Of newsprint and journalists -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Of newsprint and journalists

Tom Rachman’s debut novel is a fresh insight into the lives behind a struggling paper

By Huma Imtiaz

When one opens up a newspaper to peruse the headlines, one hardly ever thinks about what goes into the making of the newspaper, or the lives of the people behind articles, headlines and advertising space.

Enter: Tom Rachman’s brilliant debut novel The Imperfectionists, a riveting fictional tale of what goes into the making of a paper and the glimpses into the lives of eleven characters who are defined by their relationship with the Ott paper, whether as a reader, or as a publisher.

Rachman tells the reader the tale of the paper, through his wonderful characters. There’s the freelance contributor, whose personal and professional life has gone down the drain. There’s the accounts executive who everyone hates. One must commend Rachman here, for he has ensured that his book stays true to real-life traditional relationships in the newsroom — journalists hate the accounts and finance department, copy editors bicker amongst themselves, and the editor and publisher rarely say eye to eye. Each character’s story is interconnected, so one not just gets to read a snippet from the character’s life story, but also see how they’re viewed by their co-workers.

The Imperfectionists also shines the spotlight on the problems that journalists face, especially those who grow older and fall out of touch with their contacts, or those who are still green at their jobs. Rachman’s shining moment is the tale of the fresh stringer Winston Cheung based in Cairo, and faced with working with an obnoxious veteran journalist Rich Snyder.

“Snyder whispers, “Ask her if she plays around. Is that common in Islamist circles?”

“I can’t ask that,” Winston says, meaning this in every sense.

The crowd is growing in size and hostility.

“Maybe she’s had a lesbian experience,” Snyder remarks.

“But she’s wearing a burka.”

“Women in burkas can’t express their sexual orientation? That is so racist.”

“I can’t ask her stuff like that.”

“Islamist swingers would be an awesome story, bro. Serious awards material.””

What makes Rachman’s book an exciting read is that the above quote could easily be true. Sadly, this is how some journalists act like in the real world, and one can empathise with the uncertainty and fear that the inexperienced stringer Winston has to face.

Rachman also highlights the problems that the newspaper industry has to face: the internet, budget cuts and the dwindling readership. Even though this is a fictional tale, it does serve to remind one that newspapers are no longer the force that they used to be. Rachman also reminds one of a time where the sanctity of the English language used to be preserved by the best of editors, who would not tolerate the slightest abuse of the language.

“Corrections have proliferated of late. A handful even earned a place on Herman’s corkboard; Tony Blair included on a list of “recently deceased Japanese dignitaries”; Germany described as suffering from “a genital malaise in the economy”; and almost daily appearances from “the Untied States.” He types out his latest publishable correction: “In an article by Hardy Benjamin in the Tuesday business section, the former dictator of Iraq was erroneously referred to as Sadism Hussein. The correct spelling is Saddam. We doubt that our typographical error impinged on the man’s credibility, however we regret–“”

As a journalist, one must salute Tom Rachman. The Imperfectionists has finally, after Evelyn Vaugh’s Scoop, humanised the faces behind the by-lines and the masthead, and highlighted not just the trials and tribulations of what journalists and publishers go through, but how, despite it all, they continue their work. Undoubtedly, had Rachman not been a journalist before he began writing his book, The Imperfectionists would have perhaps not made the impact that it does. But it is Rachman’s own fresh eye, his insight into what makes a good headline, the goof ups at papers (typos, typos!) and the drama that ensues at a newsroom that makes The Imperfectionists an engaging book, one that the reader simply can’t put down.

Rachman employs his skill as a reporter when writing this book — devoid of flowery language and dripping with wit and feeling, The Imperfectionists engages one with the directness of the language used by Rachman. More than that, Rachman has a true gift of storytelling, after all writing and connecting stories of eleven characters is no easy feat. Yet Rachman pulls it off with such ease that one is amazed, especially so because this is only the author’s first novel.

The novel is also a fitting homage to the financially strapped world of print journalism, where the pen, and not the keyboard, was mightier than the sword. The Imperfectionists is not just about journalists but it’s also a story of eleven individuals, whose follies, quirks, decisions and emotions tug at your heart. For example, the loneliness in the lives of Oliver Ott and Ornella De Monterecchi and how they deal with it makes one want to weep. The Imperfectionists is perhaps one of the most notable debuts of this year, and with Hollywood actor Brad Pitt already buying the film rights for the book, it has already generated quite a buzz.

The writer works as a journalist in Karachi and can be reached at huma.imtiaz@gmail.com
Source: The News
Date:7/4/2010