Most people reading this review will know the sordid story of how "Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography" came to be published against the wishes of its subject and copyright holder Julian Assange and its author, Assange's ghostwriter, the Scottish novelist Andrew O'Hagan. Predictably, Canongate's explanatory note at the beginning of the book omits salient details. Julian Assange signed a contract to write a book -"part autobiography, part manifesto"- in December 2010. He was to use a ghostwriter, Andrew O'Hagan. They were given less than 6 months to complete the book. In March 2011, O'Hagan presented Assange and Canongate with an incomplete first draft.
Canongate says that Assange thought the draft "too personal" and wanted to cancel the contract. It seems that Assange actually thought the book contained too much biographical trivia and not enough politics. Too much "autobiography". Not enough "manifesto". He sought to cancel the existing contract and replace it with another that would give himself and O'Hagan longer to write a different kind of book. At first, Canongate agreed, as did his American publisher Knopf. Then, for whatever reasons, Canongate reneged and published this mess of a draft against Assange's wishes in September 2011. That was, in all likelihood, illegal, but Assange could not afford to injunct the publication.
I've never heard of a publisher pulling a stunt like that, nor have I ever seen anything like this book. I am not inclined to call it a book. It seems to be a transcript of 50 hours of stream-of-consciousness interviews organized into chapters, with little editing or polishing and absent most vital information. The narrative stops in October 2010, so there is nothing about WikiLeaks' Cablegate release, the European Arrest Warrant for Julian Assange, his extradition fight, or his time under house arrest at Ellingham Hall. I assume the authors had not gotten to those subjects yet. Up to that point, it gives the impression of a framework for a book, not a book, especially in the later chapters. It is a mass of errors, omissions, non sequiturs, incorrect sequence, strange but spare editing by Canongate, with a pervasive vagueness that I do not normally associate with Julian Assange.
The faults are so many and so overwhelming that it is difficult to know where to start listing them. I will start with what is there, as opposed to what isn't there but should be. First, as Assange has emphasized, the book has not been fact-checked. That was an understatement. It is cover-to-cover errors. I don't mean that Assange deliberately lied. I am talking about careless, inconsequential errors that are nonetheless so numerous and glaring as to be insufferable. For example, Assange states his brother's age was 11 when it couldn't have been more than 7. That is obvious in context. Why did Andrew O'Hagan not notice in the interview? Failing that, why did he put the error to paper? Failing that, why did Canongate's editor not correct the statement or take it out? The whole book is like this.
Another ubiquitous category of error is in the sequence of events. The narrative records events in the sequence that Assange remembered them, which is often by association rather than chronologically. It is common for people to state something when it comes to mind, not in the order that it happened. But it has to be sorted out at some stage while writing the book. It hasn't been, so events that took place months or years apart often appear to have been sequential.
As for what needed to be there that isn't, this "Unauthorized Autobiography" doesn't accomplish anything that it needs to. It doesn't coherently explain the origins of Assange's revolution through radical transparency, or his political philosophy, methods, or intentions. It doesn't encourage or entice anyone to join the cause. It doesn't explain Assange's position in his Swedish sex crimes case. The book talks about those things, but the ideas are half-formed and often poorly articulated. The narrative consistently lacks the vital details that would make it meaningful and, ironically, might justify Assange's decisions. The language is precise, but the ideas expressed are very imprecise.
I have seen Mr. Assange express his ideas more clearly elsewhere, so I don't think that he is just fuzzy-headed. I've noticed in video interviews that Assange often does not completely express what he is thinking. The idea is complete in his mind, but it does not come out his mouth. I expect that is part of the problem with these interviews. But why did O'Hagan not force Assange to clearly articulate his ideas? It is his job to grill Assange until everything is crystal clear and every important thought is completed. I question Mr. O'Hagan's suitability to this project. This book is woefully inadequate as a first draft. Most of the interviews would have to be done over to extract the necessary information. If Mr. Assange thinks this is well-written, as he has stated, it is because his mind is still filling in the blanks of what's not on the page. What is on the page is preposterously vague.
Assange offers only a glimpse of his personal life beyond boyhood reminiscence. There is, of course, no reason to include background that has no relevance to his current thinking or goals. That sort of thing is best reserved for a memoir written in old age, for posterity. He has included events of his childhood and youth that he apparently feels informed his worldview in some way. The problem is that, when he talks about something that impressed or influenced him, we often do not know why or in what way. He thought it, but he didn't say it. So the story seems pointless. He gives the cypherpunk movement short shrift, which I found odd, since he occupied himself with it for nearly 7 years, and the idea that the properties inherent in technology, not law, empower people is integral to WikiLeaks. It is one of the book's grand omissions, which, beside being unhelpful, makes an interesting subject boring.
If you don't know what a "cypherpunk" is, you won't be much the wiser after reading the "Autobiography". Another common problem is that new ideas are introduced without explanation. Assange gives a brief, inadequate explanation of the cypherpunk movement and mentions the Crypto Wars in passing. He explains how "quantum mechanics offered a methodology for understanding justice" without explaining what quantum mechanics is. It may be that this type of factual background is the responsibility of the writer, to be added in later drafts, but there is no evidence of any research in this book. Autobiographies do require research. To say nothing of the pervasive non sequiturs. There are innumerable statements in awkward context without elaboration or follow-through.
So what is good about this book? I think the prose is generally too conversational and needs polish, but there is the occasional strong passage. The chapter in which Assange discovers quantum mechanics at university is effective in conveying his sense of excitement at the new ideas that resulted. The chapters about the Collateral Murder video and the War Logs are similarly strong in their righteous indignation -though not at all in their account of events. If I had only read the first half of the book, I might have given it 3 stars. The first chapter, of Assange's time in Wandsworth Prison, is not bad. I'm not sure whether the decline in quality is an indication that O'Hagan did more work on the early chapters or that Assange lost interest in the later ones. Unfortunately, it means that 2010 gets the sloppiest and most feeble treatment.
It's clear that Canongate should not have contemplated publishing this draft. I can only speculate that they did so because creditors were knocking at the door. Their editors only made a bad draft weirder. Why did they not correct simple, glaring errors? Why not remove the non sequiturs? Instead, they removed the names of UK journalists of whom Assange did not speak kindly. Nick Davies is referred to as "the Guardian's investigations guy", David Leigh as "the senior news reporter", Heather Brooke as "a woman attached to the Independent." I'm sure Assange must have excoriated them, but that's been removed too. So why did Canongate feel the need to remove their names? I've never seen professional editing like this. I've never seen amateur editing like this. It's shocking.
I did not expect "Julian Assange: The Unauthorized Autobiography" to be this bad. I expected it to be incomplete, unpolished, and not fact-checked. I expected mediocrity. I'm stunned that Canongate would publish this dreck. What does it say about their finances? About their willingness to work with authors? Delays happen in publishing. The book reflects poorly on Julian Assange, not because of what it says, but because it is chock-full of errors, critical omissions, and poorly articulated ideas. Assange shares the blame, because he should have come to the interviews with a clear idea of what he needed to say to make readers understand and respect his ideas, to establish his version of disputed events, and to explain why he is resisting extradition to Sweden. But it was Andrew O'Hagan's responsibility to make him do those things. Canongate has shirked its responsibility to everyone involved, notably the consumer.