Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Scoop

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 15, 2015

Next day Corker brought William a cable: UNPROCEED LAKUWARD STOP AGENCIES COVERING PATRIOTIC FRONT STOP REMAIN CONTACTING CUMREDS STOP NEWS EXYOU UNRECEIVED STOP DAILY HARD NEWS ESSENTIALEST STOP REMEMBER RATES SERVICE CABLES ONE ETSIX PER WORD BEAST.

In 1935, Evelyn Waugh traveled to Abyssinia to cover the Second Italo-Abyssinian War for the Daily Mail. He found it absurd enough, up to a point, to be the basis for a satire and combined some of his colleagues into William Boot of the Beast.

RecommendationRead now
AuthorEvelyn Waugh
Year1938
Length227 pages
Book Rating7
Scoop

I read Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust several months ago, and found it mostly unimpressive. The writing was good, but the plot meandered about pointlessly and didn’t really go anywhere. Sometimes that works, but for me at least, A Handful of Dust did not. It’s likely I didn’t understand the humor; certainly, the humor in Scoop was dry enough.

I picked up Scoop because Philip Knightley, in The First Casualty had raved about it as the best kind of satire: that what Waugh writes about in Scoop actually happened, exactly as in the book, with only the names changed.

When Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s irreverent novel of Fleet Street and the hectic pursuit of hot news in “Ishmaelia” by the newly appointed war correspondent William Boot, was published in 1938, it was hailed as a “brilliant parody” of his experiences in Abyssinia. What only the war correspondents present at the time knew was that Scoop was actually a piece of straight reportage, thinly disguised as a novel to protect the author from libel actions.

This description intrigued me enough to add Scoop to my want list. I found it at the local Half Price Books a few weeks later, then read it while traveling over the last few weeks.

I can half believe Knightley’s analysis: I don’t myself believe that everything (or much) of what happens in fictional “Ishmaelia” happened anywhere near the same way in Abyssinia in real life. I can believe, however, that this is a near-perfect satirical sendup of news reporting, especially foreign news reporting.

That puts me in the camp of the non-war-correspondents who won’t admit that Scoop is very real. I don’t believe that. Nor do I need to, to enjoy the book.

Waugh’s humor in this book is very, very dry. At the risk of giving away one of the better pieces, William Boot becomes famous by creating news out of the gossip from his non-girlfriend and basically making up the details. He then transmits his report via telegraph, which necessary removes all the fluff. The fluff must be added in again by someone at the paper, who has no idea what’s going on in Ishmaelia.

  1. He hears gossip about the palace.
  2. He makes up a story from the gossip despite never being there.
  3. The newspaper adds to his story despite never even being in the country.

Because the telegraph was very expensive, the third step is apparently how foreign news really did work.

After writing that story and becoming famous, William is met in London by a neophyte newspaper employee who practices his craft by imagining newsworthy events and writing about them.

My explanation is far longer than Waugh’s succinct description:

“But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself—inventing imaginary news?”

“None better,” said William.

In one sense, news hasn’t changed. Outlets are still taking basic, skeleton facts—often press releases—and wrapping their own often nonsensical or contradictory narrative around those facts. If it reflects poorly on Democrats, it’s a “local news story” or it’s about an issue rather than about politics, so no need to note the party of the perpetrators. If it reflects poorly on Republicans, then it’s a national news story and it’s about partisan politics, so of course party names are necessary.

What Waugh describes is pretty much the same system, except that different papers had wildly different policies. Each paper would subscribe to “three or four” news agencies as well as, for major events such as Ishmaelia, send their own “special” reporter. This seemed, to Boot, to be a huge waste of resources.

“But if we all send the same thing it seems a waste.”

“There would soon be a row if we did.”

But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news?”

It gives them a choice. They all have different policies, so of course, they have to give different news.

It’s hard to say if it’s any better now that they all have, for the most part, the same policy. Satire, however, doesn’t have to provide answers. It just has to make fun of the existing system, and this Scoop does very well. It’s a fast read, very insightful and very funny.

Scoop

Evelyn Waugh

Recommendation: Read now