As the major free-to-air networks go into publicity overdrive, competing for audience share with their 2009 programming line-ups, the who's who of Sydney media gathered together last night for the launch of former Nine Network publicity head Wendy Squires' highly anticipated book, The Boys' Club (Random House; $32.95).
Ironically, it was The Girls' Club who turned out in support of Squires. Outspoken TV newsreader Tracey Spicer emceed the event, entertaining the crowd with an extract from the book as well as sharing insights into her experience with network suits. Leila McKinnon, Lisa Wilkinson (who scrubbed up well this morning on Today), Deborah Hutton, Angela Bishop and Kerri-Anne Kennerly represented the feminine side of TV, while magazine mavens (and current colleagues of Squires, who works for ACP) Robyn Foyster (Australian Women's Weekly), Paula Joye (Madison) and Mia Freedman (mamamia.com.au) were also in attendance (go, girl power!).
As the turnout would suggest, this is a Very Important book launch, at least for those who mix in media circles. Following on from last year's anonymously authored and controversial Boned, a "thinly veiled" fictional account of the sacking of newsreader Jessica Rowe from Nine's Today show, Squires' debut is valuable for its humanist appraisal of an industry known for its entrenched sexism, cut-throat sackings, egocentricity and behind-the-scenes back-stabbing.
Touted as "Bridget Jones meets The Devil Wears Prada" (the red, black and white cover even looks DWP-esque), Squires uses her pen to tactfully illuminate the shortcomings of an industry where keeping up appearances and OzTam ratings take precedence over, well, everything. At Network Six (aka "The Boys' Club"), women are particularly expendable – as in the glossy world of The Devil Wears Prada, the girls have to watch their backs, as well as their weight.
Squires' protagonist Rosie Lang, like Kate Cornish of Boned, has been around the traps. But unlike the childless Cornish, Lang is a divorcee with a four-year-old son. Her tough-talking, former-newshound work image is softened by her maternal instincts, her compassion for her fellow female employees and her very real-life struggles with superwoman syndrome (she proves it's near on impossible to have the whole pie, let alone a cigarette, and enjoy it).
When we first meet Rosie, she is juggling the early-morning demands of her son while ignoring the relentless ringing of her mobile phone. We're then taken through a day in the working life of Rosie, whose demanding 24/7 role as the head of publicity for Network Six consists of refuting the claims of gossip columnists, crisis managing recalcitrant stars, counselling female staff and being thrown to the proverbial dogs at each executive-level meeting. It's exhausting to read, but many women will empathise with Rosie's career plight. Why do we so willingly undertake thankless, soul-destroying work at the expense of those life elements which are so much more rewarding and emotionally nourishing?
Despite Squires' claim that "no character described in this book bears any resemblance to an real person and any possible similarity is therefore purely coincidental", Rosie's boss, Big Keith, bears all the characteristic hallmarks of one late Kerry Packer (a drinker with heart problems and a predilection for crass commentary who laments the passing of the halcyon days of television). Big Keith is a likable bloke with a soft spot for Rosie, a passion for TV and a supportive wife (no mention of mistresses). And despite his vulgarity, the slimy and snipey Network Six executive team make him look positively saintly.
Playing to true chick-lit formula, there's the requisite Hugh Grant love interest, the quirky/cool best friend, the omnipresent and overbearing mother figure, the former flame, the ambitious underling, the credit-stealing (male) arch-nemesis who makes life hellish, the voice of reason (her assistant, Lisa) and several embarrassing moments (including one drunken night, of course).
The issues canvassed in the novel read like a women's magazine's editorial line-up (Squires is associate editor at The Australian Women's Weekly): Glass ceiling? Check. Discrimination? Check. Balancing career with family commitments? Check. Dealing with your ex and his new girlfriend? Check. Feeling fat? Check.
But where some chick-lit writing is borderline saccharine, Squires' style lacks fluff and waffle and is infused with Kath & Kim-like colloquialisms ("You are officially Jatz crackers") to keep us amused. Rosie may like her heels and designer couture, and experience the occasional (okay, many) emotional outburst, but she's a tough talker and knows her stuff. She teeters on the edge of a major meltdown throughout the novel, but you get the sense that she's also on the verge of a breakthrough, which keeps us from plunging into a hopeless depression with her.
The take-home message for all of us is, are you prepared to sell your life and soul for a job – particularly one that is by nature soulless? Of course, the answer should be no. Unfortunately, for most of us and Rosie, coming to this realisation is usually a case of live-and-learn.
The Boys' Club is published by Random House and will be available from next week.
Girl With a Satchel