It’s been a tough month for New York Times executive editors. Just as Jill Abramson is let go, a harsh, thinly-veiled portrait of Howell Raines pops up in The Transcriptionist, Amy Rowland’s debut novel about a Times-like paper called the Record. Raines, fired in 2003 in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal, makes his fictional character debut as Ralph, an unpopular, Yeats-quoting, panama-hat wearing southerner marked by his self-absorption: “Everything the man writes is a ten-thousand word ode to himself.”
Perhaps a Times writer is already gathering material for a roman à clef about the Abramson drama and preparing to similarly skewer its villains. In the meantime, let us reacquaint ourselves with some past and present examples of the “press novel,” that curious subgenre whose motto could be “All the news unfit to print.”
In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, William Boot, the guileless author of the “Lush Places” country column, is mistakenly sent to report on a “very promising little war” for Lord Copper’s Beast. When his mission ends in unexpected success, a young man asks him for professional advice. The aspiring reporter has been using his spare time to imagine lurid stories and how he would handle them. “But do you think it’s a good way of training oneself — inventing imaginary news?” he asks William. “None better,” William distractedly replies, more interested in owls hunting “maternal rodents and their furry broods” than in the tenets of good journalism.
A classic bit of Waugh humor, but one that speaks to an affinity between the two very different storytelling modes, the novel and the newspaper, “that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species,” as Tom Rachman puts it in his press novel, The Imperfectionists.
The press novel spoofs the occasional fictional quality of journalism; its tendency to narrate chaos using certain pat phrases (“embattled” leaders ruling over “restive” regions with “roiling” protests), its fanciful headlines, and comical errors. And yet the inevitable comedy of press novels often masks a certain weariness stemming from the fusty, hard-drinking culture, from declining readership, from men and women burnt out by a long career of telling too many stories in the same way.
The Imperfectionists, about “the joys of trying to put out a non-embarrassing daily with roughly five percent of the [needed] resources,” has fun with its journalists, who are “as touchy as cabaret performers,” and its lax copyeditors (“Sadism Hussein” slips through). However, like the poor basset hound named Schopenhauer who meets his end on the same day the struggling paper does, its dominant mood is melancholic.
In Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing, the “Kook Beat” reporter Roscoe Baragon’s dogged investigation into an outlandish conspiracy indicates that he may need a break from “doing virtually nothing but phone interviews with insane people.” While the cantankerous veteran’s unhinged quest is awfully amusing, it is also a bit wistful: the last gasp of a certain kind of romanticized reporter, one who learned his craft sifting through financial records in a dumpster rather than in Columbia’s Journalism School.
Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning most clearly exploits the press novel’s comic potential while conveying a sense of enervation. When he is not stockpiling crossword puzzles or wracking his brain to “think of a headline with no more than ten characters for a piece about the dangers of the exaggeratedly indifferentist liturgical tendencies inherent in ecumenicalism,” an editor named John Dyson is trying to cultivate a television career as a cultural commentator: “He would keep the liberal thoughts in his left-hand pocket, he decided, and the provocative ones in his right-hand pocket.”
There are delightfully disastrous television appearances, absurdist press junkets and witty flourishes, but the darkening morning sky under which the novel begins never really lightens. When “poor old Eddy Moulton,” who puts together the nostalgic “In Years Go By” column, dies in the office, his personal effects end up in the trash and he is quickly forgotten by his colleagues who endured his shtick yet never really knew him.
They were like a self-sealing petrol tank; when sections were shot away they closed up automatically and filled the gap, spilling not a drop of the precious communal spirit.
Frayn’s newspaper community is built on interchangeability. Even editing copy is mechanical: “It’s just a matter of checking the facts and the spelling, crossing out the first sentence, and removing any attempts at jokes.”
Which brings us to Rowland’s The Transcriptionist, the latest addition to the press novel genre and whose protagonist Lena is actually mistaken for a machine by some of the reporters who phone in their stories to her. Indeed, the years of copying have made Lena into something of a machine, “a human conduit as the words of others enter through her ears, course through her veins, and drip out unseen through fast-moving fingertips.” Lena presides over the seldom-visited Recording Room of a New York paper called the Record, its color “old opossum or new pumice, the color of newspaper without ink.” The windows haven’t been opened in three years, and in a telling detail, the connection on her transcriber’s phone is clearer when she mutes herself.
As Rowland delves into the alienating effect of being besieged by other people’s words, it is perhaps fitting that her own novel is haunted by literary forbears: Jose Saramago’s questing functionary in All The Names (“The errors of copyists are the least excusable”); George Eliot’s famous passage from Middlemarch about the merciful limits of human sympathy, our deafness to “the roar which lies on the other side of silence”; Italo Calvino’s dictum that the ear, rather than the voice, commands the story; and the spiritual yearning of Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The feud between Chaucer and his scrivener even comes up during Lena’s adventures.
Amidst this literary parade, the ghost of Bartleby, that “pale young scrivener clerk” with a penchant for maddeningly polite refusals, also lingers. Bartleby the Scrivener is especially relevant not only because of its alienated copyist but also because it concerns precisely those stories which stubbornly resist being told. Melville’s narrator is compelled to attempt to account for his thoroughly “unaccountable” clerk — that is, one who refuses to fulfill his responsibilities and one for whom “no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography.” Even the final explanation for Bartleby’s behavior, which leads to him wasting away in the aptly named Hall of Justice, “The Tombs,” is only a “rumor”; he had apparently been laid off from a traumatizing job at the Dead Letters Office sorting through missive which, “on errands of life…speed to death.” (The Transcriptionist is similarly infused with Thanatos — a walk across Bryant Park, briefly used as a graveyard, occasions a musing over whether “a few shards of anonymous bones still lie beneath the grassy lawn.”)
Lena’s own opaque biographical subject is a woman she reads about in the paper who swam across the moat of the lion enclosure at the Bronx Zoo and let herself be mauled. As the article succinctly, if chillingly, puts it: “The Associated Press reported that the woman had been partly devoured.” Lena recognizes the picture as that of the blind court reporter with whom she had a brief encounter outside the New York Public Library, in full view of its majestic though perfectly harmless lions. Seeking to prevent the woman from being buried anonymously in a potter’s field, find out what drove her to embrace so ghastly a fate, and write her story so that she is not simply “perished, printed, recycled,” Lena investigates the woman, whose job, like her own, involves “listening to other people’s tragedies all day.”
As should be evident from the description, The Transcriptionist hews closer to the insistent lugubriousness of Miss Lonelyhearts than the farce of Scoop, though even Rowland’s saturnine tale pauses every now and then to lampoon longwinded editors and mock a vain, slippery reporter bearing a striking resemblance to Judith Miller.
If there is one flaw it is that the novel, so concerned with hearing, is itself a kind of echo chamber. Motifs are struck and then struck again, until whatever resonance they might have built up gets muted. (To take the pride of leonine references: lions maul a woman whom Lena met outside of a library guarded by lions, which spurs Lena to meditate on her childhood fear of roving mountain lions.) One almost wishes that Rowland let some of the background noise, false starts, and stammers inherent in transcription creep into her novel, which too often states its theme clearly and unequivocally: “Listening doesn’t make us disappear. It just helps us recognize our absurdity, our humanity. It’s what binds us together, as the newspaper binds us and before that Chaucer’s tales and before that Scriptures.”
I prefer an earlier and more ambiguous statement that coyly plays on Prufock’s measuring out his life in coffee spoons. Lena calculates that “thirty thousand newspapers equal a life,” a reckoning that for me at least has transformed a pleasant morning ritual into a daily Memento mori.
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