Archive for November, 2011

Trouble In The Message Centre

November 20, 2011

Something of a stir on Twitter about this Zoe Williams article, titled: ‘No time for novels – should we ditch fiction in times of crisis?’ That’s obviously a question for John Rentoul (and Williams may not have written the headline). But get past the main hook, and the house style – a kind of hysterical smugness – and there are some good points here.

Williams has spoken to the writer John Lanchester, who spent years researching a novel about the credit crisis and got so interested in the research that he wrote a non-fiction book about finance. In an interview with Williams, Lanchester said:

I felt, and still feel, that the gap between people who speak money and people who don’t is actually a democratic deficit… In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that’s not literary enough.

Writer and playwright Damian Barr added:

There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn’t have to be informed, and it doesn’t have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter. 

These are statements of how things are, nothing more, and the negative reaction from the literary community on social networks proves the point. It’s a truism that in terms of plot, characterisation and storytelling you are better off ordering a HBO boxset than a broadsheet-recommended novel. The Wire in synopsis reads like a dull sociological essay, but it had more depth, humanity and emotion than a decade of Booker shortlists. Beginning a US science fiction series, Salman Rushdie said that: ‘In television, the 60-minute series, The Wire and Mad Men and so on, the writer is the primary creative artist.’

Over here, ITV has just screened series two of Downton Abbey, a bowdlerised and silly version of Edwardian England. Its creator, Julian Fellowes (or ‘Julian Kitchener-Fellowes’ to give the man his full title) has been ennobled by the Tory-led government, and now sits on the Conservative benches as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. At the notorious Black and White Ball internship auction, Fellowes donated a day’s work as an unpaid extra on the show, won at a bid of £25,000. It’s impossible to resist the vulgar-Marxist conclusions here. Never mind that the cabinet of millionaires is driving your economy off a cliff! Here is costume drama! Five hundred channels of it!

The literary world is as obsessed with the past as TV commissioners. The past is safe. ‘Everyone expected Alan Hollinghurst to write the definitive book of our recent past, since that’s what he did for the 1980s, in The Line of Beauty,’ Williams notes. ‘Instead, to use a technical publisher’s term, he ‘did an Atonement’ – this is where you re-site your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political.’ Scope is restricted to historical novels. Williams paraphrases the Kelman line that ninety five per cent of fictional characters are independently wealthy. They also tend to be baby boomers. You’re unlikely to find characters born from 1980, let alone 1990. Fiction set in the present day tends to play out a narrow focus on an individual, a couple or a family, with so little sense of time and place that the characters may as well be disembodied floating brains.

So much for establishment literary fiction, you’re thinking. But the underground is producing nothing new. In his essay on post-9/11 fiction, critic Daniel Davis Wood rejected the boring old realism of the American novel in favour of the cult of Beckett. He cites the obscurantist writers Tom McCarthy and Gabriel Josipovici as the future of fiction and criticism, and even praises the creepy, moronic and serial self-promoter Lee Rourke.  Here is Wood on McCarthy’s Remainder: ‘a novel that revels in plotlessness, that undermines characterisation, that fetishises stasis, and that does not reflect on social, political and cultural actuality so much as it self-reflects on the limitations of its own ability to reflect on such things.’ Wood grants the authority to speak only to people with nothing to say.

Sentiments like this are impossible to understand without the context of the backlash against Victorian conventions in literature (‘why should a ‘novel’ have ‘characters’ anyway?’) which in turn was triggered by a leftwing backlash against Enlightenment reason. In his review of Josipovici’s critical manifesto, blogger Max Cairnduff provides the following insights:

For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws… This is absolutely critical to everything that follows.

Reactionary modernism doesn’t come more reactionary than this. A literary longing for an illiterate Dark Age.

There are valid criticisms of the Williams piece. You could argue that in times of crisis we need fiction more than ever. Art is not a mirror to the world. There’s nothing wrong with escaping into Downton Abbey or Harry Potter. But the prohibitionist tone of Williams’s critics gets to me. Realist fiction requires exposition that can get in the way of the story, but every writer has to learn the basics of show not tell. Done well, fiction that engages with the world is not mere journalism. You can take reality and turn it into something new and show us things about this reality that we might have missed.

This is particularly true of market crises. Markets run on confidence. Will my family live? Will I be happy? Will I have a home? Where is permanence? Where is truth? The questions tap on the root of the human soul and only fiction can answer them. Jay McInerney wrote Brightness Falls as a dissolving marriage against the backdrop of the 1987 crash. Hunter Thompson always used to quote Faulkner’s line that ‘the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism… and the best journalists have always known this.’

At the end of The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq puts these words in the mouth of a dying artist: ‘I want to give an account of the world… I want simply to give an account of the world‘. I wonder if that is such a dishonourable thing for a novelist to do.

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Bonfire Night in the Hinterlands

November 18, 2011

This short story has just been published by Dead Ink.

Men Who Hate Women

November 13, 2011

Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me

– Children’s rhyme

It’s a lie, of course. Words can hurt. And the best writers have always known this.

If you’re honest, when you write criticism, you are writing to hurt. If I give a writer a bad review, I can call into question his imagination, sensitivity, intellect, interpretation of the world – things that are important to the sense of self.  You should always play the ball, not the man, but often you find yourself playing the ball to hurt the man. Sometimes, it’s good to craft an insult like Dr Johnson; sometimes there’s nothing more appropriate than to call someone out as a pathetic piece of shit. The best adversarial writers are like Harry Flashman, who ‘had a knack of knowing what hurt, and by a cutting word or look could bring tears to the eyes of people who would have laughed at a blow’.

Some of the best political writing comes from anger and hate and the desire for vengeance. As Aristotle said: ‘Hatred of tyrants is inevitable, and contempt is also a frequent cause of their destruction.’ But anger is a better thing than the resentment and bitterness and giggling disdain that now predominates in online political discourse.

I’m convinced much of this climate comes from envy. Consider the case of Max Gogarty. He wrote a Guardian gap-year blog so lacking in self-awareness that the series was pulled after the comment thread filled with vitriol and ridicule. Gogarty’s writing was about as good as most nineteen year old’s. But the hate piled on the kid seems disproportionate in retrospect. The Observer’s Rafael Behr noted that: ‘Max became the target for hatred of supposed media corruption and hypocrisy. Commenters bemoaned the injustice that people such as Max (ie, not them) get to write for newspapers instead of more deserving people (eg, them).’

Also, look at Johann Hari. Certainly, Hari’s behaviour was bad. It was right for him to fall. But there was a glee and a schandenfreude that told us something. As Martin Amis said: ‘Envy never comes to the ball dressed as Envy. It comes dressed as something else: Asceticism, High Standards, Common Sense’.

We have no idea how many people lead empty and frustrated lives, dominated by the drudgery of family and work. People whose only pleasure and release comes from venting in a comment box. We all laughed at the Dickhead Song, but everyone wants new age fun with a vintage feel. Better than council estates and call centres, no? 

Writing in the 1920s, H G Wells provided an insight that still reverberates today:

Going to work is a misery and a tragedy for the great multitude of boys and girls who have to face it. Suddenly they see their lives plainly defined as limited and inferior. It is a humiliation so great that they cannot even express the hidden bitterness of their souls. But it is there. It betrays itself in derision. I do not believe that it would be possible for contemporary economic life to go on were it not for the consolations of derision.

Yet no amount of humiliation can justify or excuse the attacks on today’s women writers. When Helen Lewis-Hasteley wrote about this, her concerns were dismissed by male commenters and pundits, who complained on behalf of the oppressed and emasculated white male. Politics attracts more bullies than the army or the police force. Men get the same levels of abuse, women writers are public figures and it’s all in the game. Professional attention seeker Brendan O’Neill summed it up: ‘If I had a penny for every time I was crudely insulted on the internet, labelled a prick, a toad, a shit, a moron, a wide-eyed member of a crazy communist cult, I’d be relatively well-off. For better or worse, crudeness is part of the internet experience, and if you don’t like it you can always read The Lady instead.’

But male bloggers tend not to get abuse based on their gender or sexuality, let alone social network trawling, fantasies of mutiliation and murder, threats of sexual violence, revealing of personal details in public fora, and the stalking of families and friends. With female writers all these things are thrown into the mix. It is mainly directed at leftwing writers but is something that transcends politics. Britain does not like women with strong opinions, and this is reflected in the composition of our parliaments and the decisions of our courts. The message is clear: if you’re young, and female, keep your head down, and know your place.

Laurie Penny challenges the assumption that ‘a woman must be sexually appealing to be taken seriously as a thinker’. But it seems that it’s always the young and attractive women who are subject to the worst kind of trolling. James Bloodworth, a brilliant young writer, said in an essay on feminism that:

It is often forgotten that hatred towards female sexuality is often directed at the most beautiful women precisely because they have the confidence to dress in a way that unapologetically expresses their sexuality. As one Iranian protester put it in the aftermath of the killing by state security of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, ‘they always go for the beautiful ones first’.

That, by the way, is how I account for the popularity of religious fundamentalism on the left. There are a lot of anaemic pseudo-liberal males who wouldn’t mind a society where women do as they are told.

This isn’t a free speech issue. You could close down all newspaper comment facilities without losing anything of value. The presumption of a right to anonymous commentary hacks me off here. I understand why public sector bloggers need secret identities. But what kind of man are you if you’ll insult, hector and abuse a female writer but not stand up and claim your words as your own?

And it’s not completely beyond possibility that a man who fantasises and vocalises about cutting out a woman’s tongue will, at some point, go and cut out a woman’s tongue. Vincent Tabak’s interest in hardcore sadomasochistic pornography was kept out of his trial. (‘Your Honour, my client believes that evidence of his enthusiasm for violent degrading images of assaults on women may prejudice the jury’s decision as to whether he murdered a young woman.’ ‘Hmm, yes, I can see that.’)

I’m not going all Broken Britain on you, but the loss of chivalry, romance and restraint has been a disaster, and the normalisation of casual misogyny has been a crime. What to do? I don’t know. It’s a human nature problem, it’s a masculinity problem and probably insoluble.

A Demo in Your Backyard

November 6, 2011

Protests tend to be alike. There will be crowds of urban hipsters with the odd trade unionist, ideologue, religious fanatic and career demonstrator thrown in. They are an easy target for conservative pundits because, despite history, we don’t think of street protest as a British thing. To go out into London with banners and placards seems fundamentally ridiculous. The bloggers and national commentariat have had a field day.

Yet there is something stupid and immature about the opposition to the Occupy LSX protest. The demonstrators were kicked out of the City following an injunction. Their camp set up at St Paul’s. Critics claimed the cathedral was an irrelevant target – but St Paul’s is backed by City interests worth £450bn. Then the cathedral closed its doors. Conservative pundits moaned that a great religious organisation had been emasculated by a handful of crusties. In a ludicrous piece for the Telegraph, Dan Hodges whined that ‘the direct action movement, even with its rich and inglorious history of stupid, counterproductive acts of self-indulgence, has somehow contrived to turn a protest against the banks into the closure of one of Britain’s most revered houses of worship, beggars belief… In closing the Great West door, Occupy LSX have succeeded where the Luftwaffe failed.’ In his characterisation of the Occupy movement (‘The right to worship?’ ‘Screw that’) Hodges even implied that the protestors had breached the right to freedom of religion – perhaps forgetting London’s unmatched density of churches, chapels and cathedrals, the omniscience of the Divine, and the power of prayer.

Media lawyer David Allen Green worked near the cathedral and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. It had been the church authorities’ decision to close the doors, on public order grounds you could drive a bus through – and in his article, Green did just that.

I walk past the St Paul’s at least twice a day. I have no particular sympathy for many of the causes promoted by the protesters, but over the last ten days I have been impressed by how the camp, and the protesters generally, have conducted themselves. The camp is clean, there is no significant impediment to the Cathedral steps or any other entrance, and there appears to be no graffiti or other damage. Indeed, one might say it is the very model of how a protest should be done. And it is a daily reminder to the City workers who pass of issues which the protesters do not think should be ignored. To my mind, it causes no real inconvenience to anyone.

A couple of high-profile resignations later someone in the senior clergy realised that a violent mass eviction, Dale Farm-style, may have an adverse impact on the groovy-Cameroony image the Anglican Church has crafted with care for many years, and an uneasy coexistence has been reached.

The barrage of half-arsed satires and lazy comedy continued. The protestors are middle class! They don’t sleep in their tents! Ho-ho-ho! In what has to be the least effective piece of advocacy journalism to date, a Daily Squawk reporter camped out in a demonstrator’s garden. The paper claimed that its ridiculous stunt was ‘striking a blow for the Daily Express’s ‘Boot Them Out’ crusade, aimed at ridding a rabble who succeeded where Hitler failed in closing the Cathedral.’ The target, an ex-Conservative councillor who joined the St Paul’s protest, comes off as sane and reasonable. (‘Why don’t you people sleep in your tents at night?’ ‘Well, we have jobs and families.’ ‘Er, all right then.’)

Another widespread criticism against the protestors was the Facebook poster taunt ‘Ha ha, you’re against capitalism but you drink Starbucks and use smartphones.’ Tory MP Louise Mensch, who I actually have a lot of respect for, used this infantile argument on a recent Have I Got News for You. ‘It was amusing to see the longest queue for Starbucks ever at an anticapitalist protest… You can’t be against capitalism and then take everything it provides.’ Ian Hislop queried this: ‘So, if you buy coffee, your opinions are worthless?… You don’t have to want to return to a barter system in the Stone Age to complain about the way the financial crisis affected large numbers of people in the world.’ The point was: if Occupy LSX were puritans who made coffee from pavement dirt and communicated by string and tin cans, they would have been worthy of ridicule. As it was, protestors were mocked because they were prepared to compromise their principles in a pluralist society.

It always helps to remember the bigger picture. We had a horrendous recession caused by the stupidity of rich people in the financial elite working from a medieval relic in the centre of London where democratic law does not apply. Instead of being given prison sentences for the damage they caused to people’s lives, the bankers are rewarded with tax breaks and January bonuses well above the average wage. The price is being paid by middle and working class people, who are being hammered by a government that has reduced economics to a morality tale. This week it cut off access to legal representation for some of the poorest people in the country. Growth has been minimal and, far from cutting the deficit, we are spending even more on corporate public sector schemes to harass the growing numbers of unemployed into private sector jobs that aren’t there.

Hardest hit are the old, the sick, the disabled and anyone born after 1980 or so (there are entire generations that simply don’t exist as far as this government is concerned). Vulnerable groups are one thing but – and Ed Miliband, for all his policy-wonk awkwardness, does seem on a fundamental level to understand this – everyone is being hurtShoplifting is going up. And not shoplifting of luxuries and electricals but basic stuff: ‘Cheese comes a long way top, meat second, then fish and baby milk.’ In County Durham you can find Salvation Army run food banks. A charity spokesman described his service as ‘a collaboration between five other churches, whose parishioners were increasingly aware of families and young people in financial trouble.’ The Big Society in action.

Capitalism is clearly better than anything else that’s been tried. Marx wrote several passages of praise for capitalism, recognising in it a revolutionary nature missing from, say, feudal theocracy. And revolutionary movements often contain deeply unpleasant people who want to replace the market with something ten times worse. But the coalition’s doctrinaire monopoly capitalism failed in 2008 and has still failed. There is no reason we can’t have a dynamic market economy and at the same time ensure that people have a decent income and standard of living. Markets are man made. There is nothing wrong with wanting to regulate the system so it becomes a tool of humanity and not some capricious volcano god. And perhaps one day humanity will evolve past the market and enter a state of happiness, wealth, freedom and co-operation. Sounds naive and idealistic, I know, but so did the minimum wage and the eight-hour day, in other times.

If you join a protest you generally risk making a joke of yourself. Yet the Occupy LSX crowd have a dignity. It’s good to see people get off their backsides and actually doing something. It is the commenters and pundits, stroking their beards and making the same tedious jokes and playing the same bullshit intellectual games, that have become the real fools.