Elbows and Escapism: reading on the Tube

Though a Londoner, this is my first year as that most misanthropic of creatures, a London Commuter. I don’t experience the growing dread that non-Londoner friends widely report when descending the tunnels, but my failure to be miserable on the Tube is about more than birthright. As long as you have a book in your hand (and, more importantly, in your head), the whole world of disgruntled jostlers melts away. I’ve never deliberately boarded a Tube train without one.

I’ve always felt a special affinity for those who read books on the Tube, but since becoming a real grown-up in London I’ve joined a new club: those who want to read books on the Tube so much that they’ll do it in rush hour. I’ve mentioned before that the Kindle’s one-hand ease of use and light weight are among its greatest advantages, but some of us are still irrational enough to cling to the physical thing. This involves double-chinned reading as one’s wrist is pressed against one’s chest by the weight of people; sacrifice of bag-space in favour of holding-book-out space; and, for those standing, careful judgement of the best moment to let go of the rail and turn the page, in between lurches. Belonging to this club is hard work, and its self-centred, illogical values mark us as a distinct social group.

books on tube

Nor does this sense of community only exist in my head – readers on the platform migrate towards readers already on the train, hoping for a square-foot microcosm of the National Rail quiet carriage. I thought I was the only one who did this until I began observing fellow book-wielding commuters moving in front of my door on the platform on spotting me reading. Once this happens, a bizarre library effect is created. Aside from those hated Youths playing audibly loud music, the Tube represents one of very few 21st-century spaces in which humans sit together in silence. I’m aware that non-Londoners frequently experience this as a symbol of the capital’s collective unfriendliness, but I like to think of it as companionable. More than once, I’ve found myself whispering “Sorry” when stepping on someone’s foot in a tranquil carriage, and have often received the same treatment in return. It’s an environment where everyone is engaged in thoughtful, peaceful activity – browsing a paper, reading a book, listening to a podcast or simply thinking.

So for me, the Tube has always been a book place. Not all of that is positive, though. In recent years, all that reading I’ve done seems to be rubbing off, and I increasingly find myself prone to literary thoughts. Metaphors pop into my head as I observe things. Nowhere does this happen more frequently than on the Tube. I get out at Tottenham Court Road in the morning, after a deep escalator on which I never fail to reflect that we are mere insects rising from the bowels of the earth. I’m serious. The lines of people can also have a dystopian feel – the closest I’ve come to wondering if Orwell’s 1984 has arrived has been listening to the same, RP-accented announcements at thirty-second intervals, day in, day out. The state’s desire that I watch out for card clash is genuinely oppressive. This mentality is hard to describe to those who haven’t lived it without sounding melodramatic. It’s how we all start and end each day, and it produces this artistic witness in me because it makes me feel like a piece of art – like something moulded over time.


You can see that the daily experience of double rush hour has focused and crystallised my perception of the Tube, and this applies to my affectionate watching of other Tube readers. I wanted to know if this strange underground society could tell me something about our reading society as a whole. I decided to record, as far as I could, what everyone else was reading – sometimes with the unsettling thought that someone else, standing just across from me and likewise commuting to a Bloomsbury publishing house, might be doing exactly the same thing, typing my book title into their phone as I typed theirs. This started back in October, paused following Christmas (when people were less likely to read books of their own choosing) and continued in February.

The scientific limitations of such a study are obvious and many: on some days, no one in my carriage was reading; on others, I could see that ten people were reading, but didn’t manage to catch a single title; even on those days when I gathered plenty of data, it may not have been reflective of reading habits across the whole train, let alone the whole country; I’m more likely to have noted titles I know (from a cover design, a half-glimpsed title, the author and the publisher); train-reading habits may not reflect overall book-buying habits (cookbooks are a huge market in the UK, but no one would take one on their commute); only in exceptional cases was I able to note what people were reading on their e-readers. Leaving all this aside for the sake of a blog post pretext, here’s what I found out.

1) Literary fiction

More people were reading so-called literary fiction than any other type of book, and one in three of these books was a (modern) classic. This is likely to do with the relative prices of ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’ e-books and the reading profile of those who still prefer ‘p’ to ‘e’, rather than revealing the triumph of ‘serious’ fiction over crime, romance and so on. What it did reveal was how far our literary fiction choices are influenced – not to say dictated – by prizes. The 2015 Booker winner, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, topped the list of repeat instances, closely followed by the bookies’ favourite, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. After these, things became more interesting. The next highest number of people observed reading a single book was for Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (praises sung here), with her previous novel A Half of a Yellow Sun just behind. The other big showings were Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante. I was encouraged by this evidence that we’re willing to read about other cultures – though of the slightly lesser-known names, almost all were white British or American. Perhaps we designate our handful of anointed ‘cultural gateway’ authors and let the rest fall by the wayside; across all the categories of books, only 16 authors – of over 200 – wrote in languages other than English.

2) From page to screen

I saw some evidence that film adaptation had impacted people’s reading choices – a couple of copies of Room, of The Danish Girl and of High Rise (including an incident where, in violation of the above-discussed intimacy of Tube readers, I had to move further down the platform to avoid standing next to someone reading the exact same copy as me). By contrast, TV didn’t seem to be having such a huge impact – I saw both The Night Manager and The Man in the High Castle, but John Le Carré and Philip K. Dick are too popular for anything to be inferred from a single copy observed. War and Peace, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen – possibly everyone was dutifully reading it on their Kindles, given the weight and expired copyright, but my understanding is that everyone over the age of 40 has a physical copy gathering dust on their shelf. The exception, of course, was George R.R. Martin, and that trend won’t be going anywhere, judging by the range of volumes -the latest, A Dance with Dragons, was the most popular, but I also noted more than one Clash of Kings (second in the series), and even one copy of A Game of Thrones. Since the series began in the ’90s, and everyone is reading the new (much more attractive) editions, it’s safe to say this is thanks to HBO.

3) Non-fiction

Perhaps my most surprising discovery was the popularity of different kinds of non-fiction. I felt, at the time, that I was seeing a lot more sport autobiographies than histories, but the numbers don’t lie. Biography and memoir, about everyone from musicians and writers to rugby coaches and whistleblowing social workers (Margaret Humphreys – I’d never heard of her but she sounds like a badass), were far more popular than celebrity tell-alls or retired footballers’ life stories. History wasn’t far behind, and the titles noted suggested strong reliance on the tables in Waterstones, clearly paid more attention than I’d assumed. I had also expected to see more evidence of the new surge in nature writing, but, though certainly a lot of it is being written well and critically acclaimed, the Tube showed no signs of a lot of it being bought and read. This is despite Waterstones giving heavy promotion to the paperback of John Rebanks’ A Shepherd’s Life, which did exceptionally – and entirely unpredictably – well in hardback. Perhaps the nature fiends are not to be found on the Victoria Line at 9am.

Some suspicions about non-fiction trends were confirmed, though. The number of ‘Smart Thinking’, self-help and what Waterstones calls ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ books vastly outnumbered the politics and economics titles. I can’t help but find this depressing, in a year when we have an EU referendum, local elections, various global crises and Donald Trump. Personal prejudice comes in here – there are excellent Smart Thinking titles out there, which precisely encourage people to engage in social and political issues, but they drown in a sea of bilge. Beyond the astronomical popularity of Owen Jones (I even saw a hardback of The Establishment, though it’s been out in paperback since March 2015), readers appear above all intent on solving their inner turmoil. Publishers do schedule self-help and self-improvement titles to come out in time for New Year’s resolutions, but I suspect this is a year-round trend.

4) What is ‘commercial fiction’?

I’ve objected before to the tenuous and limiting distinctions drawn between genre fiction and literary fiction. I chose, with some difficulty, to note the categories of literary, SFF, graphic novels, YA, crime/thriller, historical fiction and then… commercial. So-called ‘women’s commercial fiction’ is generally thought of in publishing as a sub-category of commercial fiction, the industry’s respectful term for romance-based sagas and everything else written by a woman about familial and sexual relationships unfortunate enough to get dismissed as a romance-based saga.

Yet I realised, going through my data, that ‘women’s commercial fiction’ constituted absolutely everything in my ‘commercial fiction’ column. The only exception was Jeffrey Archer, who wrote poorly received political thrillers at a prodigious rate several decades ago. That sub-genre seems to have gone out of fashion, in favour of crime/mystery thrillers on the one hand, and the new ‘psychological’ thrillers (Gone Girl, etc) on the other. English-language crime fiction suffers no shortage of female authors, and they’ve dominated the tellingly labelled ‘domestic thriller’ market. So what, if anything, would be ‘men’s commercial fiction’? My failure to find an answer within my ‘research’ only strengthened my belief that labels have been created to marginalise certain types of narrative and author in the UK market. This question of gender is something I plan to discuss relatively soon.

When I began this ‘study’, I had no idea if it would give me anything to talk about. The above are the four points that stood out for me. Perhaps they haven’t told us anything we didn’t already know, but they might inspire future posts. James Daunt, founder of Daunt Books and current MD of Waterstones, told me that he judges a bookshop’s success by whether or not it attracts cabbies. His business has been built on keeping his ear to the ground, by interesting himself in what ordinary Londoners are reading, and I do feel that the Tube, a peculiar sardine tin of self-entertainers, can teach us something. After all, Books on the Underground has been running for far longer than hostels have had take-one-leave-one shelves. Poems on the Underground is one of the city’s most accessible free cultural programmes, reaching millions of readers a day and inspiring similar projects in San Francisco, Barcelona, Shanghai, St Petersburg and many other metropolises. For most commuters, it may be the only poetry they encounter in 2016. And I’ll continue to enjoy that little warmth of recognition as I note that one in 211 Tube readers with an anthology of Chinese poetry.


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Introducing… Audiobooks

In December, the FutureBook conference – Europe’s largest publishing conference – saw much dispute and open possibility about where we’re headed. Everyone was agreed on one particular trajectory in book publishing, though: the audiobook sector has recently exploded, and will continue to grow enormously in 2016 and beyond.

Two main factors are behind this. The first is technology, which has finally caught up with the modern user’s needs and expectations. Downloading audiobooks is now as simple as downloading music; once on your iPod or phone, they can be taken with you on commutes and jogs. This is a huge game-changer; today, readers no longer have to choose between print and audio, as the two formats can be used differently. I risk caricaturing myself every time I walk from a bus stop with a dog-eared paperback held out in front of me. (Seriously.) I also go for an hour-long walk every day. As I’ve come to embrace audio, I’ve discovered that the walk (which I’m bound to by my physiotherapist, come rain, shine or roaring gale) passes a lot quicker with a narrative in my ear than with music. It provides impetus to the walk and allows me to cheat time by squeezing in some extra reading. Audible, the Amazon audiobook service which has pioneered the mainstreaming of the format, markets itself on precisely this basis: in complete contrast with the clunky CDs of yore, audiobooks can now fit seamlessly into your life.

This brings me to the second shift that’s occurred: perception. Less than ten years ago, a study found that over 50% of book-buyers had negative attitudes toward audio, considered “talking books for the blind” and for children, and widely regarded as overpriced. In 2015 more than ever before, audiobooks were recognised both as a reading format for a general audience and as an art form. Pretty much any A-list actor you might name has lent their voice to an audiobook – Imelda Staunton reads Julia Donaldson classics like The Gruffalo; Helena Bonham Carter has been the voice of Anne Frank; Tim Curry narrates A Series of Unfortunate Events; Susan Sarandon has done the Homeric epics. It’s a unique creative exercise for publisher and narrator alike, and more rewarding than ever now that it’s finally coming to the world’s attention. The industry is now running to keep up, with publishers developing audiobook charts and establishing their own podcasts (Penguin has an excellent Desert Island Discs-style series hosted by Richard E. Grant of Withnail fame, available through iTunes).

A whole universe is developing around the audiobook market, though a lot of it was already there beyond our sight – did you know, for instance, that audiobooks are eligible at the Grammies? The Best Spoken Album Award has been won by everyone from Michael J. Fox to Bill Clinton via Malala. The Audies annually reward both original audio works and adaptations of fiction and non-fiction. The interaction of the audiobook with the awards culture embedded into the print book, film and music industries also raises interesting artistic questions. Who should receive the award – the publisher, the author, the narrator or some combination? The 2015 Grammies credited only those who read, not those who wrote, the nominated titles, for instance. The collaborative nature of the audiobook forces us to concede that it’s a form separate from printed books.

For this, we have more or less one work to thank: Serial. If you haven’t listened to Serial, you may have switched off the Internet in recent years. Just kidding – I only discovered it this summer. But if you haven’t listened to Serial, go and do so right now. This podcast, a production of veteran groundbreaking radio show This American Life, essentially single-handedly turned podcasts mainstream. The second season has just launched, but the first season, which has been downloaded over 68 million times, is now an established cultural phenomenon. It follows journalist Sarah Koenig’s probing of a Baltimore murder case from the ’90s, in which a young man was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, on what comes to seem startlingly little concrete evidence. It is brilliantly pieced together, compellingly narrated and admirably non-partisan, a fascinating and, yes, addictive piece of long-form reportage. It sought to prove that there was an audience for episodic storytelling, and for the oral tradition which defines our species.

Though Serial showed me and the world what a podcast could be, I’ve also listened to plenty since that have fallen well short of the mark. A flimsy premise, a particular American twang, a misjudged duration-to-content ratio – any and all of these things are enough to ruin a podcast for me. (Sorry, Americans; I just can’t help it. One of Serial‘s greatest merits, for me, is Sarah Koenig’s fantastically soft-spoken yet crystal-clear voice.) Audio in itself is neither greater nor lesser than print. So I started to give my listening-reading approach some thought: what kinds of stories would, like that told in Season One of Serial, work particularly well in audio format? Here are a few examples I’ve come up with.

1) Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens; narrated by Anton Lesser

As I’ve discussed previously, my appreciation of Dickens came late in life, so I do sympathise with you as you cry out, “Not Dickens! Go back to historical fiction recommendations!” But hear me out. How long might it take you to read the Dickensian-length sentences of Nickleby (1839) in Penguin Classic form? Well, if you put it on your iPod, you can read it in seven hours and forty minutes. More than that, Dickens is perfect for audiobook. These are novels more or less entirely character-driven, and Lesser, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company, brings them to life far better than the voice in your head could. He also draws out the comedy in Dickens with skill, helpfully signposting the novel’s shifts in tone even if they’re halfway through a two-page paragraph that you might have been skimming. And, of course, Dickens’ novels were actually written to be serial, published periodically in newspapers before they were brought out in a single print volume.


“In journeys, as in life, it is a great deal easier to go down hill than up.”


2) Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama

I went for this one for two reasons: autobiography is surely a category of book that can benefit from the personification of audio; and all the more so when the author has a voice as easy to listen to as Obama’s. This is the US president’s own account of his upbringing and first steps into politics, relating his journey towards understanding of his barely-known father and of his cultural and spiritual inheritance from all the members of his various families. It’s refreshing to get to know Obama as a man; he wrote the book (1995) when his claim to fame was as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and added a new preface once he was the only black Congressman of his term, as Senator for Illinois. He speaks (occasionally in accents) with ruthless honesty about American race relations on personal and societal levels, and about his own foibles and doubts, with an openness and questioning thoughtfulness that perhaps couldn’t have emerged from the writings of an incumbent president.

Even had he never reached the White House, though, Obama’s story is more interesting than ‘first black president’. His father left when he was young, leaving him growing up in the shadow of a hero-parent strangely romanticised for him by his white mother; he spent four formative childhood years in Indonesia, homeland of his stepfather; when he finally went to Kenya to meet his grandmother, aunts and half-brothers, he had to find his place amidst a crowd of relatives resultant from his father’s and grandfather’s multiple wives. Obama’s memoir is multicultural not because he is mixed race, but because he presents, with vivacity and humility, a whole chorus of voices. I encourage you to discover them through his, because even if you disagree with his politics, he’s a fine writer expressing the truth of his experience – in an eternally listenable voice.


“The boarded-up homes… teenage girls feeding potato chips to crying toddlers, the discarded wrappers tumbling down the block – all of it whispered painful truths.”


3) Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas; narrated by Richard Burton

I’ve offered you an audiobook chosen for its performance value, and one chosen for the personal nature of its story. My final recommendation is not an adaptation, but a piece of original audio literature. Under Milk Wood (1954) was written as a radio drama. It narrates, simply, a day in the life of a Welsh fishing village – its gossip, its martial disputes, its child’s play and its eccentric yet ordinary characters’ secret thoughts and dreams – from sun up to sun down. As such, it is a quiet affair, partly from the viewpoint of a blind fisherman, with little soundtrack but the waves and gulls. I chose to listen to it on successive mornings in bed, before anyone else in the house was awake.

Many of Milk Wood‘s wonderful, unforgettable phrases had already been in my head since childhood, for my mother used to quote them at me. Thomas was a magical wordsmith with a unique way of turning a phrase; so was Richard Burton, whose performances drew heavily on the relish with which he wrapped his tongue around his lines. It’s an ideal partnership; I’ve had few more exquisite listening experiences than a soft Welsh voice in the half-light of morning, uttering, “the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”


“Lord Cut-Glass, in his kitchen full of time… listens to the voices of his sixty-six clocks, one for each year of his loony age, and watches, with love, their black-and-white moony loudlipped faces tocking the earth away…”


I hope to have convinced some of you to give audiobooks a try – any of these three titles would make a great start. Alternatively, few voices are as rich, powerful and enthralling as Maya Angelou’s, while Janis Ian has blended song and narration in the audiobook version of her autobiography, Society’s Child (2012). Both have won Grammies. Much though I hate to vaunt Amazon in any capacity, Audible’s free trial will allow you one audiobook at no cost, and if you tell them you’re cancelling the membership because it’s too expensive (there’s a drop-down list), you may find they give you a second one free, too. Most audiobooks are available on iTunes for between £1 and £6, and charity shops (particularly Oxfam bookshops) often sell CDs cheaply, which are easily ripped into your media player. Go forth, and tell me what you think!

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Reading Ahead: steering the course of the advanced child

As readers likely know, I came home from university this summer for the last time. In a desperate bid to feel productive despite not being in work during those warm months, I conducted a comprehensive clear-out of my room. Along the way, I rediscovered my primary school reading logs. I’ve already discussed what I found in them in a post on my childish reactions to well-known classics. But there was something even more interesting revealed in those pages.

For those who never had one, a reading log allows a record of each reading experience by a child – the title, how many pages and so on, with room for comments by both the child and the designated reading grown-up. My mother has a B.Ed, and my reading logs are very much the transcript of a long-term, long-distance conversation between two primary educators: her and my teacher. They clearly felt they had a lot to talk about, because I learnt to read at the age of two. However, because I learnt to read at the age of two, I was also able to follow their ostensibly over-my-head discussion of my literacy.

The result is that the way they talked about and approached my reading rubbed off on me. This wasn’t a matter of deliberate imitation, but simply of absorption and reflection. Unusually literate children aren’t necessarily less impressionable than others. The phenomenon is clearly recorded in my reading log. Here’s one example:


This is a typical note from my mother. For those who ill-informedly claim that Harry Potter is badly written, I direct them to this vocabulary list, from Order of the Phoenix. I still know, without looking, that this is HP5, because J.K. literally taught me these words. Naysayers may complain that Rowling’s character descriptions are repetitive, but if she hadn’t narrated consistently Dumbledore looking “benignly” at Harry over his half-moon spectacles, who knows how long it might have taken me to learn what ‘benign’ meant? Spells ricochet, of course; and Dumbledore siphons off his thoughts into the Pensieve while Fawkes, with his superb red-gold plumage, looks on. Rowling didn’t contribute to the development of only reluctant or struggling readers, but all readers.

That was a tangent. What I wanted to point out  was that my mother here lists the words I learnt during the reading experience. Watch me consider the benefits of my reading in the exact same way, elsewhere in the log:


Here, there’s absolutely no expression of whether I enjoyed the book, or what it was about; my response is framed entirely in terms of challenge and learning.

I should say at this point that I’m simply drawing attention to an interesting phenomenon – how pliable enthusiastic children are about being tricked into learning – and that I bear no grudges about falling for such a pleasurable and advantageous trick. I don’t remember writing this log, or feeling that the joy had been sucked out of reading by my mother’s instructive emphasis.

On the contrary, the other noteworthy dialogue in these reading logs shows my mother defending my right to put enjoyment first when reading, in conflict with the strategy of my primary school. See the note in red, again from my mother, at the bottom of this page:


On yet another side note, if you read the note in green, I seem to have had quite a complex associative imagination… Kids are fascinating!

My Reception teacher responds “Of course!” to the request that I be allowed to bring in picture books to read alongside the short chapter books I was being given at school – but it was an ongoing point of contention. In this next photo, my Year One teacher expresses clear disappointment, not to say displeasure, that I had chosen an ‘easy’ book:


My philosophy, as was clearly my mother’s, is that the most important thing is that a child reads, and ideally loves to read – regardless of the book in question. Who knows what great creations I may have missed out on as a result of being ‘moved on’ to harder books (and of moving myself on, since my comment about Help! I’m A Dinosaur exhibits the influence adults had on my reading approach)?

I don’t want to be too critical of my primary school teachers. They were probably just panicking that my parents, or their superiors, would accuse them of failing to stretch me – or that they would actually fail to stretch me. (Miss Crane, I’m blaming my A in Food Tech GCSE on you.) And, as I’ve said, I wasn’t scarred by this process. But the reading logs also reveal that, though I have since forgotten, I was aware of it – and not always happy about it. Let’s go back to Reception.


It’s not hard to work out what’s happening here. In Reception, we frequently made our own stapled books, of a few pages long. On this particular day, it was ‘Can I? I can.’ On the left hand side of each page, or the verso as we call it in the biz, we had to ask a question, such as “Can I go to school with my friends?” On the recto, we had to affirm, “I can go to school with my friends”, and draw an accompanying picture. Groundbreaking stuff it ain’t, but I clearly didn’t want to be singled out to create something harder.

This may simply have been about me liking the concept of the book, but what if it was a matter of self-consciousness? The reading log also reveals that I frequently read aloud to the entire class, as a structured activity at the behest of our teacher.  I was a confident child and I’m sure I would remember this happening if it had been a source of alarm rather than excitement. But can I – or could my mother – trust my primary school teachers to make that judgement of my personality? I honestly don’t know. I turned out fine in the end, and didn’t even retain memories of these early tussles between teachers and family, but on balance the school’s approach seems a little heavy-handed.

During the same summer clear-out that led me to the reading logs, my mother drastically reduced the number of books she’d kept from her B.Ed, all of which are fascinating linguistic, psychological or sociological studies. I inherited several, including a little number called The Gifted Child. It notes that, as the grown-ups overseeing my reading remarked, “The gifted child frequently excels in the size and quality of his vocabulary”, and that “[such] children are tremendous readers” who “start early”; it also offers guidance for teachers regarding how this can be furthered with the provision of interesting or challenging books. Yet there is absolutely no proscription of other books. What would be the point, whe the studies cited by The Gifted Child demonstrate that the ‘gifted’ child already has the enthusiasm and resulting literary benefit that reading brings?

I asked a variety of friends, from both secondary school and university, who were identified as ‘advanced’ readers in primary school what guidance they had experienced. The answer I received was universal: either they were aware of ‘graded’ books but allowed to progress through them at their own pace, or they were given additional or different reading. Not a single one, however, had my experience of teachers trying to prevent or discourage the reading of books not considered ‘challenging’. This isn’t a reliable source, of course – if someone asked me this before I’d found the reading logs, I’d have given the same answer. But I do wonder how common this truly was.

I suppose the only conclusion to draw is that our interests and abilities are shaped before we can even have lasting consciousness of that shaping. So if you’re an avid, fast or advanced reader today, while you may have a pushy grown-up to blame for stifling your freedom, you also, almost certainly, have a pushy grown-up to thank.

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Politics in Publishing: production, content, philosophy

Last week, the Asian edition of the International New York Times was distributed with no headline article, because the printers in Thailand had removed it before going to press. Under Thai law, you can be jailed for up to fifteen years if you criticise, defame or insult members of the royal family; this article discussed Thailand’s fading 87-year-old king, and problems that may arise regarding his succession.


“The article in this space was removed by our printer in Thailand. The International New York Times and its editorial staff had no role in its removal.”

When we talk about press freedom, we’re normally discussing journalism. But ‘the press’ is named after the machinery that mass-produces the printed word; issues of political encroachment also affect book publishing. The whole idea for this post came from a conversation I had with a Rights Assistant at an illustrated publisher, about printing in China. Virtually no colour printers still exist in the UK, because, as with jeans and call centres, it’s much cheaper to outsource this production to Asia. My current employer prints in India; the International New York Times prints in Thailand; these guys print in the PRC. I asked if there were downsides to this business decision. Yes, she said – they couldn’t print any books featuring Ai Weiwei. If you’re an art publisher of international stature, not being able to mention or reproduce the work of one of the world’s most famous artists is a serious concern. (I’m being glib – they just use a European printer on those occasions.)

Someone in Production at the same publisher brought my attention to another thorny issue: maps. This goes beyond the drawing of borders. On one occasion, the Chinese printers actually reduced the size of the lettering so that ‘TAIWAN’ would read much smaller than ‘BEIJING’ – because to have them the same size would imply that the exiled nationalist government of Taiwan is of equal status to the communist leadership in Beijing. These are the more unusual anecdotes. Juliet Mabey of Oneworld Publications, telling the Society of Young Publishers annual conference about commissioning translations in more languages than your editors speak, recounted feedback from a Chinese reader, who brought to Oneworld’s attention after a title had gone to press that the chapter on governance had simply been removed altogether.

With printing costs in Europe beginning to fall again and a persistence of this sort of issue (this isn’t even the first time this year that the International NYT has had an article blanked out), perhaps publishers will decide it’s no longer worth the savings. But this isn’t about tyrannical regimes stifling Western or domestic media – it’s about the political approach with which creative industries respond. In the Thai case, at least, there was no indication that the Thai government had put any pressure on the printers, or even knew about the article – it appears to have been an act of self-censorship on the part of the print house.

The same culture of fear was discussed in the closing panel of the SYP conference. Anne Beech, MD of progressive independent Pluto Books, spoke of two issues. Firstly, as a small press, Pluto can’t afford to be sued for libel by the world’s corrupt super-rich – it was left at the mercy of a Saudi sheikh who sued it into retracting a book, implicating him, on Taliban funding and networks. However principled an indie publisher may be, it must be very (perhaps overly) careful about sources, libel and message. Secondly, Beech expressed the ethical dilemma publishers face about the duty to disseminate truth, when it directly threatens the duty to protect the author. She gave the example of one author, a dissident Pakistani journalist, who was murdered by the ISI just days after Pluto published his critique of the military. After agonising over questions of exploitation and the safety of the author’s family, Pluto went ahead with the title. Publishing on such nations requires striking, and constantly recalibrating, a very fine balance.


Sued by bin Mahfouz: Pluto’s pulped title

Most people browsing in Waterstones or reading in the bath don’t think about challenges of this nature. I certainly gave it little thought before entering the industry. But now that my attention has been caught, I see it everywhere. Politics pervades publishing not only against its will, as in the above examples, but also in fundamental marketing, editorial and commissioning decisions. This brings me to the third part of my title: philosophy. What happens when the question isn’t of whether or not to push forward with a problematic or even dangerous publication, but of the whole approach to a book that is going, or has already gone, to press?

I’ll give two examples, both of which could take up an entire post by themselves, and both of which happen to be from the Continent, where cultural debates and news often receive more coverage than in the UK. Firstly, Tintin. He’s surely the most beloved Belgian export after waffles, boasting his own shop in Covent Garden, instantly recognisable with his quiff and enchanting children worldwide – but also a bit racist. To cut a long story short, the Congolese characters, bearing strong resemblance to monkeys, are simple-minded, backward and lazy, and incapable of speaking French ‘properly’; some say this depiction should be read in the context of its era, while others point to Tintin creator Hergé’s dubious associations with ultra-right circles.

A furore erupted in December 2014 over Tintin au Congo (Tintin in the Congo, 1931), when activists with ties to black community organisations stormed bookshops and slapped ‘parental guidance’ stickers onto the front cover,  a hazard warning of racism. This reignited an old, global debate about the title: Hergé’s Scandinavian publishers refused in the ’70s to release it until changes had been made; in Britain, where it couldn’t find a publisher until the ’90s, the Commission for Racial Equality declared the volume racist in 2007. How should we deal with exposing our children to literature containing values we don’t share? Should we move it to an adult section, as Waterstones and Borders did after the CRE’s conclusion? Should we remove it from young children’s reach by selling it solely online, as WHSmith did? Should we place content warnings on books with outdated views, as the campaigners wished? Should we preface it with an explanatory note emphasising that its world view is not our own, as UK publishers Egmont eventually did? Should we do nothing at all, and respect the sovereignty of the text? The soul-searching that all of this reveals at the heart of the book industry is fascinating.



For our final example, let’s return to this winter. If you thought Tintin was offensive, it gets worse: Mein Kampf. Hitler’s autobiography-manifesto goes out of copyright at the start of January 2016. Publishers, historians and others, across Europe, have been fiercely debating what, if anything, to do about it. This is because different approaches to publishing can say different things about the publication in question. In Germany, it will be republished, but encased in a gargantuan critical apparatus – in other words, it will be presented as a text of solely academic value. In France, a new translation is planned, but many feel that offering a new print edition conveys the undesirable notion that Mein Kampf has commercial, monetary value. The Germans would reply that many pirated editions already exist online, and refusing to publish simply denies the opportunity for caveats and commentary. But the German authorities have said that they will “limit access” to the text – what on earth does that mean, both practically and for freedom of press?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to any of these questions. One thing, though, is clear. Writing kills; royalty payment endangers lives; printing threatens sovereignty and power; bookselling perpetuates societal values; jacketing determines children’s innocence or maturity; publishing matters. That’s the message this week, and I thought it was an interesting topic. Hopefully the case studies above have helped to illustrate how and why. If all of these (with the exception of Tintin) have come to my attention in the last month alone, we can only begin to imagine how often publishing is tangled in politics.



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Introducing… Historical Fiction

Welcome to the first post in the ‘Introducing’ series! Before reading this post, please make sure you’ve read the opening post about the aim of the series.

To try and broaden understanding of what so-called genre fiction can be, I’ve deliberately chosen three historical novels that also embrace the traditions of other genres. I’ve listed the original publication year, but the paperback publishers, as each book belongs to an established series. Each also has a beloved place on my shelf, and anyone is welcome to borrow them.

1) Anno Dracula – Kim Newman (Titan Books, 1992)

I first discovered this series while working at Waterstones Camden, which has a particularly strong science fiction/fantasy/horror section for a store of its size. I’ve long enjoyed vampire fiction (yes, since before Twilight – the first I heard of it was a friend saying, ‘Oh, you like vampires; have you read this?’), so the title grabbed me. Kim Newman, who runs with the likes of Neil Gaiman, doesn’t just imagine vampires, or even just a world where vampires are known and, to a certain degree, integrated into society (à la True Blood). He takes this setting to Bram Stoker’s London, and imagines which of the great Victorian figures, both historical and fictional, would have chosen to be “turned”, and which to remain “warm”.

The Independent praised Anno Dracula's "caustic wit", "clever postmodern structure" and "political satire".

The Independent praised Anno Dracula’s “caustic wit”, “clever postmodern structure” and “political satire”.

The premise in itself is great fun – Oscar Wilde is, of course, a vampire. But the series – extending through undead time to the First World War, then Fellini’s Rome in the late ’50s, then 1980s America – is also meticulously researched. It’s no mean feat working plot twists into recorded history, or weaving together fact and imagination. Anno Dracula is bloody good fun to read, and, as an idea, couldn’t have been done much more cleverly or more interestingly. Whether your interest is in Victorian literary greats, vampires, murder mysteries or just superbly silly-for-bookworms storytelling, this is for you.

2) The Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom (Pan Macmillan, 2003)

As with Anno Dracula, I was initially drawn to these books through a personal obsession – this time, and just as nerdily, the Tudors. (I practically wet myself when Mantel won the Booker, honestly.) These are crime novels from an age before DNA, guns, computer files or even a national police force. Sansom, Britain’s number one alternative history author, puts his History PhD to good use, cannily identifying the sixteenth century’s ‘detective’ as a lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. Sometimes employed by the government, sometimes by private individuals, most often uncertain to whom he answers in an age before England was a fully-formed state, Shardlake is hired to investigate the King’s business. In the first novel, Dissolution, Mantel’s hero Cromwell sends Shardlake to solve the murder of a royal commissioner serving Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.

The New York Times applauded Sansom's ability to bring a period to life in a way that few academic texts can: "History never seemed so real."

For Sansom, the Tudor period doesn’t appeal for the sex and scandal, but because “the medieval certainties that had endured for centuries were turned upside down…the state took on a completely different meaning.”

Sansom has done the impossible, and created a page-turner set in early modern England; a deeply engrossing tale narrated not by the great and powerful of Tudor England, but a “jobbing lawyer” who rides to Lincoln’s Inn on a doddering horse or treads the filthy streets on foot. His London is just as vividly portrayed as Anno Dracula‘s, its near-unrecognisable smallness somehow relatable.  At the same time, these unusually spun murder mysteries bear distinct similarities to modern-set equivalents. Shardlake’s hunchback makes him just as memorable and endearing as limping Poirot or amputee PI Cormoran Strike. He’s something of a lone wolf. And, abiding by Ronald Knox’s Ten Commandments, the culprit is always a familiar face. It’s a playful take on crime, gently narrated but grippingly unfolding, and offers a welcome rethink of Tudor London away from the glamour of Henry’s court.

3) Temeraire by Naomi Novik (Harper Voyager, 2006)

Temeraire is the opening volume of one of my favourite fantasy series. The premise is simple: the Napoleonic wars, but with an air force composed of dragons. As with the other two authors I’ve discussed, it wouldn’t be enough simply to present this concept – that way lies the mediocre madness of ‘Iron Sky’. These novels are intricately and ingeniously imagined – there’s a lot of technicality to rigging dragons as flying warships. Novik has thought through every detail, from the strategy and narrative of thrilling battle scenes to the series’ growing exploration of dragons’ rights; from how Napoleon, Wellington and others would use the dragons in their conquests, to the state secret of a dragon species that will only accept women riders – a clever and narratively fruitful way of bringing female characters into a masculine world.


Booklist hailed this “superbly written” series, which has won awards and been nominated for the prestigious Hugo.

Novik’s crowning achievement is the dragons themselves. Temeraire, the dragon at the heart of the story, is an exasperating, endearing creature, and his group of friends and enemies are just as individually well-painted. My heart simply bursts with affection for these wonderful characters, and their emotional journeys are easily interwoven with the pacy narrative. Temeraire first caught my eye, amid a sea of homogeneous, overtly ‘SFF’ block capitals, by its spine. For me, the original cover art for the books perfectly reflects their nature: lovingly and highly skilfully constructed works of pure beauty and absolute originality.

You don’t need ever to have read historical fiction, crime fiction or fantasy to appreciate these novels. I defy you not to enjoy them, and they’re among the best-conceived stories in my library. Hopefully, next time you’re looking for a good read, you’ll try one.

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Introducing… Introducing

No puntastic title this week I’m afraid – this is part of a new series, in which I try and introduce you to parts of the reading experience that you might be missing out on. Often, the genres I talk about may well be something you’ve never read, but hear me out – I will only recommend the best!

‘Genre fiction’ is fiction that fits into a particular category of narrative, from crime and thriller to romance, from science fiction and fantasy to historical novels. There are a fair number of readers in the UK whose fiction reading is exclusively limited to one or a couple of these genres. There are also a great many readers who’ve never encountered them at all. Each to their own – I’m reluctant to tell people they should read anything in particular – but I personally feel that this is a shame for both sides. It’s not surprising that this divide exists, though. There are two main reasons for it.

Firstly, prejudice. I just attended the Society of Young Publishers annual conference. Juliet Mabey of independent house Oneworld, which is launching a crime fiction list in early 2016, admitted in her keynote speech that Oneworld had perhaps been “pompous” until now about genre fiction. People often have the impression that genre fiction is a lesser literature – not helped by the fact that it is distinguished from ‘literary fiction’. Genre fiction’s focus on plot is looked down on by formalists and philosophisers; the tendency of individual genres to conform to certain expectations can lead to a view of them as thoughtless and formulaic.

This brings me to the second thing that scares people off genre fiction. The conventions that guide (they shouldn’t govern) genre fiction can seem inaccessible or even frightening to the uninitiated. Many readers who don’t frequently turn to fantasy have been led by the television series Game of Thrones to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – but what made A Game of Thrones so remarkable to the fantasy crowd in the ’90s, ‘before it was cool’, was the fact that it spectacularly, brutally broke with the tradition of epic fantasy. For instance, there’s an unspoken, general understanding between fantasy readers and authors about who can be killed, and when, and on what moral and emotional terms. Martin disrupts that understanding.

This is not about ‘predictability’ or ‘formula’ – Martin didn’t invent the devious fantasy plot twist, and not all fantasy readers are even conscious of these ‘unspoken rules’ and how they affect their response to plot. It’s about what we recognise as fantasy. To turn to another genre, detective fiction actually has a famous set of Ten Commandments, laid out by author Ronald Knox in the ’20s. These dictate how the mystery is presented to, yet hidden, from the reader, and were intended to help writers construct the tightest, cleverest narrative possible. If you’re not familiar with the ‘feel’ of a genre, such frameworks risk seeming like a closed world.

Here’s my argument: neither of these potential problems apply to the best genre fiction. The idea that it must be poorly written or of lesser intellectual quality is obviously nonsense. Hilary Mantel, the only British author and the only woman to win the Man Booker Prize twice, won for the first two volumes of a trilogy. Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, dazzling as their prose and unsettling as their intimate characterisation may be, are still historical novels. Soviet writers frequently used science fiction to get around censors and filter their critiques and concerns about society or politics through an imaginary tint. Doing this – writing good, or excellent, genre fiction – is impossible if you let tropes and rules write the novel for you. There has to be character development, narrative ingenuity, compelling themes…all the things that make a good book, whether ‘genre’ or ‘literary’.

Some branches of Waterstones have started to acknowledge this, integrating crime novels into the General Fiction section. Regular crime buyers initially complained, but sales have gone up for both crime and general novels – proving that these distinctions are often arbitrary, and unnecessarily limit our reading choices. So let’s try and do something about it – follow me to the first post

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Dear All People: talking race in Obama’s America

Today, I’d like to talk to you about two accomplished and important pieces of culture: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah (2013), and Justin Simien’s film Dear White People (2014). I happened to read the one shortly after going to see the other in the cinema, but this is misleading – both belong to a category of artworks frustratingly few and far between, even today: truthful and searching depictions of the supposedly ‘post-racial’ USA. Americanah charts the experience of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who comes to the States on a student visa and lives through poverty, degradation and depression before becoming a successful blogger on American race issues. Dear White People follows four very different African American students on a predominantly white Ivy League campus, reacting to a ‘blacked up’ Halloween party.  I highly recommend that you go and find a copy of each.

This post isn’t intended to be preachy; nor are these two works. If Americanah were a bad book, if Dear White People were a bad film, then featuring race as a theme, even a central one, would not excuse them. The last thing we need is bad portrayals of this subject. Adichie is one of my favourite authors – her prose is quietly powerful and emotionally resonant, whether she’s talking about what goes unsaid between parents and their grown children, or the horror of a civil war. She is a startlingly, sometimes uncomfortably, honest explorer of how we present and see ourselves in the everyday; a writer who can tackle the greatest questions of our time, but through such intimate character portraits that the pages turn themselves. Until 2013, she held a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a Genius Grant – I know I’m gushing, but how many authors, let alone female authors, let alone black female authors, are certified as geniuses by the US literary establishment at the age of 31?

As for Dear White People, Simien’s debut feature, it is a sharp and ruthless satire for today’s generation, in which every character, white or black, is presented as a complex, flawed and confused human and social being. This might sound like a basic requirement for any decent script, but it is extremely, painfully rare in cinematic discussions of race, especially in Hollywood. Let’s put it starkly: when was the last time you saw a DVD that had not one, not two, but five black people on its cover?

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Any examples springing to mind are likely to be celebrations of African Americans overcoming the racism they faced. 12 Years a Slave and Selma are important, artistically commendable pictures, but their high profile masks how deeply uncomfortable Hollywood feels about addressing today’s questions of race and racism. After rejection by the Hollywood studios, Dear White People was crowdfunded, and struggled to get UK distribution until it was picked up by The New Black Film Collective. Even Selma took six years to make it to our screens, and might never have done without the weight of Oprah behind it, as producer. If this is too anecdotal for you, have some statistics: in US filmmaking from 2007 to 2014, 73.1% of all speaking characters were white – the national white population being closer to 63%. As for lead roles, only 17 of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2014 featured an ethnic-minority star or co-star, even though 37 in 100 Americans are BAME. And here we’re just talking quantity – the quality of BAME characterisation in Hollywood is much worse.     

Poorly considered representations of diversity have also recently been challenged in British publishing, by the Writing the Future report. Authors including Malorie Blackman and Andrea Levy, and less successful authors who’ve faced even greater adversity, gave damning evidence about the narrow-mindedness of our presses. According to these testimonials, editors and agents often refuse to accept novels from BAME authors unless they depict ‘ethnic issues’ (so pure romantic sagas or sci-fi tales are out) – but they also want these depictions’ realism to be ‘softened’. The reason for this is simple: UK publishers assume that the market for these books is white. (Not borne out by the figures.) As a result, they make a further assumption: that books about other cultures must conform to white readers’ preconceptions. There must be both a solid “sari count”, and a safe limit to exoticism: “make sure one half of a love relationship [is] white”, an anonymous author was told.

Both Americanah and Dear White People explicitly address this problem. The most compelling character in Dear White People, angry black culture activist Sam (Tessa Thompson), is a media arts major, whose combative radio show gives the film its title. She frequently rails against typified black characterisation in contemporary cinema, and in the general white psyche: she pulls up films with racist undertones (“The Gremlins are loud, talk in slang, are addicted to fried chicken and freak out when you get their hair wet”) and quips that, when counting your black friends, “your weed man Tyrone doesn’t count.” Americanah offers an equally angry artistic voice, in African American writer Shan. Her memoir relates that her mother “felt like she’d hit a [professional] ceiling…because she was black”; her editor asks her to dilute, to “nuance” this: “Did your mom have a bad rapport with someone at work, maybe? Or had she already been diagnosed with cancer?” When a friend suggests that Shan fictionalise her experience, she replies:

“You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write those bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. …So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race.”

These words echo the Writing for the Future report; they clearly flow not truly from Shan’s mouth, but from Adichie’s. A quiet, knowing authority runs through every alienating experience in Americanah. Even without the parallels between Ifemelu’s life and Adichie’s, motifs common to Americanah and Dear White People speak to a certain level of universal young black experience in the US. Much of Americanah is narrated in flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided. This framework cleverly, subtly pitches us straight into the black world: my trips to the hairdresser certainly don’t last long enough to generate a lifelong flashback, but Ifemelu must spend an unfathomable nine hours in the salon. Questions of hair also feature early in Dear White People; a seemingly passing one-liner of unintentional white ignorance (“Your hair is so cute btws…Is it weaved?”) ends up the source of a vlogged tirade from Coco (Teyonah Parris), a fame-seeker emulating Sam’s intriguing fury. Though a blue contact lens-wearer who states, excruciatingly, that she’s “not really into black dudes”, when she casts around for racial subject matter, she need look no further than this very recent interaction, with a supposedly close friend.   

Of course, it’d be wearing perusing a film or novel consisting solely of scenes whereby white people knowingly or unknowingly discriminate against, patronise or misunderstand black people. Though prejudice and ignorance feature throughout both works, their most fundamental message is simpler: race hasn’t disappeared under, since or through Obama. At surface level, that might not seem like a groundbreaking thesis – as some critics complained, viewing Dear White People. But the industry studies we’ve discussed, and many others, demonstrate that it’s simply not a fact being stated frequently or with any depth in US-set film or literature. One of my favourite quotes from Americanah is Shan’s definition of the Great American Novel: “dysfunctional white folk doing things that are weird to normal white folks.” I mean, who doesn’t see in that Franzen, Roth and Pynchon? Americanah and Dear White People are resolutely, often tenderly, about real life. More than simply exposing race relations and racism, they show how institutionalised race distinctions complicate young people’s search for identity.

Dear White People suggests that they must soon make a choice. The black university dean remarks that mixed-race Sam must have had trouble growing up, “wondering which side you’d fit into”. He suggests that she has over-compensated, presumably out of white privilege-related guilt. Because it’s a smart screenplay, the film does put what one character calls Sam’s “tragic mulatto bullshit” under the microscope – but equally, she responds to the dean, “I’m not the only one.” The dean himself (Dennis Haysbert) is moulding his Prom King-type son to be as uprightly white as possible, even pushing him to date the white university president’s daughter. Again, though, Dear White People is a complex film: this choice isn’t about black/white culture, it’s about where these kids stand, politically and personally. Awkward, homophobically bullied Lionel (Tyler James Williams) can “listen to Mumford and Sons and watch old Robert Altman movies”, but can also lead the multi-ethnic charge against despicably casual racism on campus. Sam can produce a beautifully understated film about this explosion of racial tensions, without it lessening her anger. As far as Dear White People has a moral, it’s that people can only belong where they belong – and that may or may not relate to the colour of their skin.

Americanah offers the same message. Mwombeki, the Tanzanian leader of the African Students Association on Ifemelu’s campus, advises new members:

“Try and make friends with our African American brothers and sisters… But make sure you remain friends with fellow Africans, as this will help you keep your perspective. Always attend [our] meetings, but if you must, you can also try the Black Student Union. Please note that in general, African Americans go to the Black Student Union and Africans go to the African Students Association.”

Here, students must choose between two different black cultures, African and American. The pressure that the dean describes to Sam, the pressure to belong either here or there, seems even more present in Americanah. Ifemelu is struck by Mwombeki’s description of an inherent divide, crossed only by the inauthentic (“those [Africans] with no confidence who are quick to tell you ‘I am originally from Kenya’” and those African Americans “who write poems about Mother Africa”). She leaves the meeting reflecting that whether her young cousin Dike, born in Nigeria but living in the States from a very young age, belongs to the BSU or ASA “would be chosen for him.” This inflexible categorisation, enforced as in Dear White People as much by black society as by the white establishment, proves too much for Ifemelu. Since only among Africans does she “not have to explain herself”, she concludes that she has no choice but to return to Nigeria, despite having more or less achieved the American Dream.

In Dear White People, the university president (Peter Syvertsen), promoted over his better qualified, black classmate Dean Fairbanks, tells him in deadly earnest, “Race is over in America. The only people still thinking about it are…Mexicans, probably.” Americanah fights powerfully, yet gracefully and calmly, against this all-too-common attitude. Both film and book demonstrate that white and black people still think a great deal about race in the Obama age, and it calls for urgent discussion. One of the novel’s central tenets is the idea that Ifemelu was not ‘black’ until she arrived in America – before then, she’d never existed in a society of race consciousness.

As a mixed-race individual, I can confirm that Ifemelu’s early obliviousness to race is no utopia: it is, it can be, a reality. When growing up in London, I was so colour-blind that I didn’t understand until it was explained explicitly to me that my white sister must be my half-sister. I know how contradictory people’s experiences of race can turn out to be (one character in Americanah claims that Brits “will make [an] effort at saying [a foreign name] properly”; another, many pages on, goes by Dee because the English can’t pronounce his “real name…Duerdinhito”). I went to school with people like Coco, who felt such shame or alienation that they changed their name and looks to escape their ‘ethnic-ness’. I certainly know people from my university who would throw the blacked-up costume party at the centre of Dear White People. I know that white people really do love touching black or mixed-race people’s hair, because I’m guilty of doing it – and now I think harder about it.

But just as importantly as all this, I know girls like Sam, girls like me, who’ve gone through personal epiphanies about their suppression of emotion – a staple of great coming-of-age stories, from Pitch Perfect to The Hunger Games. Both Dear White People and Americanah are hugely entertaining, and sometimes achingly truthful. They are for neither white people, nor black people – they are about all people, and for all people.

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