Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

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.

Australia, AWW2016, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Sonya Voumard, Transit Lounge, true crime

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

Non-fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this month (9 April) marked my 20th anniversary working in journalism, while earlier this week (29 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman and it had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

I remember the event clearly, because I had only started my first proper job as a reporter a few weeks earlier. While we didn’t actually cover the shootings in our pages (it was a rural newspaper in Victoria more focused on local events), we had the radio on in the newsroom listening to updates on the Monday. It was all rather strange and terrifying, because after Bryant killed all those people on the Sunday he held some others hostage in a local B&B for a day, before setting the property and himself on fire. (He was later found guilty and given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.) Now, all these years later, any mention of the Port Arthur massacre immediately transports me back to that time with a kind of shuddering dread.

The relationship between journalists and their subjects

Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre, recently published in Australia by Transit Lounge, looks at that tragic event and explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It draws inspiration from one of my all-time favourite reads, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and it’s also clearly influenced by Helen Garner’s true crime reportage (specifically This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial and Joe Cinque’s Consolation).

But its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, which tried to examine what made the killer carry out such a horrendous crime. In the process of writing their book, the two respected broadsheet journalists found themselves embroiled in an ethical — and legal — minefield when Carleen Bryant, Martin’s mother, withdrew her support for the project. She later sued them over the use of her personal manuscript and accused them of exploitation.

As any journalist will tell you, there are always two sides to every story, and Voumard, who is a respected journalist and academic herself, tries to flesh these out — with mixed results. For as much as I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir, part ethical investigation, I felt that it was designed with one aim in mind: to discredit Wainwright’s and Totaro’s work. Funnily enough, Wainwright and Totaro did not want to take part in Voumard’s project, directing her to the public record instead, a decision that proved challenging, as the author points out in Chapter 15:

Any suggestion that a writer should abandon a project because one or more of the key individuals declines to be interviewed would, I believe, be defeatist and contrary to the journalistic function of shining a light where some would prefer it not to be shone. […] When interview subjects decline to participate, you look and dig deeper elsewhere in the knowledge that no story begins with an exact destination mapped out. You discover the vast and rich landscape of the public record. If you are dogged and fortunate you may uncover hitherto unseen material that sheds light on some of the sorts of answers you need.

Despite this setback, Voumard slowly builds her case by examining written records — emails, newspaper articles, public appearances and passages from Wainwright and Totaro’s book. But that is only part of the story, for The Media and the Massacre looks at the wider issues of “the writer’s treachery” by looking at how journalists operate, what their roles are in the broader scale of things and how the media handles complaints.

Easy-to-read prose style

The best bit about the book, which originally began life as a doctoral thesis, is how easy it is to read. Voumard has an effortless prose style and despite tackling some big subjects she puts things into context using simple jargon-free language, as you would expect from any good journalist.

Like Garner and Malcolm, she inserts herself into the story, taking the reader on a journey as she uncovers evidence or interviews subjects for the book. I tend to like this style because by showing the working practices of a journalist the reader comes to understand how news stories and feature articles, or, in this case, a book are put together. And you can see how journalists often bring their own prejudices and subjectivity to their work even though they operate under the guise of “objectivity” and “truth-telling”. But at times I felt Voumard was adding extraneous detail that wasn’t always needed simply to emulate a narrative non-fiction “style”.

Yet there’s no doubt that The Media and the Massacre is an important book in the canon of literature that examines the pitfalls of journalistic work and the ethics surrounding the relationship between reporters and their subjects. It raises important issues about the ways in which journalists communicate with their subjects, especially when working on books or longer form journalism and collaborative projects, in order to prevent fallout (of both the ethical and legal variety) at a later date. And it also highlights the ways in which journalistic behaviour has ramifications for the people who are interviewed in the aftermath of tragic events whether these be victims, first responders or eyewitnesses. It shows, as Voumard so eloquently writes at the outset, how journalists constantly tread a difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous, line:

At our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.

The Media and the Massacre is currently only available in Australia, where you can buy it direct from the publisher’s website.

This is my 24th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 18th for #AWW2016. 

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?

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gillian Flynn, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn

Sharp-objects

Fiction – Kindle edition; Phoenix; 340 pages; 2009.

I recently took a couple of days off work in order to do some study for a certificate I’m enrolled in. The plan was to read lots of journal articles, to get my head in the required space, so that I could write a 3,000-word essay, which is due to be submitted at the beginning of August. Alas, I made the mistake of picking up Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects — and then I got so gripped by it that I spent all my study time reading it instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Do I regret it? No. This is one of the creepiest, weirdest and most unusual books I’ve read in a long while. It’s also the most absorbing.

Unlike Flynn’s better known Gone Girl, which is about a couple whose marriage goes off the rails in a very dark, disturbing and ludicrous way, this one is more restrained — in prose style and plot — but feels all the stronger and more believable for it.

Two murders in a small town

The story revolves around the murder of two young girls, a year apart, in a small town in Missouri. Both girls were strangled, their bodies dumped in public places, their nails painted with polish and their teeth removed.

Reporter Camille Preaker, who grew up in Wind Gap but escaped it 10 or so years ago, is dispatched to her home town to report on the crimes for Chicago’s Daily Post. Of course, no one wants to talk to her — they don’t want the town’s tragedy turned into entertainment fodder for a national audience — and it’s an uphill struggle to even win the trust of the police.

Camille, who narrates the story in the first person using strong, forthright language, is headstrong, feisty and full of attitude, but she’s also got a few secrets of her own to keep: she’s a reformed self-harmer and for much of this novel she’s constantly battling her deep psychological need to carve words into her skin.

It doesn’t help that living back at home with her seriously kooky mother, oddly quiet step-dad and highly sexualised 13-year-old half sister brings back memories of the past: her younger sister, Marian, who died of an unspecified illness when Camille was a young teen still haunts her.

Southern Gothic

As you can probably tell this is not your average “who dunnit” — mainly because it’s more reliant on characterisation than plot, but also because Camille is constantly on the back foot trying to seek out clues from people who don’t want to help. In other words, there’s not much of a procedural element to it, but it is a good insight into how reporters do their legwork (although I don’t think it’s usual to sleep with the murder detective and then the prime suspect — just saying).

In fact, I’d suggest that Sharp Objects is probably closer to horror — don’t let that put you off — because it has all the feel and claustrophobic atmosphere of Southern Gothic (even though it’s set in the mid-west),  something Donna Tartt might have cooked up with Stephen King. Consequently, it’s quite a dark, edgy read — there are scenes involving drug-taking and plenty of sex, for instance, but it’s all in keeping with the book’s themes and subject matter.

And while this is not the kind of “crime thriller” that is full of twists and turns, when the culprit is finally unveiled at the very end of the novel it feels like a genuine shock.

In 2007, Sharp Objects won the CWA New Blood Fiction award and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel award. It was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger (won by Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore) the same year.

1001 books, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Graham Greene, literary fiction, Penguin, Setting

‘Brighton Rock’ by Graham Greene

Brighton-Rock

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 256 pages; 1998.

A month or so ago I watched the documentary Dangerous Edge: A Life of Graham Greene, which I had recorded on my SkyBox for rainy day viewing. It immediately made me want to rush out and read everything Greene had ever written, and so I pulled Brighton Rock, first published in 1938, from my shelves, where it had been sitting for almost a decade.

A murder by the seaside

The book is set in Brighton, on the south coast of England, in the 1930s. It’s a completely different world to the one we know now and the grim reality of a life hard lived resonates off the page.

The story largely revolves around two characters — the teenage gang leader and Catholic thug Pinkie Brown and the buxom Guinness-swilling woman, Ida Arnold, on his tail — whose lives are brought together through the murder of Charles “Fred” Hale, a newspaper reporter on business in Brighton, one sunny weekend.

In some circles the book is billed as a detective story, because it traces Ida’s steps to track down Hale’s killer, but it doesn’t follow the normal conventions of the genre. What it does do is explore the battle between good and evil — represented by the sociopathic Pinkie and the decent law-abiding Ida — as well as highlighting how one small crime can spiral out of control into a series of crimes, the tracks of which become increasingly harder to cover.

The book is also classed as one of Greene’s “Catholic novels”, because Pinkie’s behaviour makes a mockery of the church’s doctrine on marriage and morality, while Ida’s behaviour suggests that you don’t need to follow faith or religion to be a good person. It also juxtaposes Pinkie’s virginity and his revulsion at the idea of the sexual act (or any kind of intimacy), with that of Ida’s rather liberated view (and experience).

Exceedingly well-drawn characters

Bearing all this in mind, including Greene’s literary legacy the weight of which I could almost feel pressing on my shoulders as I turned each page, I have to admit I had trouble getting into this novel. It felt old-fashioned in a way I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but I also had difficulty identifying with any of the characters — and that’s despite the fact they are exceedingly well drawn: Pinkie is loathsome and nasty, capable of carrying out abhorrent acts with no care for the consequences; his girlfriend Rose is lonely, weak-willed and naive, but desperate to be loved by anyone who shows her the slightest bit of attention; while Ida is headstrong, determined and independent, beholden to no one.

Yet I didn’t feel “engaged” with the way in which their story unfolded — Ida painstakingly trying to track down the man she believes has killed Hale; Pinkie “wooing” Rose, the young waitress he believes could spill the beans, and marrying her so that she cannot testify against him — and think it may have something to do with the complete absence of warmth in the story. Indeed, I felt one step removed from it throughout, almost as if I was reading it through a layer of ice, which, in turn, had made the narrative feel cold — and detached.

That said, I admired the book’s take on the importance of justice and the way in which Ida so cleverly and single-mindedly pursued it. While she’s described in an overtly sexual way throughout, it seems rather refreshing to have such a strong female lead in a book written at this time.

And there’s no doubt that Greene is a master at creating atmosphere: the dark, seamy Brighton he depicts here resonates with unseen dangers and unknown tensions, while the razor gangs and the rivalry between them feels genuinely scary.

Brighton Rock may not have won me completely over, but it’s a heady mix of psychological character study and criminal thriller, and I’m glad I read it. And it certainly hasn’t deterred me from exploring more of Graham Greene’s work.

Author, Book review, Granta, London, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Tom Lubbock

‘Until Further Notice, I am Alive’ by Tom Lubbock

Until-further-notice-I-am-alive

Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 128 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

One of my greatest fears is to lose the ability to use language, to no longer be able to speak, think, read or write. This is exactly what happened to writer and illustrator Tom Lubbock, who was chief art critic at The Independent and made his living from writing. (In the introduction to this book, his wife, artist Marion Coutts, describes their home as a “word factory” — a phrase that will resonate with anyone who churns out or edits copy for a living.)

A rare brain tumour

Lubbock’s condition was the result of a rare brain tumour situated in the left temporal lobe — the area of the brain responsible for speech and language. He was diagnosed in September 2008, told he had a year or two to live, and died in January 2011. He was 53.

This extraordinary memoir is not so much a day-to-day journal of his life after diagnosis but a philosophical account of what it is like to confront death. And it is also an illuminating account of how speech and language are central to our being — and how the loss of these skills can be puzzling, frustrating and frightening.

But this is not a glum book. Lubbock is suprisingly free of self-pity. The only times he ever expresses sadness is when he thinks of his young son, Eugene, who was 18 months old when he was diagnosed, and his wife, Marion. “All the future we won’t have,” he writes, “is utterly heartbreaking.”

A time to live and a time to die

Essentially Lubbock is resigned to his fate — in fact, he describes it as “interesting”, almost as if he is going on an adventure — and he understands that it is “not something I’m going to get through or over”.

On 21 October 2008, he writes:

Suppose I said: I can’t stand it — what would I do? This is not a marriage I can leave, a job I can resign, a country I can emigrate from, a prison I can try to escape. There are no terms to be come to. I could kill myself, so as to escape the intolerability of dying. Almost imaginable. I could try to get myself into a state where nothing that makes it matter to me does matter. Then I would be, in effect, already dead.

Perhaps his ready acceptance — or what sounds like ready acceptance — is helped in part by the lack of pain caused by the tumour (the brain has no pain receptors). For much of his illness he is in otherwise perfect health, apart from the occasional fit and the minor side-effects caused by his treatment.

But over time he begins to lose his language skills — and this, while not overly distressing nor unexpected, is obviously frustrating for one who relies on writing (and reading) to earn his living. He explains how he struggles to summon words when he writes and speaks, how sometimes the wrong words appear and his vocabularly gets mixed up and garbled.

On 7 July 2010, he writes:

Reading seems to have given up entirely. I listen to people on the radio, and I cannot repeat their words, nor can I grasp their points, but I can sort of recognise the articulations that are being made, they’re there, beneath the surface. And at some time, I suspect, my speech will simply fail. Or rather, it will fail first of all at one competence, and then at another.

A deeply profound life-affirming read

Strangely enough, reading a memoir about a man dying is a life affirming experience; it makes you see things in a slightly different light and shows how we often live our lives blind to our own mortality.

And yet Lubbock claims “my story doesn’t make a good story”.

A good story would either be a steady descent towards death, or a total recovery. But I have had, probably will have, a fluctuating plotline, with ups and downs, recoveries, declines, rallies, with some kind of final wreckage or fade.

I beg to differ. For such a slim book, Until Further Notice, I Am Alive is weighty with wisdom, insight and intelligence. It’s unflinchingly honest and candid, but it also exudes a beautiful sense of calm and dignity. And it’s certainly the most profound book I’ve read all year.

Andrew Martin, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin

Bilton

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 245 pages; 1999.

Just as Rupert Murdoch’s print media empire was going into freefall — the phone-hacking revelations, the News of the World closure, the BSkyB takeover bid being scuppered, the arrests of past editors, the public enquiries into News International’s behaviour, resignations of two top MET Police officers (need I go on?) — I was mid-way through Andrew Martin’s Bilton, a novel about journalism.

In some ways the novel suffered by its comparison to events unfolding in London’s “Fleet Street” — and seemed, somehow, the poorer for it, probably because it just seemed so damn tame. And yet this is a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny — preposterously so, I might add.

At the time of publication, in 1999, it must have seemed a little inventive, because surely star-hungry politicians would never manipulate the media in such an uncouth, underhand manner and journalists would never turn themselves into news stories, would they?

Because that’s what happens to Bilton, a miserable but successful “comment and analysis” journalist, who accidentally throws a cup of coffee in the face of the prime minister and becomes headline news.

The prime minister, Lazenby, is well into his second term and is “veering from ambivalent support to definite hostility”. His new policy of Social Dynamics — which is alarmingly similar to present prime minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea — has been exposed as a sham; it pretends to be egalitarian but is actually about making money for a select few.

The incident couldn’t happen at a better time for Bilton, who is sick of his job and feels like he’s been passed over for promotion once too often. Overnight he becomes a hero and is transformed into a media sensation.

The story is told through the eyes of lifestyle journalist Adrian Day, who befriends Bilton before the incident occurs and is present when it happens. He knows the truth — that Bilton was incredibly drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. It was not a “political act” planned in advance, which is the way that Bilton and the media spin it.

As Bilton’s stardom increases, he begins to lose his integrity. Somewhere along the line you know that the truth will out, and it isn’t going to be pleasant — for anyone.

The novel is billed as the funniest fiction about journalism since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I agree that there are some very funny moments in it. It also shares Waugh’s sense of the ridiculous, when a war breaks out between Britain and Russia that no one quite knows how to cover properly. Indeed, our narrator is called into the office on the day that Russia attempts to fire the first of three nuclear weapons at the heart of London, and is told by his boss that he wants him to edit a new Sunday supplement.

“…and we’ve decided to call it ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’, after the Lionel Richie song. Before I go any further, what do you think of the name?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s…”
“The beauty of the whole idea,” Piper ploughed on, “is that ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’ will never, and I mean never—” he banged the table ferociously — “mention the war. It’ll be consumer-oriented, lively, funny, irreverent and, above all, irrelevant, and we think you’re just the man to edit it.”

The book pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, and shows how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion. It cuts very close to the bone. And dare I suggest the following: it should be required reading for anyone naive enough to think that the current News International scandal is the first time that the media and Downing Street have formed “inappropriate” relationships with each other.

Sadly, Bilton appears to be out of print, but you can pick up very cheap second-hand copies from Amazon marketplace and elsewhere.