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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Fire, fury and the furore that surrounds the book of the moment

Book reviewer Steve Donoghue assesses the storm that has accompanied Michael Wolff's book

Donald Trump at the White House.  Ron Sachs / EPA
Donald Trump at the White House. Ron Sachs / EPA

It's the dream of every book reviewer – indeed, probably the dream of every bookish person – to for once have everybody in the world talking about a book. But it only very rarely happens, and when it does, much to the dismay of those same bookish people, it's almost never a good book.

The latest example is perhaps the most dramatic example in American publishing history: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. A distillation of the months Wolff spent enjoying open access to the White House and, he claims, over 200 people connected with it, the book is a damning portrait of the dysfunction of the Trump White House.

The book's success has been nothing less than stratospheric. A huge portion of that success was directly due to Donald Trump himself. Prior to its release, he instructed his lawyers to hit the publishers with a cease-and-desist order to quash publication, claiming the book was libelous. Such objections were a gift to the author, who gleefully pointed out that the president's actions not only guaranteed gargantuan sales of the book that was now quite literally “the book Trump doesn't want you to read”, but also went a long way to demonstrating some of Wolff's most damning assertions about a vain president with no impulse control.

Several of the people who feature in the stories Wolff relates have come forward to call the stories complete fiction; Wolff himself not only refuses to release the tape recordings he claims to possess but has also admitted that he didn't actually talk to any cabinet members; journalist fact-checkers have been chipping away at the book's many inaccuracies. Trump's defenders cried foul.

Books like this – quickly produced and trading heavily on “insider” information – succeed in direct proportion to their subjects' failure. Before Wolff, the example that stands out was Scott McClellan's 2008 exposé of the George W Bush White House, What Happened, which appeared when Bush's approval ratings were abysmal, hovering between 31 and 33 per cent.

Trump's approval ratings have been at those Bush-like depths since his first week in office. A year of name-calling aimed at public officials and heads of state and casual threats about nuclear war have primed an enormous reading audience to believe the worst about him. Wolff's book satisfies that hunger by providing the worst: a president who can't read, a president with the attention-span of a toddler, a president who's incapable of listening or learning – a full-blown disaster in the Oval Office.

At every step of this tawdry little melodrama, the smart thing – the stable genius thing – to do would have been to ignore Fire and Fury completely, rather than to wail about it. Mr Trump's candidacy and administration has already spawned dozens of books from major publishers, with a veritable tsunami of further titles to follow in the coming months in the US alone. The president's over-reaction to Wolff's book has always been the foremost thing lending it credence.

That credence has transformed into staggering sales figures that have barely been dented by the revolting decision of WikiLeaks to publish the entire manuscript online as a PDF. Pundits and newscasters hold up the book in the lead segments of their shows – shows that wouldn't dream of even so much as mentioning the latest novel by Elif Shafak or Neel Mukherjee. Pages of Fire and Fury are parsed with scholarly scrutiny for shades of meaning or patterns of omission; copies of the book are everywhere on Capitol Hill; for a solid week, discussions in homes and the halls of power have all centred around a book.

But they have centred around this book: an apparent mish-mash of fact, fabrication, speculation and zeitgeist-channeling. That description might be, alas, a perfect reflection of its subject.

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