Sunday, June 17, 2012

All The News That's Unfit To Print

This appeared in today's The Sunday Guardian.

Intrepid seekers. Naïve ingénues. And cynical hacks. In fiction, journalists generally fall into one of those categories, more often than not, the last one. Thus, the tone of novels about the newsroom is usually farcical, following the example set by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Such was the case, for example, in Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, set in the dying years of Fleet Street.  Last year, though, there was Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, an affectionate, nostalgic look at the staff of a struggling newspaper in Rome. That daily wasn’t bothered with setting up a website because, as one of the senior staffers put it, “The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.” It’s hard to think of anyone feeling that way nowadays.

A similar sentiment is voiced by one of the journalists in The Spoiler, a recent debut novel by Annalena McAfee. McAfee’s background is suited to such an enterprise – she’s had over three decades of experience as a journalist, the last six years at The Guardian’s Saturday Review supplement, which she helped set up. (By the way, the novel is dedicated to her husband, a certain Ian McEwan.)

Set in the London of the late Nineties, The Spoiler revolves around the past and future of news reporting, shifting between the points of view of the two central characters. First, there’s the 80-year-old Honor Tait, a feted former foreign correspondent and war reporter who’s been called “the newsroom Dietrich”. She’s visited every city of importance, from Madrid to Calcutta, has been married thrice, has won the Pulitzer, and has rubbed shoulders with “a procession of artists, poets, politicians and Hollywood panjandrums”  -- General Franco, Frank Sinatra, Jean Cocteau and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, to name a few. In the other corner is Tamara Sim, a 27-year-old reporter who works with The Monitor as a freelance sub editor and writes for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip magazine. She’s a repository of show business trivia, “a grandmistress of gossip” with a knack for “What’s In/What’s Out, Going Up/Going Down, Good Week/Bad Week” lists.

To begin with, then, these two come across as archetypes, not as full-fledged characters. Improbably, Tamara is asked to interview Honor and the meeting – which occurs after too many pages of backstory – is a clash of opposites. When Honor mentions T.S. Eliot, Tamara thinks of the West End musical; when she makes a reference to the Library of Alexandria, the industrious Tamara makes a note: “Chk: who is Alexandria? What happened to her library?”

Great fun though this is to read, McAfee’s satirical mask starts to slip as the coiled plot unfurls. Tamara’s sleuthing turns up revelations that the tabloids pounce upon and the tone shifts to something darker. This, despite comic set pieces such as the defining characteristics of those who work in a paper’s news, sport, books, obit and other sections.

What colours the book like drops of black ink in clear water is Honor’s later predicament and her observations on the present. Speaking to Tamara of the rise in the use of the first person singular, she says, “Isn’t that what all you young journalists want to talk about these days? Yourselves, your pasts, your feelings, your relationships.” Reports in the popular press are dismissed as “imbecilic morality tales for an amoral age”. For an earlier generation, “the vulgar publicity, the public exposure, brought…by airing family business, private affairs, in confessional memoirs or newspaper articles would be completely abhorrent, unthinkable”. (Take that, Facebook.)

The Spoiler, then, is decidedly uneven in tone, yet worth reading for its enjoyable moments of high farce and the light it throws on the way we consume what we call “the news”. Some would dismiss Honor as elitist and hidebound but there’s much truth to her opinions. At one point, she feels, “The young were all gunslingers now, each one a little Goebbels, reaching for their revolvers whenever they heard the word culture”.  Ouch. 

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