Andrew Ross Sorkin on the financial crisis

An interview with the Samuel Johnson Prize-shortlisted author.

This year's shortlist for the Samuel Johnson non-fiction book prize has been announced. Among the nominations is Too Big to Fail, an account of the collapse of Lehman Brothers by the New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin. Republished below is Jonathan Derbyshire's 2009 interview with the author -- and you can read Paul Mason's review of the book here.

Too Big to Fail is based on remarkable access to the main players in the financial crisis.

It's very important that the reader is able to see what these people thought and said to each other during this calamitous period. And I think that when you get in the room with them and you get to hear what they were thinking, there are moments where you'll wince and cringe and, in some cases, get immensely frustrated with them. There are very few heroes in this book.

Those involved seemed to sleepwalk towards catastrophe. Why was that?

It's a story of greed, at some level. And it's a story of hubris. It's about a grab for power. I actually think that, in the end, the dollar figure is not necessarily the motivating force. The money is almost a scorecard for everything else. When you see these people in their moments of panic, I'm sure they're thinking about their wallets, but they're also thinking about the power that they have. We talk about institutions that are too big to fail -- I think the story is as much about people who think they are too big to fail.

You argue that Dick Fuld, chief executive of Lehman Brothers, was driven much less by greed than some of the other main players.

Dick Fuld has been villainised, but in the context of this book, he's more of a tragic figure. Remember, Fuld had a billion dollars of stock in the company -- he had more skin in the game than anyone else in the world. And yet he rides it down to $65,000. What does that say? I don't know. And I wouldn't say I'm sympathetic with him per se, but the reason I suggest he's a tragic figure is that there's a big likelihood that we'd have villainised every other CEO had the government not saved them.

Fuld blamed the collapse of Lehman on short-selling. Was he right to do so?

It's very hard to blame the short-sellers for this debacle. There's no question that they exacerbated the problem but, in many ways, there were good reasons to short stocks and I don't think that was what put pressure on these companies. Look at the hedge-fund manager David Einhorn: he saw the writing on the wall earlier and better than most other people. It's the people who have an incentive to find the problem who usually find the problem.

You appear to credit the former treasury secretary Hank Paulson, and his successor, Timothy Geithner, with having foreseen the disaster.

You have all these people who see the train barrelling down the track. And yet they still don't completely get out of the way. You can give them credit for having spotted the train -- that's great. But do I think they mitigated the disaster? Well, that's a larger question. It's hard to argue that they didn't bring us to the brink. But you could also argue that they took us back from the brink. So, for me, it's a much more mixed record. You can't simply credit these people with having foreseen the disaster. You can give Paulson credit for talking about the need for a resolution authority, which he did in June 2008. Tim Geithner is someone else who seemed to be talking about this a lot. But as for actually doing something -- that's another matter.

What about the wider historical context to the crash of 2008?

Many of the seeds of the debacle were sown ten years ago, with some of the issues around monetary policy, sub-prime mortgages, deregulation, the lowering of capital requirements at banks -- all of those things contributed to this. So by the time my book begins, many of the problems are already baked in. What you're watching here is people at the moment of emergency. I originally thought the book would just cover September 2008. But once I started doing the reporting, I realised that the treasury was trying to orchestrate a deal for Lehman with Barclays as early as the spring. It made me rethink the scope and narrative arc of the book.

And politics matters, doesn't it? The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, for example, was crucial.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall allowed the casino to be attached to the bank. Expanding home ownership exacerbated the problem. As did the decision to keep interest rates low for long periods of time. So you have the regulators clearly not minding the store and Wall Street taking advantage of rules that aren't properly enforced.

Andrew Ross Sorkin, the author of "Too Big to Fail", is the chief mergers and acquisitions reporter for the New York Times

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism