20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Smashwords, William Weintraub

‘Why Rock the Boat’ by William Weintraub

Fiction – Kindle edition; Smashwords; 160 pages; 2011.

The first law of journalism is that something must always be found to fill the space between the advertisements.

I love a good journalism novel and this one, by Canadian writer William Weintraub, fits right into that category. First published in 1961, Why Rock the Boat is about a rookie reporter, Harry Barnes, trying to make a name for himself on a Montreal newspaper that is in serious financial trouble.

Surviving redundancy

Harry hopes he can survive the constant rounds of lay-offs on the Montreal Daily Witness by making himself indispensable, but first he has to get off the general assignment beat (doing mundane jobs such as taking down the names of funeral attendees for publication) and onto the slightly more prestigious hotel beat (interviewing interesting guests).

He knows that if he keeps practising his writing during quiet moments in the office he will get better at his job. What he doesn’t realise is that he should never leave his joke stories lying around for they are bound to get published, whether by accident or design. And so that is how one of Harry’s practise stories makes it into print:

DRUNK SENTENCED
“This man was corned, loaded and pissed to the very gills,” Judge Elphege Boisvert said in Criminal Court yesterday as he sentenced Philip L. Butcher, local newspaper executive, to two years’ hard labour. Butcher, charged with drunk and disorderly conduct, was arrested Tuesday in the lobby of the Imperial George Hotel, where he had climbed up the big Christmas tree and, with obscene cries, was throwing ornaments down on passing citizens.

Fortunately, Harry gets away with it, and an older reporter, whose career is on the slide, gets blamed — and sacked — for it instead. This sets into motion the pattern of the novel: a succession of blackly funny set pieces about Harry’s cheeky mishaps, all of which he somehow manages to get away with.

Feels contemporary

Why Rock the Boat is set in the 1940s, but there’s so much about it that feels relevant today — almost 80 years on.

It not only debunks the myth that newspapers were hugely profitable until the arrival of the internet and social media, it dismisses the idea that there was ever a “golden age” of journalism where ethics always trump the chase for profit.

And it shows how journalistic jobs have always been under threat, whether through lack of resource or a misunderstanding of what journalists actually do so that others feel they could do it better. For example, the following paragraph, about PR people taking over the world, feels deliciously spot-on today:

Public Relations, Erskine had told him in the car on the way up, was the coming thing. Reporters would eventually become relics of the past, with practically all stories “pre-written” by firms like Erskine-Gainsborough-Gotch and “tailored” to fit each paper’s needs. All of them, from the humblest Bellringers to the mightiest Rotary Club, would have their P.R. agencies to tell “their story” for them in a way that would create the best impression. Industry, labour, government, police forces, criminals, lawyers, churches – everybody would have their P.R. outlets to make sure the papers got things straight. Newspapers would just have a few editors to get the press releases ready for the printers. Eventually, Erskine said dreamily, the editors themselves might be eliminated and the press releases would go directly to the printers. What about reporters, Harry had asked. There would be no jobs for them. No, said Erskine, there would be plenty of work for them in the P.R. agencies, turning out the press releases.

Role of women

Perhaps the one element that makes the book seem slightly dated is the role of women in the media.

In this novel, Harry is bewitched by Julia Martin, a rival reporter on another title, who just happens to be female, something rare in the newspaper game. When he is put on the same beat as her, Harry’s superior, Scannell, offers the following advice:

“The whole subject of women in the newspaper business is extremely disagreeable,” Scannell was saying. “But we have to face up to it, don’t we?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Now this is – um – a little embarrassing,” Scannell said, lighting a cigarette and butting it out. “But women reporters can be fantastically competitive. There is no feminine wile they will not use to get a story. Weeping, of course, is standard procedure. Hence the term sob sister. But they have far more insidious methods. You know, of course, what I mean.”
“I’m afraid not, sir.”
“It can be pretty sordid, my boy,” said Scannell. “But a female reporter may go to great lengths to get a male rival to share his exclusive story with her. She may even – uh, how shall I put this? – she may even offer him certain – uh – favours. Do you understand?”

As you may imagine, I highlighted a great deal of quotes from this book, because it’s so deliciously funny in places. No one is immune from Weintraub’s scathing commentary: readers (or “civilians” as he describes them) are dull and small-minded, advertisers are too easily offended, editors are bullies, newspaper managers are hypocritical and only interested in money, not a free press, and reporters are cynical and manipulative.

There’s some terrific characters in it, including Philip Butcher, whose role on the paper is two-fold: to keep news out of it and to fire reporters whenever he feels like it, and Scannell, the City Editor, an anxious man who “showed an un-Witnesslike interest in the actual content of the paper”.

While the romantic element of the story is a little clichéd — young male virgin tries to impress beautiful colleague by doing and saying things that aren’t exactly true — in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter. This is a fun story with plenty of belly laughs and it makes a worthy addition to my collection of novels about journalists and old-time journalism.

This is my 12th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought this one in January 2012 after I’d seen a review by the late KevinfromCanada. We both shared a love of newspaper novels, so as soon as I saw this one on Kevin’s blog I knew I had to buy it! 

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Green Light Press, literary fiction, Nathanael West, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ by Nathanael West

Miss Lonelyhearts

Fiction – Kindle edition; Green Light Press; 108 pages; 2011.

I’m quite a sucker for books written or set during the Great Depression. Nathanael West’s novella Miss Lonelyhearts, published in 1933, fits into this category, but I’m afraid it didn’t really tickle my fancy.

This dark and comic tale about an agony aunt on a Manhattan newspaper is described in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as an “interesting examination of the problematic role of Christianity in the modern world”. But for me it serves as a warning to be careful of what you wish for.

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the title is actually a young, fervently religious man eager to be a success. He eagerly takes the newly created newspaper job answering people’s personal problems even though many of  his colleagues regard it as a joke. He takes a more pragmatic, long term approach, seeing it as a mere stepping stone to something more desirable at a later date. Perhaps it might even win him Brownie points with God.

His column would be syndicated and the whole world would learn to love. The Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. He would sit on the right hand of the Lamb.

But over time he comes to realise that the job is not a joke; that he has an important role to play in the moral and spiritual welfare of those who write in to him seeking advice.

He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering. He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously. For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives. This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator.

Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
Miss Lonelyhearts paperback edition
If this makes the novella seem horribly righteous, let me assure you that it is not. It’s profoundly dark in places, littered with references, many of them euphemistic, to sex and sexual practices, and there’s a menacing undercurrent of misogyny running throughout (I was shocked by several references to women in “need of a good rape”).

Miss Lonelyhearts is not the angelic young man he strives to be. Desperate to be seen as a man of honour, he asks his long suffering girlfriend to marry him, only to keep avoiding her for weeks on end. He also develops unwise attachments to troubled readers but doesn’t seem to be able to extricate himself from complicated, unethical relationships. Indeed, he’s everything you would not want an agony aunt to be.

Some people might find humour in these situations, but to be honest, this kind of comedy is generally lost on me. The saving grace is that Miss Lonelyhearts is short and takes just a matter of hours to read; I might have begrudged a longer book for wasting my time.

This is my 9th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it on 9 February 2012, but not sure what provoked me to do so. Maybe it was the price (77p!), the idea it was about someone working on a newspaper and therefore might fall into my “newspaper novel” category, or the fact it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I use for inspiration when I’m not sure what to read next.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Jay Mcinerney, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay McInerney

Bright-lights-big-city

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 240 pages; 1992.

What a joy this Bloomsbury classic proved to be. First published in 1985, I’d long written Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City off as a “drugs novel” — but how wrong could I be?  Yes, there’s a little bit of cocaine use in it, but this is a brilliant and memorable novel about one of my favourite subjects in fiction: journalism. And, like many books of that ilk, it’s essentially a black comedy — and one that felt very close to my heart.

Going off the rails

The story revolves around a young man living a precarious existence in New York in the 1980s. He’s been dumped by his wife Amanda, a beautiful (and now famous) model, but is keeping this fact secret from his colleagues and family. By day he works in the fact-checking department of a prestigious magazine, by night he’s out clubbing with his friend Tad and trying to “lose himself” in drugs and (possibly) sexual encounters of the one-night stand kind.

The entire narrative is told in the second person employing a voice that is by turns self-deprecating and pathetic. For most of the time, he knows he’s pushing his luck — he often turns up late for work, struggles to carry out his work properly and is constantly harangued by his boss, the impossible-to-please Clara, aka Clingfast — but he also feels slightly aggrieved that he’s been passed over for promotion and isn’t able to use the full range of his creative talents in the (lowly) Department of Factual Verification.

When he’s given an article to check about the French election close to deadline you know things aren’t going to pan out well:

There is no way you will be able to get everything in this article verified, and also there is no graceful way to admit failure. You are going to have to hope that the writer got some of it straight the first time, and that Clingfast doesn’t go through the proofs with her usual razor-tooth comb.

I think it’s this aspect of the book that especially appealed to me. I’ve done my fair share of fact-checking for magazines and it’s not always an easy task — even with the internet at my disposal. But this is the 1980s. There is no internet, no smartphones. Instead there are “thousands of reference books on the walls” , “skeins of microfilm” and “transcontinental telephone cables”. For our poor old narrator, who somehow exaggerated his ability to speak French on his resume, there are dozens of phone calls to make to Paris to verify certain facts. Needless to say he has to “fudge it” a little.

At a little after ten, you put the proofs on Clara’s desk. It would at least be a relief if you could tell yourself that this was your best shot. You feel like a student who is handing in a term paper that is part plagiarism, part nonsense and half finished. You have scoped out and fixed a number of colossal blunders, which serves only to make you more aware of the suspect nature of everything you haven’t verified. The writer was counting on the Verification Department to give authority to his sly observations and insidious generalisations. This is not cricket on his part, but it is your job that is on the line. There has only been one printed retraction in the magazine’s history and the verificationist responsible for the error was immediately farmed out to Advertising.

It is, of course, all down hill from there…

Bright-lights-big-city-new

Heartbreaking reasons for a life falling apart at the seams

Most of the lightning-paced narrative comprises a series of set pieces, most of which are very funny indeed, but the story is not all humour and lightness. Underpinning our narrator lurching from one crisis to the next are deeper issues relating to our need to fit in, to be accepted by our peers and society as a whole without fear of judgement. It’s also a good examination of how important it is to find meaningfulness in our work, play and relationships.

As much as it would appear that our narrator goes off the rails because his beautiful, social-climbing wife ran off with someone else (a metaphor for shallowness if ever there was one), there’s more going on than one might initially expect. As the story wends its way towards what looks like an inevitable conclusion we discover just why his life is crumbling all around him — and it’s heartbreaking.

Yes, this is a book set in New York in the 1980s, but forget any reviews you might have seen which paint Bright Lights, Big City as a portrait of excess or rich people doing bad things. This is a black comedy about a 20-something trying to find his way in the world, not always making the right decisions and paying the price along the way. There are a lot of painful realisations in Bright Lights, Big City, all rounded out by a redemptive, satisfying ending. I’ve read a lot of great novels this year, but this one has to be up there with the best.

10 books, Book lists

10 books about journalists

10-booksIn response to yesterday’s tragic events in Paris, where two terrorists stormed the office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, shooting dead 12 people — eight of them journalists — and injuring 11 others, I thought I would republish this list, which first appeared on my old Reading Matters blog in 2011.

I am a trained journalist and have spent my career working in news rooms and magazine offices, so freedom of speech is a value I hold very dear. Perhaps it’s no surprise that some of my favourite novels are about journalists working on newspapers and magazines. I call these “newspaper novels” but they could equally be called “journalism novels”, “print media novels” or “novels about journalists”.

Because the newspaper game is a funny old lark, these novels lend themselves very well to humour and satire. And typically they’re peopled with rich and intriguing characters, because the business seems to attract oddballs and eccentrics, the likes of which you don’t see anywhere else.

Here’s my top 10 novels about journalists (arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name) — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

KeepersofTruth The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins (2000)

This is an interesting look at what it is like to be a journalist on a small town newspaper. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, Collins’ novel is part thriller, part crime mystery. Set in midwest America in the late 1970s, the novel charts the social disintegration of an industrial town in decline — and examines the difficulties that confront reporters when they must write about the people they know. The narrator, Bill, is a young misfit journalist working at The Daily Truth who finds himself becoming increasingly obsessed by a local murder. The story takes a dark turn when Bill becomes a suspect. This is a dark, brooding story, written with passion and fury.

MyTurnToMakeTheTea ‘My Turn to Make the Tea’ by Monica Dickens (1951)

Set during an era in which journalists carried out all their reporting in person — not by telephone or email — and then typed up their stories on clunky typewriters, this is a revealing insight in to life on a provincial newspaper. It’s also a fascinating account of the petty dramas that occur when working in a newsroom. There isn’t much of a plot, instead it reads very much like the diary of a young reporter, called Poppy, learning the ropes on the Downingham Post. The book largely works by showing how Poppy’s misconceptions about journalism fall by the wayside as the practicalities of producing a weekly newspaper fall into place. It’s a terrific read and peopled by a cast of wonderful characters, including a sexist editor who poo-poohs Poppy’s idea to introduce a woman’s column and publish letters to the editor that would be of interest to a female readership.

TowardsTheEnd Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn (1967)

This is a hilarious account of what it was like to work on an unspecified newspaper during the declining years of Fleet Street. At the heart of the story are two journalists — the older, more uptight and ambitious John Dyson, who is anxious to find an easy route out of his mundane job, and the younger, more laid back and directionless Bob Bell, who doesn’t have the courage to dump his girlfriend. The two of them work in the crossword and nature notes department but spend most of their time in the local drinking establishments complaining about their jobs and their workloads. While it’s a story about journalism and its struggle with changing work practises and the emerging “glitterati” of television broadcasting, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one!

Slab-rat ‘Slab Rat’ by Ted Heller (2001)

I read this long before I began blogging, so I can’t link to a review, but this is a wickedly funny — and very realistic — look at what it’s like for a cynic to work on a glitzy magazine filled with fake, career-climbing people. Zac Post is so desperate to be promoted that he’ll resort to pretty much anything to be noticed by his bosses. If that means doing underhand, morally dubious things, then so be it. This is a story as much about office politics as it is about journalism. And it’s a scathing satire on what people will do to get ahead in life, love and business. Highly recommended.

Russell-wiley-is-out-to-lunch ‘Russell Wiley is Out to Lunch’ by Richard Hine (2010)

This is a newspaper novel with a twist: instead of focusing on the editorial side it looks at the advertising and publishing side. The story is told in the first person by Russell Wiley, the sales development director on the Daily Business Chronicle, whose objective is to sell more advertising pages. But it is an uphill battle. The industry is in terminal decline. There’s not enough new readers to replace the ones that are dying off. While the book is essentially an insightful look at what happens when traditional media fails to adapt to the digital age, you don’t need to know anything about the way in which newspapers are run to enjoy it. Anyone who has worked in any kind of corporate environment will find much that is familiar here.

Bilton‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin (1997)

This is a deliciously funny read about Bilton, a grumpy journalist, who inadvertently becomes a media sensation when he throws a cup of coffee in the face of the British Prime Minister. Bilton’s action is billed as heroic, but what no one quite realises is that it wasn’t preplanned or motivated by politics — Bilton was simply drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. As his stardom increases, and the prime minister’s popularity continues to slide, Bilton begins to lose his integrity — and the shocking truth threatens to come out. The strength of the book is the clever way in which it pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, showing how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion.

The-Spoiler ‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee (2011)

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. When the younger has to interview the older, a culture clash ensue — not only are they worlds apart in age and experience, the way in which they ply their journalistic trade is radically different. By pitting the two women against each other, McAfee is able to demonstrate the changing face of newspaper journalism in an original, adroit and hugely humorous way.

Shipping_news ‘The Shipping News’ by Annie Proulx (1993)

Following the untimely death of his wife, Quoyle moves from New York to Newfoundland. He takes his two young daughters with him and tries to start afresh in the town of his forebears. He finds work on the local newspaper, The Gammy Bird, where he’s employed to write the shipping news — hence the book’s title — and report on local car accidents. While this isn’t a strictly newspaper novel — it’s more of a heartwarming story about rebuilding your life after a tragedy and finding friendship in unexpected places — it does include many journalistic insights, such as Quoyle’s penchant for viewing his life in headlines and the paper’s tendency towards plagiarism and typographical howlers. I read it not long after it won the Pulitzer Prize (hence no review — this was a decade before I began the blog) and still have fond memories of it.

The-Imperfectionists ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman (2010)

A fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, this hugely popular debut “novel” is actually 11 interlinked short stories focusing on the employees of an English-language newspaper in Rome. In between each chapter, Rachman charts the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 through to its peak in the early 1980s — when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high — and then describes its slow decline as circulations and revenues decrease and closure looks imminent. And while much of the content is a tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism, there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; while the obituary writer, who has been sidelined in his career, doesn’t recover his motivation until someone close to him dies. This is an entertaining read, one that provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.

Scoop ‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Scoop is billed as the funniest novel ever written about journalism — in fact, it’s safe to say it is the standard bearer for newspaper novels. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular novels about journalists that you’d recommend? What is missing from my list?