Saturday, April 21, 2012

If You Read One New Book This Year, Let It Be "The Spoiler"...

I feel a bit weird writing a review of a book I have yet to finish (full disclosure: I am just about 51% into it*, per my Kindle App), but Annalena McAfee's "The Spoiler" is the type of tale that I am finding it increasingly hard not to live-blog, let alone blurt all of my thoughts and commentary into a premature feature. And if I'm being really honest, I'm reluctant to keep reading at times because I am pretty quick (a friend in junior high nicknamed me Speedy Gonzalez), and the world she depicts is so engrossing, even though it's so close to my own actual world, I don't want it to be over.

I feel it necessary to point out that I was tipped off to McAfee, a U.K. writer, by Entertainment Weekly's book review section in their magazine. Through a short blurb about "The Spoiler," in which they focused on the dueling narrators-- one a seasoned, hardened journalist from war-torn times and one an eager, up-and-coming "fluff" writer. Entertainment Weekly didn't seem to want to address the "meta" nature of reviewing a book like "The Spoiler" in their publication-- a publication at which the former character would subjectively turn up her nose. Nor did they call out just how much the issues of sensationalized journalism are still at play today. Entertainment Weekly is a consumer-facing magazine, so they didn't make the assumption that the readers of their review would see their own stories identified within those characters in "The Spoiler." And yet, I can't help but wonder if the reviewer herself did and was inspired to look at how she goes about writing her own stories because of it.

I know I was.

"The Spoiler" is a work of period fiction (set in 1997, right around the time the "World Wide Web" finally stopped being written off as a "fad" and started being taken seriously in business, especially that of delivering news), but it might as well be plucked from the "then" of the '90s and dropped into the "now" of social media and consumer journalism. It is a novel that every journalist or blogger-- or writer in general-- should read. Brilliantly written from two very distinct generational points of view, "The Spoiler" is a study of just how far a reporter should be willing to go for the story.

On one end of the spectrum, there is Honor Tait, a legend of political reporting from a time that cared about cold reporting hard news stories. In her later years, she released a book compiling her experiences gathering some of her most famous stories, and it is that book that finds her on the other side of the interview hot seat, paired up with a wet behind her ears, young tabloid reporter named Tamara Sim. Honor's life, once revered for her work as a female in a male-dominated profession, and still studied as a great example of the profession in universities, is all about her work, and she wants to keep it that way. Yet, Sim, known for penning flowery non-news stories just wants to get to the gossip-- what Honor's interactions with only the most well-known celebrity subjects were really like. And her definition of celebrity does not include government leaders or political activists or philanthropists of any kind. They all bore her. She wants the dirt on Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Liza Minnelli. She feels she doesn't have a story if she doesn't have quotes on that or on Honor's difficult upbringing. 

Honor and Tamara come from two completely different worlds, though they share the same business card title. Honor is a staunch believer of keeping herself out of the story, and though her life is the story now, she is reluctant to accept it, let alone let this uneducated stranger into it. Tamara, on the other hand, writes herself into the story better than she actually captures her subjects. She doesn't truly listen to their stories-- too focused on meeting her deadlines and taking the angle she wants at all cost. Both women may be shrewd and diligent about getting their stories, but their sensibilities will never allow them to "meet in the middle," so to speak.

Honor finds Tamara immature and insincere (and once she realizes Tamara never even read the book she is there to talk about, she begins to mess with her), while Tamara finds the older woman too hard to work with (it is notable that the woman doesn't actually want to talk about anything, yet agreed to do an interview in the first place). Both have great disdain for the other; both write each other off almost immediately at first interaction-- though it's important to note that neither would have a place in the industry without the other. The world depicted within "The Spoiler" is utterly fascinating, and spot-on in accuracy, but it admittedly it is extremely niche.

As a member of these ladies' industry, I went into the reading assuming I would automatically identify with Honor's plight, even though I am much closer to Tamara in approach. I consider myself old-fashioned when it comes to what I even consider important news, after all. But McAfee is too clever a writer for such simplicity. Upon further inspection, it actually appears that both women have a lot more in common than either of them might be willing to admit. In many ways, Tamara's gumption and willingness to dig deep and get at the story she knows is in there (even if some of us would say "Who cares!?" about the subject matter) is directly indicative of Honor's own glory days. And in many ways, Honor's unwillingness to change with the times serves as a cautionary tale for Tamara, who finds herself facing such a thing much earlier in her career than Honor-- not in type of content but in medium itself. There are times in the story you will root for and respect Honor, but there are equal times you may find yourself doing so with Tamara. Admittedly, depending on your own baggage and point of view brought to the story, you will most likely lean toward one woman more than the other, though arguments could be made for being on either "Team." Neither woman is perfect, nor is the environment in which they have chosen to live, breathe, and work, and both are more reactionary that you might expect. But it is in the reveal of the "whys" behind their behaviors-- Honor's guardedness and Tamara's sheer ambition-- that makes them most relatable and manages to capture a little bit of us all in this very specific story.

* I reserve the right to update or alter my review in any way once I actually finish the entire novel. I just felt like I had to put my thoughts thus far down because the story deals with issues I do daily, and I'm glad to finally have a teaching tool to point to when I want to educate those not in this business about the tide of the trends.

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