Although I loved Brideshead Revisited (both the novel and the 1981 BBC television series), I’d never read any other novels by Evelyn Waugh. Then, while I was doing all the reading for Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I picked up a copy of Waugh’s fifth novel, Scoop, and found myself totally entranced and entertained. And, not least, I found myself both shocked and uncomfortable. I want to recommend Scoop highly, because it’s a brilliant and biting satire that exposes the baseness of the news reporting business and, more specifically, tabloid journalism. I am, in fact, recommending it highly; it’s definitely well worth reading. Believe me, after you finish this, you’ll never read (or hear) a news story in quite the same way again. Scoop was written in the 1930s and is clearly based on Waugh’s experiences as a reporter covering the war between Italy and Ethiopia.
But the more I thought about it (and I thought about it a lot because this issue really interests me), the more I questioned how I could praise a novel so highly that is both racist and anti-Semitic? How can I have so thoroughly enjoyed such a book? And—just to warn you—the racism and anti-Semitism are not presented at all subtly. Scoop is filled with epithets and descriptions that made me wince in psychic pain.
It’s true that you can find these same sentiments toward non-Christians and non-whites reflected in the mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, for example, although they’re not quite as barbed as they are in the hands of Waugh, who is probably the best writer of the three. Do we excuse the novels because these were the attitudes of the time, and the authors were merely sailing along with the prevailing wind? Is it right to read the future into these books and see the Holocaust foretold in the anti-Semitism and the messiness of the Middle East in the treatment of the natives in Waugh’s fictional country? I don’t know the answer to these questions. What do you think?