Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Old Pals Act of 1898

This is a piece about doing favours for your friends. In other words, it's about operating under the terms of the Old Pals Act of 1898.

In fact, the relevant legislation goes back far further than 1898. There was a medieval statute, which was based on Roman law; and before that there were cavemen who had the stone-age equivalent. But it is recent manifestations of this ancient piece of legislation which will concern us today.

Back in 1962, the UK Sunday Times stopped being just a black and white newspaper and introduced a magazine-style colour supplement. The main purpose of this supplement was to enable advertisers to place full-colour glossy ads, for which the ST could charge oodles of money.

In journalistic terms, the colour supplement was a pretty high-class publication, with some good reporting and excellent photography. It seldom published fiction. But one day, in the mid 1970s, I opened the ST supplement and found that it was serialising a novel. It was a novel about the mafia by one Norman Lewis. (You can read an enormous article about Norman Lewis if you wish, and it is certainly interesting, but let us not get distracted.)

In the 1970s I will still a relatively young man, and still very naive and ignorant about the UK book trade. And so when I saw that the ST was serialising a thriller about the mafia -- and remember please that they seldom published any fiction at all -- I thought to myself Wow! This must be one hell of a book.

So I sat down to read the extracts. And you know what? I didn't think it was a very good book at all. Rather boring in fact. Run of the mill.

I puzzled over this phenomenon for some time. It worried me. Other people obviously thought that the book was brilliant, otherwise it wouldn't have been picked out from a thousand others. What was there in the book that I was missing?

The answer, as you will have guessed, is that I was missing nothing. The novel was indeed a pretty run of the mill thriller. What I had overlooked was the previously existing relationship between the author and the Sunday Times.

About ten years later, I read a reference in Private Eye, to the effect that Norman Lewis was a long-standing member of the ST staff; and it was then that the penny finally dropped. (I know, I know, I'm slow.)

In order get his novel serialised in the ST colour supplement, Norman didn't have to write the thriller of the century. All he had to do was wander down the corridor to see his friend the editor and say, 'By the way, George, I've written this novel that's coming out in a couple of months. Any chance of running a couple of extracts in the old ST?'

And George would have said, 'Certainly, old boy. No problem. How much do you want?'

And that, you see, is a deal done under the terms of the Old Pals Act of 1898.

Furthermore, as you may already have observed, the UK Act has its counterparts in almost every other part of the world which is known to man. And recent press reports suggest that there is a particularly powerful form of it in the state of Florida. Where it was probably enacted by that bloke Bush.

The story is told (link provided by booktrade.info) in the Miami New Times, which revels in the problems experienced by its (presumed) rival, the Miami Herald.

What happened was this: the management of the Herald decided to serialise, and plug hard, a book written by six local women, at least one of whom was connected with the paper. So far so normal. But some of the staff took a dim view. The Herald's internal computer bulletin board lit up with staff demanding to know 'Why are we publishing this absolute drivel?'

Well, the bosses could hardly say, 'We're doing it under the terms of the latest Florida mutual back-scratching enactment, with which you all ought to be thoroughly familiar.' No. They wriggled and squirmed and talked about policy.

What is more, they pointed out that 'newspapers using material written by their staffers that is also a book is common.' Which indeed it is. The Act requires it.

And so on. Like many blazing rows, this one is terrific fun to read about, so long as you aren't in the middle of it. The Miami New Times enjoyed it immensely. The headline was 'The Miami Herald's shamelessly extravagant promotion of a lousy book sets the newsroom aflame.'

Meanwhile, there is a similar sort of ding-dong afoot in France (reported in the Guardian). The French government's anti-corruption squad has looked at the way in which big literary prizes are awarded and has found that it is all very incestuous, with a complete lack of transparency, extensive interlocking membership between jury members, literary critics, novelists, mistresses, catamites, hangers-on, brothel-keepers, fancy restaurant owners, et cetera. And really, in the eyes of said government watchdog, it is not good enough.

One small French publisher is quoted as saying, 'French publishing, and particularly the whole prize charade, is all about mutual back-scratching. It's scandalous really, and if it gets cleaned up that can only be a good thing.'

But just a minute. It was only at the end of March that we reported that, more than 150 years ago, Honore de Balzac was clearly stating that the French literary scene was corrupt. It was, according to Balzac, a world in which talent counted for nothing, and bribery, intrigue and unscrupulousness were the key factors in success.

So, if anyone is looking forward to the French version of the Old Pals Act being repealed, I fear they are in for a long wait. And ditto for everywhere else.

2 comments:

Constance said...

Newspapers deserve a bit of Vanity Press after taking on the tasks of World reporting. Readers can enjoy a nice break from hard hitting stories and staff can peek at how the other half lives.

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