Six years in the gender wars

New Year’s Day 2015 was a bad one. My main memory of it is the moment when my husband essentially scraped me off the bed, where I was lying face-down, crying, because I’d seen a tweet from someone I thought was a friend – someone I’d worked with, someone whose kid I’d babysat for – denouncing me as a “terf”. The occasion for the denunciation was a piece by me published earlier that day. My editor had double-checked that I wanted to go ahead with it – there would be, she said, a lot of flak, which I knew anyway but one of the reasons I like writing for her is that she asks that kind of thing. The piece was worth doing, regardless of flak, because it was about something important: the way suicide is reported, and the potential for harm when it’s done badly.

An Ohio teenager named Leelah Alcorn had died by suicide. Alcorn was trans, and left a note on Tumblr which explicitly pinned the blame on her parents, who she claimed had rejected her. This note was reblogged thousands of times, and quoted in reports which glamorised Alcorn, condemned her parents, detailed the means of death and presented Alcorn’s suicide as a vital political statement on behalf of trans youth. In my piece, I urged caution: sharing suicide notes, celebrating the victim, denigrating the bereaved, detailing the method and claiming a suicide has “made a point” all contribute to suicide contagion. In other words, I said, people who identified with Alcorn – the very same trans young people that this coverage was supposedly in aid of – would be more likely to attempt suicide as a result of it. The backlash was brutal, and went beyond Twitter. There were viral blogposts. There were articles in real publications I actually read. All were united around a theme: Sarah Ditum was a confirmed terf, my concerns for young trans people were surely insincere, and my true motivation undoubtedly a deep-seated hatred of trans people.

Seeing myself characterised like that, this me-who-was-not-me projected round the internet and ritually condemned, was agony. (That sounds hysterical, I know, but I’m not sure how else to describe the wrenching feeling of being torn apart like that.) Here’s what’s much, much worse: I was right. In February 2015, the Washington Post published an article detailing two likely copycat suicide attempts by young trans people, with commentary from public health experts on the role of suicide contagion. One, thankfully, was not fatal; horribly, the other was. They should have been protected. Instead, trans activists had promoted a narrative that directly contributed to suicide – and perversely accused anyone criticising that narrative of killing trans people.

Death plays a significant role in trans politics. Stonewall insistently repeats a shockingly high figure for suicide attempts by young trans people as an argument for reforming the Gender Recognition Act (even though this figure was acquired through self-selecting respondents, and there was no attempt in the survey to account for co-morbidity of mental health problems with trans identification). Trans activist Paris Lees has made it a point of honour to talk about “an epidemic of violence against trans people”; actually, the average murder rate for trans people in the UK is lower than the average murder rate overall. The main calendar date for trans activism is Trans Day of Remembrance, which again is about the dead; when Shon Faye wrote a column for the less morbid Trans Day of Visibility, it started with a story about a death.

No other ideology, except perhaps the early church, makes such heavy use of martyrs. (Incidentally, one theory about Christianity’s severe prohibitions on suicide is that they were introduced because the celebration of self-sacrifice was breeding an unsustainable number of suicides.) Either you support gender self-identification and treatment on demand, or you are a murderer. Either you say “trans women are women”, or you are a murderer. No one has ever explained how other people’s failure to believe in gender identity could cause men (since violence against trans people is overwhelmingly male violence) to commit violence against trans people.

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Conclusion 1:

Trans activism as it is currently practised is often actively harmful to the people it is supposedly intended to help.

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I didn’t ever intend to write about trans politics. That’s not quite true: in 2012, there was a kerfuffle about the Radfem conference in London adopting a female-only policy. This was condemned for being trans-exclusionary, and at the time I wrote a short, sarcastic blog post about this: lol @ radical feminists, thinking gender is a social construct and also thinking male humans aren’t women. I left it up for a long while after I’d reconsidered (be honest, just considered in any way) my position on gender, because I thought it was important to be transparent about having changed my mind, but in the end got tired of people tweeting it at me and saying, “Why don’t you think like this anymore?!” (Because it’s trite! And misogynist! And with no understanding whatsoever of gender as a sex class system!)

At the time I wrote that, I thought of “trans person” as synonymous with “transsexual”: someone who’d had sex reassignment surgery. (I think this is a common misconception: people are still very shocked to learn that the majority of transwomen retain their male genitalia, indeed that there’s no requirement to have surgery or even take hormones in order to define yourself as trans and apply for a gender recognition certificate.) And who would have sex reassignment surgery if they didn’t really and sincerely feel they were the sex they identified as? Didn’t such people deserve compassion? Welcoming? Support? Trans activism seemed to belong to the same realm as feminism and gay rights. It was about not being constrained by gender roles, being free to live as whoever you really are.

Even so, there was bit of grit there. If someone could be “born in the wrong body”, didn’t that mean there were “male and female brains”? But I’d read Delusions of Gender when it came out in 2010, and knew the evidence for fixed structural sex differences with proven behavioural outcomes in human brains was sketchy. If someone needed to be surgically altered for their body to be “right”, didn’t that mean plastic surgery was a necessity, rather than an exploitative industry that told women their breasts or genitals were misshapen and then charged through the (rhinoplastied) nose to “fix” them? And if it excluded transwomen to talk about abortion, periods and childbirth as “women’s issues”, how was I going to be able to talk about them at all?

I only know one way to deal with uncertainty: reading and writing. I wrote a series of blog posts trying to reconcile those irreconcilable ideas: that gender is the inculcation of male superiority over women, and that gender is an inherent sense of self that must be expressed on pain of terrible harm. A transwoman I was friendly with at the time urged Julia Serano on me, and I muscled through Whipping Girl with its claims about “subconscious sex”, its arguments that feminism “stigmatised femininity”. I want you to understand that I wanted very much to accept this. I wanted to be a good person, and not a trans-exclusionary person.

In the end, I think it was a column by Deborah Orr, published in early 2013, that crystalised the impossibility of it all for me. I don’t think it was intended as a gender critical column as such, and I don’t know what Orr’s view is on the gender war now. It’s a column informed by Orr’s own experience of mastectomy, and her refusal to see herself as “less of a woman” because of it. But this is the section I snagged on: “Frankly, if my entire body was removed, and only my head remained, somehow attached to machines that kept me alive, I’d still feel entirely female, just as I felt as a child, before my breasts had developed, before I even knew I had a vagina or a womb.” This is the brain-in-a-jar hypothesis. The trouble with it is, none of us are brains in jar. We are our bodies, our intelligence exists in every nerve, and the idea that a feeling of “being female” would mean anything in the absence of a female body was, I knew, intrinsically absurd.

In Whipping Girl by Serano (a book that is quoted approvingly by feminists!), I read that “one feminine biological trait is being in tune with one’s emotions”. In Conundrum by Jan Morris, I read that “my own notion of the female principle was one of gentleness as against force, forgiveness rather than punishment, give more than take, helping more than leading.” In The Gender Games by Juno Dawson, I read that Dawson experienced “a very conscious urge to get fucked, to be penetrated as a woman would be.” In True Colours by transwoman and RAF officer Caroline Paige, I read that Paige wanted to “be able to wear young fashions, share makeup and fashion tips, have girls’ nights out, laugh about boys, fuss over hair.” In In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi, I read that her father’s transition happened under the heavy influence of “sissification porn” – masochistic erotic scenarios where a man is forced to “become a woman” and so placed in the most denigrating situation possible.

In other words, I have read a lot of writing by, for and about trans people. I have read medical tracts from the nineteenth century, and activist texts from the twenty-first; intellectualised confessionals, and tell-all memoirs. What unites all of them is that there is no coherent explanation of what a gender identity is, and endless recourse to sexist stereotypes with no conception of structural misogyny. Being a woman means being pretty, decorative, interested in boys; it means being emotionally available (if women are naturally “good at feelings”, then men can never be expected to learn to regulate themselves, and the burden of managing masculine passions falls – naturally, conveniently – to women); it means being fucked.

I hardly need to explain here that this is not a “progressive” way to define “woman”, and as much as male transitioners are running towards it, female transitioners are running away from it. Being female means having a body that is seen as dirty, exploitable, penetrable: of course we want to run away from this. When I was trying to find my way between the demands of trans politics and what I know about feminism, one of the seductions of the former was that it offers an escape into bodilessness. Illusory, of course, because we are our bodies, but so attractive when your body places you in the inferior sex class. In transman Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive, I read that childhood sexual abuse led to a feeling of being “a marionette, otherworldly and wooden”. In the CBBC documentary I Am Leo, I learned that wanting short hair and refusing dolls makes you a boy inside – in fact (according to the programme’s illustrative animations), means you have a blue brain in a pink body.

This is a really extraordinary claim, yet it underpins the entire belief system of gender identity, and the irreversible medical treatments now being applied to “treat” it: that our brains are specifically sexed, and that it’s possible for a brain of one sex to exist in the body of the other sex. There is no evidence for either of these contentions – the strongest claim you can make about brains is that there are broad structural differences between men and women on average, but these haven’t been connected to any of the attributes that come under “gender identity”, and it hasn’t been established that trans people have brains more like those of the sex they identify as than those of the sex they are.

The only way to dodge the total lack of empirical evidence for gender identity is by resorting to the immaterial and vague: “the knowledge of how my mind knows my body to be is so… I don’t even know how to put it. How do you describe the mind and body describing the mind and body?” writes C. N. Lester in Trans Like Me. There is no way to put it, because there is no coherent understanding to be expressed. But under this rationale, children are being set on a pathway to lifelong infertility and diminished sexual function; women’s spaces and services are being opened up to “anyone who identifies as a woman”; and the word “woman” is being voided of meaning or excised entirely.

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Conclusion 2:

Beliefs about gender identity are inseparable from gender stereotypes and the gender class system, and rely on a false separation of body and mind.

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There’s a phrase people use for the moment they realised trans politics was demanding more of them than they could reasonably give. The phrase is “peak trans”. My personal peak trans – or at least, the first germ of it – came in the comments of that excruciating blog post I wrote about Radfem 2012. “Good column,” wrote a transwoman, “but why on earth do you write cis women as two words and trans women as one? Surely you’ve seen this degendering portmanteau used by the MCRFs (misogynistically cissexist ‘radical feminists’) before.” (This episode is a source of painful embarrassment to me, so please be appreciative of the fact that I went back through my archives to find the exact comment. Now, the only thing I would do differently is that I would never use the word “cis”.)

I bridled at this. But in my reply, I apologised: sorry, I’m new to this, I will learn. What was I apologising for? That I’d attacked women who wanted to exercise freedom of assembly apart from male people, but not done so in specifically approved terms? And how could leaving out a space be “degendering”? This typographic dispute hinges around the idea that we should treat “trans” as an adjective modifying “woman”, rather than treating “transwoman” as a noun distinct from “woman”; when we say “woman”, we are required to encompass those who are trans. But when I say “woman”, I mean “female person”. The experience of being a female person is different to the experience of being a male person who identifies as female, and that distinction is politically important.

Transwomen are transwomen (to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and do not benefit from being subsumed in the category women: access to sex reassignment surgery, the effect of HRT on a male body, the problems of transitioning in a society hostile to gender non-conformity are all specific to transwomen. However, sexism being what it is, the practical consequence of treating transwomen as women is that the male interest is placed first. The female right to self-organise comes after the male right to be treated as a woman. The female right to critique femininity comes after the male right to claim femininity. The female right to describe your body and what that body means under patriarchy comes after the male right not to be offended by descriptions of female bodies. And so on.

The specific interventions trans activists have made in feminism are telling. Take the pussyhats debacle: a cute, homemade symbol of protest against a sexual abuser in the White House is “exclusionary and painful” because it associates women with female genitals. Even if you wholeheartedly believe that “trans women are women full stop”, transwomen are less than 1% of all women. It’s offensive to acknowledge the 99? Jos Truitt, a transwoman and executive director of the website Feministing, declared that abortion needed to be seen as “more than a ‘women’s issue’” back in 2011. It’s hard to know what’s worst about this: that “women’s issue” is implied to be a demeaning tag, or that it cuts off abortion rights from the entire analysis of women’s subjugation.

These manifestations of trans activism make women effectively invisible. Other instances have been blatant efforts to push individual women off the public stage. In January 2013, the New Statesman published a superb essay by Suzanne Moore called “Seeing Red: The Power of Female Anger”. It was itself the occasion of anger, on account of this line: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” On Jezebel, Lindy West damned Moore for this: “Trans women are women, and to say otherwise makes you sound like a batty old dinosaur. It is extremely othering and exclusionary to hold up trans women as a counterexample to ‘real’ women.” Note the ageism and sexism in “batty old dinosaur”. Note that Moore’s entire point – that women are forbidden to express anger – was borne out by the condemnation. Note that critiquing the beauty standard implicit in the surgically constructed body is made impossible by the charge of transphobia.

Trans politics is systematically used against feminism. Which is how I ended up making my first public intervention on the subject. In March 2014, the New Statesman commissioned me to write a piece about the use of no-platform – while the anti-racism movement had shifted away from it, or at least radically redefined it, anti-Israel and trans activist groups were using it more vigorously than ever. I didn’t think much at the time I wrote this article about why anti-feminist and anti-Semitic politics might have followed such a similar track, but I have done since. Faludi’s In the Darkroom was deeply instructive on the way anti-Semitism is inflected by misogyny. Jews are stereotyped as effeminate men or hyperfeminine women; part of the origin of the blood libel is a belief that unmanly Jewish men menstruated and had to replenish themselves.

Meanwhile, Phoebe Malz-Bovy’s Perils of Privilege describes how the privilege framework fails to comprehend the oppression of both Jews and women. Bigotry against the two groups is justified on the grounds that they are unduly advantaged. For Jews, that’s via the narrative of “the Israel lobby” or euphemistic “bankers” (the “vampire squids” and generic “Rothschilds”). For women, it’s the idea that being female gives women access to “cis privilege”: a particularly striking example comes up in Juliet Jacques’ book Trans, which claims that not having a female adolescence causes transwomen to suffer from lack of experience in negotiating sexual violence. Shout out to that guy who made dirty phone calls to me on my work experience placement, I guess.

What I did notice while I was working on that article was how vicious a reception I got simply for looking into it. Julie Bindel has been one of the principal targets of campus no-platforming, so I interviewed her, and I sought to interview people who defended the tactic. Unfortunately, none of them would speak to me. In fact, trans activist Roz Kaveney decided to denounce me publicly as a “terf” simply for writing the article. I think there’s only one reasonable conclusion you could draw from that episode: trans activists have no coherent defence of no-platforming feminists, and will vigorously target any woman who doesn’t fall into line on their aims. It’s the conclusion that I drew, along with several other activists and writers who organised an open letter to the Observer in February 2015 supporting free speech in universities.

That letter had an inevitable, and instructive, sequel: the signatories were attacked as (of course) “terfs”. This, in turn, was addressed by a pseudonymous writer in the New Statesman, in an article called “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a TERF?” “In practice everyone knows that trans women are not identical to women,” pointed out the author, “but if you don’t want to be called a TERF you must deny the differences as far as possible.” And since the costs of being called a terf are personal pillory and professional ostracism, there’s a very strong incentive to keep the charge at bay. Juliet Jacques broke off writing for the Statesman because of this article, saying it “trashes [trans people’s] identities” and has “strawman representations of trans activism”. Actually, it was quite accurate. As the Times has now reported, trans academic Natacha Kennedy of Goldsmiths has been using a closed Facebook group to organise bullying campaigns against female (and only female) academics deemed to be “terfs”. There is an awful kind of relief in being proved right like this. We weren’t paranoid. The trans activists were out to get us.

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Conclusion 3:

Trans activism is anti-feminist in practice and allied to the harassment of individual women.

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There should be at some point a reckoning of what’s been wasted in the gender wars. Women’s careers and reputations, for one thing. It’s disarming to read Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire in light of her bogeyman stature and then compare it to Sandy Stone’s 1983 response The Empire Strikes Back (the two texts considered the foundation of the trans-vs-radical-feminism dispute): Stone essentially reiterates the same criticisms Raymond makes of the medical system, while attributing those views to Raymond. Even Raymond’s dread phrase “morally mandated out of existence” – still used today to “prove” that feminists seek the extermination of trans people – turns out to refer not to trans people but to transsexuality as a phenomenon. Raymond’s thesis (which of course we cannot test, so must remain a thesis) is that people would not feel the need to alter their bodies if we lived in a less gendered society; the “moral mandate” is to end sexism. You may find her phrase-making too pungent, but her point is sound.

But because of Raymond’s untouchable status, her other output – including her rigorous, empathetic work on (for example) the “comfort women” enlisted into state prostitution by the Japanese army in WWII – has been pushed aside. Sheila Jeffreys’ study of the politics of public toilets is ignored because she points out (correctly) that allowing males who identify as women to use women’s facilities will make those already inadequate facilities unusable for many women. (Bluntly, where services are not sex-segregated, men will rape women – something confirmed by Andrew Gilligan’s recent story for the Sunday Times showing that “90% of reported sexual assaults, harassment and voyeurism in swimming pool and sports-centre changing rooms happen in unisex facilities, which make up less than half the total.”) The 2004 column for which Julie Bindel has experienced a career’s-worth of condemnation, despite her apologies for its tone, was written in defence of Vancouver Rape Relief’s right not to employ a transwoman as a counsellor for women who’d experienced the most appalling male violence (and who might, understandably, not want to dissect their trauma with someone male – something Rachel Hewitt has written about powerfully).

The entire framework of trans politics makes the discussion of male violence impossible. And when feminists have tried to raise the risk of predators abusing gender self-identification, we have been called bigots and fantasists. When I took part in Channel 4’s Genderquake debate this year, Munroe Bergdorf and Caitlyn Jenner shouted me down as I tried to point out that the male people most likely to want access to women’s prisons, refuges, changing rooms and toilets are the ones you would least want there. Ruth Hunt of Stonewall has insisted that “granting trans people equality will not make women any less safe”, and accused those who warn about abuses of “scapegoating”.

Here, then, are the facts. Karen White, a transwoman, was housed in a female prison, despite being a convicted sex offender, despite having transitioned in nothing but name. White sexually assaulted female inmates. This was predictable, and avoidable. There are 125 trans prisoners in England and Wales. 60 of them are sex offenders. Now, trans activists will have to decide: either being trans correlates with being a sex offender, or (and this is transparently the likelier option) sex offenders are identifying themselves as trans in the hope of gaining access to women they can victimise. What activists cannot do any longer is claim that no one would identify as trans for nefarious purposes. Clearly, they do.

It’s remarkable, now, to look back on some of the coverage of the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Transgender Inquiry, which recommended moving to a self-identification system for gender. Here is an interview with Maria Miller, who led the inquiry, expressing her astonishment that opposition to the report came from “those purporting to be feminists”. “A glance at Ms Miller’s Twitter page shows that the backlash is real,” writes Tom McTague, solemnly. “She is accused of exposing women to ‘violent men hiding behind the mask of transgender’.” In light of Karen White, and Marie Dean, and Jessica Winfield, who would dare treat such a claim as self-evidently bigoted now?

It has been a bad summer for trans activism. NUS trans officer Jess Bradley (a transwoman) was suspended over allegations of flashing, which Bradley has conspicuously failed to deny. (The Women and Equalities Committee downgraded evidence from the British Association of Gender Identity Specialists that male prisoners claim trans status with exploitative intent, but gave Bradley’s statements a starring role in the report.) Aimee Challenor, the Green Party’s equality spokesperson and a member of Stonewall’s trans advisory group, as well as the subject of a glowing Guardian profile, was found to have employed father David Challenor as an election agent – after David Challenor had been charged with the rape of a ten-year-old girl. In 2017, Aimee Challenor welcomed the Girl Guides’ statement on trans inclusion which allowed transwomen to take any leadership roles in the organisation, a celebration of adult male access to girls which must be called at best naïve given that David Challenor was first accused in 2015. Despite such astonishing failures of judgement, Aimee Challenor remains on the Stonewall group. (The Greens, belatedly, implemented a suspension; Aimee Challenor then left the party, accusing it, incredibly, of transphobia.)

A bad summer for trans activism. But a genuinely horrifying era for women and girls, as protections have been torn down, abusers have been given extraordinary access to women, and the simple language that describes sex as an axis of oppression stolen out of our mouths. Karen White’s victims (which include not only those who directly suffered the offences, but every woman who was terrorised by their incarceration with a fully intact sexually violent adult male) should never have been so exposed. Those who denied it was ever a danger now have two choices: either they can accept that the facts have changed and change their minds accordingly, agreeing that “trans woman are women full stop” is not an answer to all the complications of safeguarding raised by self-identification; or they can admit that women being assaulted and girls being raped are acceptable collateral damage for their conception trans rights. If the latter, I trust I will never have to be lectured by them about feminism again.

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Conclusion 4:

Male abusers will take advantage of self-identification to commit offences against women and girls.

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Writing about the problems with trans politics has taken a concerted effort from many people. On the left, journalists have had to battle a refusal to engage beyond sloppy platitudes like “trans women FTW!” On the right, the struggle has been to gain a hearing for what is, essentially, a feminist issue. Even scientific publications have been scared away from enquiry: an in-depth feature I wrote for one was spiked after the magazine asked whether there was any way to pre-empt people calling me a “terf”. (The New Statesman ran it instead.) But the space for the discussion exists now, thanks to people like Janice Turner, Helen Lewis, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, Hadley Freeman, Glosswitch, James Kirkup, Kathleen Stock, Helen Joyce, those mentioned above and others besides, as well as groups including Fair Play for Women and Transgender Trend. What will happen next? I imagine that Gender Recognition Act reform – once the subject of cross-bench consensus and one of the few things that seemed likely to happen while Brexit consumed all legislative attention – will slide into oblivion. Surely no party will want to pilot self-ID now that it’s been shown to be a rapists’ charter.

For trans people, it’s more complicated. They still need a political movement. There’s an opportunity to reframe it around clearly defined objectives and a will to resolve conflicts with other groups rather than simply to steamroller them. They might take the lessons of the women’s movement about building and running services that work for them, rather than trying to hijack institutions developed by women for women. Most of all, I hope they walk away from the absolutist ideology of gender identity and accept that “being trans” has an extraordinary range of causes: from traumatised female adolescents trying to control their bodies, to effeminate young boys whose parents think playing with dolls is pathologically girly, to those like Caitlyn Jenner who cheerfully concede that dressing femininely has an erotic kick (“dressing up like this is the equivalent of having sex with myself, male and female at the same time”).

Whatever the cause of someone’s transness, outcomes will vary: some will desist on their own, some might be best supported to live contentedly in their own body, and some will be happiest physically transitioning (though this last option, with its potential for surgical complications and consequent lifelong dependence on HRT, should be seen as a last resort rather than the first line of treatment). “Gatekeeping” should be accepted as a perfectly sensible matter when it comes to life-altering therapies. Sex should no longer be denied, and there should be as much pressure on men to be accepting of feminine-presenting male people as there now is on women.

And research should be encouraged, not suppressed by campaigns of abuse, such as those coordinated against the academics Michael Bailey in 2008 and Lisa Littman this year. To be clear, Bailey’s theory of autogynephilia (arousal by the idea of oneself as a woman) in older male transitioners may wind up being disproven, and Littman’s preliminary findings about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria in female adolescents may not be replicated; but that can only happen if there is more research. For now, both theories have more to recommend them than the specious metaphysics of gender identity. Should trans activism ever find itself again denying that male violence is a problem, or making attacks on feminists its foremost function, it should stop, redress, and start again, because (as Debbie Hayton has argued) trans people can never benefit from a movement invested in dishonesty and slander.

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I have spent six years thinking about gender identity. This is what I believe now:

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There is no such thing as gender identity.

Sex matters.

When we pretend sex doesn’t matter, women lose.

All the books I read in 2017, part 2 (July-December)

Read part one (January-June)

July

Kathy Acker set the template for Riot Grrrl, so why didn’t I read Blood and Guts in High School (Penguin, 2017; 1978) till this year? No idea and I wish I’d done it sooner, though if I was doing it again I would not take it on public transport, being forewarned about the number of penis pictures therein. (Conductor: “High School, eh? My daughters love reading. Would they like that?” Me: “NO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT BUY YOUR DAUGHTERS THIS BOOK, THEY WOULD 100% HATE THAT.”)

I was reading it because I was about to review Chris Kraus’s Acker biography, but before that, I needed to read I Love Dick (Serpent’s Tail, 2016; 2017). A weird one: I wouldn’t say I loved reading it, but having read it, I can’t stop thinking about it. Then I did Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From (Picador, 2017) for the New Statesman, which is one of those novels that’s written like poetry, i.e. without very many words and all of them feeling overloaded with importance. I lost my rag about the unlikelihood of finding non-rancid butter in an apocalypse scenario and never recovered it.

After Kathy Acker: A Biography by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane, 2017) feinted that it was going to be as tricksy with truth as I Love Dick, but actually it’s a pretty straight biography and a very good one too. It pulls off a rare trick of celebrating Acker without romanticising her (she sounds, honestly, like a complete dick a lot of the time). I’ve thought a lot since about Acker’s relationship with pain, her courting of cancer, and what that means; though my write-up for Literary Review was more about women and art. I did Jill Filipovic’s The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness (Nation Books, 2017) for In the Moment, and enjoyed interviewing her about why happiness as a political goal has been sidelined for women.

 

August

Hilary Mantel, how are you so good? Fludd (Fourth Estate, 2010; 1989) was great and of course surpassingly strange, a comedy about faith and theology. My friend Pete leant me David Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem (Biteback, 2016), and then I ended up reading it while I was housesitting for him in York: if you want to get to grips with the origins of left-wing anti-Semitism, it’s essential.

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (The Borough Press, 2017; 2016) is a thoroughgoing delight, updating Pride and Prejudice to contemporary America and losing nothing from the comparison (Sittenfeld’s Mrs Bennet is particularly wonderful). Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg (Corsair, 2017) also conjures an intimidating forebear and pulls it off – this time, Virginia Woolf, in a novel of overlapping narratives recounting overlapping lives in the run-up to a party. I read them both very happily between swimming off the Yorkshire coast.

I’m a sucker for a juicy true crime, but Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body (MacMillan, 2017) is more than that. As a trainee lawyer and committed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich encountered a client whose crime was so vile, she knew she wanted him to die. In this book, she explores his crime, the life that made him, and the life that made her react to strongly. It’s a deft balance of simmering suspense and moral reflection.

Then, a week in Germany. I was reviewing Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season (Harvill Secker, 2017) for The Guardian, so I read that first. A smart speculative fiction set-up (what if pregnancy could be shared?) that never cashes out fully on either the unsettling scenario or an intimated conspiracy plot.

Somehow, I managed to fit Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth (The Bodley Head, 2015) into my case. It genuinely changed the way I think about the Holocaust: Snyder’s arguments about levels of local complicity and the importance of the state will probably spend years being refined, but the overall picture he draws makes a lot more sense (and is a lot more disturbing) than “Hitler made everyone do it”.

 

September

I couldn’t get into anything when I came back from holiday, so I decided to read HP Lovecraft, Omnibus I: At the Mountains of Madness (Voyager, 1999; 1966). It’s a mixed bag. “Mountains” (which I’ve only consumed as an audiobook previously) is great, with weird horror growing out of that deliciously boring phony science report style that HPL excels at; then things go on the slide until “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, which is so genuinely boring that I chucked the book aside in the end. (Sample: “back to Dylath-Leen and up the Skai to the bridge by Nir, and again into enchanted wood of the Zoogs”, which is exactly like someone telling you their stupid boring dream.)

For the Speccie, I got a dream assignment: The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940-1956 (Faber, 2017), ed. Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. A dream which involved reading 1,300-some pages in a week. A terrible, word-drunk week where I got up, sat at my desk, read solidly and then staggered off in the evening to fix a G&T to perk me up for a pre-bedtime push. At some point, I realised that this is not how these letters are supposed to be read – either by Plath herself (duh, she didn’t want my prowling eyes on them at all) or by the editors (it’s a volume for dipping, or reference). I’m glad I did, though. The piece I wrote is the best review I did this year, I think.

Then, reading for some panels I chaired for the Bath Children’s Literature festival, starting with Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster: Total Control (OUP, 2017) (an excellently malevolent update for an esteemed old villain) and then moving onto Geraldine McCaughrean’s Where the World Ends (Usborne, 2017). This tells the (true) story of how a party of boys survived a harsh winter abandoned on a bare rocky outcrop off the coast of Scotland in the eighteenth century, and I was riveted by it.

 

October

I smuggled in a very fast read of Shelter by Sarah Franklin* (Zaffre, 2017), which I loved so much (mostly for its lavish writing about trees) that I turned it into an In the Moment title. Then back to litfest reading. Alex Wheatle made up the third part of my first panel, along with McCaughrean and Cross. His Straight Outta Crongton (Atom, 2017) is a buzzy, slangy piece of YA hyper-realism. It’s also the only book I read this year by a black British author. Which is a bit of a WTF.

Actually, the racial split of my reading had started to worry me a long time before this. I pitch the titles for my In the Moment pages: how come I hadn’t managed to pitch any black authors yet? The problem starts with what comes through my door. It’s very, very rare for me to be sent books by black authors. Scouring the pre-release lists on Amazon and the publishers’ catalogues, I find out there’s a (partial) reason for this: very few books by black authors are being published, and when they are, they’re unlikely to fit the genres (litfic, or non-fic with a self-knowledge bent) that I can use. Publishing remains ridiculously white. Wheatle spoke about this during the panel – about how his move into YA had been precipitated by his adult novels’ pattern of vanishingly small sales and awkward solicitousness from posh white publishing professionals. YA, he said, was more welcoming, more capacious: a genre defined by its readers’ age doesn’t impose the same narrow ideas of who an author can be.

My second panel covered two books about dragons: The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis (Bloomsbury, 2017) (sweet-natured romance, in the mythic-beasts-and-questing sense) and Claire Fayers’ The Accidental Pirates: Journey to Dragon Island (Macmillan, 2017) (good, chaotic fun with jokes to spare). Then a book about, rather than for, a young adult. My review of Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts (Bloomsbury, 2017) will be in the New Statesman in the new year. Smutty, shocking, but slight.

I got Hillary Clinton’s What Happened? (Simon and Schuster, 2017) when I saw her at Cheltenham Literature Festival. I usually don’t read politicians’ books (they’re either manifestos in disguise, or after-the-fact efforts to shape history, or very bad novels) but could make an exception to the rule for this one. Unusually self-critical, insightful on US policy and international affairs, occasionally so American it made me cringe (the yoga routine!), unsparing on the rival who beat her – this is neither quite a stall-setting nor a reputation-fixer, since while Clinton is resigned from further pursuit office of, she doesn’t have a legacy as such to protect right now. I came away from it feeling the loss of the election harder than I had for a long time, but also invigorated by her commitment to service, and her refusal to make of herself either martyr or scapegoat.

Han Kang’s The White Book (Portobello, 2017; 2016), translated by Deborah Smith was a spare, elegant emotional savaging on the topic of unspoken grief and dread mortality. Danny Denton’s The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow (Granta, 2018) is likely to make a big impression next year, with hefty pre-release buzz and winningly dystopic future-Ireland setting. It left me cold, though, by only including women characters who were mothers, dead, or (the ideal!) both.

 

November

I cursed myself for not having read Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello, 2017) when it first came through my door, and so missing out on pitching a review: it’s a genius collection of nightmares with a beadily feminist perspective. Goodbye, Perfect by Sara Barnard (MacMillan, 2018) takes on a hard topic (teenager groomed and abducted by her teacher) from a difficult POV (the loyal best friend swayed by talk of “agency” and “love”), and proves again that inside or outside YA, few authors understand more about girls’ friendships.

More emotional brutalising from Han Kang with The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015; 2007), a staggeringly violent parable of feminine – resistance? Dissolution? I’m not sure, and that ambiguity is probably why I’m still thinking about it (also the violence). My review of Peach by Emma Glass (Bloomsbury, 2018) will be in The Guardian in a few weeks, and I have much to say about the cultural space we give to this kind of “girls fall apart” narrative.

I met Gwendoline Riley at a literary party where I was having one of those awful times where there were not enough canapes in the world to stuff the mouth of my imposter syndrome (a man asked me for a book recommendation and basically started eyeing the exits when I launched on an encomium on the merits of Lovecraft, and I couldn’t make myself stop it). Then I read Riley’s First Love (Granta, 2017), and bumped into the line: “It must be a dreadful cross: this hot desire to join in with people who don’t want you. This need to burrow.” At which point I felt the most devastatingly read that I have maybe ever felt, but this dissection-sharp noticing is Riley’s art. A brilliant novel.

Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano’s The Woman Who Fooled the World (Scribe, 2018; 2017) is less fun than I’d hoped. Phony cancer survivor and disgraced “natural health” entrepreneur Belle Gibson is a fascinating subject, but this feels like a feature spread thin, with no bigger argument or clinching psychological insight. Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments (And Other Stories, 2018) is wonderful. Quin was a female, working-class, experimental writer working in the sixties and seventies, a peer of B. S. Johnson, with a gift for the grubby and the cruel. The best stories in here (“Nude and Seascape”, “Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking”, “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails”) are among the best I’ve read this year. And I did Caroline Williams’ Override: My Quest to Go Beyond Brain Training and Take Control of My Mind (Scribe, 2018; 2017) for In the Moment.

 

December

My name is Sarah Ditum and I did not enjoy The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (John Murray, 2016; 2015). I thought I was going to love it (McInerney’s prose is terrific, stuffed with sideways metaphors and unlikely laughs), and then I didn’t. Maybe that’s because it was basically a story about men, and 2017 has left me hardline misandrous. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t get on with McInerney’s way of telling a story: she periodically jumps the characters forward, then informs you how they got from their last position to this one, which doesn’t work for me as a staple narrative technique.

But I love Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (4th Estate, 2017) (I interviewed him for an upcoming issue of In the Moment), love it with the kind of proprietary intimacy which makes me want to argue the walls down when people get it “wrong”. The life of a village, the loss of a girl, the natural history of human society, the secret world of nature, the gentle shift into oblivion of a certain kind of rural existence, the spare poetry of its neutrally-observing narration: all these things meant an immense amount to me.

Also excellent: Look What You Made Me Do by Helen Walmsley-Johnson* (MacMillan, 2018), a memoir of an abusive relationship that comprehensively answers the question “why didn’t she just leave?” And finally, splendidly, my son gave me two Stephen King novels for Christmas, in answer to my constant wittering about how I have got to 36 without reading him. I did The Shining (Hodder, 2011; 1977) over three days. God damn, King can do story, wheeling away from one strand just as the claustrophobia of the Overlook has begun to feel like a dead end, then bringing it all back together. The well-hewn naturalism of his prose lets him carry off the strange and experimental layering of characters’ conscious thoughts, unconscious thoughts and the intrusions of the hotel; you have to be basically a master of free indirect discourse to pull off a novel about psychic powers (see also Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel), and King is.

All the books I read in 2017, part 1 (January-June)

The time in which I’ve been writing these annual posts is also the time in which I’ve become a more-or-less professional literary critic. It’s funny to see them turn from a snapshot of what I, Sarah Ditum choose to read (an awful lot of George RR Martin in 2011) to being a snapshot of how I read as a reviewer.

Firstly, I read a lot: 95 books finished so far in 2017, assuming I polish off the Lovecraft anthology by the end of the year (and if I don’t, nobody can judge me for sliding off of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” because COME ON, IT IS CALLED “THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH”). Secondly, the majority of what I read is directed by work one way or another: either stuff I’m reviewing, critical background for review, or as research for a project or article.

About two-thirds of what I read this year was female-authored, to one-third male. Only six were by black or Asian authors (skip forward to October for some thoughts on publishing’s whiteness). I read more fiction than non-fiction, but not by as much as I thought: fiction only just edges over the halfway mark. I read a pitiable four books of poetry. Six of the books were children’s or YA, and six were translations. More than half of what I read was new – published 2017 or to come in 2018. After that, 15 were otherwise C21st, 18 were C20th, and only one was pre-C20th, which is pretty poor. Four were re-readings (Ariel, Riddley Walker, Nightwood and Emma).

The rules of this post: this is every book I read in 2017, in the order I read them; I finish what I start (dream-quests notwithstanding); if I’ve marked an author with an asterisk, we have the same agent; I’ve noted where I was reading something for review, and linked where possible; like Toulouse Lautrec the magical sitar in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, I only speak the truth. And now, the headlines:

Top five new fiction

Michelle Tea, Black Wave (And Other Stories) – January

Gwendoline Riley, First Love (Granta) – see November

Mariana Enriquez, Things We Lost in the Fire (Portobello) – see November

Anneliese Mackintosh,* So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape) – see June

Fiona Melrose, Johannesburg (Corsair) – see August

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13 (4th Estate) – see December (yes I know this makes it a top six but I read it late and it’s brilliant and anyway I’ll do what I want)

Top five new non-fiction

Rachel Hewitt, A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind (Granta) – see March

Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet) – see April

Jenny Landreth, Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury) – see April

Angela Saini, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (4th Estate) – see April

Chris Kraus, After Kathy Acker: A Biography (Allen Lane) – see July

 

January

I’m desperate to read more men tackling the politics of masculinity. Jack Urwin’s Man Up: Surviving Modern Masculinity* (Icon, 2016) isn’t quite it: while the book starts from an understanding of masculinity’s harms, by the end Urwin is trying to rehabilitate something he calls “true masculinity”, without ever having addressed the relationship between masculinity and power. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley (John Murray, 2016; 2014) was a brilliantly disturbing gothic which fudged its conceit a little at the end.

Al Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (Bloomsbury, 2002; 1971) was reading for my Lancet Psychiatry essay on Sylvia Plath. It’s rangy, but whistle-stop, with flashes of insight (especially in his memories of Plath) countered by patches of dullness probably caused by his closeness to the subject of suicide (despite setting out not to glamorise it, he inevitably does). Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (Faber, 1990; 1965) I reread for the same piece (with my awful teenage pencilled marginalia), and then reread again in her original manuscript order – her Ariel is very different to the edition Hughes created, with the wonderful bee poems as the climax rather than a strange interlude between the works of ferocious, morbid genius.

Conundrum by Jan Morris (Faber, 2002; 1974) is my favourite kind of trans memoir: unselfconscious and well-written, although Morris’s airy thoughts on the “eternal feminine” could have been specifically devised to wind me up. I reviewed Michelle Tea’s Black Wave (& Other Stories, 2017; 2016) for the New Statesman and I absolutely adore it: apocalyptic in the most spectacular way and intimate in its sharp-eyed view of the San Francisco queer scene.

I read Karen Finley’s Shock Treatment (City Lights, 2015; 1990) (which I bought from City Lights bookshop when I was in SF last year) to fill in some of Black Wave’s backdrop, and because I thought it would be a nice distraction from Trump’s inauguration day. This was a terrible choice: it includes the poem “A Woman Can’t be President” and the honest-to-goodness line “Trump would rather build the world’s largest building than provide the world’s largest low-income housing project”. As you can probably tell from that, it’s all a bit spoken-word, with the lines split 50-50 between splenetic truth bombs and right-on clangers.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Faber, 2001; 1936) is (still; this was a reread of a uni set text) a bewitching tour through the damned underbelly of European “inverts” (the hoary old sexologist’s term encompassing gays, lesbians and cross-dressers). Becky Johnson’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015; 2014) is pleasing sci-fi in the spirit of Star Trek (space liberals) and the style of Firefly (misfit crew of a rickety ship at the frontier of civilisation).

I really liked Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Windmill, 2015), which has one of the least roman-a-clef-ish main characters I’ve ever met in a first novel, and a tremendously horrible kick in the story. That novel’s strange pilgrimage sent me back to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (Picador, 1982; 1980), which remains purest genius, a thing entirely itself and like nothing else.

Then, also by Sara Baume, A Line Made by Walking (William Heineman, 2017), for review in the New Statesman. This is the opposite of Spill Simmer on the autofiction scale: art obsessive main narrator Frankie shares a lot with her creator. “Liked” is not quite the right word for how I feel about Line. Its invocation of Frankie’s depression is so precise that midway through, I started to feel like I was depressed too. It is, however, extraordinary and recommended.

 

February

I hadn’t read any of Susan Faludi’s books before I reviewed In the Dark Room for The Spectator last year. This year, I started to remedy that by reading Backlash (Vintage, 1992; 1991). It’s an object lesson in non-fiction writing: tightly argued, comprehensive, clear-eyed, building an argument theme-by-theme. I had to replace my 1992 paperback when I found 30 pages were missing somewhere in the last half, so don’t buy that edition, but do buy it. It remains dismally relevant: her account of Geraldine Ferraro’s treatment as a vice-presidential candidate is basically the Hillary story set in 1984.

Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017) is a deliberate application of the past to politics now: it’s a crisp guidebook to resisting Trump, based on Snyder’s insights as a historian of the Holocaust. In the same line but less successful is What We Do Now, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Melville House, 2017), a patchy collection of essays. I wrote about both for the New Statesman.

I read Anneliese Mackintosh’s Any Other Mouth* (Freight Books, 2014), a brilliant and brutalising collection of stories about grief and violence. Then, I started my reading for a big NS review-essay on trans-themed books with the dismayingly po-faced Trans Like Me by CN Lester (Virago, 2017), read an exciting sci-fi manuscript that’s now on its way to publication, and then back to the trans stuff with Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole (Atlantic, 2016; 2015), an account of one family and their trans child which features some woefully sloppy writing about brainsex and some extraordinary sexism in its ideas about gender roles: Nicole, we are told, “was a girl who wanted to be pretty and feel loved and one day marry a boy – just like other girls did.” (Bad luck, lesbians, you no longer count as girls.)

Benjamin Myers’ Beastings (Bluemoose, 2014) is a rural gothic with a taste for extreme violence. I can image Ben Wheatley filming it. Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (Penguin, 2006; 1932) is also set in the cruel cruel countryside, only with a big dose of funny and a sly seam of unexpected futurism. I’m a jackass for not having read it till now. I’ll definitely read it again. More Benjamin Myers next, as I was reviewing The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose, 2017) for the New Statesman: it doesn’t quite have Beastings’ vicious drive, but it’s a savage portrait of rural lawlessness and a tussle for sovereignty, which feels extremely Brexit-relevant.

 

March

The Spectator asked me to review Charlotte Rampling’s Who I Am (Icon, 2017) (written with Christophe Bataille, translated by William Hobson with Charlotte Rampling), a slim and idiosyncratic take on the celebrity memoir that has a shattering loss at its core. Intriguing, but insubstantial.

Also tiny is Adrian Mole: The Collected Poems by Sue Townsend (Penguin, 2017). Sue Townsend was a sublime satirist and social observer, and also – as this volume of the poems she wrote in her most famous creations voice underlines – a brilliant writer of comic verse, who always alighted on not the merely bad but the immaculately bathetic. I wrote about Adrian and his entwined history with Labour for the New Statesman.

Back to the trans books: Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive: A True Story of Violence, Forgiveness and Becoming a Man (Canongate, 2017; 2014) is sometimes thoughtful and often revealing as it recounts McBee’s journey from sexual abuse in girlhood to transitioning to living as a man in adulthood. Then a belated run through Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of a She Devil (Sceptre, 1984; 1983), which is still a mean-spirited riot.

A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind by Rachel Hewitt (Granta, 2017) is essential. It’s a history of the 1790s that makes a persuasive case for this as the decade that defined the way we “feel about feeling”, and a provocative argument for putting emotion back into politics. (I interviewed Rachel for my regular books page in In the Moment Magazine.)

Fay Weldon’s Death of a She Devil (Head of Zeus, 2017) revisits her breakout book and craps all over it. You can read the full debrief on its dull, plotless and unfunniness in my Guardian review. Man, I needed something good after that: a week in France and a reread of Emma by Jane Austen (Penguin, 2003; 1815) fit the bill, waspishness and wisdom in immaculate proportions.

 

April

When Ariel Levy turned her journalistic eye on herself in her extraordinary 2013 New Yorker article “Thanksgiving in Mongolia”, she was as unsparing and acute as she is on any subject. Her full-length memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply (Fleet, 2017) surveys her upbringing, her career in journalism, her partner’s alcoholism, her infidelity and the miscarriage of “Thanksgiving” with sharp insight and precise prose. For example: “lurching between lives is hell. Even if one life is manifest and the other mostly hypothetical, the inability to occupy your own reality is torment, is torture. It is sin and punishment all in one.” For example: “There was no due date to anticipate now, but I was often distracted by a poisonous kind of counting.” Is she too harsh on herself over the miscarriage? Yes. But her honesty regarding this harshness tells us something that is rarely spoken about the self-torture of in-utero bereavements.

Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (Fourth Estate, 2017) is a brisk tour of the sexism has infected medicine, evolutionary theory and biology which in a smart twist suggests that while misogyny isn’t be justified by reproductive inequality, it is explained by it: women are a resource, and this is a strategy for men to control it.

The Little Buddhist Monk by César Aira, translated by Nick Caistor (And Other Stories, 2017; 2005) was a big no for me – regrettably, because I love the publisher. Throwaway and weird-for-the-sake-of-weirdness, it left me with no desire to dig into Aira’s absurdly massive back catalogue. I wish Jesse Loncrane’s In the Field* (Blue Mark Books, 2017; 2016) had gotten more coverage. Sons, mothers, witness and war in the intertwined tales of a junky foreign correspondent and the child soldier he’s trying to track down.

Then back to the UK and back to work reading with a bump, as I slogged through Rhyannon Styles’ The New Girl: A Trans Girl Tells It Like It Is (Headline, 2017). I was considering it for the NS review essay, but I cut it in the end. For some reason, the memoir has been the main literature of the trans tipping point, and 2017 saw a glut of them. If Styles’ retelling of a ’90s Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescence couldn’t captivate me (a Britpop-obsessed midlands adolescent in the 1990s), then it wasn’t going to work on anyone. Prose like “this was a pivotal turning point” and “I had tears streaming down my face as I was trying to find the quinoa” didn’t help.

Caroline Paige’s True Colours (Biteback, 2017) also didn’t make the cut. Paige’s story – successful RAF career, transition in middle age – is an interesting one on paper, but neither part is compellingly told. Section heading (“Into the Blue” for cross-dressing boyhood, “The Edge of Pink” for the beginning of transition) underline that this is a life with not so much examination.

I wish I’d enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Penguin, 2014). “The Rape Joke”, which is the standout poem, is superb. A lot of the rest felt less like verse than like artfully disjointed prose supporting hyperextended puns. Oh my God, The Nothing by Hanif Kureishi (Faber, 2017). If I hadn’t read Death of a She Devil, this would easily be my worst book of 2017; as it is, it’s a battle of giants, but Kureishi comes out underneath. Which is the kind of low grade double entendre he’d probably reject as too subtle, given the relentless stream of misogynist grot in The Nothing. I reviewed it for The Guardian.

Paula Cocozza’s How to Be Human (Hutchinson, 2017) falls in a witchy place between nature writing and psychological thriller, about a woman who (seems to) fall in love with a fox (but does she) (she does) (ah but does she). It would have been better with more plot to underpin the musk-heavy atmosphere, but it did leave me with one unforgettable phrase: “a rewilding of the heart”.

2017 was a moment for swimming books. Jenny Landreth’s Swell: A Waterbiography (Bloomsbury, 2017) took the prize for me: a memoir of Jenny’s unlikely journey from back-of-the-bikeshed smoker to obsessive coldwater swimmer, and a history of women swimming – despite men’s best efforts to stop us with peeping, bylaws and straight-up assault. Glorious and inspiring. (I chose it for the first issue of In the Moment.)

Look, I didn’t want to enjoy Caitlyn Jenner’s The Secrets of My Life (Trapeze, 2017), but you know what? It won me over. Jenner’s flagrant disregard for the trans rulebook – embracing deadnaming and cheerfully acknowledging a sexual kick from femininity – made it a lot more frank and a lot less stressful than, say, Trans Like Me. It helps that Jenner has had an interesting life, with plenty of athletic and celebrity exploits. Plus, it’s co-authored with Buzz Bissinger (Vanity Fair writer, Friday Night Lights author and self-confessed leather perv – one of the reasons Jenner considered him a good match for the project), which means the prose kicks along with no boring bits. This was the last book that made it into the NS essay, and probably the best of them.

 

May

I did Will Storr’s Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us (Picador, 2017) for Literary Review. I’ve got reservations, but I can set them aside for great reporting and a strong argument. Then I read an early manuscript version of a novel that will be out next year, and that I cannot wait for. Natalie Haynes’ The Children of Jocasta (Mantle, 2017) was a treat: a realist retelling of the Oedipus myth through the eyes of Ismene that locates the human and specific in the epic and immortal. I reviewed it for The Spectator.

I did some chairing for the Bath Literature Festival, which was an absolute joy. My first event was with Alys Fowler on her memoir Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017). If I precis it as “woman takes up urban canoeing, discovers she’s a lesbian” I won’t have done justice to this celebration of the unexpected wildness of our cities and ourselves. Plus, it taught me the indispensable word “synanthropic” to describe animals which thrive in human-made habitats, like foxes, pigeons and rats. The next event was a panel with Jenny Landreth (see April) and fellow swim-author Alexandra Heminsley, whose Leap In (Hutchinson, 2017) helped me finally fix my front crawl.

Lili: A Portrait of the First Sex Change, edited by Niels Hoyer (2015, Canelo Digital; 1933) (better known as Man Into Woman) is such a weird book. Largely composed of the letters and diaries of Lile Elbe (who was actually called Elvenes), it’s credited to Hoyer, who is a pseudonym for journalist Ernst Harthern. For a book that claims to be about revealing a true self, an awful lot is hidden or invented. Elbe died after an inevitably botched womb transplant (immunosuppressant drugs had yet to be invented), and it’s hard to disagree with Jan Morris’s verdict: “There never was a sadder tale.”

Elbe’s initial treatment was overseen by Berlin sexologist Marcus Hirschfeld, whose clinic was destroyed by Nazi Youth. But though much was lost, his work continued, and one of his inheritors was the endocrinologist Harry Benjamin. I read his book The Transsexual Phenomenon (Symposium Publishing, 1999; 1966), which was a defining text in the treatment of trans people. Benjamin has a humanitarian concern for the anguish of people with dysphoria, and a remarkably blatant seam of sexism: for example, he describes the “genetically normal man” as “sexually attracted to women” while claiming the “genetically normal woman” merely desires to “be attractive to men”. Hoo boy, I was glad I already had Saini (see April) in the clip when I was reading that.

Syd Moore’s Strange Magic (Point Blank, 2017) – Essex witches, Essex girls, a hairsbreadth caper to avert diabolical evildoings – was loads of fun. It’s the opener for a series (book two came out in the second half of 2017), and I’m looking forwarding to hoovering up the rest of the adventures. (I interviewed Syd for In the Moment.)

 

June

Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s The Perils of Privilege (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) has a compelling argument: that the “privilege” framework is not just unhelpful but corrosive to social justice, turning structural issues into personal faults that must be punished or atoned for. I buy that, and her analysis of how badly “privilege” obscures both anti-Semitism and misogyny, though there was more rehashed Twitter drama at some points than made for elegant reading.

Muster your holy water: I read Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (Teachers College Press, 1994; 1979). It’s very interesting to read Raymond’s criticisms of John Money, well in advance of Milton Diamond’s exposé of the John/Joan horror – especially given that feminists have subsequently been blamed for Money’s heartily anti-feminist practice. In her 1994 introduction, Raymond also foresees the Rachel Dolezal business with remarkable acuity. She explicitly disavows legislation forbidding surgery, and calls for legislation that “lessens the support given to sex-role stereotyping”. She says trans people need their “own unique context of peer support”, which still sounds like a good idea. There’s no way to set aside rhetoric like “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies”, though.

Then Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto (privately issued, 2014; 1987), which is Stone’s response to Raymond. (Ah, the pre-Twitter days when it could take eight years to get a take together.) In lots of ways, it’s the foundation of contemporary trans politics: critiquing “passing”, attacking “gatekeepers” and drawing on Judith Butler, although a line like “Transsexuals do not possess the same history as genetic ‘naturals,’ and do not share common oppression prior to gender reassignment” would be considered hate speech now. It’s also a good example of using poststructuralism to obfuscate rather than analyse: “In the transsexual as text we may find the potential to map the refigured body onto conventional gender discourse and thereby disrupt it, to take advantage of the dissonances created by such a juxtaposition to fragment and reconstitute the elements of gender in new and unexpected geometries.” Excuse me, would you repeat that please, I have lost track of the nouns. And Stone gets Raymond plain wrong at points: “neither the investigators nor the transsexuals have taken the step of problematizing ‘wrong body’ as an adequate descriptive category” is untrue, given that Raymond spends a great deal of her book doing precisely that.

God I love James Baldwin, and Giovanni’s Room (Penguin, 1990; 1957) is superb. Two decades on from Nightwood, Paris is still a hell where expats have the freedom to be gay, but can’t escape their homophobic self-loathing. It’s also an extraordinary novel about woman-hating. Baldwin gives this speech to a female character: “Men may be at the mercy of women – I think men like that idea, it strokes the misogynist in them. But if a particular man is ever at the mercy of a particular woman – why, he’s somehow stopped being a man. And the lady, then, is more neatly trapped than ever.”

Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques (Verso, 2015) is firmly in the middle rank of trans memoirs: not exceptionally badly written, not strikingly insightful. Savannah Knoop’s Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy (Seven Stories Press, 2008) sounds like it’s going to be a trans memoir, but it isn’t – not exactly. Knoop was the public face of one of my favourite literary hoaxes. In the 1990s, unsuccessful author Laura Albert invented the alter-ego Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy and gave him a compelling biography: an HIV-positive truck-stop rent-boy transgirl, with a beloved white-trash hooker mom. LeRoy rapidly became a full-on star. Everyone read “his” “autobiographical” 2000 novel Sarah (including me). Everyone loved it. Albert – an overweight, unglamorous mother IRL – recruited her androgynous sister-in-law Knoop to play the part of LeRoy at celebrity readings and fashion shows, and the whole thing spiralled. This is a great story told by Knoop with lots of trashy dash (if not quite the amount of remorse warranted), containing a horde of revealing details about performing gender and getting away with big lies.

I reviewed Catherine Lacey’s novel The Answers (Granta, 2017) for The Guardian (nice concept goes AWOL in the execution), and did Damon Youngs’s pop-philosophical manifesto of bookishness The Art of Reading (Scribe, 2017) for In the Moment. I loved Anneliese Mackintosh’s So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape, 2017) – an untidy, generous and funny story of alcoholism, loss and tenderness. I reviewed it for The Guardian.

I’d flicked through Juno Dawson’s The Gender Games (Two Roads, 2017) when considering it for the NS essay, and now I decided to finish it. It vacillates unpredictably between defining gender as an inherent identity and defining gender as a social force, and though Dawson claims to be a feminist, lines like “traditional, basic-bitch definitions of male and female” don’t suggest a thoroughgoing critique of misogyny.

If only I’d read Patricia Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (Allen Lane, 2017) before I picked up the book of poetry that came with them. I nearly didn’t read it at all after that disappointment, which would have been a great loss. Luckily my friend Matthew Adams set me right, and so I did not miss out on this incredibly funny account of an incredibly weird life with a Catholic convert for a father. In a year without Levy, this would have easily been a standout piece of life-writing. The line “the nearly stupid genius of Hemingway” alone is a standout piece of criticism.

Read part two (July-December) here

Guardian Review | So Happy It Hurts by Anneliese Mackintosh

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Ottila McGregor has a new year resolution. She’s going to make herself happy – “so happy it hurts,” she tells her therapist, “SO FUCKING HAPPY IT REALLY FUCKING KILLS,” she writes to herself. At the moment, she’s just hurting herself, via a destructive relationship (an affair with her boss) and too much drink. That’s not too much drink in a Bridget Jones, fake-horrified, unit-totting sort of way. It’s too much drink in a sexting-your-manager-again, tweeting-that-you-want-to-die, having-your-stomach-pumped way. So Ottila is going to “turn everything around”, confiding the process to the “grief scrapbook” she’s assembling inside a vandalised copy of The Little Book of Happy. Ottila knows about grief scrapbooks: she works in a support centre for people with cancer and their families. What is she grieving for? Booze, of course – and other things, the things her drinking tried to chase away.

The Little Book of Happy doesn’t actually exist, but I assumed it was real until I checked: one of those small, square hardbacks where inspiring quotations nestle against platitudinous advice. So Happy It Hurts, on the other hand, is a pleasingly unfamiliar kind of book. Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel (a follow-up to the scabrous short-story sequence Any Other Mouth, many of the themes of which are revisited here) is told through Ottila’s diary entries, transcripts of therapy sessions, emails, Snapchats and receipts. It’s an epistolary novel for a hyperconnected world, and the effect is appropriately chaotic – the reader feels at first a little like a drunk turning out her pockets and trying to reconstruct another night of blackout from the detritus she’s accumulated.

Read the full review at the Guardian

New Statesman | Praising a husband for fancying his “curvy” wife shows just how little we expect of men

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Can’t say I’ve ever bought into the idea of penis envy, but man, being a man looks like a goddamn breeze sometimes, and if that’s what having a nob gets you, then heck maybe I am a bit jealous.

Take, for example, looking after your own kids. When a woman does it, no one cares. In fact, she’s just doing what she’s meant to. In actual fact, it’s nice of everyone to let her do it and to be honest isn’t she slightly taking the piss by having time off work, and she’d better not embarrass everyone by showing a bit of nipple. But let a dad so much as pick up a bottle, and watch the world swoon while angel choirs descend to sing oh isn’t he great and isn’t mum lucky that he babysits. Pass the wetwipes, I seem to have been sick.

Low expectations. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s the great bonus of masculinity. But even I was taken aback to see a man getting praised for, um, fancying his wife. Robbie Tripp describes himself as a “wordsmith, public speaker, and creative activist” and the author of “an abstract manifesto for disruptive creativity”, which to be honest sound like the kind of things you’d make up to get worried relatives off your back. (“No grandma, I’m not unemployed, I’m a creative activist.”) He can now add to that CV the impressive achievement of being keen on the woman he married.

Read the full column at the New Statesman

Eurogamer | Playing Civilization as Trump

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Let me tell you, no one is a biglier Civilization player than me. People always say to me – they say, Sarah, you are the most terrific Civilization player, the best. Some haters have said that this is not true and that Sarah is a very bad Civilization player but let me tell you, that is FAKE NEWS. FAKE NEWS, PEOPLE. We’re going to Make Civilization Great Again. Say it with me. MAKE CIVILIZATION GREAT AGAIN. We’re going to get rid of all those crooked politicians like Montezuma and Catherine de Medici (very nasty woman). We’re going to put the bigliest and most smart man of all in charge. We’re going to play Civilization as Donald Trump.

Read the full column at Eurogamer

New Statesman | Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

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If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

Read the full column at the New Statesman