March 15, 2006

Jonathan Freedland and the "too negative" review

Did you see the negative review of Jonathan Freedland's book in the Guardian? No. That's because he spiked it. He, Jonathan Freedland, spiked it. Not his editor, him. Here, according to Private Eye magazine (not much of it appears on line - you'll have to get the hard copy), is how and why.
Last month we reported the Grauniad's spiking of a review from eminent crime writer Michael Dibdin begause it was "too negative" about a new thriller, The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne. The problem? Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Grauniad bigwig Jonathan Freedland, making a desperate (and doomed) effort to break into the Dan Brown market.

Lord Gnome has now learned more about how the piece came to be suppressed, which sheds fascinating light on the Grauniad's editorial processes. When the Dibdin review arrived, hilariously trashing Freedland's thriller, literary editor Claire Armitstead went to editor Alan Rusbridger and asked what to do about it. Amazingly, Rusbridger then referred the piece to Sam Bourne himself, aka Jonathan Freedland, asking if he wanted it to run.

Surprise, surprise, Freedland said no. And so it came to pass.

Not that this spared the wretched Freedland. Angry at the Grauniad's censorship, Dibdin took his article to the Times, which was delighted to print it. A month after publication, it remains the only review of any kind for The Righteous Men.
Still fuming, Freedland has now advised Armitstead that she should never ask Dibdin to write for the Grauniad again.
Here's the Times Review:
READING THIS BOOK IS like dating someone who seems attractive if rather conventional at first, then maybe a little eccentric in a colourful way, but gradually gets weirder and weirder until finally, around four in the morning, you realise that you’ve invited a raving lunatic into your life.

But let’s go back to the beginning, when you were just getting to know each other. The background information looked reassuring: Jonathan Freedland, the respected Guardian columnist, has written a thriller, a traditional mid-life career move for male journalists, dating back to Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. But thrillers are now essentially movie treatments, and any agent will be looking for an attention-grabbing concept on which to base the big pitch that gets the big numbers.

Well, how about this? A cabal of extremely rich and powerful New York Jews is conspiring to bring about the end of the world by murdering a seemingly random bunch of lowlife do-gooders, only to be foiled by a newspaper reporter in league with members of a community of ultra-orthodox Christians who have kidnapped his wife but help him defeat the evil Jews in the shootout climax.

No, but there’s something there. How about flipping the whole thing 180? Make the Jews the good guys — Hassidic instead of Amish reclusives — and have the killers be a bunch of reborn Ivy League Wasps. It’s The Da Vinci Code meets The Brotherhood and begets Rosemary’s Baby. Let’s get rich! Maybe they will. The hero of The Righteous Men is Will Monroe, a British journalist working for The New York Times — promising some interesting bicultural insights that never emerge — and the style is very much that of the most boring newspaper in the world since Pravda reinvented itself: a mixture of plonking facts and breathless platitudes.

That’s how thrillers are meant to sound, and the content is at first equally typical, with the cub reporter on the beat winning accolades from management and resentment from colleagues for filing on two apparently unconnected and motiveless murders. The only flaw is that Will takes a lot longer than the reader to notice that both victims are described by someone who knew them as “righteous”, as opposed to “good” or “kind”.

The looming concept finally steps out of the shadows when Will’s wife disappears and he starts getting mysterious text messages on his mobile and e-mails on his BlackBerry, for this is cutting-edge wi-fi paranoia. He enlists the help of a former lover and a computer geek and soon we are knee-deep in cryptography, acrostics and numerology. At this stage it’s all basically good clean fun, and the scenes of Will's incursion into a Hassidic community in Brooklyn are the best in the book, with real tension and drama. This could have resulted in a study of hard moral ambiguities in the John le Carré manner, but instead the the novel’s spinal column dissolves in a puddle of chicken fat.

The key to the killings is hidden in Jewish mysticism about which we are informed in reverentially hushed tones and that are taken at face value. For The Righteous Men to work in the rational world, which we have by now left far behind, the reader must accept that an Oxford-educated British hack could be so bowled over by the sheer wisdom, learning and, well, righteousness of the Hassidim that he comes to believe that You-Know-Who has a preordained plan for mankind encoded in scripture and that their rabbi possessed accurate real-world information about it.

Oh, and that Will’s unborn son may be the Messiah if the big guy upstairs decides he needs one any time soon, but (this is a helpful parenting tip) that Will shouldn’t make a big deal about it.

Still, you read on, if only out of morbid curiosity about which bit of kabbalistic hokum you’re expected to swallow next, and since Dan Brown — a name curiously similar to this pseudonym — has done all right, there must be a market for this sort of stuff.

At least really bad writing can be relied upon to throw up those great lines that you don't find anywhere else — like this reflection on the healing issues of a man who has blown his dad’s head apart with a pistol: “Whatever Freud said about Oedipal fantasies, killing one’s own father shook the psyche to its foundations.” How true.
I wonder if Freedland got the chance to vet this Observer review:
In truth, despite the welter of Jewish arcana, mysterious bumpings-off and the introduction of a brilliantly sinister newspaper editor called Townsend McDougal, it isn't much of a book, either. But neither is it the worst example of a genre whose day probably has some time to run, and Sam Bourne, unless Jonathan Freedland is hiding his light under a bushel in the manner of the pseudonymous activist collective Luther Blissett, should not feel shy to call it his own.
He may have even written it for
Matilda Lisle is the nom de plume for an Observer staff writer
I'd better set myself a task for 1st April like "don't be so gullible".

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