Archive for January, 2018

The Magic Mountain

January 28, 2018

Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s novel is set in the disputed lands somewhere around the Frontex borders where Europe meets Africa. Hundreds of migrants from Africa’s cities and villages live in the mountain’s footholds, crevices and caves, where they sleep, eat, play football, barter with the local villages, and talk – endlessly, it seems: the majority of The Gurugu Pledge is dialogue.

Well over half the book feels like a symposium. The migrants talk of imperialism, corruption, religion, dictatorship, language, work, culture, love, sex – anything and everything, often interrupting and talking over one another in a lively testament to the oral tradition. Imaginary persons are brought onto the mountain, philosophers and academics conjured out of thin air to test ideas. It’s in one of these interludes that a character makes one of the eloquent defence of football that I’ve ever come across: ‘You can’t expect a child, no matter how humble, to say when I grow up I want to be an agency cleaner at Charles de Gaulle airport. Or when I grow up I want to be a fake-handbag salesman, never mind a razor-wire acrobat or a shipwreck rescuee. These aren’t professions. It’s football that teaches children that black people get to go on TV, get to be admired and applauded. Perhaps they don’t all grow up saying they want to be footballers, but they see a brother up there on the screen, someone from their tribe who has triumphed, and he speaks for them all. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that football is the key to survival for countless black boys.’

In the novel’s second half the story gets underway and Ávila Laurel reminds us that for all the happy chatter this book takes place in dark times. The migrants have to scrape and negotiate for food, and the Moroccan forestry police are always waiting for a reason to sweep them off the mountain. It would feel like a betrayal to reveal what happens, except that it begins with a man named Omar who every day swims naked in an African river, wearing only a pair of army boots. But despite the dark and troubled ending to Ávila Laurel’s brief novel, his Gurugu mountain is a mountain of light.


So, Er, ‘Whither the Novel’?

January 27, 2018

I could see why people were annoyed by Tim Lott’s new year article in the Guardian on the lost art of storytelling. He’s a bit of an old curmudgeon and the examples he picks out of bad storyless writing are mainly by women writers (I thought Lott was unfair to Eimear McBride, though I never read her debut, just The Lesser Bohemians, a work of modernist brilliance). Women writers are selling more these days and any complaint about the state of publishing has to acknowledge that very obvious positive trend.

But the general thrust of the piece I nodded along to – I too read mostly Stateside writers these days and I love the narrative drive of long form television. Like Lott I find British fiction a bit samey and predictable these days with too many overresearched historical novels and gleanings from nature and prolier-than-thou social history. It seems uncontroversial to say so but Lott’s point provoked a minor backlash and a difficult new circling of that old question: so, er, Whither the Novel?

It’s interesting that Lott mentions UEA in his piece. He should have known before he started teaching there that UEA embodies the self-conscious tradition in English literature, the world of McEwan, Bradbury, Barnes – it has never pretended to be anything else, it’s certainly not the place for the more instinctive story and character based writers. But I think that Lott’s detractors are missing the point as well. Arguments like Lott’s are often dismissed as ‘appealing to the market’, ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’ – which, I think, is misguided. The market in literary fiction is just not an issue any more. Tom Gatti writes:

In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

These are grim stats – game changing ones. If you have almost no chance of making a living as a full time writer through commercial publication then the motivation is not ‘appealing to the market’, it becomes ‘appealing to a few key people’ who are into self conscious storyless fiction. Write a book, preferably set in the past (a respectable part of the past featuring interesting old buildings and intricate little contraptions made of pewter to marvel over) and you could, potentially, augment those 3000 sales with a good teaching job and prize payouts. Awards seem to have become more significant for authors as day to day sales fall. Much has been made of the recent successes indie publishers have had in winning literature awards. People say this is a testament to the innovative work coming out of indie presses. That’s one way of looking at it. Another is that indie publishers have looked at the kind of fiction that wins the big prizes and are pitching and commissioning appropriately.

Of course the ‘death of the novel’ is something of a perennial with critics – we’ve been having these conversations for decades. So I don’t think we are losing the novel – but I think we are losing the power to speak frankly about art.

Look at the reaction to Rebecca Watts’s recent article in PN Review. Again, you can pick holes in her critique of Instagram poetry and Hollie McNish’s scansion. But, more than Lott’s piece, Watts’s critique is arresting, strongly written, powerfully argued – and a rare thing in UK criticism today. In the American press you can read reviews of such quality on a daily basis – in England most people are too afraid to write like this because they fear being ‘cut out’ of the pie. It is a bit like political writing where everyone’s afraid of stepping on each other’s toes and the space for frank expression is filled by a few professional contrarians who make it their UPS to ‘annoy the liberals’ and be as obnoxious as possible.

Look at Watts’s Twitter mentions. They are predictable – ivory tower, academic snobbery, bad feminist etc, and this from the same reactive mob that slammed Lott for ‘appealing to the lowest common denominator’. (They also said that Rebecca Watts was ‘jealous’ of McNish. Of course! That’s got to be it.) But there was a kind of unity in the strain to the denunciations, as well as the appeal to a key approving audience – or some idea of authenticity that may, after all, be an illusion.

Should we support an ’emergency intervention’ by the Arts Council to support writers? I really don’t know. I like the idea of giving grants for authors to get autonomy and writing time, I wouldn’t mind paying taxes to support such a scheme, arts policy in many countries operates in exactly this way. But (as someone with experience of writing bids for grants) I fear that such a scheme would devolve into a box ticking and form filling exercise, and result in novels edited and approved by committee. In a country with millions of readers is that really the way we want to go? God, I hope not.

Notes from the Jungle

January 12, 2018

Darren McGarvey had every right to make this book all about himself. He grew up in the tough Pollock social estate of south Glasgow, an environment where ‘a simple trip to the shop around the corner was a risk to your safety’. His mother’s life was dominated by drink and drug problems, and she died aged just 36. McGarvey himself struggled with addiction and homelessness. To stay sane the young McGarvey got into rap music, took part in community protests, made a name for himself, and eventually reached the point where he was seen by the establishment as an authentic working class voice. But only if he said what the establishment wanted to hear.

The testimony about my childhood was fine but they were less keen on the observations I started to make as my understanding of poverty, its causes and impacts, deepened. I was growing and learning and evolving, as I had been all my life, and this created new lines of enquiry that I would immediately pursue, no matter the consequences. Queries such as ‘Who makes the decisions about your budget?’ and ‘How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?’ were making people around me nervous.

Britain welcomes working class voices, as long as they are happy to be defined entirely by their background. And Poverty Safari gives us a world-class account of what it is like to be poor. Books like this are normally described as ‘visceral,’ or ‘hard-hitting,’ but McGarvey achieves much more with his terse, low-key style. In this slim volume he encompasses a tower-block worth of lifetimes. The impact of growing up, surrounded by chaos and tension; the defence mechanisms that harden into irreversible neural pathways, the core beliefs that form (‘This isn’t for the likes of me’, ‘The state owes me a living’, ‘Everything bad that happens is someone else’s fault’) the feeling that you have been judged as soon as you enter a room, and that the real conversations are going on without you: the development of static and corrosive communities. For a long time the exceptional book on the white working class was Michael Collins’s The Likes of Us. McGarvey’s collection of essays and vignettes is arguably even better: there are pieces (‘A History of Violence’ and ‘The Changeling’ come to mind) that remind you of Orwell at his brightest and most accomplished. How eloquently he cuts through the modern culture-war bullshit and actually says something.

One point McGarvey emphasises again and again is that we can’t just sit around waiting for a new economic or political system to appear, and that the public sector is not necessarily the answer. Council, arts and third sector organisations descended on estates like Pollok even through the austerity years. Action plans were written, conferences held, officers hired, meetings convened… and not much changed. The suspicion forms that the various public agencies had a structural interest in seeing working class people as victims. Personal responsibility and the potential of the individual to change their lives has been gifted to the political Right.

The public sector – and a lot of the private sector – relies upon a complex system of language and ritual that is difficult for most people. If you can learn the script, and jump through the hoops at person spec and interview stage, then maybe – maybe – you’ll be ‘cut in’. If not, you’re left to the debt and conditionality serfdom of the modern welfare state. This is also, McGarvey writes, one of the many issues with intersectional politics and virtue culture. He points out: ‘The very members of the vulnerable and marginalised communities intersectionality is designed to empower may feel baffled by the jargon, afraid to speak up or ask questions, anxious that they might misspeak and be condemned or exiled.’

Throughout the book McGarvey stuns the reader with the force of his imaginative empathy and willingness to take on new perspectives – so in that spirit I’ll take issue with a few of his remarks. The passages on immigration are the only conventional parts of Poverty Safari. Having legitimate concerns about migration doesn’t make you racist, McGarvey says: ‘to claim there are no legitimate concerns about immigration is useless and fails to account for the extent to which politics are rooted in the emotional reality of people’s lives.’ The Brexit vote, he says, was ‘perhaps a glimpse of what happens when people start becoming aware of the fact they haven’t been cut into the action but have no real mechanism to enfranchise themselves beyond voting… When the full wrath of working class anger is brought to bear on the domain of politics, sending ripples through our culture, it’s treated like a national disaster.’

No one would seriously deny problems arising from the waves of immigration following the fall of the Wall, A8 accession and the refugee crisis. But listening to legitimate concerns is practically all politicians have been doing for twenty years. From the New Labour period, governments passed laws restricting migrant entry and entitlements, enforcing the state’s detention and deportation powers; ministers and journalists appeared on talk shows, almost breathless and overwhelmed by their own bravery in ‘talking about immigration’. The problem with this approach has been that you can’t necessarily deport your way out of the problem – you have to deport a lot of people to produce an impact that the public will notice – and that generations of migration has already changed this country in ways that can’t and shouldn’t be reversed. Where does the economic argument against immigration end and the cultural argument begin? What are we supposed to do, tear down the mosques and Asian supermarkets? And there is often an ominous subtext in the warnings of the ‘social discohesion’ that can happen if legitimate concerns are not met. What a lovely cosmopolitan city you’ve got there. Go up a treat, that would…

The tide is already turning. Professionals are beginning to think in terms of recruitment crises and skill shortages rather than trying to accommodate an abundance of foreign jobseekers. McGarvey also says that ‘the people in society who are pro immigration are usually those who feel connected, involved or have been cut into the action in some way and are thus invested in the process.’ I regret to tell him that over ten years of pro-migration blogging this ungrateful lobby has yet to distribute wealth and power in my direction. And I suspect that most people, while probably not open borders enthusiasts, do not share the defining and passionate opposition to net migration characteristic of the far right and the left behind.

Culture warriors idealise a vision of an authentic working class against the decadent bourgeois. But this sort of thing creates its own backlash. People are sick of the idea of the ‘left behind’ as some kind of victim group that can’t be challenged. In the intersectional academic world, McGarvey says, no one talks about ‘racism within the LGBT community, homophobia among African Americans, debate about transgenderism in feminist communities, subjugation of women in Muslim communities’… and now, apparently, we can’t talk about working class racism. Do I think that people should be shunned for expressing racism? Hell no. I will talk to anyone. But the next time we debate the ‘uncomfortable truths’ let’s do what McGarvey does in his exceptional book, and define what exactly it is we’re dealing with here.