by Evelyn Waugh

Although I loved Brideshead Revisited (both the novel and the 1981 BBC television series), I’d never read any other novels by Evelyn Waugh. Then, while I was doing all the reading for Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I picked up a copy of Waugh’s fifth novel, Scoop, and found myself totally entranced and entertained.  And, not least, I found myself both shocked and uncomfortable.  I want to recommend Scoop highly, because it’s a brilliant and biting satire that exposes the baseness of the news reporting business and, more specifically, tabloid journalism.  I am, in fact, recommending it highly; it’s definitely well worth reading.  Believe me, after you finish this, you’ll never read (or hear) a news story in quite the same way again. Scoop was written in the 1930s and is clearly based on Waugh’s experiences as a reporter covering the war between Italy and Ethiopia. 

But the more I thought about it (and I thought about it a lot because this issue really interests me), the more I questioned how I could praise a novel so highly that is both racist and anti-Semitic?  How can I have so thoroughly enjoyed such a book?  And—just to warn you—the racism and anti-Semitism are not presented at all subtly.  Scoop is filled with epithets and descriptions that made me wince in psychic pain.

It’s true that you can find these same sentiments toward non-Christians and non-whites reflected in the mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, for example, although they’re not quite as barbed as they are in the hands of Waugh, who is probably the best writer of the three.  Do we excuse the novels because these were the attitudes of the time, and the authors were merely sailing along with the prevailing wind?  Is it right to read the future into these books and see the Holocaust foretold in the anti-Semitism and the messiness of the Middle East in the treatment of the natives in Waugh’s fictional country?  I don’t know the answer to these questions. What do you think?



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8 responses to “Scoop

  1. Robyn Pforr Ryan

    Nancy, I’m glad you did follow that cringe-worthy feeling and post on it. Your post was not a slam against the book, but an honest this is how I feel both good and bad that allowed us as readers to think about it ourselves, and, in fact, encouraged that kind of exploratory thinking. And what a great dialogue you’ve spurred. I love the comments.

    So I pulled my copy of Scoop off of one of the bookshelves in our little 1900 farmhouse (which is a comment on my feelings on the book, because sadly some books have to go for lack of space). And out fell a little piece from the NYTimes that I had clipped and stashed inside the cover. It was from August 24 of 2008, the TBR: Inside the List column, which apparently was around the 70th anniversary of its publication. The little piece said that Tina Brown’s forthcoming media web site would be named the Daily Beast after his book. It also quoted from the Times review of Scoop by Robert van Gelder, who described it as being almost too good. “Mr Waugh writes with such mastery that the use of 321 pages of his prose – prose that in this generation is practically peerless – to bring off too obvious a farce seems rather wasteful, almost as wasteful as was Mussolini’s use of his war machine to capture Abyssinia.” Apparently he ended his review with “Every one should get a copy at once.”
    Nancy and fellow readers, I WISH I had the time to reread Scoop right now.! Arggghh!
    I found it interesting that the Times snippet did not mention anything about racism or anti-Semitism. Most likely the review was written with a similar mindset. It’s when we don’t notice these strains and kind of shine light on them that they get into our subconscious. With this book, it seems like it bears acknowledging along with acknowledging the good and the fabulous. Off to do a long bike ride, now, training for my first spring triathlon.

    • Nancy Pearl

      Thanks, Robin, for letting me know about Tina Brown’s using The Daily Beast for her online pub. I wonder if that review was what spurred me to read it in the first place.

      Did you know we just got back from two weeks biking in Holland? Few hills but horrible headwinds.

      • Robyn Pforr Ryan

        Do you mean you had the original NY Times review somewhere back in the back of your head??? That’s incredible!!!

        I think I will print out this comment thread and add it to my inside the front cover, as my daughter, newly 13!, will possibly read it one day and I’d like her to be aware of this issue, too.

        I saw your biking reference on facebook. This morning I went out about 30 minutes too late. I was right in the middle of rush hour traffic to the high school (the route I took). I’m a terribly nervous biker when sharing the road these days.

        Nancy, On my shelf next to Scoop was the book Tracks by Robyn Davidson that I mentioned to you in re. some other post. I don’t know if you’re already full up for your book list for your Travel book, but let me just leave you with the subtitle: “The exhilarating tale of a willful woman’s solo trek across 1,700 miles of Australian outback,” and the first line: “I arrived in the Alice at 5 a.m. with a dog, six dollars and a small suitcase full of inappropriate clothes,” and, lastly, but not leastly (word??), the first sentence of the 2nd paragraph: ” There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track.”

        I have a copy if you can’t get a hold of one or are already full-up on fabulous travel books. I know that you would be someone who would return my book to me in good condition! I’ve become a stingy book lender as the ones I own are so dear to me that I can’t bear to lend them to someone who might not return them.

        RobYn ( : ) )

  2. Nancy Pearl

    As I said in my original post, I think this is a tough question for readers (and those who talk about or think about books) to grapple with. I’ve always advocated using books like Huck Finn et al as ways to talk about the way we’ve changed (or not). I also hate labeling books as sexist or racist or whateverist; and I thought Scoop was a terrific read. That being said, and for whatever reason, that day that I read it, I found it cringeworthy and therefore worth commenting on.

  3. Robyn Pforr Ryan

    Nancy, I had a mind skip when I read that you wrote about Scoop. I read it in my early 20’s (I’m now on the cusp of 43), while I was a daily newspaper reporter, or, perhaps, while I was in college, because I remember distinctly completely losing it laughing out loud on the subway in New York City (where I went to college). I know only one other person who has read Scoop, and that was my one journalism professor from my undergrad days.
    Which tells you where I was coming from when I read Scoop. I LOVED its sense of humor. 20+ years later I can still recall the scene where the very repressed and timid and reserved main character walks across a field of cows. And I went on to spend some 5 years as a daily reporter – many rungs down the food chain from the NYTimes.
    Nancy, I appreciate your post for its honesty about the dichotomy involved. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t even recall the racism and anti-Semitism. I have a very strong radar re. gender issues. The novel I’m now writing is set in the 1940s and I have encountered the anti-Semitism of that era in my research. My main character is jewish. I have a pretty hefty stack of books on my list to read (I decided not to ditch February! What a writer!) but I may decide to read it again, adding on the lens of my greater maturity gained from the two decades since I read it last and your comments.
    This is a bit of a first pass response here. I guess I believe that we should not be so black and white and chuck things over the rail so easily in our society. I think we should both read Evelyn Waugh and talk about its great writing and talk about its great humor (if one is of that opinion) and ALSO talk about the anti-Semitism of that time. The more we engage with the past in that way, the more engaged we are with our present and more empowered and wise regarding the future.
    Your reading friend, Robyn

  4. Martha Pinsky

    While I agree that it is difficult to read racist and other offensive writing, its context in the realm of history has to be considered. I can’t imagine turning my back on authors like Waugh or Twain or any of the others whose work gives us an honest depiction of the time in which they wrote. How could they write otherwise? We can allow ourselves some personal censorship in our own reading but fine literature needs to be acknowledged.

  5. This is always a tough question for me. I cringe but then I also appreciate the fact that it is an honest representation of what the author was comfortable writing at the time. It’s unfair to judge based on our modern day standards of equality but at the same time, we shouldn’t be comfortable reading these sorts of things either. The preservation of our indignity stems from this discomfort.

  6. emma kaye

    Not too long ago I happened on a nonfiction book titled, “Papa Spy” by Jimmy Burns. (An excellent account of the Spanish Civil War.) Along with other British notables of the era, Evelyn Waugh surfaced several times. He just sounded so odious that, to me, the quality of his writing matters little. I have a finite amount of time to read. I choose not to read the works of those whose hand I would not shake.

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