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‘These really stink!’

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The LRB recently sent me Cita Stelzer’s Dinner with Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table to review. It’s a good subject. We know that Churchill believed in personal diplomacy (he thought he could charm the most obdurate dictator if he could only meet him face-to-face); that he did a lot of negotiating over meals; and that he was a sparkling conversationalist. I hadn’t heard of Stelzer, but the CV provided by her publisher, Short Books, looked good. She is a ‘Reader at Churchill College, Cambridge’ (‘reader’ being a rare and high academic accolade, one step short of professor), ‘a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute’ in Washington, a ‘member of the Board of the Churchill Centre (UK)’, and a freelance journalist and editor. Dinner with Churchill promised to be a lively but serious work of history.

If only. For a start, there’s little or no actual talk in it: nothing of what Churchill said, or of the policies that were ‘made’ at his dinner table; just a brief third-hand account of the diplomatic history of the war and immediately postwar years, centring around eight occasions when food was consumed, punctuated with menus and seating-plans. Stelzer insists that the dinners must have been politically effective but doesn’t really say how; except when they weren’t, because ‘facts on the ground’ intervened. She’s more sure-footed when it comes to Churchill’s eating, drinking and smoking habits – I’ve written something on that section for History Today – but it’s a strangely slight book for an author of Stelzer’s advertised calibre.

I looked her up. You won’t find her listed as a ‘Reader’ on any Cambridge University website. I checked with Short Books; they claimed it was a ‘straightforward linguistic confusion’: ‘Reader’ just meant that she was given a library card (so why the capital R?). She’s not listed as a research associate at the Hudson Institute either, though she may be one: her husband, Irwin Stelzer, is a senior fellow there. The Churchill Centre of which she is a board member turns out to be a private US-funded foundation for perpetuating the ‘memory and ideas’ of the great man. Google only throws up one example of her journalism – a piece on art exhibitions in Washington for the Spectator – unless you count reviews for Amazon.com (e.g. of ‘Dr Scholl’s Tri-Comfort Orthotics Inserts’: ‘These really stink!’). I’ve found only a single reference to her editing: the acknowledgments to The Neo-Con Reader, edited by Irwin Stelzer, say that ‘Cita Stelzer deployed her ample editorial and organisational skills to assist me in meeting the publisher’s rather tight deadline.’

Of course, Google can’t tell you everything. (And it’s conceivable that the Spectator and Amazon Cita Stelzers are different people.) Still, Short Books have not served Stelzer or her potential readership well by their exaggerations. Publishing, like everything else, may be increasingly subject to the demands of marketing and publicity, but that’s no reason to sell a book as something it isn’t – a point made more dramatically last week by the novelist Polly Courtney. She ditched her publisher, HarperCollins, at the launch party for her latest book, saying she was fed up with her novels’ being marketed as ‘chick lit’. She has since appeared in the Guardian and on Channel 4 News, perhaps teaching publishers a thing or two about publicity in the process.

Comments on “‘These really stink!’”

  1. Mat Snow says:

    Bernard Porter explodes ‘the CV provided by her publisher, Short Books’ that Cita Stelzer is a Reader at Churchill College, Cambridge’, ‘a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute’ in Washington, a ‘member of the Board of the Churchill Centre (UK)’, and a freelance journalist and editor, yet he does not enquire where Short Books obtained that information in the first place. It rather looks to me as if it may have been provided by Cita Stelzer herself, in which case Short Books may be indicted for taking too much on trust (and why would one double-check one’s own author’s self-description?) but hardly for cynical misrepresentation as seems to be the thrust of Bernard Porter’s blog.

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