1920s Paris might be somewhat wide of the mark, it is true that Beijing does have in possession an unusual amount of unusually skilled journalists, which was noted by New Yorker China correspondent Evan Osnos.

He also has an ambition which I, at 24, share – namely to live abroad and to write long-form magazine articles and books. Two chapters in particular stand out in the book. They document self-taken freelance adventures, after jobs and opportunities have expired, and rest upon a risk, the purest gamble for a foreign freelance: to go somewhere without commission, to report, photograph and find a story that could, might eventually find a home.

Going to Mongolia and to southern China, his experiences working with other journalists and bringing a photographer contain instructive lessons in how to locate and package stories which you could sell to “first-tier” publications. But the book also acutely warns – a couple of his stories, although proud of them, fail to sell to the big name publications which they were obviously designed for.

But one cannot help a critical feeling after reading one too many times about how the author’s Chinese sucks and how he is failing to come up with freelance ideas, even when he spends his daily working life doing not very much work at all – you cannot help feeling that perhaps Moxley is simply a bit lazy.

He spends five years in Beijing, but only in the final months of his stay does he finally decide to properly learn Chinese. He yearns for journalistic success, and yet falls into the easy trap of partying and drinking and adventuring, but not finding equal enjoyment in the chase for pitchable ideas.

And having found myself living on 5 kuai (50 pence) sweet potatoes for dinner because I’ve been in debt, trying to save and not having parents willing to fund my life overseas, it is quite difficult to find much sympathy for Mr. Moxley who is older than I but has parents who are willing to bail him out when he is thousands of dollars in debt, after frittering them away on alcohol, travels and an indulgent lifestyle.

And yet, one cannot point out these failings too harshly, they go with the territory of trying to succeed, or more romantically, trying to fail. And if reading this book taught me one thing it is that pursuing a strongly held personal ambition is worth the hardship, the bitterness and the crushing loneliness, because the adventure of that act, the nobility of the pursuit is worth more, in the end, than the conventional arc of another, more prosaic life.

This book; brisk, hugely enjoyable, and a very minor achievement, is testament to that fact.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 8, 2013 at 1:03 pm