Pete Hamill is out with Tabloid City, a New York newspaper novel commanding its share of pixels, column inches and decibels. If the rest of Tabloid City is like the first parts, I could never have written his book, just as The Solomon Scandals would have been impossible for him—we see life, newspapers and fiction too differently; and that’s not bad, given the virtues of variety. A preliminary comparison:
Tone and ‘tude: Sam Briscoe, Hamill’s 71-year-old newspaper editor in Tabloid City, regards newspapers as like churches, a reverence evinced more or less on the author’s Web site (“nostalgic hymn to old New York”). Hamill himself is former editor of the New York Post and ex-editor of New York Daily News and writes of reporters wisecracking, but he himself avoids it. Many readers would prefer Hamill’s approach. Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of the Washington Post, likewise favored solemnity in The Rules of the Game.
Scandals’ narrator by contrast is a sarcastic newsroom grunt who constantly pokes fun at newspaper ballyhoo confusing the First and Fourth estates. He has more than a few words to say about the ever-shrinking separation between newsroom churches and the, ugh, “Nobility” (the Second Estate) in the business offices.
Ironically Scandals’s outrageousness derives from an old-fashioned belief in the potential of newspapers as public-service institutions. Beyond the obvious issues, the general rule seems to be this: The more I care about a civic matter, the less the press does. My protagonist in The Solomon Scandals feels the same way. Keen on recovering subscription fees lost to the Net and general demographics, not to mention smugness, the industry is often elitist and contemptuous toward the Third Estate (the peasantry and the bourgeois). Hamill himself shows a strong populist streak in Tabloid City. But, based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d like him to be much freer there with mordant sass toward elitists within journalism—and I don’t just mean the gadget-infatuated publisher of Sam Briscoe’s tabloid.
Geography and style: Place affects the dialogue-description ratio in both novels somewhat. Even more than New York—yes, a writer’s town—Washington is a city of words. Hence my playing up dialogue, especially the pointed variety. At least in the first sections of the book, Hamill devote plenty of space not to action and talk, but to the back story and scene-setting, which the nostalgic should love.
Plotting: We both juggle around subplots, but Hamill has more in the air than I do—grafting a terrorism plot onto the story of the tabloid, the people who work there and those they report on. Fine by me. Scandals sticks to the viewpoint of Jonathan Stone, the newsroom grunt, save for the foreword and afterword—written from a late 21st-century perspective, courtesy of Dr. Rebecca Kitiona-Fenton of the Institute for the Study of Previrtual Media.
Attitudes toward tech: Sam Briscoe is a well-provoked Luddite whose publisher wants to turn Briscoe’s tabloid into a Web site. Stone has Luddite tendencies, in his love of typewriters and the other trappings of the old-time newspaperdom. But he is also bloggerish in his belief that large institutions like metropolitan newspapers are inherently compromised by their size even though they serve a purpose.
Bottom line: I relish the realism and sincerity in Hamill’s journalism-related passages even if—despite our both having worked on print-era newspapers and railed against all kinds of injustices—we are two almost entirely different people.
Recommendation, based on what I’ve read so far: Why not try both Tabloid City and The Solomon Scandals (and perhaps Downie’s novel, too), especially if you own a Kindle or other e-reader and can enjoy the resultant discounts? Meanwhile, if I change my mind about Hamill’s book, I’ll let you know. I doubt I will.
Update, May 17: Hamill’s book keeps growing on me—I really like it–even if I still wish it had more bite.
The difference between a blog and print: In the interest of timeliness, I’m sharing my feelings as I go along, and I’m not going to rush my reading. For print, I’d have waited until I’d read the last page.