For the girls


Mat Osman: Very early on there was a Britpop club on Oxford Street, and the fliers had all the bands who were played, Oasis and stuff, and at the bottom it had this little thing saying ‘sorry girls, no Suede’. I always remember that with real pride, and I always liked the idea that that we might be a girls’ band.

Suede are the first band that I can remember loving really, truly, intensely as my own. I got their first album for Christmas in 1993, on cassette, parcelled with a Walkman (I was 12): they suited that kind of heady, private devotion. I was the only kid in school to like them, which was a bit inconvenient when everyone else was chirruping about the genius of the Levellers, but which also suited me fine.

They stood for all sorts of things that I dimly understood to belong under the rubric of the adulthood I wasn’t yet part of: dissipation and escape, but also (especially) sex. The sight of Brett Anderson, belly out and leering, on the cover of Q magazine seemed excitingly, frighteningly dirty. Looking it up again now, I see that my preteen judgement was not wrong: young Anderson looks like he’d toss you off in a car park for a packet of fags. Not even expensive fags – Rothmans would do.

I didn’t explicitly get the girlishness Osman talks about at the time, because I had nothing to compare it to really. Britpop hadn’t become a thing in 1993, and the braying insistence that girls were something you looked at (the parp-parp-titties video to Country House) hadn’t squatted decisively over musical culture yet. Suede were cast as the anti-Nirvana by the music press (I was fine with that, I hadn’t allied myself with grunge), but like Nirvana, they were strikingly open to femininity: writing songs in women’s voices, collaborating with women musicians.

The fact that both seemed so much of an advance on the lad/frat musical norm while still being comprised solely of men tells you how distant that norm was from actual women. But it was a thrill, still, to hear songs that wanted to get inside female protagonists rather than just grope them (Still Life on Dog Man Star is the perfection of this approach). Even when Brett was playing the frustrated admirer on Metal Mickey (“Oh dad, she’s/Driving me mad/Come see-e-e…”), there was no sense that he wanted to break this distant object of desire: he was ecstatic just to look and be ravished by looking.

Photo © Suede



The philosopher Bernard Williams writes scathingly about the “fetish of assertion”, that impulse to ram home your case as though its content is all that counts. Listening skills don’t figure much in this kind of verbal joust; the interlocuter is meant to admire and so to agree, or to counter with equal assertiveness – the familiar dialogue of the deaf in political debate.

Richard Sennett, Together (Allen Lane, 2012)

The rebuke in this passage isn’t aimed only at readers: it’s for writers too, when their craft turns away from the discursive and conversational. (Does this rule out polemics and broadsides? I don’t think so, though I certainly think it’s a strike against a default literary mode of blunt rage and low sniping.) Attending is an art that authors and audience owe to each other.

Image © Marc Wathieu, used under Creative Commons

The privilege check

This post is about the Hunger Games trilogy and contains spoilers. 

After they’ve exhausted the topic of the Quarter Quell, my prep team launches into a whole lot of stuff about their incomprehensibly silly lives. Who said what about someone I’ve never heard of and what sort of shoes they just bought and a long story from Octavia about what a mistake it was to have everyone wear feathers for her birthday party […] All three are so readily respectful and nice to my mother that I feel bad about how I go around feeling superior to them. Who knows who I would be or what I would talk about if I’d been raised in the Capitol? Maybe my biggest regret would be having feathered costumes at my birthday party.

Catching Fire, pp. 46-7

Have you checked your privilege today? Or, more importantly for the aspiring activist, have you told somebody else to check theirs? The idea of checking your privilege is basically sound: it means considering where you’re coming from and who you’re addressing. Are you treating your experience as the default human condition? Have you interpellated an audience that is essentially like you, and where does your tacit ideology leave the people who fall outside the cultural standard of “normal” within which you operate?

When I’m writing, this normally involves something like the voice of Friar Lawrence in Romeo And Juliet (Pete Postlethwaite version, obv) clanging away in my head, reminding me of all the ways I’m fortunate: “There art thou happy, there art thou happy, there art thou happy.” It’s not a perfect system, but it does give some protection against making a dick of myself. The greatest cost of privilege unchecked is the failure of sympathy, when your idea of what it is to be human is so intimately and thoughtlessly bound up in what it is to be you that you inadvertently cast anyone not-like-you out of the definition of humanity. Having privilege and not recognising it as such tends to make you morally stupid.

What I love about the scene from the Hunger Games trilogy quoted above is the way it catches the dynamic of privilege. Katniss, narrating, is from District 12, the poorest and least powerful segment of Panem (a dystopian, post-apocalyptic remnant of the USA); her prep team (prepping her for participation in the Hunger Games, a to-the-death battle held for the entertainment and subjugation of the masses) are residents of the Capitol, the wealthy and powerful ruling city. They’re the fortunate ones, and they speak to Katniss with an ignorance of their own good fortune.

Katniss resents this ignorance – but she also ultimately recognises it as ignorance rather than malice. Her prep team can neither know nor conceive of what it is to live in constant fear and deprivation. If Katniss was a blogger, now would be the moment for her to shout, “Check. Your. Privilege.” (Full stops for emphasis.) She doesn’t, though: instead she counters her prep team’s lack of sympathy with a sympathetic move of her own, recognising how her own sense might have been stunted by a kinder life.

Imagining how she could be like them is an invitation for them to imagine how they could be like her. It’s a tiny emotional transaction, but in the stratified cruelty of Panem, it’s explosively radical. The meaning of feathers to Katniss’ revolutionary persona later in the trilogy when she becomes the Mockingjay suggests that Octavia is already moving closer to Katniss at this stage. If Katniss had pressed her moral superiority in this exchange, she might have lost an ally; more importantly, she’d have lost an opportunity to breach the brutalising segmentation of her world.

Photo uploaded by carbonated, used under Creative Commons licence

Intersectionality is an icepick

Intersectionality is a thing, and intersectionality is a word. Intersectionality (the word) is an icepick. There are inhospitable environments where you wouldn’t survive without having it in your hand to gain purchase on the slippery terrain, and there are places where in all likelihood you’re going to end up with it lodged in your skull by a rival lefty on a power grab.

This post is about intersectionality the word – a word I’ve never used on my blog, which is more five years and 350 entries old. It just hasn’t come up. I’ve written comment pieces and features for the Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist and various lifestyle and entertainment magazines over the same period. The word intersectionality isn’t in any of those either. I’m a white, middle-class feminist and I’ve never written about intersectionality.

In fact, hadn’t even heard of it until earlier this year. It’s not just me: this chart from Google trends shows search activity for “intersectional” (blue) and “feminism” (red). “Intersectional” is a flat line of nothing from 2004 until the end of 2012, where a tiny cluster of pixels represents its high point of interest to date. As a word, this is the newest of neologisms.

Things get a bit more interesting if I take out the “feminism” searches so we can see “intersectional” in detail (though there’s some noise introduced by the fact that “intersectional” appears to have an American college sports meaning as well as a political one). Then you you can see that “intersectional” erupted in 2005, puttering about in various degrees of obscurity until the recent mini-surge driven by criticism of Caitlin Moran for her interview with Lena Dunham.

Compare the first chart with the second, and it wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that “feminism” is on a long-term downward trend and “intersectional” is at the very beginning of its ascendancy. One day, maybe, people with an interest in social justice and equality will talk about themselves as intersectionalists rather than feminists or anti-racists. But at the moment, there’s no way around the fact that not many people appear to know or use the word “intersectional”.

That doesn’t make it an automatic candidate for the banned list: language is an organic thing, and what starts off niche will enter general currency through repeated use if it proves useful. It does, however, mean that every time you use the word “intersectional”, you’re making a trade-off between specificity and accessibility. (For what it’s worth, I read the Vagenda editors’ comments about intersectionality as referring to the word not the thing, and I understood them to be making this same point.)

There’s a riposte to this, made by Ray Filar: equality is an important concept, important concepts demand their own vocabulary, and anyone who needs a dictionary can just fucking google it. But this makes intersectionality a sort of test that the reader must pass, rather than a tool the writer is using to describe and shape the world. Your willingness to familiarise yourself with an obscure vocabulary becomes a measure of your political soundness. And that, I think, is where intersectionality (the word) betrays intersectionality (the concept).

I am lucky. I’m middle class and have the university education to match. My time in seminars has instilled in me a sense that forbidding, polysyllabic words are an invitation to come and play. Intersectionality hadn’t entered the day-to-day talk of an English department when I was studying (the earliest usage I found in Google books was 2003), but having made friends with différance, the Lacanian unconscious and homosocial behaviour, I’m not about to be put off by a pissy bit of adjectival-noun coinage.

If you haven’t got the same background in or affinity with academia, though, intersectionality is a word that says this is not for you. We’re unmistakably in Orwell’s-fifth-rule territory here. And that’s troubling, because the whole point of intersectionality (the thing) is to expand ideas of equality and the human subject beyond the narrow bounds that are generally allowed to count for normal. If we express that idea using language that most people have to research in the first instance, then we’ve failed the idea in the expression.

Political writers and activists presumably want to persuade and galvanise their audience. If you’re already imposing on the reader’s beliefs, don’t make a further imposition on their time by asking them to do your work for you and translate your opinions into a language they can understand. If you wouldn’t use a word at the schoolgates or to a co-worker, then it’s probably doing more to identify you with your politics than it is to spread them. Similarly, intersectionality (the word) can be used to mark enemies: to hold unexamined privilege (that is, to lack intersectionality) is a quality of a person, not their work, and many uses do more to discount individuals than redress bias.

In the time I’ve been not-writing about intersectionality, I’ve written difficult, careful features about witchcraft beliefs and child abuse; about forced marriage; about supporting international abortion rights without overriding the voices of the women we seek to help. As I’ve written these pieces, I’ve thought about class, culture, race, religion and disability. I’ve thought about how an individual’s background might constrain the options they have, and about how authorities and campaigners can be respectful of difference without deferring to harmful prejudice. Without writing about intersectionality, I suppose I’ve written intersectionally. And I believe I’ve done it better for not using intersectionality the word.

Thanks to Bim Adewunmi, who probably won’t agree with this but who has been kind enough to talk to me about all this stuff at length

Abortion isn’t about left and right, it’s a matter of life and sex

I don’t care whether being anti-abortion is of the left or of the right. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days, and can see no reason why your position on progressive taxation should affect your ability to see women as people rather than fleshy incubators.  There are ways in which an anti-abortion stance is profoundly at odds with a leftish position of sexual equality and self-determination, but then it’s also in contradiction with a right-wing libertarian stance, so the left/right classification seems disastrously flawed from the outset.

There is one binary categorisation I’d make based on someone’s attitude to abortion, but it’s not a very lofty one: it’s “do you deserve to have sex or not?” If you seem like the sort of person who’d rate the life on any resulting unplanned foetus over the life a woman currently has for herself, I don’t think you you should get any. Perhaps you are now thinking, “Oh dear Sarah, that’s a bit crass.” But the problem with the abortion discussion tearing through Twitter and blogs over the last few days is that it isn’t nearly crass enough.

It’s been dominated by people – Medhi Hasan most of all – adopting a line of rarefied moral philosophy. “Yes, a woman has a right to choose what to do with her body – but a baby isn’t part of her body,” he writes. Now, Hasan is a father so I must assume he’s not completely ignorant about reproduction, but his extraordinary confidence here that foetus and pregnant woman can be separated makes me shake my head. Mother and baby are locked into symbiosis, not just from conception to viability (whatever that means), but right up till the time a child becomes a self-supporting adult. That’s not months, that’s decades.

But if we follow Hasan’s logic, and say a woman can do what she likes with her body, I’m not sure Hasan will love the conclusion. Let’s say I’m pregnant and I don’t want to be. I think we can all agree that my uterus is definitely a part of my body rather than a part of the embryo’s (or baby’s, if you want to be mawkish about it). So, by Hasan’s reasoning, I can do what I like to my uterus. I’ll take a dose of mifepristone followed by some prostaglandin, shed the lining of my womb – my womb, remember, so no one else gets to tell me what to do with it – and within a few days, I won’t be pregnant anymore.

I won’t have done a thing to the embryo directly. I’ve simply decided that I don’t want my uterus (which is part of my body) to have an embryo-friendly lining and acted accordingly. The embryo is welcome to look out for itself from now on. Obviously, the embryo is dead the moment maternal resources are withdrawn. But that’s just a side effect of what I’ve done to my body, and far preferable to what happens if a woman has to carry to term and then deal with the fact that she doesn’t have the resources to raise a baby to adulthood.

Hasan charges the pro-choice position with “selfishness”, as if the only generosity a woman can rightly show is via her placenta. What nonsense: we are mothers, friends, volunteers, employees, employers – part of society in every way. We don’t owe anyone the exclusive use of our internal organs. What if you don’t have enough money to support another child without pushing your existing family into poverty? Is an abortion in that case “selfishness”, or is it perhaps the wise and compassionate action of a woman who cares for her existing dependents?

What if a woman knows that having a baby now would prevent her from completing her education or starting a career – is she selfish for wanting to be able to support herself rather than rely on others for her own welfare and that of the baby? Because here’s the thing: if you care about what happens to a proto-person with a part-formed nervous system, you should care many, many times more about what happens to them when they’re born.

If you force women to have children they’re incapable of caring for – whether for financial, health or emotional reasons – the women do badly and the children do worse. Luckily, women are quite good judges of this and tend to seek out abortion when it’s the right course for them, even if abortion is made inaccessible. Unluckily, when abortion is inaccessible, women are forced to rely on dubious services, sometimes unsafe and sometimes simply exploitative.

Abortion isn’t legal because we had a big chat about bioethics in 1967 and no one was there to chip in with the Hasan view: all the abstract arguments have been thoroughly chewed over, and I’m happy with the morality of my pro-choice position. But mostly, abortion is legal because we’ve seen the devastation caused to women when it’s prohibited, and at some point we realised that women are sufficiently like people that it’s not really OK to have them haemorrhaging to death on a wad of bloody towels just because they knew they weren’t up for being a mother.

If you think women are people capable of making their own judgements about having and raising a child, and if you think children are important enough to need an affectionate and competent parent, then you’ll understand why abortion isn’t just an unfortunate necessity – it’s a social good. And if you don’t understand why abortion is important, then it doesn’t matter whether you’re a left-wing misogynist or a right-wing misogynist, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman: you just don’t deserve to get laid.

Photo by jonathan.broderick, used under Creative Commons

Why the flaky, deluded and desperate need the right to choose

Step number one to being a feminist: accept that women are people. Step number one to being an actually good feminist: accept that women aren’t just people like you. And that’s where Deborah Orr falls down in this column for the Guardian addressing the political debate around abortion. “Oh, Lord, the right to choose,” she writes. “There’s no more powerful and predictable way to invite the left to start looking like a bunch of intransigent extremists than to whistle up yet another round of ‘debate’ about abortion. But the left doesn’t lead the debate. In allowing the right to set terms, the left remains forever on the defensive.”

I find it hard to accept this characterisation of the “debate”. Discussion about abortion rights is constant. Medical research into foetal development and viability is ongoing, and every round of results initiates brow-scrunching about whether or how this should affect legal access to abortion. The fact that anti-abortion voices attract the most controversy doesn’t reflect a failure of the left to engage: it reflects the fact that mainland UK has a pro-choice consensus and those who wish to break it are forced on the attack. The pro-choice contingency’s failure to take seriously anti-abortion claims of “new medical evidence” reflects, not leftish intransigence, but the fact that there is no new medical evidence.

But what would it mean for the left to “lead” this debate in Orr’s terms, then? Well, apparently, she would like the left to campaign for abortion on demand and accept a lower time limit for abortions. This is rather between the lines in the piece itself, but she clarified in a tweet: “I feel strongly that especially in the first trimester a woman should be able to get an abortion simply because she wants one.” Outside the first trimester? Orr’s sympathy runs dry: “Is it completely mad of me to wonder if perhaps these abortions could be done earlier, if the imperative was there to make a decision sooner? At nearly six months, a woman is pretty seriously pregnant. And we all know that the earlier a termination is carried out, the better. Might an earlier limit actually be of benefit to women? Isn’t it even worth discussing? Apparently not.”

I agree with Orr that the “two signatures” requirement should go, but as someone who managed to get 12 weeks pregnant without realising, her easy surrender of late-term rights terrifies me. Yes, six months is “pretty seriously pregnant”. Over 90% of abortions are performed before 12 weeks; only 1.4% at 20 weeks or over. Orr suggests that women are waiting to have abortions simply because the option is there – because they lack an “imperative” to decide sooner. But that disregards the many and complex reasons for that 1.4%. Some of them will have been procedures chosen with sadness because a much-wanted baby proved to have a profound abnormality. Some will be performed for women whose lives are especially strained – drug addicts, victims of domestic abuse, women forced to save and travel in secrecy from Northern Ireland, the kind of women we should be proud to offer choice to at the very last pass.

Some will be like me. In retrospect, the fact that my stomach was growing and my periods had stopped seems very obvious, but at the time I had just enough doubt (I was on the pill! How could I be pregnant?) and enough fear of being pregnant to make me hug that doubt against all evidence. I was 20, a student, completely unprepared for dealing with being pregnant. When my GP told me, I felt the bottom fall out of me world. I can still remember watching her jaw drop as she saw the lines appear on the dip test. And when she examined me and told me how far along I was, I thought: that’s it, I’m done.

You see, I didn’t know what the time limit for abortion was then, though I had a vague idea that 12 weeks was too late. I wasn’t idling about because I knew I’d have a chance to reconsider. I was in full, shutters-down, yes-I’ll-have-another-pint-please-oh-go-on-make-it-a-Jägerbomb denial. And that was a mild case. If your circumstances are really unsympathetic to having a baby – if, say, you’re a soldier on the front line – it’s possible to keep that denial going right up to the labour pangs. I know that seems extraordinary to anyone who’s had a baby she wanted and has watched her body anxiously for all the signs of pregnancy. I chose to continue my unplanned pregnancy, and such extremes of denial seem extraordinary to me.

But there we are. People in circumstances unlike yours don’t do things like you would. That should hardly be a shocking discovery. Orr seems to see a terrible contrast between the measures taken to save wanted babies at 20-24 weeks and the fact that abortions are available then, as if wanted or unwanted were an irrelevant detail rather than the thing on which a child’s life and happiness is contingent. (Doctors will also try to prevent the miscarriage of a wanted pregnancy at 12 weeks, but Orr doesn’t seem to see a conflict with abortion rights there.) Good law on abortion has to be designed to serve everyone: not just the sensible ideal subject deciding whether to have a baby or not, but real women. Flaky, deluded and desperate as we can be, we need our right to choose most of all.

Photo by Three-Legged-Cat, used under Creative Commons

How to be a fangirl

“I’ve been thinking a lot about normal,” said Caitlin Moran during her Bath Book Festival talk to promote Moranthology. “About how it’s assumed to be white, male and straight, and it shouldn’t be.” She didn’t directly address the criticism that she’s received over the last few days for what’s been interpreted as a failure to think outside her own comfortable identity as a white woman, but there it was: she’s been thinking about the assumptions around default humanity, and she doesn’t accept them.

What came next is the really important thing about Moran, the reason why her writing (personal writing in a personal column, the genre most likely to collapse into mewling solipsism and self-justification) includes some of the most powerful, inspiring, moving political journalism we have at the moment: her explanation for rejecting that version of the normal human is funny, pragmatic and bound up in her own experience as a working class girl. “It’s a waste,” she said. “If you’re only listening to one kind of person, you’re missing out on the brainpower of everyone else… and one of them, somewhere, could probably solve the financial crisis. That’s why I believe in equality.”

This was the jumping off point for a speech about the welfare state, and what the welfare state meant to her family, that beat the whole of the Labour Party conference and left it rolling in the dirt. It was mighty. It was moving. It was gracious: “If you pay tax, thank you for the clothes, the food, the libraries… Thank you, and I have paid you back.” Moran standing on a stage being funny and clever and wildly gorgeous is a better argument for redistribution than any number of wonkish disquisitions on the wonders of Sweden. She’s the poster product and the greatest proponent of a system designed to let people rise up rather than be crushed down.

And the audience applauded, loudly and for a long time, for the right of a disabled father, his wife and their eight children to be supported by the state. It was a beautiful moment. The thing is, Moran has charisma. She has shit tons of charisma, and by some glorious fluke of humanity, that charisma sits alongside a sense of justice and generosity. (We’re lucky: some generations end up with their greatest depository of charisma sharing person-space with a taste for fascism, or war, or generally fucking other people over.) She said she’s into revolution, and the most revolutionary thing she’s doing right now is using her own charm to make us look on other people as people.

This sounds like gushing fangirl talk, because it is gushing fangirl talk: there were a lot of gushing fangirls in that audience, including some near me who’d baked Moran a cake in tribute. She’s powerful and politically important because she inspires this kind of affection, and can direct it not just at herself, but at all the people whose lives you’ve barely thought to imagine. (Her column Unlike Most Of The Coalition, I Was Raised On Benefits is a magnificent example of this, and it’s included in Moranthology.) There’s been a lot of chatter this week about whether Moran is ideologically sound. I think she’s better than sound: she’s downright good, able to listen to criticism and able to charm people who profoundly disagree with her into listening. Against cold, cynical, cutting cruelty, Moran’s warmth is the best kind of opposition we have.

Girl-on-Girls crime: Moran and Dunham vs feminism

I wonder why Caitlin Moran didn’t ask Lena Dunham about the absence of black characters in Dunham’s HBO sitcom Girls when the journalist interviewed the showrunner for The Times. It’s been a much-picked over omission in Girls’ version of New York, and Moran’s been getting a kicking for the oversight since publication. On the other hand, I don’t wonder very much because I think the answer is there in the interview: Moran loves Girls and sees Dunham as a success story, and the story she tells is one of feminist victory rather than hapless racist failure.

I haven’t seen any of Girls yet (which makes me at least as qualified to gob off about its racial politics as three-quarters of the angry people on Twitter), but this is what I know about it: it’s a comedy that draws a lot of its humour at the expense of its four solipsistic 20-something female main characters, and Dunham (its producer/writer/director/star) has made a joke of her own solipsism. “I am half-Jew, half WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs,” she told NPR.

When she offers “I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately” as an explanation for the absence of black characters, I can’t decide whether she deserves ambivalent praise for recognising that her race has protected her from certain situations, or a clip round the ear for failing to take the tiny step into the imagination required to write a self-involved, well-off character with brown skin. But it’s not as if Dunham has created this bleached fiction on her own.

On the way to Girls reaching screens, there will have been tens of people more powerful than Dunham involved in the commissioning process. People who read the pitch, who went over the casting, who saw the rushes – and none of whom said, “Lena, this is looking awfully white. How about adding a black character to the main ensemble and casting someone who can co-write, if you really find writing black people such a terrifying prospect?” Dunham is not a lone gunwoman. American TV as a whole has a race problem. Actually, scratch that: the entertainment industry, in all its forms and all its localities, has a race problem.

So why make Dunham the face of telly racism? Maybe because the fact that Girls is good (not that I’ve watched it) means the audience has suddenly got a taste for raised expectations: here at last are interesting, convincing female characters, so why can’t we have interesting, convincing, non-white female characters too? I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this, because I think it’s right that we should have high standards for the things we love and criticise them when they fall down, but I also wonder whether Lena Dunham is being forced to carry the weight of the world in a very unusual way – and being punished with unusual vitriol.

Look at The Hollywood Reporter’s power list of showrunners. There are 32 names on the comedy rundown; six of those are female. (Don’t even ask how many are non-white. The answer is “not bloody many”.) Two of those female names are attached to Girls, which is the only show with a majority female cast. That’s why Moran is right to see Girls as a minor feminist win (even if she’s too easy on its flaws), and why it’s curious that Girls is the one point of the entertainment industry where the righteous have decided to rain down body blows of justice.

Successful women are still in sufficiently short supply for us all to feel we have a stake in them. Successful, politically-engaged women? They’re so scarce that the rest of us are in danger of becoming maenads, tearing our rare girl Orpheuses apart because we all want a piece. The minute a feminist woman reaches a level of recognition beyond Fawcett society fundraiser, all the complicated hypocrisies that make us functioning people are laid open to scrutiny, and if the standard we demand is inviolable political perfection, then all women will fail.

The result is ugly: it creates invective where reflection would be better, and makes the high achievers (in this case, Dunham and Moran) into scapegoats to be driven out. There’s a sweet spot between Moran’s unadulterated big-upping of Dunham, and the furious denunciations of Dunham and Moran that I’ve seen drifting across the internet over the last 24 hours, though, and that sweet spot is called “constructive criticism”. Feminism can’t be a league of the perfect, but if it could discuss flaws rather than simply judge and punish them, it could bring perfect a lot closer to hand.

A note on a correction

Yesterday the Guardian published a piece I wrote criticising SlutWalk London’s decision to issue a statement opposing the extradition of Julian Assange. It was explicitly not intended to rehash the legal issues; nevertheless, anything mentioning Assange tends to bring out the amateur lawyer in everyone. The piece originally contained this phrase:

rape charges in Sweden

At some point yesterday, this was amended to:

rape allegations in Sweden

A correction note was added, saying that Assange has not been charged. Had I been able to revise the text myself at this stage, my preferred formulation would have been neither of these, but instead this:

rape allegations in Sweden (allegations that the England and Wales High Court has said “there can be no doubt” he would have been charged with already in the UK)

I very much regret not including the quote from the High Court judgement in the piece, because as it stands, it does not accurately reflect the progression of the case.

Through multiple appeals, the allegations against Assange have been found to be serious and substantial enough to support extradition. To say “there are no charges”, as Assange supporters repeatedly do, is a strict translation of Swedish legal terms that misrepresents the nature of the case to anyone whose understanding of the law is based on the England and Wales system.

Those who know what they think about the Assange case are unlikely to be swayed by any commentators at this stage – which is why it’s so extraordinary that SlutWalk London chose to take sides on such a poisonous issue. However, I’m sorry that my piece has now contributed to that misrepresentation.

Y’know, for kids

The bafflement about JK Rowling’s new, not-Potter novel is scrawled on the face of every reviewer. I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, but I can tell you that it includes sex, drugs and social issues. I have read (some of) the Potter books, but even if I hadn’t, I could tell you that sex, drugs and social issues do not feature large in the boy wizard saga – because every review of The Casual Vacancy takes care to tell me that these are things “Harry Potter never dreamt of!” Also, there is no magic in The Casual Vacancy. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that both the cover and the pre-release pitch for it as a dark realist comedy strongly suggest no magic; however, the dismal insistence with which reviewers repeat the news that there is no magic implies that some people have been caught unawares.

There’s also a curious belief that The Casual Vacancy represents some sort of test for Rowling: she’s done kids’ stuff, but is she really up to the rigours of adult fiction? I prefer to see it the way Rowling does, when she says that the success of Potter “truly liberated me in the sense that there’s only one reason to write, for me – if I genuinely have something I want to say, and I want to publish it”. Rowling has already been more successful than pretty much any author who’s ever lived, whether you measure that success financially, critically or in the devoted response of readers. She’s got nothing to prove, but the niggling belief that she does tells us something about the weird segregation between children and adults that our cultural captains try to maintain.

Here’s the order of importance:

  1. Things intended for and marketed to adults
  2. Things intended for and marketed to children

Even if something in category 2 achieves success beyond that enjoyed by anything in category 1, it’s still possible for category 1  to pull rank by making the staggeringly thorough argument, “Ah, that category 2 thing might be popular, but it’s really just for kids.” Truth bomb detonated, doubters left reeling and dazed. This leaves us in a rather bleak circumstance where anything shortlisted for the Booker can claim to be better than the Potter novels because books about middle-aged, middle-class people having delicately described feelings are somehow deemed to be more crafted than multi-arced, carefully plotted epics.

Sure, Rowling can tell a story, said Anthony McGowan on the Today Programme yesterday, but can she really write a sentence? – as if plotting were some low-rent trick and the real artists of literature were putting more effort into crafting their gem-like and subtly revealing descriptions of kitchen tables. The thing is, this obsession with adult artistry over childish action is a very modern thing. Up until the Victorian period, the idea of children’s books as a separate genre didn’t really exist, and even then, surveys of the reading material favoured by girls and boys reveal a juvenile taste for Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray.* All authors who contain an extraordinary amount of no magic and quite a lot of social issues, incidentally, as well as having the distinction of being both great sentence writers and great plotters (apparently they only became mutually exclusive qualities sometime in the 20th century).

This obsession with adult as an analogue for important  leads to some embarrassing stuff, and it’s not limited to the world of books. I remember seeing a Mighty Boosh gig in Sheffield, and part of the act involved Noel Fielding spouting off about how they weren’t “fucking Rentaghost” and aiming a string of C-words at a kid in the audience. It wasn’t funny, it was awkward and bullying, and all it made me think was that I’d rather be watching Rentaghost actually thanks. While the self-conscious grown-ups police their cultural compound, kids can keep hoovering up the good stuff. Want a fantastical sitcom? You want to watch Adventure Time. Want a finessed and polished ensemble? Try Nickelodeon’s iCarly. Want an anarchic and grotesque sketch show? The only one to go for is Horrible Histories on CBBC. And why shouldn’t we expect things for kids to be excellent? The fact that they’re learning is a reason to give them the best constructed, the most thoughtful and the most imaginative, and that way introduce them to all the possibilities in the world.

There are a few things which qualify a work as exclusively grown-up, but these are matters of content, not quality: graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic swears, serious analyses of institutions that a child has yet to encounter. All things I enjoy immensely done well, but simply smearing them about on sloppy plotting and precious writing isn’t enough to conjure up maturity – especially when fiction marketed for kids already handles the dark stuff so well. Rowling’s  proved her authorial chops when it comes to  themes of good and evil, loss and betrayal, love and maturity. It’s all in Potter. You thought it was just a kids’ book? You probably need to do some growing up yourself.

* Edward Salmon, Juvenile Literature As It Is (London: Henry J Drane, 1888)

Photo by Astrid Kopp, used under Creative Commons