Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sam Leith and Hugo Rifkind @ Fringe 2006

Paired at the Book Festival due to their shared backgrounds in journalism, Sam Leith and Hugo Rifkin have written very different books. Whereas Rifkind's novel, 'Over Exposure', is a thriller in the world of celebrity journalism, Leith trawls through anecdotes, history and trivia in 'Dead Pets'. Starting the evening with tentative readings from their respective books, they settle back into a short question and answer session with the surprisingly elderly audience.

Both authors have quick wits and claim that the egotism of the daily by-line - for Rifkind, immersed in the celebrity culture that he derides in his novel - prevents them from becoming full-time novelists. Leith modestly adds that his book is not really a novel, better approached as an extended column. Rifkind comments that his hero, a Jewish journalist from Edinburgh, is not entirely autobiographical: he took up the celebrity watch after completing the novel.

They appear far more comfortable as journalists than novelists: their awkward readings do not suggest that their prose is suited to extended descriptions. Leith has a dull, if sporadically humorous, style while Rifkind admits that 'Over Exposure's' structure was helped by his editors. 

When asked about the lightness of subject matter, which wilts against his satire, Rifkind replies that he would be loath to attack politicians, since he regards them as more intelligent and self-aware: a confession that may be based on his knowledge of his father Malcolm, the Conservative ex-minister. It also highlights the lack of ambition that limits both writers: while their self-depreciating banter is amusing, they do not take themselves seriously enough.

Sam Leith boasts that his work is 'highly sentimental and dark-hearted', but his most challenging passages insult Greyfriars Bobby and Rifkind's mockery strikes no higher target than Graham Norton. They create pleasant diversions rather than challenging literature.

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