by Evelyn Waugh
“News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read.”
Scoop is a much-admired satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh, widely held to be a comedic literary classic. It was first published in 1938 and recounts the tale of British foreign correspondents reporting on a civil war from the fictional East African country of Ishmaelia.
Waugh had himself worked as a special correspondent in Ethiopia during the 1930s, reporting for the Daily Mail on Mussolini’s invasion. His experience left him with a cynical view of the profession and the men behind the news: the powerful newspaper barons.
Scoop’s farcical plot involves the hapless William Boot, a nature writer who is mistaken for the fashionable novelist John Boot, and sent in error to cover the African conflict by Lord Copper’s Daily Beast. It depicts journalists as being callous, corruptible buffoons, and was described by Christopher Hitchens in his introduction to my Penguin Classic copy as: “A novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps.”
It therefore saddens me to report that I didn’t entirely connect with Scoop. While there were parts, for instance the ridiculous muddle over a badger and a great-crested grebe, which made me chuckle, on the whole it failed to amuse or delight. Why? For several reasons, not least because Waugh’s book felt excessively dated. This in itself wouldn’t normally concern me unduly – in fact, I concede, in some novels it can be a pleasing aspect – but I found certain racist elements, for instance the revolting names used by characters to describe black people, sickening in the extreme. Yes, I fully appreciate it is satire and the terms merely reflect the era in which the story was written. The period is of course representative of pre-war British journalism, exactly as Waugh intended, but to this bleeding heart, lefty, postcolonial reader, large chunks of the narrative simply weren’t funny.
Waugh himself, while being an immensely gifted writer (one of my favourite novels is Brideshead Revisited ), was a controversial figure even during his lifetime, partly because of his openly fascist sympathies. However, Scoop remains one of his most popular works and is regarded by many as being one of the funniest pieces of fiction ever written about journalism. So there is little more I can write on the subject, except to assert, as someone deeply troubled by fake news, I was bitterly disappointed not to have enjoyed this novel.
This is a little off-subject but it comes to mind: I have greatly enjoyed reading Agatha Christie mysteries over the years, but, last year I learned that the original title of And Then There Where None was Ten Little Niggers! I can’t quite un-admire Christie’s skill and output, but, whenever I see one of her books I can’t forget what I now know.
That’s right, Leslie. When I first read it (probably in the early ’80s) the title had been changed to ‘Ten Little Indians’. I only found out about its original title years later but, as you say, it’s not something easily put to the back of your mind.
I struggled with this one as well, and it’s funny how some books date less well than others. As for the Christie, the original title came from a nursery rhyme (she used them a lot) – though not pleasant.
I’m glad I’m not alone in finding Scoop outdated. I expected lots of people to disagree. Re. Christie’s novel, I seem to recall reading that it was the title of a popular minstrel show song, though I may well be misremembering.
It’s a song from the 1880s and not defensible at all. Mind you I am old enough to remember the dreadful BBC minstrel snow from the 1960s and 1970s…. 😱😱😱😱
Me too, Karen. I remember it well!
Ahh. I will admit, Waugh’s writing, conceptually, intimidates me. I have heard similar comments from many people who have read his works. I fear I won’t get it. In this particular case, I don’t know much about journalism. I only know what I experience. With the dated racist comments… You’re right, some books age well, and others don’t. Even if they include racism or sexism, they might age well. It’s a shame you didn’t connect well here.
Thank you, Jackie. Yes, it was a shame but, as I think you commented on another thread, there are always going to be books that disappoint – and they make the good ones all the more enjoyable.
Oh I am sorry you didn’t enjoy it. I love it myself! But that’s the beauty of individuality…the world would be a dull place if we all liked exactly the same things 😉
That’s so true, Chomeuse. 😊
I do wonder about old books that make us uncomfortable quite a lot. Parts of Maugham are really sexist. I’m sure my deceased grandmother wouldn’t have even noticed that. And I think about the journalists who work for the Daily Express. That seems to be a paper which is obsessed with “immigration” and it can barely get the weather right; but it is easy for educated folk to sneer. So I wonder if I should give Maugham another go, because despite his values he was a writer who Orwell admired. I sometimes think I judge things too quickly, and I miss out as a result. I’m not saying you’re wrong to be disappointed, but maybe people can find jewels in the mud if they persevere. Many journalists are probably prone to racism because it is by appealing to the prejudices of the people that they can shift content?
Yes, I agree. It’s the age-old question: should we stop reading certain books because we find the author’s lifestyle or opinions unsavoury in some way? The answer in most instances (in my opinion) is no. If we did, there would be enormous gaps on our shelves. I didn’t like the racism in Scoop, but neither was I overly keen on the novel itself – it felt dated in a negative way. However, that won’t prevent me from reading other works by Waugh. He was, I know, a talented writer. This particular book simply wasn’t for me.
I really hated this one. I loved Vile Bodies but found any other of Waugh’s books full of unbearable snobbery and racism, and this one was the worst of the four books of his that I have read.
I’m so glad I’m not alone in disliking this book. I must try reading Vile Bodies at some point.
I find myself very conflicted over what is now overt racism, sexism etc. when I encounter it in books written at a time when such attitudes would have been regarded as acceptable. I can acknowledge that the author was not intending to cause offence at the time, merely reflecting society, but it jars nonetheless and definitely has an adverse effect on my reaction to the novel. There has to be something very strong in the book to get me past the offending references.
Thank you, Sandra. Yes, I agree, it’s sometimes easy to forget that times were so very different, and one must always take that into consideration. Also, as you suggest, “something very strong” is required, and it simply wasn’t there for me with this novel.
Great review. I have not read it, but I empathize with your critique.
Thank you, Silvia. 😊
“Scoop” was the first adult satire I read as a teenager and I liked it. Later I met journalists who identified with the book. It is dated and offensive now but I think the essence of the story holds strong.
Thanks Gretchen. I know very many people really love this book. I wish I had been able to like it more.
Plenty more books in the sea, er, bookshop!
There sure are! 😊