The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 320 pages
In her day, Honor Tait was the grandest woman in British journalism. She was a war correspondent and a much-photographed beauty, whose writing was politically informed and impartial. But now she is 80, her third husband dead and she is rattling around in his flat, fretting about her lost looks and trying to make money from a third collection of her journalism.
Tamara Sim is a 27-year-old journalist who spends her life compiling lists of celebrity mishaps. She does this with great determination and not a little flair, thinking up such headlines as “ROCK BOTTOM! STARS AND THE CURSE OF CELLULITE”. When she is unexpectedly asked to do an in-depth interview with the famously difficult Tait for upmarket supplement S*nday, she is thrilled and sees it as a turning point in her career.
This is Annalena McAfee’s first novel and she has chosen to write about something she knows well. McAfee has spent half a lifetime in newspapers – including a stint as the arts editor of the Financial Times – and so has had much material to draw on. At The Monitor’s morning conference she describes the arts editor, “a shock-haired troll” who begs for more space for classical music reviews; a books editor who “seems affronted by the company he has to keep” and the fashion editor who names this week’s new look: Retro-Pimp.
Tamara prepares for the interview by attempting to read Tait’s Pulitzer prize-winning essay about Buchenwald entitled “On Goethe’s Oak”. “What kind of headline is that?” she wonders. The meeting between the two women is a hilarious set piece which, as an interviewer myself, I found almost too painful to read. The crashingly stupid questions, the attempts at recovery that only make it worse, the mutual contempt and suspicion, and the composing of intros even before the interview is under way – all seemed rather too close to home.
McAfee’s own elegant prose is interspersed with the writing of her two creations. Tait writes with self-important lucidity. Tamara writes and rewrites the first paragraph of the interview, each new draft leaving the truth a little further behind and purple jibberish a little closer.
The title Spoiler echoes Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s satire of newspapers in 1930s, and so does the plot. Waugh’s hero Henry Boot is a writer of nature notes who is sent off to report on an African war by mistake. Tamara’s commission is also a result of mistaken identity – only through the more modern device of a misdirected e-mail.
The Spoiler is not quite set in the present. The year is 1997, when not everyone had heard of David Beckham and just before the internet was to change the industry forever. This gives it a slightly odd feeling: of the moment, and yet not quite.
The trouble for McAfee is that the sensational journalism of 1997 is harder to send up than it was 60 years earlier, as the tabloid press has become brilliant at self-parody. And chequebook journalism too is soft a target for disapproval: I very much doubt if there will be a single one of McAfee’s readers who was previously in favour of it.
But in the end the message is more subtle than that journalism has become moronic. Tamara is not entirely stupid. She follows her craft with as much determination as Tait followed hers – sitting outside Tait’s flat for days and agonising about each word. Both women twist their morals for a good story. And Tamara, though she has never heard of Goethe, is funnier than the older woman. And warmer.
The only shame is that McAfee did not submit her proof to any one of the journalists she describes so well. They surely would have told her the same thing: that although each detail on its own is sharp and funny, there are too many of them. At nearly half the length, this portrait of (nearly) contemporary journalism would have been just right.
Lucy Kellaway is an FT columnist and author of ‘In Office Hours’ (Penguin)