THE 's Reviews > Scoop: A Novel About Journalists

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
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Aug 25, 2011

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In a recent article in the NEW YORK TIMES referring to the messy and embarrassing Rupert Murdoch scandal in the British press, the account noted the similarity of current circumstances to an old, if not quite venerated, satirical treasure, Evelyn Waugh's SCOOP. This 1938 novel about Fleet Street yellow journalism does share some features related to various contemporary sensation-seeking reporters (for example, the breathless talking heads enjoying the Arab Spring far more than the bloodied participants) and corporate media moguls (like the Murdock cabal who seem determined to create news when they cannot uncover actual events). I returned to what I can characterize as a "guilty pleasure" by dusting off my old copy and wondering whether this clearly socially unacceptable, not to mention politically incorrect, novel could once again both inform and amuse me.

Yes, is my answer. However, be prepared for a book that defines the term "snarky." It is not only impertinent and irreverent, but has a definite mean-spirited streak characteristic of its author. Moreover, in spite of its barbed darts, it is far less pithy than Waugh's more masterful burlesques such as PUT OUT MORE FLAGS, A HANDFUL OF DUST (a personal favorite), or even the very controversial BLACK MISCHIEF. Nonetheless, Waugh has more than enough nasty humor left for journalists in this work that the estimable and appropriately sarcastic Christopher Hitchens applauded as a "novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps" in all of its "callousness and vulgarity and philistinism."

The tale is a simple one of mistaken identities when Lord Copper, the distracted and disdainful publisher of the Daily Beast dispatches young William Boot to "Ishmaelia" in East Africa to report on a "promising little war." Unfortunately, it is John Courtneney Boot, a travel writer and minor novelist, who had sought the post of foreign correspondent rather than William, a young man of few words and those few reserved for his local nature column entitled Lush Places. Without detailing the amusing misunderstandings, chance encounters, and even serendipitous events that allow the misplaced Boot to "scoop" the other reporters, who following a pack mentality and in collusion with corrupt officials and camp followers charge in the wrong direction with their spurious intelligence. Of course, being Waugh, no good deed goes unpunished and the celebrated Boot, much to his chagrin, must be rewarded by Lord Copper and his media cohorts. Luckily William has had enough of this charade of what passes as journalistic truth and returns to his bucolic home, while the other Boot is feted by the London elite led by Lord Copper and company. Along the way, political cronyism, unscrupulous social ties, venal international agreements, and alarming unethical journalistic practices are skewered by Waugh, who was a correspondent in Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-36) and was certainly a sagacious witness to some unpleasant shenanigans there in spite of his own misguided pro-Fascist tendencies at that time.

This is a funny book with much to recommend it, especially now as we watch Murdoch and son 's denials of culpability, Prime Mininister Cameron squirming over his employment of a criminal hacker, and the many wildly emotional accounts of trained jounalists during the UK riots, not to mention the present uprisings throughout the Arab world. The novel's defects are self-evident in terms of racial and ethnic carricatures, which are inexcusable by either the period in which it was written or its satirical intent. Moreover, the humor in places falls flat because some terms and activities are now dated. Nonetheless, since good satire seems strangely absent in contemporary literature, this is still a a worthy read. In fact, since the British tabloid NEWS OF THE WORLD has ceased publication, perhaps Rupert Murdock might need something to peruse in his dotage.

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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Judith (new)

Judith I dont think I have read anything by Waugh since "The Loved One", which was dryly hilarious. And that was an eon ago. However, as you say, this one seems timely. I like a good old fashioned mean-spirited book. I love a good satire on the press. Another good one is BONFIRE OF VANITIES, which I am sure you have read.

message 2: by Jane (new)

Jane Within the year, I read FATHERS AND SONS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A FAMILY by Alexander Waugh and enjoyed it hugely.

Now I intend to read "Scoop" as it fits in so well with our media-driven culture, as pointed out in your review. I think I should revisit some of his other novels as well.

THE Judith, hope this one is amusing. I enjoyed BONFIRES so many years ago it would be a good time to take another glance at it. Our old literary nemesis Martin Amis wrote YELLOW DOG a few years back with evil journalist Clint Smoker, who has some satirical elements, but is so depraved that the tabloid tale falters.

Thanks for the reminder Jane of FATHERS AND SONS on the Waughs; I been meaning to get to that interesting book for some time. As far as SCOOP, it is an entertaining diversion (as well as a commentary that connects to current events), but there are several other Waugh novels that are far better...some of which are even much funnier.

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