Friday, March 17, 2006

More on the Dibdin/Bourne affair

On 13 February, I noted that the Times had gleefully published a book review by Michael Dibdin which had been rejected by the Guardian. Why was the Grauniad unhappy? Because the review was of The Righteous Men, by Sam Bourne, and Sam Bourne is the pen-name of the Grauniad's political man, Jonathan Freedland. And the review was, shall we say, ungenerous.

Subsequently, the Literary Saloon reminded their readers that I had written about the Freedland/Bourne novel when it was first commissioned. They reminded me about it too, because I had quite forgotten. And it turns out that, in my piece of 16 September 2004, I had complained loudly about the Fleet Street/publishing mafia, and the cosy deals done within that coterie, and had stated my view that, when the book finally did appear, it would not prove to be worth its very substantial advance (reported as the usual six figures).

Well, now the magazine Private Eye has come up with a few more details of what went on in the Grauniad office.
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.
The Eye also says that 'still fuming, Freedland has now advised Armitstead that she should never ask Dibdin to write for the Grauniad again.' It also notes that, one month after the publication of The Righteous Men, the Dibdin review remains the only one that the book has received.

How can this be? It is in flagrant violation of the Old Pals Act of 1898 (section 42[d]), which states clearly that any book written by a Fleet Street journalist must automatically be reviewed by every other newspaper in the land. And, preferably, that the author be given a full-page interview as well.

Shome mishtake here, shurely. Perhaps people just don't realise who Sam Bourne is. Perhaps he ought to send a note round.


Anonymous said...

Oo-er, just what I love with my morning coffee, a bit of goss.

Seriously though, it is amazing that any unknown ever becomes famous for writing an excellent book out of nowhere!

Anonymous said...

I see we are having a bit of a dyslexic morning:-)

ivan said...

I have had my run-ins with Fleet Street.
They have made me swear and use terms out of anatomy.
I have seen Fleet street review books put out by vain authors
published by Vanity presses--faint hope here?
It is my contention, here in the Toronto area that Fleet Street is not only a mafia, but it is worse:
It has links with the CIA. I have worked for the Toronto Telegram,a Fleet Street onclave over here.
Thank god the Telegram died.
Nobody went to the funeral.

Anonymous said...

I bought a book on impulse yesterday - 'The Case of the Missing Books' by Ian Sansom. Vegetarian, Jewish librarian arrives in North Antrim to become a librarian, to find someone has stolen all the books.
Nice cover, complimentary quotes: 'Mellow, intelligent and very funny.' Guardian. 'Endlessly inventive ... I laughed more times than I can remember.' Observer.

Anyway, having read the book, I was curious about how much time Mr Samson had spent in N. Antrim, so I googled him. Turns out he's a 'regular contributor' to the Guardian.

I suppose as a marketing strategy it worked, because I bought the book - but it does leave me feeling conned out of my £6.99.

Anonymous said...

Try Jay Raynor, long-time restaurant critic and general columnist of the Observer/Guardian. The Observer publishes long, positive reviews of his novels, which are light and nothing very remarkable. The Observer's lit editor ought to be ashamed.

Bernita said...

I seriously loved this, Grumpy.
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

A word on the Old Pals Act of 1898. I suspect that many GOB readers – principally, but not solely, the non-Brits – may have a somewhat hazy notion of its scope. It should, I think, be made clear that the Act attempts to do much more than simply ensure favourable book reviews for old pals. It is also concerned with preventing the wrong people from getting published in the first place – and in this respect, it has undergone a transformation in recent years.

It was originally intended to protect the interests of the former pupils of England's finest schools (Eton, Harrow etc.) in a time of increasing democracy. This was in no way controversial: no one of any significance thought it proper that representatives of the lower orders should rise to positions of eminence in society. However, much has changed since 1898, and Parliament has of late found it necessary to amend the original Act several times.

In so far as the Act covers consumer publishing, the most far-reaching of these amendments is the one which now makes it illegal for a publisher to bring out a novel not written by an old pal. (This caused consternation at Mills & Boon, who complained bitterly that they trade on the reputation of their imprint, not on the names of their authors: ‘We require writers, not names. Old pals, whether we like it or not, do not normally come to us.’ After much head-scratching, a somewhat clumsy solution was adopted: for the purposes of the Act, ‘Mills & Boon shall not be considered a publisher’.)

In any case, this amendment is offset by the hugely widened scope of the definition of ‘old pals’. In addition to Old Etonians, Old Harrovians etc., the designation now includes ‘all celebs, whethersoever, whithersoever, whatsoever, heretofore and hereinunder’. Indeed, celebritates A-listienses (and no, I can’t face explaining) ‘must at all times be published.’ Should they be unwilling or unable to write for themselves, ‘their publisher shall appoint a hackus ghostwriteriensis’ (see under celebritates A-listienses) to do the work for them.

Old pals may also, at the publisher’s discretion, include ‘all those already known to the publisher’. These may include ‘salaried staff members of national newspapers and magazines, employees of publishing houses, and friends and relatives of same’. In case any imprint might seek to take advantage of this somewhat loose definition, it is required that all publishers produce on demand evidence of the connections of any new writer (although ‘these connections must under no circumstances be disclosed to the reading public’).

The most recent amendment to the Act has only just reached the statute book. Again at the publisher’s discretion, any writer may be considered an old pal who ‘has not yet attained his or her fifteenth birthday’. This, as GOB readers will know, has enabled the publication of works by Emma Maree Urquhart, Robert King, Adora Sitvak and Libby Rees.

It should be said that the widening of the definition of old pals has not been without controversy. There have in fact been bitter complaints by several Old Etonians, Old Harrovians etc, who say that their own position has been fatally undermined. In the words of Sir Cecil Montague-Wotherington-Smythe (Eton and Grenadier Guards [retd]), ‘this is not democracy, this is anarchy. Does breeding count for nothing any more?’

But resistance is futile. The new old pals have the power now, and there is nothing that Sir Cecil or anyone else can do about it. The future is theirs. It certainly isn’t mine, and I doubt very much if it’s yours either.

Bernita said...

I once received an invitation to lunch from Lord Thompson....would that help?

Anonymous said...


Bernita said...

Didn't think so.
Ah well.

Martin said...

Dear GOB,

What sort of Old Pal relationship has allowed you to get your forthcoming novel published?



Anonymous said...

Indeed. But there is a crucial subsection of the Fleet Street Old Pals Act that states "While you may receive a large advance and a decent review in your own paper, reviewers from rival papers are entitled to give you a kicking, mainly out of jealousy."