Delirium in democracy: the Trump reading list

I know I talked about him last time, but it’s real now. He’s here. I’ve been a bookworm for over two decades, and I chose to spend four years (literally – it cost me many thousands of pounds) poring over the history of the world. Head-in-sand and armchairish it may be, but this is the only way I know how to process humanity’s capacity for abhorrent behaviour – to try and understand it by reading. And recent literary news proves that I’m not the only one: 69 years after it was first published, as we enter the ‘post-truth’ presidency, George Orwell’s 1984 has returned to the charts. At the time of writing, it is the number one – NUMBER ONE – bestseller on Amazon.com. Do you know how many books are on Amazon?!

So here’s what I’ve got. The books I have to offer aren’t actually about Trump, you’ll be relieved to know. They just might help us work through the uncomfortable, almost unthinkable questions of how we got here, and how things may look in the coming years as we suffer the consequences. Even if you read one of them and feel no more intellectually enlightened or emotionally prepared, at least all three are a jolly good read, and you’ll have had that distraction to comfort you for a week or two.

You Don’t Have To Live Like This – Benjamin Markovits

Where did Trump come from? As a phenomenon, he has multiple geographical and sociocultural origins, and the finger-pointing began pretty much as soon as the result was declared. All right, the Internet seemed to say, who’s been voting against their interests again, hashtag Brexit? Or which one of you groups that should have voted for Hillary failed to get out of bed yesterday morning?  Somehow, this seemed almost more important to some people than why anyone might have voted for Trump, or even had the chance to do so  – what kind of lives they and other Americans have been living. Though published before Trump was even nominated, Benjamin Markovits’ haunting novel is a nuanced antidote to such knee-jerking. It remains urgently relevant.

Marny, the narrator of You Don’t Have To Live Like This, is a member of the American ‘coastal elite’ we’ve heard so much about this winter: a Yale graduate riding on the tailcoats of an outrageously wealthy former classmate who has conceived a maverick social project: to repopulate Detroit, the globally notorious flagship city of the post-industrial Midwest wasteland, by helping such elites to buy and move into the empty houses, and build communities.

The racial and class tensions surrounding this scheme are obvious from the outset, but there’s nothing conventional about Marny’s navigation of them – with unexpected friends on both sides of the ‘war’, he is caught in the crosshairs. His internal and external debates about this are neither safe nor predictable: is Marny a racist? Or simply an asshole? If he’s a racist, does he have any choice about that, as a white settler in a black area and a white American more generally? Markovits asks the hard questions, and his daring pays off: his novel is a profound and vivid portrait of a horribly fragile and complex settlement, as dependent on the neuroses of individuals living together as on the great weight of America’s shameful racial history. It cuts to the heart of the sentiments and, frankly, dire civilisational mess behind Trump’s rise.

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“a bold work of fiction with a firm real-world moral” – Financial Times

There’s also a valid Great Gatsby comparison here. You Don’t Have to Live Like This starts as a meandering, melancholic exploration of a privileged man’s chance encounters, with all the self-indulgent reflection they produce. Many books hailed as ‘Great American Novels’ never move past this point (cf Jonathan Franzen), and to be honest, I find them tiresome. But here, the narrative turns on itself, more than once, to become a dramatic clash with the highest stakes and, ultimately, an indictment of a way of living. As with Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, we turn the final page with the jury still out. When Marny’s story begins, he thinks he’s a good guy, because he means no harm – but in a world where black people are shot for their skin colour (or, indeed, a bigot is in the White House), circumstances and people in your life force you to reassess whether meaning no harm is good enough. Over the next four years, we’ll be needing more novels like this: complex and thought-provoking, unaggressive yet unflinching.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible – Peter Pomerantsev

So much for those who paved the way for a Trump presidency – what about that presidency itself? To understand the nature of the Trump administration, it clearly helps if you understand the nature of Russia. It’s hard to know what’s more frightening: foreign interference in a sovereign nation’s democratic elections, or the fact that its beneficiary both refuses to believe it happened and openly looks up to the man responsible.

Maybe even more worryingly, there are obvious parallels between the Kremlin’s regime of ‘unreality’ and the ‘post-truth’ culture fomented and basked in by Trump & co, which disputes not the accuracy, but the importance of facts. Peter Pomerantsev, an Anglo-Russian TV producer, moved to Moscow at the turn of the century to go after his slice of the post-Communist cake. But he soon discovered that federal Russia was gripped by a different kind of ‘possibility’: one where truth is a borderline theatrical construct controlled by those at the top, and ordinary people can do nothing but try to act out parts they scarcely know they’re playing. Alternative facts are fed down so comprehensively that people don’t have the energy or capacity even to perceive ‘the truth’ as relevant to their wellbeing. (If you haven’t already, set aside an evening for Adam Curtis’ beautifully understated capture of this world in his BBC iPlayer film Hypernormalisation.)

Hence the title of Pomerantsev’s prize-winning little collection of sketches and anecdotes – some hilarious, some heart-breaking and some downright terrifying. I’d thought that the book would be a linear, cause-and-effect narrative exposing the workings of the Kremlin’s reality system. Instead, it was a highly impressionistic piece of writing, sometimes drifting listlessly and sometimes lurching violently between scenes, from chance encounter to researched scandal. In places, Pomerantsev’s observations are striking and poignant; in others, you may not be sure for several pages where he is going. The whole thing is utterly absorbing, a whirlwind page-turner of heady disconnection that was over before I’d quite processed it – rather like the daily life of Muscovites.

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“an electrifying portrait of modern Russia” – The Telegraph

This book is not a portrait of the US in 2020. True, Trump’s campaign was led by entirely false stories widely treated as fact, simply because they fit unproblematically into people’s existing sense of the world. And this excellent NYRB article lays out better than I can the obvious parallels between Trump’s and Putin’s leadership styles. But this dreamlike account of a slippery world has left me with at least one clear impression: that the US cannot become this within just four years. Pomerantsev knows what has gone wrong in Russia: most of its adult population grew up under a life system – Communism – that nobody still believed in, but that required everyone to play along with their whole being, until the very end. Once it collapsed, no ideology replaced it. All that was left was the muscle memory of that pretence, of a perpetual disassociation from reality. America’s current predicament, though dire in many ways, hardly seems comparable in scale.

This doesn’t diminish the significance of Nothing is True and Everything is Possible for our Trump study. Read this for [200 pages] of a perilously towering house of cards, to understand the impossibly high stakes Moscow is playing for in this not-remotely-a-game. Read it to contemplate the dangers Trump is wilfully courting, but also their limitations in an American context. Perspective has never been so valuable.

The Despot’s Accomplice – Brian Klaas

A disclaimer upfront: I edited this book. Never before on this blog have I touted my own work, but it would have been false not to recommend it here. As I stumbled bleary-eyed around the house clutching my phone on the dawn of Trump’s victory, I remember thinking to myself, “Brian’s book is more relevant now than ever.” The world seems to agree with me, since his expert opinion (already providing commentary in various media throughout the campaign) has been published all over the place since Trump took office.

Brian, an elections expert, travelled all over the world to write this book, a frequently amusing, often colourful and always surprising inquiry into the state of global democracy – and despotism. He asks the big questions: why has global democracy shrunk every year for the last decade? Is the West to blame? And how can we do better? His subtitle is provocative – “How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy” – but this isn’t a one-dimensional moral lecture for Bush, Blair and the gang. Klaas heartily opposes ‘democracy wars’ abroad, but not just because they kill people in places where we have no business being. They also don’t work. With a keen eye for the ironic or outright absurd, but also a thirst for rational policy and tangible results, The Despot’s Accomplice is a breath of a fresh air, an original handbook for Western governments and all those holding them accountable that makes no assumptions and questions everyone else’s.

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“Essential reading” – Walter Mondale, former US vice president

What does this have to do with Trump? Well, two things. Firstly, one of Brian’s ten “golden rules” for Western democracy promotion is that we must look to our own house first. America can’t lead the charge for democracy abroad, he believes, when its own is in such dubious shape. Though it might destroy the world, Trump’s election has had at least one virtue: outraged members of the American electorate have begun learning and discussing words like “filibuster”, “gerrymandering” and, of course, “electoral college”. It has never been so popular or necessary to understand the American constitution and what it does and does not allow. The chapter on this in The Despot’s Accomplice was understated and concise.

But what really made me think of Brian on 9 November was the main subject of his book: the way Western democracies tolerate, or even pander to, countries with despotic tendencies because they think they need them for something. I knew that morning, with a depth of conviction I wouldn’t have possessed before reading The Despot’s Accomplice, that the world would not refuse to work with President Trump. Brian’s turn of phrase, the passion of his belief in democracy and his exasperation at the inept, self-defeating assumptions behind Western foreign policy are both unforgettable and important.

I am sorry that this has happened to us. But I wouldn’t be in publishing if I didn’t believe that the way to fight ignorance and narrow-mindedness is through opening and educating ourselves as much as we can. I regret, for instance, that the three books recommended here are written by white men, when they are the ones who will suffer least from Trump’s presidency. So my quest goes on, and it would be lovely if you’d join me.

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Make Reading Great Again: a New Year’s resolution for the outward-looking

So I think I managed to make it through 2016 without mentioning the Brexit result. Sorry, but the time has come. I won’t labour the point: more or less the whole of UK publishing thinks Brexit is a terrible idea that will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on our industry. The Independent Publishers’ Guild conducts an annual survey of its members. At their autumn conference in September, I saw the results in stark, PowerPoint form: not only was Brexit their number one business concern, but the 180 member publishers who participated were asked to name the government policy that would best help independents to succeed. After VAT and tax breaks for small businesses, the most popular answer was ‘not doing Brexit’.

It really is that simple, and we felt it in October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest annual gathering of publishers. There was speculation that European publishers might simply stop bothering with the London Book Fair, the second-largest convention, once it becomes more difficult and expensive for them to travel to London and to do business with British publishers. Liz Thomson of The Bookseller predicted that US publishers will take advantage of the suddenly unattractive prospect of dealing with UK rights agents, and “seek to control world English-language rights”. Already at this Fair, the Brits were desperately trying to close deals in dollars, while everyone else chased after the sterling. How embarrassing.

Once we got home and changed up our Euros for a pitiful sum of Great British quid, the impact of our weak currency position lingered. For example, at a small independent, it’s been enough to bar us from using an EU-based printer whose rates looked doable before 23 June.

On the other side of the Irish Sea, things aren’t looking much better. As Tony Canavan, editor of Books Ireland, put it at the Fair:

Our … publishing output is almost entirely in English, meaning that Britain is the only other viable export market in Europe. Irish publishers, from Belfast to Cork, operate in an all-island market which will bring serious challenges if Northern Ireland … [leaves] the EU. And how easy will it be to export books to Britain if post-Brexit tariffs are imposed or the pound sterling falls in value?

… for many media organisations, from Sky to the Sunday Times [and for the Booksellers Association], the Republic of Ireland is just a region of the United Kingdom.  … How will these companies and organisations cope if one branch remains in the EU operating under different laws and regulations?

There’s only one possible conclusion you can draw from the Brexit conversation in publishing: it places barriers between publishers and readers. The biggest and most immediately obvious  of these challenges is our lost membership of one of the world’s most important bodies for granting arts funds. Without grants from Brussels and other EU-based institutions, translating a book into English is virtually beyond the means of small independents (who, more willing to take risks and embrace unknown authors, have always led the way in translated publishing). I’ve personally felt the frustration of having a foreign publisher or agent approach you with an exciting title, but having to decline because no help is available to get the book translated.

I’d say this matters for two reasons. Firstly, for our reading – it might have ‘Great’ in the name, but this country is pretty small. How sure are we that all of the best writers and thinkers are stuffed between its shores? If you’re interested in a damn good read, then you should be angry about the financial constraints stopping publishers from bringing you the best books they discover. All right, the English-speaking world is larger than most lingustic pools. But did you know that great American novelists Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Kennedy and James Salter were all best-selling names in French translation before anyone in the UK – or indeed, the US – had heard of them?

Secondly, and on a related note, it matters for our culture and our view of the world. The UK (or 51% of it) has voted to turn inward, and has decided that we are stronger alone. If Brexit not only cuts us off from full European trade, security, diplomacy and the rest, but also from European literature, how will we ever overcome that mindset? I am by no means a literature snob, but I don’t think it’s a great surprise that Donald Trump “doesn’t read”. Limited experiences produce narrow perspectives.

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Unless he wrote it, of course.

What can we do about this? Take back control. By reading. Though many people don’t think of publishing as a particularly corporate industry – and, yes, most of its relatively penniless employees probably couldn’t hack it as hedge fund managers or consultants – if there’s one thing UK publishing is, it’s market-driven. Hence the five billion colouring books, Fifty Shades of Grey rip-offs and guides to hygge that have walked off the shelves in the past few years. I’ve mostly talked about the effects of Brexit on small publishers with limited funds, but even those with the spending power don’t use it on translated books, on the basis that there’s not much appetite for foreign-language authors in this country.

The current pitiful figure (1.5% of the UK books market is translated fiction) is not entirely our fault, unless you count colonialism. If they want to read anything written beyond their own borders, Italians don’t have much choice about reading in translation (19.7% of their market); we have a whole world of authors writing in an original we can understand, from Canada to Nigeria to India.* This means there’s less pressure on publishers to seek out translations – and less ability among them, too. Unlike the rest of the world’s publishers, there’s little need for editorial staff in UK houses to speak foreign languages. Dependent on freelance reader’s reports and unable to evaluate the entire manuscript for themselves, British publishers are far more reluctant to take the risk, when they feel there’s a smaller market out there anyway.

Even so, is anyone else thinking “vicious circle”? Of course we don’t read much translated fiction, if you won’t give it to us. And it’s simply false that there’s no market for it – the Man Booker International Prize found this year that, stunningly, translated novels sell better in the UK than English-language originals. Whereas overall fiction sales have fallen since the start of the century, translated fiction sales have almost doubled. In 2016 this super-neglected sector was worth twice its share of the published market in sales – punching doubly above its weight.

The only way to persuade publishers that it’s worth the investment to buy or pay to commission English translations, even in a post-Brexit world, is by continuing to show that we as readers are willing and eager to consume them. But as we know, beyond your regular Murakamis, Larssons and Ferrantes, they’re not always easy to find. So here are a few recommendations.

Mendelssohn is on the Roof – Jiří Weil (Czech,1960)

I chose this book for its title. Set in Nazi-occupied Prague, it starts with brilliant satire – a Czech municipal worker is instructed to remove a statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn, but doesn’t know which one he is; he removes the largest-nosed statue, which turns out to be of the ultra-German Wagner… In a cruelly accomplished transformation of tone, the ensuing chain of events and the lives of those caught up in the war slowly turn to tragedy. Weil, himself a Jew, managed to survive the Holocaust by faking his own death and hiding in plain sight in the Czech capital. He naturally wanted to commemorate the terrible events that unfolded there, but like the best Holocaust novels, from If This is a Man to Maus to The Book Thief, humanity is what shines through.Subdued hope is never far behind the misery, and the vivacity of the characters are ultimately more important than their fate. Making you cry and laugh in turn, this is one memorable read.

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“A brilliant, bitter satire … Unmissable.” – Sunday Times

Decoded – Mai Jia (Chinese, 2002)

Mai Jia is a widely accomplished novelist, hailed (boringly) by the West as a sort of Chinese John Le Carré. Decoded follows the troubles of one exceptionally gifted codebreaker, told more through the lives of others than through his own. An elusive, slippery novel, it feels rather like an encryption, forever just beyond our reach. It is a generations-long family epic, an ‘evidence-based’ thriller, a murder mystery, a portrait of a savant, an exploration of the fine line between genius and madness… Put simply, it is more than the sum of its parts, a compelling exercise in coming at things sideways that powerfully suggests human beings may be too complex to ever truly ‘know’.

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“a subtle and complex exploration of cryptography, politics, dreams and their significance” – London Review of Books

One Night, Markovitch – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Hebrew, 2012)

This debut has elevated Gundar-Goshen to the hallowed ranks of ‘known authors’ in the UK, her newly published second novel worthy of posters in the Underground and the table treatment in bookstores. She fully deserves the recognition. Exploring the intertwined lives of two friends who engage in arranged marriages to help bring Jewish women from war-torn Europe to Palestine, One Night, Markovitch is a story of yearning. It is simultaneously epic, or at least wondrous, and terribly, earthily rooted in everyday life. It is not quite magical realism, but there is a touch of that in its playful treatment of reality. Things are simultaneously true and untrue between two people, it is both meaningful and meaningless that things are a certain way, and “Such things, though, impossible, are quite common.” I’ve rarely read such an insightful depiction of human relations and experience, but there’s nothing clinical about this book. It is deeply sensuous and beautifully poignant, depicting a poetic existence somewhat unlike the lives we live, but viscerally, immediately recognisable: “How many things could a woman not say?”

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“steeped in wit, beauty and drama … an incredibly rich tale of history, love, obsession and new beginnings” – Huffington Post

I’ve spoken before about how reading more diversely takes a conscious effort, because our regular reading is unconsciously skewed. For those who read, perhaps this is a new year’s resolution more achievable than attempts to introduce a whole new activity into your life, whether it’s exercise, diary-keeping or flossing. Instead, just adjust your existing behaviour. Next time you buy a book, seek out a translation. Frankly, no one wants to read about Trump’s America or Brexit Britain anyway. Take yourself to another place entirely, at least in your mind.

*English PEN, among others, has pointed out the huge struggle for authors from Commonwealth countries who write in ‘native’ mother tongues: what do Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Khaled Hosseini all have in common? They all write in English, and they’re all considered modern-day spokesmen of countries of origin where millions of people can’t read their work. If you think it’s hard being published as a Dutch author, try being published as an Indian author writing in Tamil or Gujarati.

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Introducing… Graphic Novels

Can I confess something? I hate art galleries.

My parents are both art-lovers, but through all those weekends of exhibition room benches and gift shop erasers, my visual appreciation remained stunted. I can look at an absolutely out-of-this-world sunset, be truly moved by it, and even take a thoughtful photograph of it – all in about two seconds. Then I’m done. I’ve never found how to linger over an image that I find beautiful or striking, which is why I spent childhood car journeys not admiring the scenery, but with my nose in one or more books. 

Fortunately for me, someone has come up with a way to force readers to look at pictures. They’re called graphic novels, and I love them. I truly believe that everyone should read them. Yet I’m not obsessed with superheroes, a small child who loves fart jokes, or a basement-lurker.

This is how graphic novels are treated in the UK – as a hyper-niche, ultra-formulaic and never-ending series, normally stuck on the end of SFF/Horror/Manga in Waterstones. But they can be about anything under the sun, fiction or non-fiction.They can be human rights campaigning material, biographies of anyone from painters to physicists, a visual adaptation of an award-winning literary novelist, or an epic folk-tale romance. Elsewhere in this series of posts I’ve mentioned how certain rules are common in most types of “genre fiction”. But there’s no single narrative or thematic tradition that ties together all graphic novels, because they aren’t a genre – they’re a medium. (And if you click through some of the links in this post, you’ll see how stylistically diverse they are, too.) They tell a story through a combination of words and pictures. That’s all.

Graphic novels are also often considered low-brow or childlike, as if they’re only for those who can’t or won’t read something without pictures. But the pioneering nation behind the modern graphic novel? That ultimate culture snob, France. The French understand that graphic literature is an art form like any other, and that it can do things like no other. To put it simply, the mix of words and images opens up new ways of reading a story.

Here’s a parallel you might recognise: I don’t know about you, but I found reading the script of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child a strange and unfulfilling experience – because theatre is not meant to be read. However intricately crafted and richly expressive the text is, it’s just not a play without the music, the staging, the acting, the costumes. Reading a graphic novel is a different experience from reading a regular novel, or biography, or history. Ideas and emotions are communicated on a different level – more intimate, more visceral, more instinctive. There’s more space for expression, and that means their message is often deeper and richer.

Graphic novels are particularly suited to telling certain kinds of story, and I especially like ones that tell true stories. For those (the vast majority of readers) who – understandably – can’t sit through traditional non-fiction, but want to learn about the world, this is the ideal solution. Graphic travel diaries, memoirs and reportage allow you to discover places through not just the voice, but also the eyes, of someone who’s been there. And because you’re proceeding frame by frame, probably with narration or dialogue, you’re actually given twice as long to take it all in. Both of the best-known modern graphic novels are non-fiction. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is an autobiography of lost identity, the immigrant experience and a feisty little girl in post-revolution Iran; Maus is the survival story of the author’s Polish Jewish father, in which Art Spiegelman famously portrays the Poles as pigs, the Nazis as cats and the Jews as mice. They are two of the greatest books of the last thirty-odd years.

Maus and Persepolis have deservedly reached a global audience. But why do most people stop there? I’m hoping to persuade you that the whole world of graphic novels is an emotionally rewarding, deeply thought-provoking and highly enjoyable reading experience, and you’re missing out if you’re not exploring them. Here are just three examples, of three different types of graphic literature.

HISTORY-AUTOBIOGRAPHY: The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf

Occasionally, an outstanding graphic novelist will get attention from the mainstream books industry. For the broadsheets and the bookshop windows, Riad Sattouf is the new kid on the block. A half-French, half-Syrian cartoonist and film director, his autobiography explores a childhood in Gaddafi’s Libya and Assad Snr’s Syria, through the eyes of a wide-eyed blond boy born in Paris. Like all good graphic novelists, and in the tradition of Persepolis, Sattouf casts a wry, self-mocking eye upon his younger self, but uses it to probe not only his emotional development and the relationship between his culture-clashing parents, but also the nature of Cold War Arab societies and how these evolved into today’s Middle East. Don’t be fooled by the innocent simplicity of the drawing style – this is a sharp look at the human impossibility of political ideas, and the daily pain of human co-existence. And it’s all pretty adorable.

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“a disquieting yet essential read” – The New York Times

Sattouf’s perspective is fascinating and valuable for two reasons. Firstly, he is relating his own discovery of the Arab world from the outside – no one born in the Middle East could explain Arabic pronunciation so well to a Western audience. Secondly, he does what I look for in all my graphic novels: he takes me somewhere I’ve never been. In this case, it’s the Syria that existed before the civil war pushed it into our consciousness. It’s the people who saved for a washing machine, the children who bullied each other, the shops and roads and TV shows that were the fabric of an everyday life seldom imagined by observers of today’s catastrophe. Just as Marjane Satrapi humanises the women behind Iran’s niqabs and burqas (many of them veiled against their will after the Revolution), Sattouf gives a meaning to “Syrians” that is not “rebels”, “soldiers”, “terrorists” or “refugees” – not exceptional, but ordinary, even under a dictatorship.

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If this is the kind of story you’re looking for in your graphic novels, you might also want to check out Zeina Abirached. A Lebanese illustrator who grew up in war-torn Beirut, her recollection of that experience, A Game for Swallows, was the first graphic novel to be sponsored for English translation by PEN International. Strife in Lebanon has been an accepted fact in the West for as long as I can remember – news of bombings barely registers – but the Lebanese Civil War actually ended before I was born. It is not normal for people to live in constant fear and insecurity, “even” in a Middle Eastern country like Syria or Lebanon. That is the most important thing that graphic novels have taught me. Abirached also taught me to consider the full reality of such catastrophes – she exposes the aching boredom of life in a war zone through her own story, confined to the walls of her apartment building and peopled solely by its other inhabitants.

GRAPHIC JOURNALISM: Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

Many of the best Middle Eastern graphic novelists have been French-educated, and they have often aimed specifically to help Western audiences understand their experiences. But others, outsiders, have also taken this approach, coming into and bringing back stories from parts of the world too often overlooked, or oversimplified.

Maltese-American Joe Sacco is essentially the founding father of graphic journalism. His on-the-ground reportage pursues the fundamental truth behind world events, by seeking out and then sketching the human stories behind them. During the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, he spent two years visiting and living in Goražde, a Muslim-majority town in the otherwise Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, cut off from the outside world and only accessible by UN convoys. This besieged community – starving, terrorised, and used as pawns by international negotiators trading territory for peace – would likely have been forgotten by history if not for Safe Area Goražde. Knowing about post-Yugoslavia’s terrible ethnic wars couldn’t prepare me for the testimonies of suffering Sacco gathered and drew. One section has particularly stayed with me, in which the townspeople flee into the woods under fire from Serb militias – first running, then crawling as they are shot, then dragging themselves as they’re shot again, leaving family members behind in an hour-long torment that I can scarcely imagine – but have been forced to witness and remember.

Sabina, speech bubble: “Do they know about Goražde in America?”

Yes, I lied.

But Safe Area Goražde is sobering – not depressing. The residents of Goražde as presented by Sacco are not just victims, but real people. He drinks with them, sings with them, jokes with them – yes, about the war – and makes gentle fun of the “Silly Girls” who pine over their deadweight boyfriends and beg him to bring back genuine Levis from Sarajevo. And ultimately, the picture Sacco paints is uplifting and hopeful – one of enduring dignity and honour, of refusal to be dehumanised by atrocity. The section “Horrifying Home Videos” takes on a hysterical tone that puts you exactly in front of the footage in question (“Half her face sliced off! An eyeball dangling on her cheek!”). Yet when Edin, Sacco’s friend, is asked why he thinks his Serb neighbours, with whom he used to celebrate Christmas each year, have burned down his house, he does not deliver a tirade against the evil Serbs – he simply replies, “I don’t know. I would like to ask them.”

The boredom of war is here, too – Sacco allows us a rare glimpse of his own distress as he recounts the endless demands on his knowledge of the outside world, from the rules of basketball to the plot of Pulp Fiction – a cultural background that we take for granted, but which saves the people of Goražde from the sole experience of their horror. Sacco draws himself as a subtle caricature, more cartoonish than the Bosnians he captures; you can’t see his eyes behind his glasses. It’s an important message of Safe Area Goražde – this is not the story of a Westerner coming into a war zone and struggling to cope with what he finds, or to win a place among the traumatised locals. He is there to give them a voice, often allowing their memories and opinions to take over the narration.

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“few have told the truth more bravely than Sacco” – David Rieff, New York Times Book Review

 

So on one side, Riad Sattouf offers a window onto a world we normally see through a skewed media lens. On the other, Joe Sacco takes us inside places that simply aren’t accessible to us, or our media, at all. For similar graphic revelations, try Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian animator who had to relocate to North Korea, of all places, and has drawn us the world’s most secretive state; or Picture a Favela by Brazilian photographer André Diniz, who grew up and still lives in one of the world’s most dangerous slums.

GRAPHIC MEMOIR: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Some of the best graphic novels can feel quite close to home, though. Western novelists have produced some superb graphic memoirs. Fun Home, a groundbreaking piece of literature, is one of my favourite books of all time – yes, it’s up there with Philip Pullman et al. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.

You might have heard of Alison Bechdel, even if you don’t know it. She invented the Bechdel test, which checks if a movie is bowing to – and therefore helping to perpetuate – gender bias. It goes like this: does the plot of the movie feature a single scene in which two female characters talk to each other, about something other than a male character? It doesn’t sound that hard an ask, but the monitoring website set up in the test’s honour shows that only 57.7% of films currently listed in its giant, constantly updating database would pass. Film critics have pointed out that a similar proportion of nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars would become ineligible, if they were subjected to this test. The Bechdel test has started an entire global conversation, just by asking one question.

So Bechdel is pretty awesome even if you haven’t read her graphic memoirs. But I can’t urge strongly enough that you do. Fun Home is the story of Bechdel’s relationship with her closeted gay father, who seemingly committed suicide, and how her growing awareness of this dynamic in her parents’ relationship was interwoven with her own self-discovery as a lesbian. Sex and death are in each other’s pockets in this book, whose title comes from the family business – the funeral home where Bechdel’s father worked and where she and her brothers morbidly played as children. This is an openly flawed, knowingly contrived search for meaning, revisiting the “many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family”. It turns a “senseless loss” into a narrative that doesn’t run chronologically, but flows effortlessly through its own emotional processing.

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“pioneering” – The New York Times

This extended therapy session is icily funny, uncomfortably thought-provoking and incredibly moving, not to mention centred on a cast of characters so fascinating they could never be fiction. Bechdel has that unique cartoonist’s gift of presenting something – visually and verbally – as utterly exaggerated and totally real at the same time. But I mostly love Fun Home because it is beautiful. I can’t say beautifully written, because it would be a shell of itself without the illustrations – but the clarity of expression that you see in the simple formulation of the Bechdel test is what makes Alison Bechdel a searingly honest novelist. The concise truth of her writing – about people, why they do what they do and the multiple realities of what, if anything, it means – will leave you stunned. I’ve never read anyone else who can pack so much emotional depth and complexity into so few words and still be writing prose. Each time I’ve read Fun Home, I’ve been struck with startling clarity by sudden insights into my own relationship with each of my parents, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

[A 1.5 mile-diameter neighbourhood map shows the places where Bechdel’s father was born, raised his children, died and was buried.]

This narrow compass suggests a provincialism on my father’s part that is both misleading and accurate.

The stories of Alison, her father and Alison-and-her-father are effortlessly laced with references to other stories. This is one of the most richly intertextual books I’ve ever come across, but it is never inaccessible or pretentious (first-year undergrad Alison is pictured reading Joyce and thinking, “What the fuck?”). If you want to feel like you have read and understood Proust, don’t read In Search of Lost Time. Read Fun Home. The same goes for Shakespeare, Henry James, Ulysses, I could go on. Reading and love of literature was one of the ways that Bechdel and her deeply repressed father found to connect, and remained an important way for her to understand the cruelty of the man’s complexity and failings after his death.

The humanity that comes from reading shines through Bechdel’s deeply painful and astonishingly compassionate reflections. It has also left her a truly brilliant wordsmith. Certain phrases have stuck in my mind from the first time I read them – the simultaneously momentous and menial work of preparing a corpse for a funeral, the job of her future-suicide father, “this scutwork of the flesh”. I’ll say it again – read Fun Home. It is a poignantly, nakedly honest contemplation of nothing less than what it means to be human, yet it is so very grounded, and articulated with beautifully tortured ease. Down to its very final illustration, it is piercingly moving – though many of the scenes make me laugh out loud, I always close Fun Home with tears in my eyes.

It’s hard to recommend you something else after that outpouring of my soul, but I’ll try. The richly deserved success of Fun Home has pushed the boundaries of other graphic works exploring an emotional journey. The most obvious example is Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot, which, incredibly, won the 2012 Costa Biography Prize (probably the UK’s most important non-fiction prize) for its fusion of filial memoir and literary biography, paralleling the childhood of James Joyce’s daughter and Mary Talbot’s relationship with her father. 

I should add in closing that, though I personally like my graphic literature narration-heavy, there are many startlingly original and immediately truthful graphic novels that have even fewer words – if any. I point you towards The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens, a watercolour reflection on loneliness, identity and the strangeness of social exchange that is wordless for pages at a time. This is the beauty of graphic novels – they are such a wonderful blend of genres and media that they can do pretty much anything. You’ll be a more enriched reader, and maybe even a better person, if you give them a try.

Note: some big players in the books industry are better than others at giving graphic novels a platform – Foyles on Charing Cross Road has a fantastic section, and you’ll notice that all the reviews quoted in this post are from The New York Times.

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Not Events, Dear Boy: reading the real politics

One of the stupidest mistakes I ever made was my decision, when choosing one of five A-Levels to drop, to give up Politics. I should have dropped Latin, but I thought I wanted to study Classics at university (ha). In the event, I dragged myself through two years of a self-taught dead language A-Level, applied for Classics, started my first year at Oxford, and hastily switched over to History after about four weeks. No, they probably shouldn’t have let in someone this idiotic. The world works in mysterious ways.

Our hotch-potch political systems and traditions are pretty bizarre, compared with the younger, presidential-republican models we see all around us; on the other hand, they’re reported in far less detail than, say, in the French press: Le Monde is full of MPs using every obscure trick in the book to dodge unfriendly laws in the Assembly. So I decided it was time to pick up my political education, and learn a few more of these peculiar secrets, from three authors at the heart of the whole thing, and then tell you what I found out.

Wait, you cry. There’s a small problem. If I think about British politics any more, I might have to dissolve myself in a puddle of acid to escape my own despair and faint nausea. Fear not, I’m aware of this problem – which is why I didn’t publish this post after the Brexit result, but waited until silly season to force it on you. (Theresa May is in a polo shirt in Switzerland and Gary Lineker is in his underpants on national television – there’s officially no news.) If you need more persuading, this is not a post about how government works, or about party politics. There are no Tory, Corbynite or Blairite policies or plots in sight. If you want to read yourself into that pile of alternating inertia and horror, you’ll find plenty of coverage elsewhere. Instead of focusing on “events”, I’ve tried to find out more about what some people might call “real” politics: which people change things, for better or worse, and how it happens.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s Live from Downing Street (2012), an easy-going but authoritative history of the changing relationship between British power and British media, from obscene Victorian political caricatures to Bigotgate and I Agree With Nick. Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, has won parliamentary awards for her achievements in the House; despite probably being the hardest-working politician we’ve got, she still found time to write Honourable Friends? (2015), her surprising and entertaining “outsider” account of her first term in Parliament. Andrew Marr, Robinson’s predecessor at the BBC, is not only the host of his own current affairs show, but a novelist – as we voted on EU membership, I was reading Marr’s darkly satirical version of this scenario, the devilishly tongue-in-cheek and uniquely well-informed Head of State (2014).

If you’re worried about left/right or party balance, Robinson is a self-confessed former Youth Conservative, while Marr is a known leftie who was political editor of The Independent before joining the BBC. More important, in my view, is their expressed feeling (this is Robinson quoting Marr) that joining the officially impartial BBC amounts to having your “trousers pulled down and your organs of opinion removed” at the door, and that (this is Robinson’s own view) there’s often not much left of them on your way back out. Caroline Lucas, though an impassioned progressive, has found success in Parliament precisely through working so effectively across party lines: “My own feelings are not quite that tribal … For me, it is more about the individuals“.

I’m inclined to accept their word in good faith – for a start, I picked these three authors because they’re widely respected across the spectrum and known for their fairness. Perhaps more to the point, one of Britain’s biggest problems now is the understandable but extreme cynicism directed toward politics of all forms, to the point that we’ve “had enough of experts” and will vote ourselves off a cliff to spite the establishment, and that it takes the brutal assassination of a backbench MP for ordinary people to remember that politics can and should be about public service. In other words, if you don’t have an open mind to hear from these people, there’s not much hope – and not much point in you reading on. So on that basic assumption, here we go.

The media

The press is sometimes called the “fourth estate”. This is a reference to pre-democratic Europe, when kings pretended to consult his subjects through three “estates”: assemblies representing the Church, the nobility and the towns respectively. The idea is that the media is so influential that it has become the country’s fourth political institution. Live from Downing Street is full of anecdotal and photographic evidence of the media’s power to make or break leading politicians.  Nick Robinson gives his reader a real sense of history and societal progression, flowing breezily back and forth through the twentieth century, somehow never losing us between Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson. Without this instinctive feel for how social, cultural and political forces come together at times of national change, he wouldn’t have become such a successful broadcast journalist. Thankfully for us, it translates effortlessly to the page.

The book’s momentum doesn’t slow as it moves into the present day. Robinson refers to what the public sees in the world of politics as the tip of the iceberg, and his job as being to uncover the rest. He guides us self-deprecatingly through some of the greatest achievements and challenges of his reporting career. But his belief in broadcast news as a vital public service doesn’t prevent him from perceiving or voicing criticism of the media culture that has developed in Britain with the advent of rolling news coverage and social networks. He regrets the replacement of “current affairs” discussion by often hollow “news” provision. He discusses the media’s role in demonising Gordon Brown, for reasons little to do with his leadership (“By the time he came to power the press had already turned against New Labour and soon they turned against Brown personally”), and the toxic effects of the 24-hour news cycle’s impatience and demand for government “action” – sometimes premature, sometimes uninformed, often irreversible.

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“skips lightly through the great battles… a fun, well-paced account” – Sunday Times

It was particularly poignant to read the book as the Chilcot inquiry reported. For Robinson, the build-up to the Iraq War was “the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions” – a moment of journalistic failing, when reporters took the lead from a political establishment guilty of terrible oversight. What to do, though? Live from Downing Street makes it clear that we can’t do without the media. Without it, there’d be no one in the lobby at Westminster to get the inside opinion of individual MPs – a very hard-won privilege, Robinson explains – no one running down to their basement in their boxers to broadcast live for Radio 4; no one sitting in the long-banned press gallery recording the true atmosphere or meaning of a parliamentary debate by noting different MPs’ facial expressions and surveying the whole scene – it turns out that seemingly bored MPs, filmed for the news while slumped back in the benches, are often simply trying to hear better by getting closer to the speakers behind them.

By the end of Live from Downing Street, you can’t help but share Robinson’s pain: “What was the point of all those battles for the right to report what is being done in our name if a growing number believe politics is, as best, irrelevant and, at worst, an establishment plot to do down ordinary, hard-working people?” He’s not pinning it on them, though – Robinson makes clear that the media and political class have a joint responsibility to deliver the clear-cut facts craved by an untrusting public: from politicians, this means being “more honest about past mistakes, and more open about their uncertainties”; from journalists, this requires giving “politicians and others a little more space to think aloud … before they are condemned”. His utterly readable account of what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost in a half-century of broadcast journalism is a funny and plain-speaking window onto recent British politics, as well as a thoughtful and convincing meditation on how we could all do better.

Parliamentary proceedings

That exact description can also be applied to Caroline Lucas’ story of her frustrations and accomplishments in Parliament, Honourable Friends. If I had to pick one thing I learnt in my Politics class that really astonished me, it would be the whip system. Even though Andrew Marr’s fictional EU referendum takes place during the summer recess, the staggering political conspiracy that follows can only be pulled off with the help of the chief whip: the man or woman who leads a political party in controlling its MPs’ voting choices. Those who’ve watched House of Cards will know what it’s all about – “whipping” the necessary votes through a mixture of promised favour, party “spin” and outright bullying. Unfortunately, Caroline Lucas confirms (and I believe her) that this is fully as unpleasant and undemocratic as Kevin Spacey plays it: “I have seen MPs being forcefully pushed into the Aye or No lobby by the whips”.

Their power doesn’t stop there, though. Lucas, sole MP for her party and therefore the only MP of 650 who can vote completely freely, has observed how the whip’s office blocks reform and debate – the very reasons Parliament exists. They control, for instance, which MPs sit on which committees – and “generally try to keep people with too much expertise or independence of mind off these committees”. They have blocked proposed legislation that would change the status quo and so reduce their power in the Commons. They have made themselves indispensable, because MPs often turn up to vote without having been present for the preceding debate – sometimes, they vote as the whips tell them to simply because they have no idea of the ins and outs of the bill in front of them.

Lucas has encountered plenty of other day-to-day obstructions in her fight to represent her constituents and her party. The Speaker of the House decides which amendments to a bill will be debated – as in the Syrian intervention vote, this can silence all opposition with a selection of amendments that change a bill’s detail but favour its principle. Private Member’s Bills, the only bills that come from opposition MPs (which is how we abolished the death penalty), must be backed by 100 MPs, but are debated on the day when fewest are in the House. Complex issues are forced into black and white because it is impossible to abstain in a Commons vote, creating a “with us or against us” culture. I could go on – and I knew none of this before reading Honourable Friends?.

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“She has made one hell of an impact in the House.” – Conservative Speaker John Bercow

But this book is no tirade. Lucas is no more bitter, morally superior or crusading on paper than she is in person. Honourable Friends? is an open-minded and softly spoken guide for the uninitiated to where our democracy has become undemocratic, hearing from people on all sides of the chamber. It is also a perfectly relatable look at this weird institution, not through the accepting eyes of the political mainstream, but through the bemused eyes of “one of us”, with all the silly trivia you might expect: “until 1998, MPs wishing to raise a point of order during a vote had to wear a hat – indeed, a collapsible top hat was kept in the chamber in case it was needed.” Nick Robinson also shares such gems: if the rule whereby MPs are only addressed as honourable “friends” if from your own party is telling, so too is the custom, last used (predictably ineptly) by the Lib Dems in 2001, permitting any MP  to shut the press gallery by shouting, “I spy strangers!”

And here lies the problem. Like Oxbridge, Parliament has many traditions that are both at once: comically absurd and seriously damaging. One of the funniest images in Honourable Friends? is  every single MP dropping their lunch/meeting/conjugal visit at the ring of a bell, and running to the Chamber. This is because votes are not scheduled precisely, and MPs still have to vote in person, by walking (or being pushed) through the yes or no doors. Is this harmless British nonsense? Aside from the rudeness and inconvenience involved, “MPs spend about 250 hours over the course of an average Parliament just running around the building and queuing to vote,” Lucas tells us. “Electronic voting would save at least £30,000 a year in the direct costs of this wasted time … To hold six votes in the European Parliament takes one and a half minutes: holding six votes in the Westminster Parliament takes one and a half hours.”

This is one of many fights that Lucas has brought to the Commons. Unlike many on the left today, inside and outside Parliament, she does not simply trash those with whom she disagrees – she campaigns, hard, with whoever will work with her, on specific, simple and properly researched reforms. Honourable Friends? doesn’t just offer a summary of the shameful mechanisms keeping Parliament from its true purpose, but also reveals the mechanisms that a decent parliamentarian like Lucas can use to overcome them. She shows us concretely, through her own story, how an opposition MP can “put an issue on the agenda”. This is no dull policy book – it’s written for you and me, by a witty and down-to-earth conversationalist – but it’s certainly not lacking in substance.

I bought this book when it was first published, not because I’m a diehard Green voter (my record says no), but because I trusted Lucas to bring a fresh perspective and to teach me something, with no agenda beyond improving things for everyone. If you want to know where the real challenges, and the real opportunities, lie in getting something done in Parliament, read Honourable Friends?. If you want to know what a fine constituency MP of any party looks like, read Honourable Friends?. If you want to know what British politics should look like across the spectrum, read Honourable Friends?. When your book is endorsed by both Zac Goldsmith and Naomi Klein, you must be doing something right.

The referendum

You could interpret Andrew Marr’s Head of State as a blackly comic cautionary tale of what happens to British politics without the checks and balances of Parliament, however flawed. There’s not much I can say about exactly what does happen, because an early plot twist is one of the most enjoyable things about the novel. Fortunately, that still leaves the pre-referendum Marr, gazing into his crystal ball to sketch out a future that’s now played out, with plenty to tell us.

The outcome of Marr’s EU referendum seems to depend a lot on his book’s post-Johnson, post-Cameron prime minister. This unnamed man is a political hero. He is fairly adored by the nation, and his Remain campaign relies upon both his persuasive charisma and what it has already achieved: a breakthrough in pre-referendum EU renegotiations. While many fine points of Marr’s referendum mirror the actual 2016 vote with impressive prescience (like the importance of Birmingham as a “swing” city, ultimately voting Leave), this utopian PM returning from Brussels triumphant is a product of pure fantasy. May, Johnson, Merkel et al. have had to discuss the ‘new deal’ David Cameron brought home in February 2016 – in order to address whether the Leave victory takes it off the table – but during the actual referendum campaign, I don’t recall the Remain side bringing it up at all. I honestly don’t remember what it involved.

The idea that such a deal could make all the difference suggests either that Cameron failed to bring back what he should and could have, or that no one, even someone observing as closely as Andrew Marr, predicted the nature of this historic vote. As far as it was about the EU at all, our referendum wasn’t a disagreement between those satisfied and those unimpressed by proposed reforms to Britain’s membership. Instead, those who believe the EU itself is a bit crap in some (unavoidable) ways, but that it is still Britain’s only viable future, have faced off against those who believe that the EU is fundamentally awful, in unavoidable ways, to the point that it’s time to abandon ship.

Marr’s wistful portrait of a prime minister so beloved that voters and even newspaper editors could be persuaded to “[go] with their man” may simply be another part of a utopia where the Independent hasn’t ceased printing but is “reviving”. But the novel is also imbued with the sense of political and general exhaustion that was invisible to London before the 24 June result, but has been permeating the rest of the UK for years. It’s a witty, cheeky story told both playfully and cuttingly, but Marr sounds a rare note of bitterness when discussing the unpaid intern culture in British media and other graduate industries: “what a fucking con”. At a political funeral, the pallbearers, evoking the weary litter-carrying slaves of the ancient world, are BBC work experience kids. In another prescient turn, Marr refers naughtily to “Lord Osborne” – for many, the current controversy over Cameron’s resignation honours list is just another disappointingly predictable offence by the political elite.

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“it is Marr unbuttoned… witty and wicked” – New Statesman

The conspiracy at the heart of the novel is crazy, ludicrous, hilarious – and yet, a member of the intelligence community remarks sarcastically, “of course it couldn’t happen”. British politics, in other words, already beggared belief in many ways before the EU referendum (examples from the book p. 327) – only now, it’s become so sensational that we’ve grown tired of it. How did Marr know that we would all feel this way after the referendum? “Everything that could be said had been said, endlessly, over every medium.” This is Britain’s comedown from a heady trip of a summer that confusingly combined Machiavellian schemes with shocking incompetence. I imagine that when Head of State was published in 2014, it was received as the fun, knowing poke it is – but with a lot more emphasis on the “fun” than on the “knowing”.

Nick Robinson and Caroline Lucas weren’t any the wiser about how this would all turn out: Robinson correctly predicted that the EU would split the Tories, but he was off by about 20 years, and failed to predict that they would so seamlessly (supernaturally?)  stitch themselves back together again just as Labour crumbles into a staggeringly oblivious orgy of self-destruction. Lucas, meanwhile, actually joined a 2011 cross-party initiative to bring forward the referendum date, in order to move on with committed, British-led EU reform – once we voted to remain.

Still, we have as much – if not more – to learn from their writings as from Andrew Marr’s semi-fantasy. There is much to be proud of, and ashamed of, in British politics. Those who shape it don’t have to be the leaders of the government and the opposition. If these outsiders have the integrity to do as they think best, the tolerance to collaborate with those from different “tribes” and the humility to identify and acknowledge collective and individual failings, there’s hope yet for this peculiar isle.

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Consider Rephrasing?: an editor’s look at the EU referendum

This is an emergency post, tenuously linked to this blog’s theme of reading and publishing by a gimmick: at the start of this referendum week, I shall demonstrate how, as a proofreader and editor, I would receive and correct the Leave campaign’s public communications. Spoiler alert: lots of it would be sent back to the author before publication.

Part of an editor’s job is to fact-check. Even highly renowned academics can mistake 1967 for 1966 every now and again, and as a publisher of serious (often but not always scholarly) non-fiction, I want to make sure that we’re informing people correctly. This is even more important when it comes to potential cases of libel (which I’ve written about a little here). The short version is this: if you quote someone as saying something controversial or central to your argument, you’d better be damn sure they actually said it. Justice Minister Michael Gove could have done with an alert editor when he gave the following, entirely personal reason for wanting to leave the EU:

“my father inherited a fish merchant’s business in Aberdeen from my grandfather and that business went to the wall, partly as a result of the common fisheries policy.”

Unfortunately for Gove, the father in question came out last week to say that no, actually, . “It wasn’t any hardship or things like that. I just decided to call it a day and just sold up my business and went on to work with someone else.” A back-and-forth has since ensued about who has put words into whose mouth and which version is actually correct, including a Vote Leave ‘corrective’ officially written by Gove Snr reaffirming the responsibility of the Common Fisheries Policy for his misfortunes – but in my line of work  anything this ambiguous would have to go. If you’re still in doubt that Gove is slapdash with his facts, check out his passionate elegy regarding the “port of Peterborough” – a landlocked city in the Midlands with no known fishing industry.

On the subject of facts, fishermen are one of the few significant groups with non-immigrant-related reasons for wanting out of the EU, holding that Brussels bureaucracy, by imposing fishing quotas on member states, is crushing one of the few natural-resource industries Britain has left. It’s true that one of the most important roles of EU law is to regulate environmental, agricultural and industrial practices, to try and preserve our wildlife and planet for the future – my personal belief is that this is a welcome intervention, since endless climate change conferences have shown that national governments have very, very little interest in legislating for this purpose. But I understand that some people may differ. What those people can’t deny, though, is that although the EU does restrict who can fish where, Britain actually receives more than its fair share of the waters – its percentage of the quota is higher than its percentage of the EU’s coastline.

The editor’s job is to draw out the author’s meaning, by making sure that they’re using the right words for what they actually want to say. If an author phrases something slightly wrongly or ambiguously, they can inadvertently end up stating an untruth, or even the opposite of their argument. Here’s an example of such an untruth, from the Vote Leave leaflet that came through my door last week:

“The EU costs us at least £350 million a week.”

Sorry, Brexiteers, but this statement is false. The sentiment behind it may be true – that not everyone believes ANY part of our budget should be allocated by a non-British institution – but the sentence itself is factually incorrect. £350 million is the amount that goes into the EU pot – and then rather a lot of it comes back again, in the form of subsidies for everything from, yes, fishing to medical prescriptions. The dictionary definition of the verb ‘cost’ (and, yes, I do use a dictionary every day at work) is ‘to be priced at’. The price of our EU membership is nowhere near this amount in direct cashflow terms – let alone more indirect financial/economic benefits of our membership, such as favourable trade tariffs.

Speaking of favourable trade tariffs, I, like everyone in the constituency of Chipping Barnet, recently received a delightful letter from our MP, Theresa Villiers. Somehow, despite being a prominent Brexit campaigner and being reviled by many Irish on both sides of the border (as per murals I’ve seen in Belfast and Derry), Villiers has managed to hold onto her post as Northern Ireland Secretary. Some in the Remain camp, including major NI peacebrokers John Major and Tony Blair (wildly unpopular ex-PMs but also men without whom the Good Friday Agreement would not exist) have expressed concern about the stability of the peace process if Britain exits the EU. If you dismiss this as more scaremongering from Remain, there’s also the fact that Northern Ireland also undeniably benefits (more than some other parts of the UK) from EU membership, through subsidies for its third sector, its agriculture, its corporation tax… How has Villiers not noticed the conflict of interest here?

I digress, sorry. In any case, Villiers conspicuously signed this letter to Barnet residents not as NI Secretary but as MP for Chipping Barnet. In it, she promises (the tone of the whole letter is very much one of trust-me certainty):

“If we leave… We can boost job creation by… negotiating a free trade deal with the EU.” 

This isn’t a broad, general statement assuring readers that Britain will continue to have a trade relationship with the EU, or an expression of opinion that the EU wants to trade with Britain enough to offer us favourable tariffs even if we leave – it is a categorical statement that we will still enjoy free trade with the Union in the event of Brexit. Villiers does not know this. No one knows this. And the people on whom it depends – the leaders of the Union we will have left – certainly aren’t suggesting that it’s the case. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has made a categorical statement of his own: “In is in. Out is out.” Britain can’t have its cake and eat it too by voting for Brexit and then retaining access to the single market. Bear in mind that Germany is one of the member states that had been thought, by both Leave and Remain, to be most open to Britain retaining single market membership.

Villiers’ letter also exhibits the more common type of ‘truth’ found in Vote Leave literature: the insinuation. She says:

The safer choice is to vote leave so we take back control over…controlling our borders.”

Well, first of all, my copy-editing also involves occasional rewording to avoid inelegant repetition – Villiers might have had a reread and noticed that she’s used ‘control’ twice in the same sentence. But my point here is that she has not explicitly stated, “We don’t have control of our borders.” But there’s this thing in linguistics called pragmatics. It’s about meaning. Semantics is the meaning of the words you use. Pragmatics is the meaning of what you’re saying overall – the meaning you’re putting into those words. By saying that voting leave will allow us to take back control, Villiers is offering two basic assumptions: that 1) we don’t currently have control and 2) it’s because we’re in the EU.

Because she hasn’t actually said these things, it’s very difficult to challenge her on them. Instead, we’re forced to respond on her terms: whether or not leaving would allow us to improve border control. By then, we’ve skipped over a whole, fundamental section of the debate.

(If we visit it for a moment, as someone who’s studied European immigration law at length, I can tell you that the UK absolutely has border control. Our elected government and its civil servants decide which EU citizens to exclude from entry to the country – and thus decide that everyone else allowed in should be there. The only way in which it’s true to say that we don’t have control over the borders is the fact that, short of building a Trump-like wall around the island and manning it with machine guns, it’s impossible to prevent any undocumented migration – this has been true for as long as nation-states have had borders, since long before the EU. And this has a far lesser effect on an island than on continental Europe – it’s just quite hard to get here, as Hitler, Napoleon and suffering Syrians who have a legitimate claim to asylum have discovered. If you want to come back at me and say that she means we don’t have control over labour migration, it’s true that EU membership involves freedom of movement, i.e. the right to work, without us applying quotas for certain professions or sectors – but this isn’t about border control. Border control is about knowing which humans are stepping across the line. Be precise.)

It’s quite common for authors to keep their assumptions to themselves, because they’ve become instinct – I often have to remind them to lay out for their reader what the thought process behind their analysis is. Villiers would be forced to go back and add several sentences openly explaining her position on the nature of human migration – and to make, explicitly, the distinction between border control and economic migration policy.

These are just three examples that have crossed my path in the last ten days. There are thousands more – I have studied the history and the present workings of the European Union, as well as the history of Turkey: they’re NOT in the queue to join; I specialised in European immigration policy during my final year: NO state on the continent has an open-door policy – and this post could have been much more profoundly evidenced and considered, if I’d had more time. But I wanted to try and make a point: one side in this debate is knowingly, cynically manipulating and misusing language. If you hammer these messages into people’s heads for long enough, they will stick – regardless of whether or not they’re true.

Some of my authors have agendas. All of them have an opinion. Pretty much all of them, however, are sincerely trying to provide a nuanced, balanced picture. Sometimes, I have to help them do that. The kind of campaign material that we’ve seen from the Leave camp would simply not pass muster if it fell on my desk. I don’t discriminate in my  editing between the pro-Putins, the anti-Obamas or the ex-Islamists. One thing that they all have in common with me, though, is the fact that they have researched the history of this continent and of the world, and the present nature of power and conflict. It’s a global game. The USA recognised that when they chose to intervene in two European ‘world wars’ – the EU was set up at the end of the second to try and prevent such a conflict from ever engulfing the continent again. How arrogant are we, to assume that this period of peace (unprecedented in European history, which I’ve studied from 389 AD to the present day) has nothing to do with that project?

Isolationism didn’t work for the USA watching the Nazis swarm across Europe, it didn’t work for people starving in the USSR, it didn’t work for the post-war economies of Latin America, and it won’t work for us. The desperately hungry and the dangerously fanatical supposedly on our borders don’t care if we’re members of the EU or not. If the Leave campaign is so eager to persuade us that we can carry on trading with the EU as before, then why is it claiming that stepping away from the EU will solve our economic problems? The world isn’t going anywhere – it gets closer and more integrated every day. We will not make it on our own.

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Of the People: why we still need public libraries

I have a library. It’s the banner of this blog. According to my boss, the rainbow was impressive enough that it informed his decision to hire me. It grew with me, from a single bookcase with David Almond in the top left and Jacqueline Wilson in the bottom right, into the five-case monstrosity that almost had to be winched into my new house through the first-floor windows.

house

The living room had limited floor space when we moved in…

For me, it was a library because it had a lot of books, but during my school years it also became a lending library. Friends, family and even secondary school English teachers would borrow and return, often with the aid of the Excel spreadsheet catalogue. A friend even made me library cards once. On the whole, my most battered books have often been not the ones that I read the most, but the ones that were most often passed between fourteen-year-old bookworms.

Those bookworms will probably remember one of my library’s rules, perhaps so obvious it didn’t need listing on the membership card: USE A BOOKMARK. Bookmarks are to me what coasters are to Monica from Friends. I wasn’t a bookmark snob – with each loan I actually provided paint-shade sample cards, conveniently and prettily bookmark-shaped, which I picked up free from Homebase. This is now known as Building Your Brand. It also stopped library members from leaving their books open and face down in a tent shape, which distressed me greatly.

the-spread-eagle-o-s

Dog-eared corners, wrinkly spines – such was the stuff of my nightmares. I personally perfected the art of flattening one half of the book with my thumb, to avoid the dreaded Spine Crack. Yes, this hurts. Yes, it makes it hard to read small print at the start of each line.

I’m no longer so fussy about keeping my books in perfect condition – as I said, the wear and tear is part of their history. I’ll always know that Rita Murphy’s Black Angels (2001) has no cover because I dropped it in the swimming pool on holiday, and that there’s a loose leaf of pages towards the end of The Amber Spyglass (2000) because I’ll read that book again and again until I die. Besides, working in bookselling and now publishing has taught me that there’s rarely such a thing as a perfect-condition book – many copies even arrive scuffed when they’re sent to our offices literally off the press. In my library’s heyday, though, I cared a lot. My mother has been so scarred by my strict adolescent self that even today she carries around books I lend her in Ziploc bags. (No exaggeration.) So here’s the question: why did I still send these pristine treasures out into the world of undersized Nike bags and smelly lockers?

I believe in the power of libraries. In Jorge Luis Borges’ famous short story, The Library of Babel (trans. 1962), the library in question is more or less the universe – an essentially infinite collection of every possible book, inhabited by scholars who roam its halls searching for meaning. A lesser known story by Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (trans. 2014), describes a nightmarish prison library, whose custodian forces a young boy to read an entire book, in order to then eat his brains and absorb the knowledge. In a way, these two tales represent the two things that libraries can be: the cradle of the world’s knowledge, open to all, or the site of selective control of that resource, knowledge – resulting in power imbalances and social inequality. As a fellow inmate of Murakami’s horror library remarks,

“If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would the pay off be for them?”

Unfortunately, UK national and local governments have started asking themselves this question. For the last decade or so, and especially since the start of ‘austerity’ under the Conservatives, the state has been questioning the value of the public library – open to all and free to use. By doing this, the UK risks undoing a tradition that dates back to Ancient Rome. According to Matthew Battles, Harvard librarian and author of Library: An Unquiet History (2003), the famed and lost library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world, had no reading rooms – it was a hub for established Greek and Egyptian scholars, and a storehouse for texts confiscated by the ruling Ptolemaic dynasty. In other words, the library monopolised knowledge for the benefit of those with pre-existing access to it, and of those in power. The West had to wait for Julius Caesar to found the first public library. From the time of his successor, Augustus, emperors all built public libraries, much like US presidents today. State-built public baths also often included libraries – accessible to all. If you thought the tradition of dropping a book in the bath started with you, think again.

Libraries have always been connected with democracy and republican ideas – res publica simply means a thing or matter of and for the people. In Britain, the 19th-century Chartist movement fought for universal male suffrage, and the abolition of laws requiring men to own property in order to stand for parliament. The Chartists set up cooperative lending libraries which, unlike the existing civil subscription libraries, charged no fee. Philosopher John Stuart Mill approved: “by greater access to information, all people could be trained in reason’s principles”. Offering free education would create better citizens.

Whether or not they cared about being good citizens, ordinary people throughout history have shared the Chartists’ hunger for the empowering knowledge that comes from access to libraries. Fans of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2005), a beautiful novel depicting a young girl who both steals and hides books in Nazi Germany, may appreciate Battles’ true account of an African-American in the racially segregated South who overcame the laws denying him a library card by borrowing that of a sympathetic white man, who allowed him to pose as his servant picking up books on his behalf. For as long as those in power have tried to limit and control who has access to books, individuals and communities have fought to get them back. Battles – whose 200-page world history really is an enjoyable read – also explores the story of the Vilna ghetto library; thanks to the efforts of librarian Herman Kruk and other Jews confined to the ghetto, 100,000 books were able to circulate.

That’s an exceptional example of the human need for reading matter, but in England in 2016, I find ‘civilian’ libraries all over the place. The North London suburbs where I live are home to these postbox-style Little Free Libraries, typically set up at the end of a front garden:

little free library

Further into town, some Tube stations operate a similar ‘take one, leave one’ scheme:

tube

My personal favourite, though, comes from outside the city. When visiting my good friend Rowan (whose fantastic illustrated blog is here) in the charming village of Llangrove, I found this phone box library. They may have no shops and only one pub, but they still need to read:

phonebox

These little glimpses of a Great British Book Club always cheer me. But there’s a problem with leaving the provision of library services down to private civilian initiatives: they’re not enough. They’re not enough, because everyone must have access to a library.

WARNING: personal digression follows. I learnt to read early, and to read fast. Though the hoarding of birthday and Christmas book tokens and the earning of reward trips to Waterstone’s let me build up my personal library, it took a long time before those occasional treats were an adequate supply for my demand. I’d take ten books out from Friern Barnet Library (the weekly maximum), and often top these up by borrowing from other libraries in the borough and beyond. Without this opportunity to read for free, I wouldn’t have fulfilled my reading potential. I wouldn’t have done so well at school. I wouldn’t have had the ‘well-read’ quality that got me into a top university. I probably wouldn’t be making my living reading and editing.

reading

Maximum lending would last me about two days in school holidays (2000)

The 2015 nationwide library figures show that the crucial importance of access to a library in these early years has been unchanged by the arrival of Amazon prices and children with iPads: five of the ten most borrowed authors from UK libraries were writers of children’s books, both novelists like Jacqueline Wilson and picture-book authors like Julia Donaldson. Barnet libraries such as East Finchley – threatened with closure – are reporting increases in child borrowing of 18% over the last five years. As for older children, the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance for sixth-formers, the rise in tuition fees and the requirement that everyone remain in education until 18 means that free access to books will matter for more pupils now than ever before.

Barnet has faced some of the most shocking cuts to local authority and library funding – to the point that it’s become a byword for library cuts in the national media. My very own library, Friern Barnet, was closed by the council in 2012, against vocal and desperate protests, strongly supported by the Labour councillors and MEP Andrew Dismore, which ended in local people squatting in the library to run it themselves on a volunteer basis. Ultimately, the council gave up opposing this, and those dedicated locals took over the officially endorsed Friern Barnet Community Library. By 2015, ironically, Barnet Council began using the example of Friern Barnet to justify both completed and planned closures of several more libraries. The council, backed by the central government, is choosing to assume that willing and able volunteers can replace paid civil servants wherever the state withdraws its support.

fbl

Friern Barnet Library, which opened in 1934

 

There are those who, like me growing up, lacked the privilege of regular book-buying. But libraries are an essential service to many other, even more needy people. They offer a free indoor space for pre-school and older children to play and learn together; for those who can’t afford printers and photocopiers; for those without home access to the Internet, or a limited understanding of computers – both required to access many further government services, and to compete in today’s job market; for those who need large-print or Braille books but struggle to reach specialist shops; for school students who need a quiet place to work but share a bedroom with siblings, or whose bedroom is too small to contain a desk*. In some parts of Barnet, the fourth largest borough in London, a single mother of three must now pay to take two buses to reach the nearest library.

Ali Smith is not only one of Britain’s greatest living writers; along with Philip Pullman, she has been the foremost author championing library protection. Her 2015 collection, Public Library and Other Stories, is a series of pieces demonstrating how libraries and reading have inspired and shaped her work and our world. Between each story, we hear from ordinary people across the UK who wrote to her with tales of how libraries had made them who they are. The responses included in the book are articulate and thoughtful – would they have been so, had their authors not grown up with public libraries? One correspondent writes, “The only way I can express how important public libraries are is to tell you about myself.” You’ll notice that I had to resort to doing the same. I hope that I’ve now persuaded you that the public library is an institution that matters. It can change lives. It is too important a part of what should be guaranteed to all citizens – education, participation, security, the right to work – to be left to chance. The burden cannot be put on the ‘Big Society’.

More than that, the law says that it shouldn’t. Yes, yes, you say, libraries are very worthy causes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could afford to keep them up. But public libraries are not a ‘nice to have’ extra. If you’re a UK citizen or resident, you have the right to a state-provisioned library, under the 185o Public Libraries Act and the 1964 Libraries and Museums Act, which recognised how fundamental libraries were. By this legislation, which hasn’t been rescinded, the government of the day is bound to provide funding for “comprehensive and efficient” free public library services. And yet, Ali Smith warns, if the statistics on past closures, combined with the announcement of planned closures, can be believed, “by the time this book is published there will be one thousand fewer libraries in the UK than there were at the time I began writing the first of the stories.” It’s not a long book – there are twelve stories in total. This number is shocking.

So, please, if you didn’t need a library growing up, if protests against library closures seem to you like the bourgeois left in delusional denial about the need to cut something and suffering irrational paranoia about class war, then think instead of someone who did need a library – whether it’s me, the working-class Victorian denied the vote because he was thought too uneducated to participate in politics, or Maya Angelou and other great writers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Trust me, the users of Friern Barnet Library are not members of the Corbynista intelligentsia. Our main road consists of off-licences, chicken joints and increasingly closed-down speciality shops. It’s a community of regular people who, unexpectedly, came together to defend something that was needed and treasured.

Friern_Barnet_Library-1587891

The official re-opening of the library, after a ten-month fight with the council

I was as surprised as anyone about this. (Did I snobbishly assume that smoking, tracksuit-wearing, loud and sometimes foul-mouthed loiterers on the high street were all unregistered to vote? That the older people who feature in local news stories and talk a lot about their dogs and what gives you cancer were unmoved by local political issues?) But maybe it came as a shock because, really, the public library is British – or London – society’s last remaining community centre. Maybe there was literally no other shared thing to bring Friern Barnet together, where I might have witnessed these people participating in civic life, or even got to know them.

The Community Library now provides cheap coffee, yoga and pilates classes, and support groups for everything from depression to dementia. Second-language English-speakers feel comfortable coming in for a chat. When doing research in Paris’ national (public) libraries, I often shared a desk with a rambling, eating, odour-emitting homeless person, or a rambling, eating, odour-emitting Chinese man using the wi-fi to Skype his family. One librarian recording his experience for The Guardian explained that he’s frequently told, “You are the only person I have spoken to all day.”

If you believe in the principles of social equality that citizens – especially second-class citizens – have fought for over a long history, if you believe in knowledge for all, or even just the state abiding by its own laws, then get involved. Government-backed councils have been holding, as quietly as possible, ‘consultations’ about further library closures and ‘conversions’ into voluntary-run spaces. They do these on the assumption that no one will take the opportunity to give their views – prove them wrong. If you live in or grew up in Barnet, you can sign this. Even if you’ve not been in your local library since you were ten, go and find out whether it’s under threat. I promise they’ll be happy to see you. And no one will eat your brains.

*Thanks to Jazzy, whose perceptive world observations can be found at 80elephants.wordpress.com, for reminding me of this last point.

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She-Readers: my month without men

As a pessimist, I’m no fan of New Year’s Resolutions. But this year, I decided that I would set aside one month in which I would read only women. Why? There is a problem in the UK or English-language books industry, and it’s complex. It implicates every part of the publishing process, and it’s a combination of lingering sexism in the industry’s assumptions and the unconscious bias that this engenders, among literary agents, commissioning editors, booksellers and reviewers.

I could write about this all day, but let me run through the basics.

1) In practice, unconscious gender bias in publishing looks like this: fewer female literary critics; fewer women reviewed than male writers; under-promotion of women’s work in bookshops; under-representation of women in literary prizes. How about some concrete examples? The Samuel Johnson is the UK’s most prestigious non-fiction prize; the 2015 shortlist, enshrined more authors called Robert than authors with a vagina. Author Sophia McDougall asked Foyles over Twitter to address booksellers’ unconscious gender bias in their staff recommendations – prominently displayed in front of store as well as throughout the sections. Until then, Foyles wasn’t aware it had a problem; as soon as it looked, though, it discovered a 2:1 male/female bias.

2) All the research on UK and English-language readership shows that women read more than men, including in genres that are perceived as masculine or male-dominated, such as science fiction. Depending on which study we use, women read between 60 and 80% of all published fiction.If this is the case, why do they only write closer to 35-40% of it? And why, if women are buying the (vast) majority of the books, are they not treated as the target market?

3) For me, there are two key answers to these questions. Firstly, many believe that a glass ceiling still exists in publishing. It’s a hugely female-dominated industry, and so it’s likely that over time this problem will diminish – by sheer force of numbers, women will rule the presses in thirty years’ time. But for now, you need only look at the difference between a Society of Young Publishers conference, where 5 of 55 current committee members are male, and the Futurebook Conference, Europe’s largest publishing conference – when I worked the conference in late 2015, the overwhelming impression was of a horde of middle-aged white men. In the last three years, we’ve lost female publishers at HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Little, Brown. These publishers, not exactly small fry, are now run by men – not because better qualified women were overlooked through sexism, but because statistically, it was inevitable that the best qualified replacement would be male.

Secondly, as I mentioned in my last post, there are constraints on women writers. Expectations – which determine what agents will tout, what editors will take on, what bookstores will buy and what their sellers will display – limit female writing to certain categories, particularly ‘commercial women’s fiction’. This means books about relationships and feelings, which are assumed to be of minimal literary merit, designed by Production departments to look homogeneous, marketed only to women and primarily during holiday periods.If an American man writes a book reflecting our society and culture today, revolving around a family saga, probably involving some marital infidelity and parental estrangement, it may well be hailed as a Great American Novel – think Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, James Salter. On the other hand, more or less the only woman to have been acknowledged as a Great American Novelist is Harper Lee. The other hundreds of thousands are saddled with the label of Commercial Women’s Fiction.

The root cause is unconscious bias, but active choices are made to sustain it. The Guardian’s John Dugdale realised last summer that novels designated as Literary Fiction were being rejacketed in order to ‘disguise’ them as Commercial Women’s Fiction, to trick those conditioned to buy the latter into taking a ‘serious’ book with them on holiday. Works with no significant young female characters suddenly featured just those creatures on the front cover.

And if you think you’re exempt from the effects of this, you’re wrong. No one is. I never realised, until I started recording everything I read; to my shock and horror, I was reading 2 male authors for every one female author. Since then, I’ve made a point of gender-equal book buying. Sometimes I have to wait an extra six months for a male-written title I’ve been wanting to read; never do I have to read less interesting ones; often I discover things I’d never otherwise have found – when men are reviewed more often than women, and sixteen women to forty-four men have won the Booker, of course most of my noted recommendations are male-authored.

This is the crucial point that is missed by (often irritable or even offended) resistance to this discussion – no one (reasonable) is claiming that, by some unhappy coincidence, every Booker judge of the past 46 years has been sexist, or that women never win the Booker, or that the male-authored winners were undeserving. The point they’re missing is this: if we scrapped the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and left it to the gender-imbalanced Booker and Johnson Prizes to anoint our most worthy writers, how disproportionately low would the number of critically recognised female authors become? Of course we need the Bailey’s. To turn to non-fiction, a recent Guardian piece examining the unconscious gender bias in history writing – women can do biography, perhaps social or cultural perspectives, but rarely politics and certainly never military history – asked historians both male and female for their largely thoughtful responses. Perfectly demonstrating the establishment’s failure to understand the nature of the problem, Simon Schama simply wrote this:

Germaine Greer, Susan Greenfield, Sherry Turkle, Ruth Scurr, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Linda Colley, Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Laura Cumming, Jackie Wullschlager, Gillian Tett, Sheryl Sandberg, Naomi Klein, Suzannah Lipscomb, Jessie Childs, Karen Armstrong, Stacey Schiff, Helen Macdonald, Lisa Appignanesi, Suzy Orbach, Jenny Uglow, Bronwen Maddox, Daisy Dunn, Deborah Lipstadt, Stella Tillyard, Susan Orlean, Jill Lepore, Claire Tomalin, Flora Fraser, Mary Roach, Catherine Boo, Hermione Lee, Amy Wilentz, Jane Mayer, Carmen Callil.

The question, of course, is not how long the list of successful female history writers , but how much longer the list of their male counterparts. Beyond changing my own buying habits, there’s not much I can do to change these attitudes, but I can at least share with you my women’s April.

I want to start and end with Jane Eyre (1847). You’ve probably heard that 2016 is Shakespeare 400 – four centuries since the Bard’s demise. This year also the birth centenary of Charlotte Brontë, a pioneering female author initially forced to publish under a male pseudonym, who wrote a pioneering novel of female empowerment. The novel has a happy (Victorian times = married) ending that frequently frustrates today’s teenage readers, and involves some bizarre deus ex machina incidents involving long-lost cousins and large inheritances. But it remains a compelling, troubling and deeply truthful story because of Jane herself – a creature of anger, of restlessness, an extraordinary being refusing to be limited to the ordinary circumstances in which she is trapped.

charlotte_bronte

“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me”

For a modern Jane, you could do worse than to look to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013), the first book I read in my ‘women’s month’. Its narrator, a decent and untroubled elementary school teacher in early middle age, quietly reveals her burning fury at society’s disregard for the childless, unmarried, unfamous ‘woman upstairs’ – who simply exists on the periphery of others’ lives, central to no one’s. Jane Eyre famously rages, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” This is the exact sentiment expressed by Messud’s 21st-century protagonist, beaten down by our own society’s rigid measures of success. Incidentally, The Woman Upstairs, helped by its misleadingly Downton-esque title, has a cover design to ‘trick’ you into believing it’s a work of romance fiction; a trick for which my boss fell, picking it up off my desk and exclaiming, “Commercial fiction?!” I suspect that a man could not have written this book, and this I mean as a compliment.

claire messud

“Female anger has never been so readable” – The Observer

I now recommend On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti, until recently director of Liberty, an advocacy group representing civil liberties in Parliament and the courts since 1934. I’ll admit that I picked this up for free at Penguin, and probably would never have read it otherwise. I’ll further admit that the book is not without its flaws. But I’ll also admit that Chakrabarti falls into a very small number of books that have made me change the way I see the world. I thought I knew where I stood on civil liberties – the terrorists etc are out there, and I’m not one of them, so no one cares what I Whatsapp to my friends, so who cares if the government collects it? The ‘what are we fighting terrorism for, if not this freedom?’ argument was of little interest to me. Chakrabarti, with respectful intellect and reasoning, with a mother’s anguish for our future society and with great human dignity, changed my mind.

She made me see that civil liberties and protections are not there for the society we have now, where only rogue bad apples abuse power – 1930s Germany, too, was a democratic and liberal society where only rogue bad apples abused power, until Hitler was democratically elected, in a world with no European Convention on Human Rights to overrule his legislation. For now, my Whatsapp sympathising with Syrian refugees is valueless- but if one day the masses of my data collected by the state fall into the hands of a regime that wishes to deport all mixed-race individuals, or all young females in London? We can’t wait until we need civil liberties to claim them. Who do we think we are, to assume that in Britain we never will?

chakrabarti

Chakrabarti: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

The Bailey’s Prize is known for showcasing new female talent as well as lauding established authors. An excellent example is Laline Paull, whose debut novel The Bees came double-recommended by friends. She has produced a feat of imagination and compassion beyond many writers, taking us inside the life cycle and deeply regimented society of a beehive. If you took the dystopian gender inequality of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, threw in the ‘underdog rebel’ element popularised by The Hunger Games and added Naomi Klein’s urgent and maternal concern over climate change, you would have The Bees. Interesting that all three of these parallels involve other landmark works by women.

bees

“Ambitious and beautiful” – The Telegraph

My word count is starting to mount, so I’ll just tell you emphatically to read this remarkably powerful novel, and go back to Jane Eyre. To mark ‘Brontë 200’, author Tracy Chevalier has edited a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, entitled Reader, I Married Him and entirely written by women, in homage to the debt such women owe to Brontë’s achievement. Launching the book at Foyles with an all-female panel, to a nearly all-female audience, Chevalier expressed her anxiety upon commissioning the stories that, drawing on this one iconic line, they would all come back the same. Her fears were unfounded. Talent from Lionel Shriver to Elif Shafak to Emma Donoghue has poured forth, producing everything from lit-crit satire to dark gothic horror to forbidden romance confessional. Never has the idea of an undifferentiated mass of ‘women’s fiction’ seemed so absurd.

The common theme running through the Reader stories is taken from Jane’s triumphant announcement itself: the woman’s agency, in an age when ‘Reader, we married’ or ‘Reader, he married me’ would have been a more common phrasing. It runs through every book I’ve talked about here, and I hope men and women alike will be inspired by the initiative – go forth, and find women authors. Read them, talk about them, pass them on. The odds in book publishing may be stacked against us, but we are free human beings, with an independent will.

 

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