Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Annie Proulx, an anti-internet polemic and the tale of Lucie Blackman.

Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx

Writing in the Observer, Geoff Dyer is disappointed with "the story of how a great and ageing American writer came across a 640-acre spread of land in Wyoming, bought it and set about designing and building (more accurately, having people build) her ideal house on it." Despite some evidence of Proulx's "observational prowess and gift for verbally harnessing the elements", Dyer discovers that the writing falters without the "human and narrative purchase" that characterizes her best fiction. Consequently, Dyer "had soon had enough of it" and is left feeling that this book "begins suspiciously to resemble a way of covering the spiralling costs" of building a bespoke house.

"The absence of an over-arching narrative structure is the book's weakness," concludes Susan Elderkin in the Financial Times. Depicting landscape, Proulx's writing is "always a treat, the language dense and nutty in the way of a fruitcake". But without a fictional framework, Proulx's "baggy" memoir leaves "the mystery of how the writer begat the writing pretty much intact".

"Bird Cloud" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

In the Observer, Jessica Holland assesses Lanier's argument that "the web - with its anonymously written wikis and multiple-choice expressions of personality on Facebook - is eating away at our very souls." As "an original member of the Silicon Valley set", Lanier is "clearly very well-informed about IT", but his "social and spiritual" assertions "can't help but rely more on intuition." Ultimately, "it's tempting to dismiss it as the anxiety of an ageing innovator" who claims modern America is "dividing itself between a minuscule number of 'computing cloud overlords'" and "a vast majority of 'digital serfs'".

The Independent's Brandon Robshaw also remains sceptical about Jaron Lanier's cyber-age manifesto. Though he finds a certain appeal in the argument that the internet is turning people into "empowered trolls", whose "mob-like mentality" is deadening "individual creativity" and luring the masses into "easy, unthinking grooves", the book is ultimately "too abstract and too techy to make a good book-length read" and would probably be "better as a blog."

People Who Eat Darkness: the Fate of Lucie Blackman by Richard Lloyd Parry

This is a "horrible tale, meticulously told" according to Brenda Maddox in the Times. Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old from Sevenoaks, was working as a bar hostess in Tokyo when she disappeared in July 2000. Her dismembered remains were found in a cave six months later. Parry, who was the Independent's Tokyo correspondent at the time, insists that "those who think that any woman who works as a "hostess" is a prostitute are wrong". Instead, they "offer drinks, charm and conversation" and are urged to go on dinner dates with besotted customers. To go home with a client was "Lucie Blackman's fatal mistake". Parry illuminates the differences between British and Japanese legal systems and reassuringly asserts that in Tokyo "a lone woman remains safer even at two in the morning than in any other world city".

Writing in the Guardian, Blake Morrison is gripped by "a compelling book, 10 years in the making, rich in intelligence and insight". Despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter, it is "heartening" that Parry refuses to engage in "hysteria or demonisation". Instead he is an "open-minded and sympathetic narrator" whose book "sheds light on Japan, on families, on the media, and (in ways that bring back memories of the Yorkshire Ripper case) on the insidious effects of misogyny".

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.