This space between the ears: the follies of Stephen Mitchelmore

Over at This Space, Stephen Mitchelmore is annoyed by Diane Sheet’s suggestion that writers ‘dispense with solipsistic preoccupations of self and love and family – and reclaim classic virtues and the work of examining the world at large.’ Sarcastically, Mitchelmore responds that:

If only writers would write about ‘the world at large’ then somehow all would be well in both fiction and the world; as if fiction is just a branch of investigative journalism.

But define ‘the world at large’. Arguably, you are writing about the world every time you take a character out of the house and down the street. To cleanse literature of all outside influence would reduce the literary novel to a single, droning stream-of-consciousness: like some undergraduate modernist Bildungsroman.

Where does Mitchelmore draw the line? Should fiction writers avoid writing about politics and society? Fine: strike Orwell, Huxley, Dickens, Eliot, Wilde, Upton Sinclair, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro and countless others from the canon.

First rule: the interior self can never be as fascinating as the world around you.

Mitchelmore would disagree. In an earlier post he disassociates writing from politics, arguing that politics ‘mean nothing to me. If a political impulse is apparent, it’s really an impulse to get away from politics; writing an impulse to have done with writing.’

It’s a respectable stance – unfortunately, Mitchelmore does not always practise what he preaches. When writing about a novel, for instance, Mitchelmore tends to look at it from an entirely political perspective, ignoring the fiction altogether. Here he is on Ian McEwan’s Saturday – a novel hated by many bloggers because it features a fictional character who supports the Iraq war.

Mitchelmore’s judgement is this:

Here we have a narrative of complete control where the only doubt is the contemptible liberal umming-and-arring of a character designed to justify the inexcusable open-mindedness to Blair’s criminal war by writers like Ian McEwan and other journalists.

The ideological conformity of this sentence is illustrated by Mitchelmore’s later remark that he had not actually read the book at the time he wrote it. In a rare display of self-awareness, Mitchelmore concedes that, ‘Some might condemn my reaction as politically motivated rather than a discerning literary judgement,’ but insists that ‘I need only read one sentence from the novel, quoted in The Complete Review‘s review, to feel political and literary disgust.’

Another book that disgusted Mitchelmore was Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, an exploration of a group of women’s attempts to create spaces of freedom under Islamic fundamentalism. Again, Mitchelmore didn’t bother to read the book – although he had read ‘many enthusiastic reviews.’ (I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’s sardonic line that, ‘one cannot, after all be expected to read every single word of a book whose author one wishes to insult.’)

His ignorance of the book’s contents did not prevent Mitchelmore from writing this piece on it for Spike. As with McEwan, his angle is not literary, but political. And Mitchelmore’s politics are of the Kissinger-style ‘my enemy’s enemy’ type: any attack on the Iranian regime is a boost for the neocon war machine. ‘With the political climate changing to suit a war on another oil and gas rich state,’ Mitchelmore writes, ‘the reasons for the book’s review-magnetism seems less than intrinsic.’ This was in 2003. The world is still waiting for a war on Iran.

As he doesn’t have knowledge of Nafisi’s book to draw on, the main body of his review consists of summaries of criminal Western policies that, however criminal, remain only of tangenital relevance to the text. The article is useful mainly as an illustration of his parochialism. 

Later, Mitchelmore quotes approvingly another blogger who claims that Nafisi is ‘objectively pro-fascist’. He’s incensed by the fact that Paul Wolfowitz is cited in the acknowledgements. ‘Imagine the reviews of a similar book by someone unjustly-detained at Guantanamo Bay (though one doubts that they have access to a library),’ Mitchelmore explains, ‘that included a dedication to a leading member of Al Qaeda.’ 

Even for a moral equivalence, this is particularly tenuous and contrived. So Nafisi is the same as a detainee at Gitmo (who may or may not be a terrorist) and Wolfowitz is the same as, say, bin Laden. Is there any further comment required here?

Mitchelmore’s indifference to Iranian writers is something of a theme. In January he dismissed attempts by bloggers to highlight censorship of novelists and publishers:

While I’m sure not one literary blogger I’ve mentioned backs the threats of violence made by the US administration, the willingness to promote this story uncritically has unwelcome consequences. It has already become a discussion point: ‘Should we bomb Iran?’ etc.

This five years on from his first prediction of an invasion, and he doesn’t seem to have grasped the fact that you can oppose war on Iran and oppression in Iran.

If Mitchelmore doesn’t have time for Muslim dissidents, he fawns and prostrates himself before foreign dictators. ‘What could be more appealing to our literary hopes and wishes,’ he asks, ‘than President Chavez’s friendly advice to the young of the USA: set aside Superman and Batman to read authors like Noam Chomsky?’ This is Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. From Human Rights Watch:

Since winning a national referendum on his presidency in 2004, Hugo Chávez and his majority coalition in Congress have taken steps to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary by packing the Supreme Court with their allies. They have also enacted legislation that seriously threatens press freedoms and freedom of expression. Several high profile members of civil society have faced prosecution on highly dubious charges, and human rights defenders have been repeatedly accused by government officials of conspiring against the nation. Police violence, torture, and abusive prison conditions are also among the country’s most serious human rights problems.

This is the man that Mitchelmore describes as ‘this unique icon of living Socialism.’

Let’s go back to Mitchelmore’s statement on writing and politics: that ‘if a political impulse is apparent, it’s really an impulse to get away from politics; writing an impulse to have done with writing.’

I’m coming round to his point of view. If I had Mitchelmore’s narrow-minded, tedious and infantile politics, I would certainly want to get away from them – and spend the rest of my days obsessing over Kafka and Blanchot.

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2 Responses to “This space between the ears: the follies of Stephen Mitchelmore”

  1. The obvious becomes shocking « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] obvious becomes shocking I don’t want this blog to turn into ‘Mitchelmore Watch’. But our old friend at This Space has surpassed himself with another attack on – oh, you’ll […]

  2. Gibson Square redux « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] second counterargument comes from, naturally, our old friend Stephen Mitchelmore. He’s annoyed that one of his favourite novelists, the pro-Milosevic […]

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