Chalk this one up for the annals of self-defeat: it won’t take
long before the tireless spiders of Google chance upon this posting
and thereby rid my favourite
web page of its punch. ‘Your search – “literary financial
journalism” – did not match any documents’ it says, or said:
I love the idea of the most comprehensive search engine in the world,
an index of Borgesian proportions, trawling through its billions of
documents in vain, seeking but never finding the object of our present
On the other hand, there’s an upside: for a while at least, anybody
searching for “literary financial journalism” on Google will
find but one result. For the purposes of Google, Felix Salmon (or felixsalmon.com)
will be the first and last word on the subject.
That shouldn’t be the case, I think. After all, literary journalism
is nothing new: most of us, off the top of our heads, can rattle off
a list from George Orwell and John Hersey through Truman Capote to Tom
Wolfe and PJ O’Rourke. Magazines from GQ to Rolling Stone pride
themselves on their literary heritages; the Atlantic and Harper’s
go further and define themselves by theirs. Then, of course, there’s
the New Yorker, the grandaddy of them all.
But financial magazines don’t think that way, and, with the possible
exception of Michael Lewis at the New York Times Magazine, the financial
journalism which appears in the generalist press (John Cassidy in the
New Yorker; Joseph Stiglitz in the New York Review of Books) aspires
more to authoritativeness than it does to any kind of lasting style.
Part of the reason, I think, is that journalism is always written
with a certain readership in mind, and financial professionals generally
mistrust ornament and beauty: such things tend not to outperform the
market. They’re perfectly happy amassing important collections
of contemporary art, of course, but that’s different: that’s
a hobby, a sideline, not work.
There’s an interesting contrast with lawyers here: while much
legal prose is impenetrably dry, there is a long and glowing tradition
of carefully and beautifully written juridical opinions, many of which
are admired as much for their prose as they are for their clarity and
The best that financial editors ever hope for, by contrast, is a coherent
and compelling narrative structure: a story well told, with a beginning,
middle and end. And even that’s rare enough, vanishingly so outside
the world of M&A.
It’s also worth noting why most major mergers are quickly followed
by detailed back-stories in the press: the companies need to file various
legal documents to the SEC, and the lawyers who draft those papers generally
put in quite a lot of colour. In other words, those narrative pieces
aren’t reported, most of the time, they’re more copied out.
For the time being, rhetorical flourishes in the world of financial
journalism never seem to rise above the level of description –
what the protagonists are wearing, how their offices are decorated,
which Bordeaux they ordered at the celebratory dinner. Metaphor tends
to appear only in the guise of cliché.
So, Felix, I hear you ask, are you going to stake your claim to this
relatively virgin territory? I dunno, I think I ought to talk to my
editors first. Besides, I’m not even sure I’m capable of it:
I’ve never written anything literary in my life. But someone ought
to go there, and I’ll be cheering them on.