Thursday, 27 September 2012

Harsh Realities

I'm new to this lark - so the whole business of promoting a book is a revelation.
I've seen it from the other side, of course, as a programme editor. Now, it's my turn to be output fodder.
I suppose anyone who's ever written a book, especially one that has six months' worth of research in it as Stumbling Over Truth has, just wants to get it out there and people to read it. All of it ... and (totally unrealistically) with the same weight on every word that you placed there when you wrote it.
But, of course, delivering the manuscript is only the start of it. Nor is the boxes of freshly minted book arriving in the publisher's office the end of it.
Maybe there'll be a serialisation? Not for Stumbling Over Truth, sadly, so you'll have to buy it to read it. But you know there'll be the round of signings and panel discussions and media interviews. Reviews and, you hope, a bit of a buzz on blogs and Twitter.
But most of all, you want people to read it.
An odd kind of book
Of course, Stumbling Over Truth is a slightly odd kind of book. It's part personal account - why and how I put Andrew Gilligan on air on 29 May 2003 with Dr David Kelly's allegations that the government's September 2002 dossier had been "sexed up".
It's part an almost historical account, derived from the mass of government documents released and leaked over the past decade, of how the September dossier was written ... an account that's some considerable distance from the conclusions Lord Hutton came to in January 2004.
And it's part a political book. An account from the inside of what it was like to be on the receiving end of New Labour's obsessive exercise in "truth creation" - Peter Mandelson's phrase, not mine - for the best part of a decade.
The three parts are linked, honest. But however odd your book might be you want people to read it.
Many different approaches
Of course, any book that touches on the Iraq war, Tony Blair etc is launched into a world where most people already know what they think and aren't likely to have their opinions changed by any new account ... even one that contains information they hadn't been able to consider before.
And so it was that Blair ultra-loyalists attacked me even before Stumbling Over Truth had been published - criticising the book they imagined I must have written rather than the one I actually had.
One review was more about the reviewer than the book - though thinking about it, many reviews often are. And one journalism professor seemed to think I was too close to events to have written the book in the first place - a slightly bizarre argument that, I confess, I struggle to understand.
Then the panel discussions. One was a little too "free flowing" and, in the end, not much to do with the book; another was very much tighter but still seemed to me to focus on the parts of the book that were the least important and interesting.
Interviews
Something similar was true of the interviews.
The chunkiest, with Steve Hewlett of BBC Radio 4's The Media Show - it's due to be broadcast on Wednesday 3 October at 1630 - focused largely on my decision to broadcast Dr Kelly's allegations, the management of Andrew Gilligan and the BBC's perception of the row with Alastair Campbell.
All interesting stuff and new - some of this is the evidence that Lord Hutton decided not to hear. But it's almost impossible now to separate it from hindsight. I tried very hard to do that in the book but it took a lot of context and background, the kind of thing that can never really make it into an interview by virtue of the simple fact that a book chapter is several thousand words, an interview several hundred.
Pity, too, that we never touched on the real meat of the book - what Lord Hutton could have discovered about Dr Kelly's allegations had he been more curious. And what it was that motivated Dr Kelly to blow the whistle on the September dossier to several journalists.
More to come
More interviews today and next week - two with non-UK broadcasters whose audiences, my hunch is, have even less background from the time than British viewers and listeners. Not quite sure how I'll deal with that. One thing is certain - the fine detail, the arguments over the precise use of words is almost certain to be dulled.
Can't be helped.
The big lesson from all of this is, I suppose, the obvious one.
As you write a book, you sculpt and shape your prose to say as precisely as you can exactly what you mean. You balance its parts to try to indicate what you think is most important and what's less so. And you try to build some kind of narrative, make connections that you hope are revealing.
But as you read one, the author's careful phrases - whole chapters, indeed - fly by barely noticed. You bring all your own preconceptions to the words on the page and those preconceptions prove as resistant as you choose them to be.
For you, the author, much of what you wanted readers to take away they leave behind and those with the will to do so raid the odd sentence and paragraph and give them a meaning the opposite of everything you intended.
And you wonder why you bothered, wondering at the same time what your next book is going to be about.  

3 comments:

Andy Tedd said...

"And one journalism professor seemed to think I was too close to events to have written the book in the first place - a slightly bizarre argument that, I confess, I struggle to understand."

Isn't that the argument a certain type of academic uses to justify their existence?

Imagine how much you hear it when you are trying to turn your work into a PhD...

Kevin Marsh said...

Sigh ... I think you're probably right.
BTW ... how are you? I heard you'd had a pretty nasty smash.

Unknown said...

And then of course there's news: spare a thought for the academics wondering why 'they' (the news media) singled out a line at the bottom of page 35 as the headline take from their carefully honed report summarising 10 years of meticulous research. One sympathises, but different agendas are in play.