Judging Friends

How do you react when you read a book by someone you know? A friend. A relative. A colleague. An acquaintance, maybe. And how do you proceed if you are asked to review the book? It is a dilemma, a quandary, even a “tight spot” as my Thesaurus would have it. There is no easy answer.

As a journalist for three decades and later a corporate writer and freelance contributor to a number of British and American publications, this predicament (another bow in the direction of the Thesaurus!) cropped up with some regularity. Journalists and business types like to write books – not necessarily works of literature, but often to get “their” side of events on the record or to put a new slant on an old incident or to justify an action (or inaction). Motive is everything. So the reader needs to be careful.

The list of authors I know is quite long now. Only a few of them are what one might call “professional” authors – someone who makes a living writing books over a lengthy period of time. But all wanted, at one moment or another, to make an impact with their effort – to get something off their chest or to settle a score or to describe a unique experience in detail or to tell the world about something hitherto unrecorded.

One’s own attitude as a reader comes into play too. How well one got on with the writer. Whether he or she had an honest or slippery reputation at the time you knew them. Whether you find the subject of the book of interest or simply read out of a sense of obligation to someone you know or knew. It’s a complicated area and one that has received little attention in the world of books and reviewers and readers. Perhaps it is too close to the bone?

The various problems around works by those one knows are most acute, of course, with books that are stinkers. One school friend of mine, Ewen Southby-Tailyour, has written eleven well-received military histories including the best, Reasons in Writing, about the 1982 Falklands conflict. In an excess of zeal to try something different, in 2007 he published a John Buchan-type novel Skeletons for Sadness. I had to review it and struggled to be polite. It is pointless to duck the issue but, equally, pointless to dig the knife in very deep.

Memoirs are a particular bugbear. I recall vividly an embarrassing autobiography Acting Up by the ebullient brewery owner John Young who I knew vaguely. He had simply not thought, or cared, about how the story of his larger-than-life activities would be received by his nearest and dearest when he put pen to paper. Fortunately he died soon after his book was published and before a reaction could set in.

People who are dry-as-dust, such Sir Donald Maitland, a prominent diplomat of his era and one-time spokesman for Prime Minister Edward Heath, tend to produce memoirs (Diverse Times, Sundry Places) that reflect their character and their occupation. John Cole, a former BBC political editor, was an erudite, earnest journalist from Northern Ireland. His lengthy autobiography As It Seemed To Me underlines Cole’s on-the-one hand-on-the-other attitude, born of a desire to escape Ulster’s partisan heritage, and BBC institutional even-handedness.
But there are also excellent exceptions. Someone I once met on holiday, the poet Adam Czerniawski, sent me his subtle, evocative memoir Scenes from a Disturbed Childhood. This details his amazing escape with his mother from Poland in 1939 and subsequent schooling in Israel and England, and is a delight to read as I was able to tell Adam at a later encounter over lunch. But it could have turned out so differently. Another well told story of its time and place is Looking For Trouble by the foreign correspondent Richard Beeston. This book exactly captures Dick’s mildly amused, mildly engaged, mildly mocking character and love of the world of secrets and double-dealing.

Then there are the disappointments such as Joe Lelyveld’s Omaha Blues. When I heard that the one-time executive editor of the New York Times, author of a brilliant book about apartheid South Africa Move Your Shadow and one time contemporary in Johannesburg had written about his family background, I had a copy specially shipped over from America. The plan was to review it in Time magazine. But it never resonated. Time, fortunately, let me off the hook.
Another grave disappointment was John Browne’s Beyond Business. The one-time head of BP (who I worked for 1997-2003) employed a ghost writer, allowed himself to be put in a formulaic straight jacket, came across as immodest and boastful – and ducked many of the big questions. Readers in business schools may have found value in the book but to others it was a self-serving missed opportunity. Browne partially redeemed himself with The Glass Closet: Why Coming out is Good Business but, like most second helpings, the edge had gone.
Some terrific books by friends and acquaintances did come my way, however, during my reviewing years. Three of the best were by Harry Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times – Good Times, Bad Times; The American Century and My Paper Chase. All are classics of their genre, punchily written and well worth exploring. Then there was the South African journalist Benjamin Pogrund’s War of Words – to this day a defiant cri de couer for the values of a free press in a police state. Riian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart fits somewhere in between – a fluently written, almost painful book to read, by a white liberal South African which somehow felt contrived.

Of course, there are people one knows almost too well so you can end up reading between the lines. One of my contemporaries as a foreign correspondent in Moscow in the 1970s was the Financial Times’ David Satter. Always a procrastinator, it took David a decade after his Moscow stint to produce Age of Delerium about the last years of the Soviet Union. On reading the book (an impressive work of scholarship), a feeling of profound of relief overcame me – he had finally delivered!

That feeling applied too, with additional force, when one of my closest friends, the sports writer Dudley Doust, produced a posthumous book in 2009 titled Bradley Brook: an American walks down an English stream. Lovingly recreating the natural environment around his home in Somerset, Dudley had spent years walking the course, talking to locals, digging into the history of Bradley Brook and its surrounds. But he had still to finish the book when he died. A good friend, Scyld Berry, edited the text skillfully. But the knowledge of what had transpired took the gloss off the finished product, for me at least.

Some of these books are surprises. Philip Caputo, another Moscow contemporary, wrote a searing memoir of the war in Vietnam A Rumor of War. At the time (1977) this seemed to be the first and last shot in his locker so vivid and personal was the writing. But not at all. Caputo has since delivered another 14 well received books including eight novels. Still, A Rumor of War has become a classic in the literature of war.
A good friend called John Marks fits into another mould – someone who wrote like a dream for magazines, wanted to be a novelist, produced three works of fiction one of which, War Torn, was serenaded by Publishers Weekly but then moved into television production to earn a living. Most recently he changed direction completely and authored Reasons to Believe about his search for Christian faith. No surprise really – I had the advantage reading his books always knowing that John was most interested in the meaning of life.

The work that editors do on books before they appear is another dimension to all this. For a couple of years in the mid-1990s it was one of my jobs to edit weekly magazine pieces for an American publication by the famous military historian John Keegan, author of 26 books by the time he died in 2012. Some of these works – The Face of Battle, A History of Warfare, The First World War – are classics. But somehow I could never shake off the knowledge that John mailed me hastily scrawled articles written with an old fashioned fountain pen that had to be severely reworked before they could be transmitted across the Atlantic.

In the ‘ships that pass in the night’ category I would place James MacManus, once of The Guardian newspaper and an esteemed foreign correspondent in Rhodesia at the end of white rule in 1980-81. From time to time we had a drink together there after a hard day’s reporting. More than 30 years passed and then in 2014 I attended a session of the Chiswick Book Festival where MacManus was a speaker. His novel Black Venus about Charles Baudelaire and his lover the Haitian night club singer Jeanne Duval who inspired his most famous poems, had just appeared. I reintroduced myself and bought a copy – and much enjoyed the vivid recreation of 19th century Paris that in the normal course of events I would never have attempted.

Much the same applies in reverse. Since my memoir A Road Less Travelled was published in 2011 plaudits have rolled in from some, silence from others. It is the latter that an author wonders about. Any book, especially autobiography, is revealing. The blander it is, the worse it is. Yet the franker it is, even in lightly disguised novel form of a type made famous by Ann Scott-James’s seminal In The Mink (published in 1952; supposedly a work of fiction about the fashion magazine world), the more the laws of unintended consequences kick in.

Hemmingway once wrote, in an essay for Esquire magazine in 1934, that “all good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.” This is doubly the case if you know the author – such books can only be judged to a higher standard by the reader who demands, sometimes without knowing it, more insights, more detail and more convincing. Yet the greater knowledge also brings with it greater sympathy and understanding. It is a fine line – one that is rewarding to walk.

by ROBIN KNIGHT, February, 2015