Friday, March 4, 2011

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Edition: Scoop

Scoop was published in 1938 and drew from Evelyn Waugh's own experience as a war correspondent for the Daily Mail in Ethiopia in 1935 (then Abyssinia, at war with Italy). For a time, Waugh, a Roman Catholic, politically supported the Italian cause, but later sought to dissociate himself from Fascism.

Scoop is divided into three "books," each of which are further subdivided into short, numbered sections (within each book, these sections vary as far as how high they count up before starting over) which suggests the fragmentation of newspaper accounts. 

In the first section of Scoop, "The Stitch Service," John Courtney Boot, a successful novelist who had "achieved an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters," needs to back out of love affair which has gone wrong and asks the influential Julia Stitch (wife of politician Algernon) to help him out. Julia talks him up at a dinner party and gets Lord Copper of The Beast to hire him as a war correspondent in Ishmaelia. Copper asks his foreign editor, Salter, to secure Boot for the job. Salter talks to the managing editor, who leads Salter astray thinking Copper meant William Boot, a country cousin of John's (the two Boots don't even know each other), who writes a minor column on natural scenes called "Lush Places." William is summoned to London to speak with Salter, at first thinking he is to be let go for a practical joke that his sister Priscilla played (replacing "badger" with "great crested grebe" in one of William's drafts which eventually got published). Eventually, he understands what is happening but declines the job, despite its high pay because he doesn't want to go abroad. Salter says in effect that he must take the job or get let go. William meets with Copper, who instructs William that the policy of The Beast was far as the war in Ishmaelia went was that they were on the side of the "Patriots," and the British public would only want a quick resolution, so this is what William should discover. William, reveling in power of an expense account, buys way too many things for his trip. He is all ready to go (even with a private plane to accommodate all of his stuff) but realizes that he needs visas for his passport. He visits two rival legations in London and after some confusion, ends up with two visas. William flies to Paris, allowing a stranger (who proclaims he is an Englishman, though he didn't seem it to William at first) on board. When they arrive, he meets this stranger again on the train to Marseilles. Next, William gets on a ship to Aden; on board, he meets Corker, an English journalist for the news agency called Universal News, which also sends stories to The Beast. Corker initiates William into the dishonest practices of journalism, telling him such stories as of the famous American journalist Jake who actually started a revolution when he mistakenly reported on one and the story was taken up. Corker also teaches William how to read journalistic cables from The Beast. After disembarking in Aden, William once again discovers that the stranger from before has been on the ship with him. Meanwhile, in London, John Boot meets up with Julia at a party and tells her that Copper has not contacted him and that he is in a bind because his lover thinks that he has already left for Ishmaelia.

The second section, entitled "Stones...£20," begins with an account of Ishmaelia's history. Europeans came, found that the inhabitants were fierce cannibals, and soon deemed the territory worthless to them. A committee of university-educated jurists drew up a constitution and Ishmaelia was called a republic, though it really was just corruptly passed down through generations of the Jackson family, originally from Alabama. Jacksonburg became of interest to the European world when a member of the Jackson family, Smiles, had a quarrel with the ruler; the European press took up the line that Smiles "represented international finance, the subjugation of the worker" and threw its support behind the leader. Soon, people in Ishmaelia did think there would be a war, so journalists flocked to the country. Most of them stay at the Hotel Liberty, including the famous Jakes, Shumble, Whelper, Pigge, Jocelyn Hitchcock and finally William and Corker. Not much is actually happening in Ishmaelia, until Shumble fabricates a story about a bearded ticket-collector as a Soviet operative. Calmly, Jakes tells the director of the Press Bureau, Mr. Benito, to declare the story false and all the rest of the journalists fall in line to kill the Shumble's scoop. Soon afterwards, William finds out that an old childhood friend of his is the Vice Consul. This friend of his tells him that there is in fact a Russian spy but William can't release the story because, as he learns, stories can't be revived even after being killed even if they are the truth. Jacksonburg soon becomes even more crowded with new journalists. William decides to move to a new location, the Pension Dressler, run by a German woman, Frau Dressler. William meets Katchen there, a young German woman whose husband has been away. William falls in love with Katchen, remaining in Jacksonburg while the rest of the journalists go off to Laku (which means "I don't know" in Ishmaelite, the Vice Consul has told him) where they have been granted permission to explore by Benito--William and Corker both find Benito's gesture to seem oddly a bit smug. Nevertheless, all the journalists including Corker go. Katchen has William buy a bag of stones (later revealed to be gold ore) which belong to her husband; this transaction gives the section its title which William expenses. As William is busy spending time with Katchen, he doesn't send any news stories so The Beast lets him go. At the same moment, however, William has been receiving "news" from Katchen, and he cables that the president has been locked up in his own palace. William is immediately reinstated. Katchen is soon taken off to prison because she doesn't have the proper papers. In Jacksonburg, William witnesses a Soviet coup--apparently, the Russians had bought Mr. Benito and organized the communist Young Ishmaelite party. He also finds out that the Germans have been backing Smiles. Meanwhile, Katchen's husband returns and Katchen does as well: William helps them escape in the canoe which he has brought. The Soviet coup-d'etat is then overthrown by counter-revolutionaries when William's mysterious fellow traveler parachutes in--apparently he is a financier with independent business interests in Ishmaelia. This man, going by Mr. Baldwin, writes William's scoop for him and effectively catapults him to fame. 

The third and (shorter) final section, "Banquet," Lord Copper decides to make Boot a knight and offer him a banquet. Mistakenly, John Boot, the novelist, is invited to be knighted and to the banquet--conveniently though, John is still being pursued by his lover so he skips town to Antarctica. Salter tries to correct the mess, going to William Boot's country home, where William has retired after his travels. Salter tries to convince William to go to the banquet, but William has had enough of the fame with which he has been met on his return to London. When Salter plays the card of mentioning Copper's importance, William defiantly says, "No...Not down here," referring to his countryside home. As Salter nods off at Boot Magna, the country estate, Uncle Theodore Boot talks to him about wanting to be engaged at the Beast for stories he has written. The next day, Theodore shows up at the offices of the Beast and because the show must go on, Lord Copper pretends that Theodore is William. The novel ends with William writing again for "Lush Places," specifically about "maternal rodents pilot[ing] their furry brood through the stubble." The final line of the novel, however, menacingly counters this happy, pastoral image: "Outside the owls hunted maternal rodents and their furry broods." 

Waugh's novel is a satire of the journalistic profession, but its indictments nevertheless provide a lively portrait of the extent to which professional journalism had consolidated itself as something quite secure and established by this time. The pack-like behavior of the (entirely male) profession, its lack of regard for the truth, its unabashed competitiveness, and extravagance are certainly all negatively represented in Waugh's account. Nevertheless though, the generally light and farcical tone of the novel undeniably renders the profession to be extremely lively, energetic, and above all, playful. Overall, I think that although the main thrust of the work critiques what the profession of journalism has become, there are many aspects of the novel that simultaneously resist this critique. 

First, the journalists are highly unapologetic, self-aware, and really not hypocritical as far as embracing ethically suspect professional codes. The rules are to do anything for the scoop, to squeeze money out of the expense accounts, to spin something that will maintain the interest of the public. They all play by these rules, and are not ashamed to acknowledge it--Corker, for example, unapologetically lets William know that he was competing with him while in Aden, because that's just what journalists understand each other as all doing. There is a deep faith in the fact that if they are all playing the game, the game is fair--democratic even, and the game also undeniably fosters a kind of camaraderie amongst the men. 

Second, the novelist who begins the novel, is just as much of a "sell-out" in his "achiev[ing] an assured and enviable position in contemporary letters." Waugh gives no details of what John Boot's novels are like, only of how many were sold and that they were read by people that John Boot respected. That John's novels only reach a small population of people that he respects signals a kind of sterile circularity. That no one actually knows or cares about what he has written drives the plot of the novel: it is because of this that William can be engaged without anyone knowing the difference. In contrast, the newspapers matter to large audiences; another important point in the novel is that newspapers create reality: the illustrious Jake made a revolution, and the press made William into a famous correspondent. Indeed, it seems that anything can be brought about and made possible by the press--even transforming a country hick into a famous war correspondent. In short, the novelist's world is sterile and circular, and the newspaperman's world is created by him and reaches wide audiences. 

Finally, the last line of novel resists allowing William Boot triumph in his "return to nature." Nature (in the of form of the owls) is also predatory, just like the journalists. 

No comments: