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

In the company of men

Self-Made Man: My Year Disguised as a Man, Norah Vincent (Atlantic, 2006; £7.99)

ImageSelf-Made Man – Norah Vincent’s memoir of living as a man for 18 months – is billed as affectionate and tender towards men according to the blurbs, but all I could think of while reading it was Germaine Greer’s dictum: “women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” I don’t see this hatred borne out for the most part in my daily life, but reading Vincent’s odyssey through bowling groups, the dating scene, strip clubs, a monastery, sales work and men’s consciousness-raising groups in the person of Ned (a creation of fake stubble, a flat top, chest binding and vocal control), I started to reconsider.

The men Vincent meets are, as far it’s possible to tell, normal. And they find women disgusting. They joke about finding the smell of women’s genitals repulsive, but they want access to these genitals more than anything: women are the gatekeepers of these hated, wanted parts, and when access is denied, men take revenge by paying to get access to women they can despise without hypocrisy, or form communities from which women are constitutionally excluded. The paranoid thought formed that maybe I’m deluded by the fact that I only see men with women. Maybe men in the company of men are far more vicious creatures, and maybe that is men as they truly are.

Vincent, to her credit, never believes this disturbing bluster to be the the authentic voice of manhood. For her, it’s part of the masculinity parade: a man shows his manliness by the negation of femininity, and the negging of females. One thing Vincent discovers is that her masculine self-presentation is never challenged, but when Ned is read as a man behaving in a feminine way, he is mercilessly hazed for his errors. One is not born, but rather becomes, a man; and this process is accomplished by other men schematically punishing all infractions of the man code, until self-loathing can do the enforcement without outside assistance.

So Vincent discovers that gender is taught, but she also comes away believing that it is innate. These contradictory beliefs are offered within a half-page distance of each other time and time again. “Through gender I learned the hard way that gender has roots in my brain, possibly biochemical ones, living very close to the core of my self-image. Inseparably close,” writes Vincent on p. 270. Then on p. 272:

[…] for these men, living in their man’s box wasn’t a particularly good fit either, and learning this in spades may have been Ned’s best lesson in the toxicity of gender roles. These roles proved to be ungainly, suffocating, torpor-inducing or even nearly fatal to a lot more people than I’d thought, and for the simple reason that, man or woman, they didn’t let you be yourself. [p. 271]

There’s an infuriating refusal to bring the live contacts of thought together here, doubly infuriating because it seems fairly obvious how it should be resolved. The “gender is taught” theory doesn’t prevent gender from being “inseparably close” to our self-image: we are, after all, trained to be a man or woman from the start of our lives, socialised by gender even before we can be a part of society, as parents decorate the nursery blue or pink and buy in the toys to tutor their boy or girl in the appropriately active or passive role.

But if gender were not social and plastic, Vincent’s experiment could never have worked. She showed that gender is an act – an act we learn so well we forget that we were ever fed the lines, but an act all the same – yet she comes out believing that it has a substance so profound she places it in the realm of the physical. Vincent’s con is impressive, but it’s the con of gender itself that comes out as the preeminent grift in this memoir.

[Guardian Books Blog] Can the newspaper novel survive in the internet age?

I’ve got my first piece up on the Guardian books blog:

In a world of declining newspapers, is there any future for the newspaper novel? I recently stormed through Michael Frayn’s satirical 1967 newspaper novel, Towards the End of the Morning, and Nick Davies’ scathing study of how reporting works now, Flat Earth News. For the press, dawn is closing time, when the final edition has been printed and the hacks can go to bed – so Frayn’s title is a reversal of the usual metaphor: the end of the morning implies more of a shutdown than a rebirth. The novel, with its warm satire of the gentlemanly dissolution of the newspaperman in the fading days of old Fleet Street, makes a tender record of a deeply flawed but somehow loveable industry – before colour printing, before Wapping, and back when TV had only just begun to threaten the papers’ ownership of the news and comment business.

Read the rest at The Guardian…

Paperhouse reads: Bad Science

bad-science

My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.

That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.

How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.

And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.

Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.

But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.

For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.

¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.

Panned

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Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, “Toilet Books” on iPlayer (until 23 March 2009)

In a world of stratified markets, every special interest gets its own TV channel. If you’re hot for cars and stuff that explodes, you can watch Dave. If you like racy exploitation docs, there’s Channel 4. If you can simply never see too many expensively formulaic dramas about sexcrimes, Hallmark is your friend with a rolling schedule of Law And Order: SVU. So I’m expecting that very soon one of the networks will announce the launch of a channel to service my very own special interest: middle-aged men looking uncomfortable in suits while getting eloquently profane about how shit modern life is.

It could be called “Charlie” after the current king of being funny and a bit sneery. The idents could feature the channel’s stars looking really annoyed. You could even build the marketing campaign around pathetic puns on the channel’s name (“Coming up: Mark Kermode on Charlie!” – oh, how the laughter will ring out). Anyway, until someone picks up my obviously amazing idea, I’m going to be watching the very brilliant and funny Stewart Lee Comedy Vehicle on BBC2, Mondays, 10pm.

Last night, Stewart took on publishing in a routine that kicked at bloated blockbusters, misery memoirs, celebrity clag, the self-destructive discount economics of publishing and the depressing influence of supermarkets on bookselling (“Get yer books! Pile up the books! Get a multipack of books! Why not take an extra book home, put it in the freezer!”). “Did Willian Tyndale burn at the stake in 1536 in the cause of vernacular English literature so that you could read The Gospel According To Chris Moyles? No he didn’t,” says Lee. And he’s got a mardy, elitist, excellent point. Books can be radical and world-shaking, not just something you chuck in the trolley with the other consumables:

What does it tells us about our civilisation when the book is held in such low esteem that it’s possible to append the word “book” to the word “toilet” and make the compound word “toilet book”. […] Library book, yes. Children’s book, yes. Poetry book, yes. Toilet book, no. Toilet paper, yes. Toilet brush, yes. Toilet duck, you can have toilet duck. Toilet book, no.

Paperhouse reads: The Language Of Things

The Language Of Things

Earlier this week, I wrote about Karen magazine and Karen’s question, “Why do people buy unnecessary things?” Deyan Sudjic’s book, The Language Of Things, has a pretty good answer:

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or not much of it. […] Usefulness is inversely proportional to status. The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be. High-status utility is confined to such baroque elaborations of conspicuously redundant utility capacity as the wristwatch supposedly designed for use by divers […] or the grossly overspecified SUV.

The Language Of Things, pp. 167-8

This description is shamingly acute. My favourite handbag is a wee pretty one that only holds a key and a lipstick, and has to be constantly clutched by the tiny handle. My best watch doesn’t have any numbers on its miniature face. I have a terrible addiction to copies of McSweeney’s which spread out in unwieldy directions, spill mini-mags everywhere, and are actually pretty hard to read. Luckily, Sudjic is just as susceptible to the wiles of objects, and tells a reassuring story of his seduction by a MacBook near the start of The Language Of Things. Playfulness and ingenuity in objects aren’t universally bad – my handbag, my watch and my McSweeney’s are all witty and lovely things. But it’s curious that I’m not equally impressed by sturdy and capacious bags, watches with digits or the basic marvel of the paperback.

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Design – the polish that convinces you to buy one thing rather than another, the copyright-protected detail that identifies a desirable brand – is critical to consumer culture. But good design – the “brilliant synthesis of structure and mechanism” which Sudjic identifies in the anglepoise lamp and the French wine bottle – is less so. A well-designed product will last, will replace similar products, and exempt the purchaser from being a consumer for the life of the object.

And it’s the useless that gets treasured. The examples of design which make it into the Museum Of Modern Art in New York are divorced from the context of their function: “whether consciously or not”, says Sudjic, “[MOMA] is doing its best to suggest that design is just as useless as art, and therefore almost as valuable.” In the end, Sudjic argues that the artistic aspirations of designers is changing the ideology of design, and will “fuel what may be a short lived explosion of flamboyant new work.” It’s clear that he doesn’t think this will be especially good for design or for consumers.