Culture Vulture: reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Iris Murdoch, Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris.

Iris Murdoch: a Writer at War (Letters and Diaries 1939-45), edited by Peter J Conradi

"Reading Murdoch's letters during this period is something like being plugged into the national grid," writes Frances Wilson in the Sunday Times. Yet, in her view, this is no thanks to the editor: "Murdoch's youthful mind is as sharp and polished as a sword, but Conradi's editing is not. Random footnotes pop up like glove puppets interrupting a soliloquy, to explain that 'Je t'aime' means 'I love you' and that Baudelaire is a French poet."

Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer also has quibbles, finding the collection "a strange volume, poorly conceived as well as thoroughly self-sabotaged". There is "little here which couldn't have been written by anyone of the period sufficiently bright and smug". In the Telegraph, Claudia FitzHerbert appreciates Murdoch's evolution "from the jejune chrysalis of her student experiences".


Apathy for the Devil: a 1970s Memoir by Nick Kent

Nick Kent, writes Robert Sandall in the Sunday Times, "had a Zelig-like knack for being in the right place at the right time. Wherever the action was, for most of the 1970s, the dandyish Kent with his notepad and drugs stash was never far away." His memoir is "in a compulsively readable class of its own".

Tom Horan in the Telegraph is less than impressed with this former NME writer's vocabulary: "A kind reading of his prose style would be to say that it perfectly suggests the era that it is describing . . . Bands are always 'combos'; songs are not written, they're 'penned'; nothing begins, it 'commences'; almost everything is 'ongoing'." However, it is also a "fascinating read", which becomes most fascinating when "Kent reveals a side to punk that has been given a gloss of glamour down the years: the mindless violence that surrounded it".


The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Ferris's second novel is described as "strange" by Christopher Tayler in the Guardian. He compares the protagonist Tim's life to "something out of early Paul Auster -- resonant but opaque, Europeanly alienated but firmly located in an American landscape".

For Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph, "Ferris spreads the malaise on thick by tackling the subject of inexplicable mental illness". But by the end, "the story has long since run out of mileage". Peter Parker in the Sunday Times concurs, finding the novel "intriguing but ultimately disappointing".

For Robert Epstein in the Independent, this follow-up is also a disappointment due to overwhelming expectation, deeming it "distressingly bleak rather than distastefully blithe; staccato-sentenced rather than sardonically satirical".

Reviews of Nick Kent and Joshua Ferris appear in forthcoming issues of the New Statesman.

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Why does food taste better when we Instagram it?

Delay leads to increased pleasure when you set up a perfect shot of your dinner.

Been on holiday? Take any snaps? Of course you did – but if you’re anything like me, your friends and family didn’t make it into many of them. Frankly, I can only hope that Mr Whippy and I will still be mates in sixty years, because I’m going to have an awful lot of pictures of him to look back on.

Once a decidedly niche pursuit, photographing food is now almost as popular as eating it, and if you thought that the habit was annoying at home, it is even worse when it intrudes on the sacred peace of a holiday. Buy an ice cream and you’ll find yourself alone with a cone as your companion rushes across a four-lane highway to capture his or hers against the azure sea. Reach for a chip before the bowl has been immortalised on social media and get your hand smacked for your trouble.

It’s a trend that sucks the joy out of every meal – unless, that is, you’re the one behind the camera. A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that taking pictures of food enhances our pleasure in it. Diners at the food court of a farmers’ market in Philadelphia were asked either to photograph their meal or to eat “as you normally would”, then were questioned about how they found it. Those in the photography group reported that not only did they enjoy their meal more, but they were “significantly more immersed in the experience” of eating it.

This backs up evidence from previous studies, including one from this year in the Journal of Consumer Marketing, which found that participants who had been asked to photograph a red velvet cake – that bleeding behemoth of American overindulgence – later rated it as significantly tastier than those who had not.

Interestingly, taking a picture of a fruit salad had no effect on its perceived charms, but “when descriptive social norms regarding healthy eating [were] made salient”, photographing these healthier foods did lead to greater enjoyment. In other words, if you see lots of glossy, beautifully lit pictures of chia seed pudding on social media, you are more likely to believe that it’s edible, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This may seem puzzling. After all, surely anything tastes better fresh from the kitchen rather than a protracted glamour shoot – runny yolks carefully split to capture that golden ooze, strips of bacon arranged just so atop plump hemispheres of avocado, pillowy burger buns posed to give a glimpse of meat beneath. It is hardly surprising that 95 million posts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, proudly bear the hashtag #foodporn.

However, it is this delay that is apparently responsible for the increase in pleasure: the act of rearranging that parsley garnish, or moving the plate closer to the light, increases our anticipation of what we are about to eat, forcing us to consider how delicious it looks even as we forbid ourselves to take a bite until the perfect shot is in the bag. You could no doubt achieve the same heightened sense of satisfaction by saying grace before tucking in, but you would lose the gratification that comes from imagining other people ogling your grilled Ibizan sardines as they tuck in to an egg mayonnaise at their desk.

Bear in mind, though, that the food that is most successful on Instagram often has a freakish quality – lurid, rainbow-coloured bagel-croissant hybrids that look like something out of Frankenstein’s bakery are particularly popular at the moment – which may lead to some unwise menu choices in pursuit of online acclaim.

On the plus side, if a diet of giant burgers and salted-caramel lattes leaves you feeling queasy, take heart: if there is one thing that social media likes more than #avotoast, it is embarrassing oversharing. After a week of sickening ice-cream shots, a sickbed selfie is guaranteed to cheer up the rest of us. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser