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Oct 2, 2009

Unethical! Disgrace! Gillard wars turn nasty at The Monthly

The editorial board of The Monthly is standing by its editor Ben Naparstek, despite a growing row over his October cover story.

The editorial board of The Monthly is standing by editor Ben Naparstek this morning after he splashed the October edition with a review of The Making of Julia Gillard by an author writing her own biography on the same subject.

Under the front-page tagline “biography wars”, Christine Wallace, the author of an as-yet unpublished biography of Gillard (Allen & Unwin), slams her competitor Jacqueline Kent’s recent release The Making of Julia Gillard (Penguin) as “curiously flat”, “thin” and “plain-vanilla”, before dismissing the 323-page tome as a “friendly political quickie”.

“Kent’s account is the approved Julia Gillard Story: Julia as Julia would have it told,” writes Wallace, who will release her own effort in time for Christmas next year. “If the truth is in the surface of things … then Kent has done a good job of description without analysis”.

The review prompted an angry outburst from Penguin editor Ben Ball who emailed Naparstek after the magazine hit the streets on Tuesday. Ball told Crikey that the decision to publish the review was a “complete disgrace” and an “egregious calumny”.

“The commissioning of an author writing a rival biography to review a book is shocking. To try and dress that up as a biography war is a confection that betrays the readers of The Monthly who are used to much better. This is the most sinister hook The Monthly have ever used to lure its readers,” he added.

Allen & Unwin were caught napping on the Gillard biography front, after Penguin commissioned Kent late last year with a view to getting the book out this year. As previously reported by Crikey, upon hearing of Penguin’s efforts, Allen & Unwin then commissioned Wallace.

Kent conducted three interviews with the Deputy PM, while Wallace has so far been denied access.

A livid Kent told Crikey that the review was “completely unethical”.

“I knew that Canberra journalists were sensitive when outsiders tread on their hallowed turf, but I’m very surprised that The Monthly would provide an outlet for Wallace’s vitriol. You would have thought The Monthly would have understood the concept of conflict of interest,” said Kent.

Wallace hit back when contacted by Crikey, defending her record as “scrupulously fair”.

“I declare at the outset of the piece I’m also writing a biography of Julia Gillard, so readers are forewarned and forearmed,” said Wallace. “They can read my review, read Jacquie’s book and make their own judgement. I bent over backwards to be fair and am confident I was.”

She described Naparstek’s decision to commission the review as a “lateral move from which readers will get exceptional value”.

In an email sent to Monthly subscribers last night, Naparstek vigorously promoted the stoush, spruiking a “corrosive assessment of a literary rival.” Kent, according to Wallace, “failed to breach the defences of Gillard’s tightly controlled public persona or to adequately probe Gillard’s political philosophy.”

Elsewhere in the review, Wallace accuses Kent of not declaring the “joint authorship” of the book, claiming Melbourne-based journalist Doug Hendrie and former public servant John Tuchin had been denied bylines. However, Hendrie confirmed to Crikey that he had played no role in the writing of the book and was dismayed by Wallace’s inferences to the contrary.

Wallace and Kent appeared alongside each other in November last year on the ABC’s Biographies program, but according to Kent there was no tension on the set, despite both authors’ awareness of the other’s looming efforts.

The aggression could exacerbate unhealed wounds at The Monthly following former editor Sally Warhaft’s departure in June. Warhaft is friends with Ball and launched Kent’s book last week at Melbourne’s Readings Bookshop, as reported by Crikey.

Ball told Crikey he’d contacted Naparstek when the review hit the streets to express his concern, and that Naparstek had offered Ball a right of reply in the next edition of The Monthly‘s letters section.

When Ball expressed dissatisfaction with the offer, Naparstek offered space for Kent to write a review of Wallace’s book.

Monthly editorial board scion Robert Manne then entered the fray, reiterating the point to Crikey that former Monthly editor Warhaft was “friends with Ben Ball and that she was involved in the launch of Jacqueline Kent’s book.”

Manne also suggested Ball was gunning for Naparstek’s resignation. “Crikey should try to find out who is trying to undermine Ben [Naparstek’s] editorship, and why”, he added.

Offering the opportunity for rival authors to review each other’s books could be an escalating editorial trend. In the July edition of the Australian Book Review, Jill Jolliffe sunk the knife in to Tony Maniaty, the author of Shooting Balibo, Blood and Memory in East Timor. Joliffe’s book Balibo currently sits alongside Maniaty’s effort in bookshops.

This morning on Wallace’s website Breakfast Politics, a favourite among Canberra insiders, the top story was a link to the online version of The Monthly yarn. The link was titled “Jacquie & Julia (a very fair review)”.

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27 comments

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27 thoughts on “Unethical! Disgrace! Gillard wars turn nasty at The Monthly

  1. Guy Rundle

    Hang on just a minute there. The Jolliffe-Maniaty thing is different to the Kent-Wallace thang. Jolliffe is an expert on the 1975 east timor invasion, and the Balibo Five. Maniaty’s book is a memoir-investigation. There’s no-one more qualified than Jolliffe to assess the accuracy and quality of Maniaty’s book, and they’re complementary, not literally identical projects.

    As a general rule, people will often review books that overlap books they have written. to not do that is to miss out on a chance to assess their accuracy. the wallace-kent thing is two identical projects, both by generalists, and quite a different issue.

  2. deccles

    F-ck I wish I could get a refund on my Monthy 2 year subscription, I’d funnel it towards my Crikey! renewal. Sally Warhaft and Gideon Haigh were the best things about it. I’ll turf this months ‘The Monthly’ in the recycle bin just like every other edition under wunderkind Naperstek.

    Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson are now nearly indistinguisable from each other.

  3. paddy

    Oh FFS Crikey. The No1 story???
    It’s probably worth a spin for the culture warriors out there.
    (There are no doubt plenty who subscribe and even some who write for Crikey)

    But it’s hardly the lead. Bung it on the blog where it belongs.

  4. Brian Byrnes

    When has a biography ever provided real insights and name a biography which has never been disputed or derided by somebody. they are largely useless works, telling us nothing important or worthwhile.

    So, people, who cares ?

  5. Jack Robertson

    Hold your ground, Ben Naparstek. In the internet era all the old Tweedy witewawy wules are out the window. Posh book and magazine writers who can’t or won’t get dirty in the word-pit on their own behalf can vacate their paid gigs for someone who is; willing to use words to tell us stuff we don’t know, not deliver motherhood platitudes and careerist dreck.

    Someone gave someone else’s book an ordinary review. Boo-hoo. Naparstek’s offered the insultee return space. Bitch-slap the insulter back. Or not.

    Just stop appealing to some literary ethics umpire. There ain’t one. Never was; certainly not now.

  6. Andrew Crook

    Guy, I can see what you mean, but there was still significant resentment in publishing circles over the ABR Balibo thing — of precisely the same kind inherent in the Gillard stoush.

  7. Guy Rundle

    Andrew

    In any given situation where an author reviews a book by another author within their area of expertise, there will be all sorts of points of view. But I dont think it’s a new trend – it’s a necessary one. Sometimes accusations of bad faith may be just, sometimes not.

    It’s often the case that new biogs of subject X will be reviewed by an old biographer of X – or that a one volume biog of X will be reviewed by the author of the 4 volume biog. after all who else is going to know whether its any good.

    The problem here is that these biogs are competing on identical turf – first major biogs by political journalists, neither of them substantially different (if a very left wing figure were writing a Gillard biog you might get a centre or right figure to review it) in approach. That looks too close to be anything other than a bit of a staged stoush. but havent read the piece.

  8. Rowan

    Only one author has published a book on this topic so far, the other author isn’t going to publish for another year. Wallace probably has high hopes for her book — she’s going to show us the real Julia, behind the mask, etc, blah blah blah — but by the time it’s actually published it’ll probably be as bland as Kevin Rudd’s voice. And then Kent can write her own biting review.

    Boring.

  9. tony

    I don’t know what the fuss is about. Surely you expect people who have expertise in a subject to review books rather than generalists whose insights might be interesting but are mostly worthless. It doesn’t seem to phase readers of the NYRB or the LRB to see Greek scholars reviewing books by Greek scholars or whatever. As they say, get a life.

  10. respect your elders

    Guy, you’re right – there’s nothing wrong with David Marr reviewing a new biog of Patrick White, for example. But getting an author of a newly or soon-to-be released book to review a concurrently released book on the same subject is dangerous. And lazy. And completely misses the point of reviewing the book in the first place.

    Robert Manne seems to have nothing better to do than peek over Ben Naparstek’s shoulder and create ‘drama’ at the Monthly. Surely it’s time for him to retire to an island somewhere and leave us all alone? There are days when Gerard Henderson seems less of a crazy; this is one of those.