Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Owen Jones, Lila Azam Zanganeh and Ali Smith.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

Writing in the Independent, Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, applauds Jones's exploration of prejudice towards the working class, saying: "The book is very easy to read; it moves in and out of postwar British history with great agility, weaving together complex questions of class, culture and identity with a lightness of touch. Jones torches the political class to great effect. Conservative class conflict masquerading as liberalism; New Labour's desiccated notion of aspiration; what we stylise as "Middle England"; the class composition of the commentariat and government: all are pretty easy targets, but the points are well made. Especially strong is his critique of liberal multiculturalism, whereby without the currency of class grievance we balkanise politics through identity and, sure enough, the BNP or English Defence League flourish."

In a similarly sympathetic review in the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley recognises Jones's ability "to reiterate the facts of increasing inequality, which has led British society to become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood. In such circumstances, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives' demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class."

"[An] uneven book", writes John Lloyd in the Financial Times. "Campaigns against sexism and racism have made denigration of ethnic minorities, gays and women impossible in polite society; the working class, in the guise of "chavs", remain a target. It is interesting and depressing to see all this - and though Jones bangs the nail in too hard, it's worth banging."

The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness by Lila Azam Zanganeh

"If the intention is to send the reader back to the works of Vladimir Nabokov with newly polished eyes and an eager appetite, it succeeds without question," writes Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman. "But it is more than a literary springboard from which to launch oneself back to the classics: it is a thing of beauty in its own right."

Nicholas Shakespeare in The Sunday Telegraph, however, is far less flattering: "One cannot help but feel that she is accidentally-on-purpose playing at being Lolita, a literary nymphet with a crush on Nabokov ... But where Lolita is a cliché who seduces ("at 6.15 in the morning, to be precise, at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel"), here the author's excess of self-consciousness is cloying."

Ángel Gurría-Quintana is also unenthusiastic, writing in the Financial Times that this is a "whimsical, intriguing and at times bewildering work," and that the author "omits explicit references to her own back-story, perhaps out of a reasonable desire to avoid comparisons with that other Nabokov-themed memoir by an Iranian expatriate, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Yet her reluctance to explore the connections makes her appear coy, even cagey."

There but for the by Ali Smith

"Before the pudding at a dinner party in Greenwich, a guest slips away upstairs, locks himself into a room and refuses to come out. For months. A clever set-up for a novel," writes Lionel Shriver in the Financial Times, "though it's difficult to imagine where the premise leads, since this slight, offbeat idea seems more intrinsically suited to a short story. In There But For The, Ali Smith spins out this narrow, potentially confining concept into a winsome, compelling read - that is, until the book's last third, at which point you wonder if maybe it should have been a short story after all."

Most other reviewers have been unequivocal in their praise. "Smith's prose is not just supple, it's acrobatic," asserts Lucy Beresford in the Daily Telegraph, " one minute providing crisp realism -- cocky teenagers, unspoken homophobia, university bureaucracy -- the next a hypnotic stream-of-consciousness. Smith can make anything happen, which is why she is one of our most exciting writers today."

Agreeing with these positive sentiments, The Observer's Sarah Churchwell writes that this is "a playfully serious, or seriously playful, novel full of wit and pleasure, with some premeditated frustrations thrown in for good measure." She concedes though, that "some of the set-pieces are less successful than others -- the novel's central dinner party descends from burlesque into caricature, as the guests became increasingly loathsome," but concludes that "there are some wonderful disquisitions on our cultural idiosyncrasies."

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class and The Enchanter:Nabokov and Happiness will be reviewed in next week's New Statesman

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Do the abusive messages sent to One Direction members reveal a darker side to fandom?

Incidents like this are often used to characterise all young female fans, but this isn’t about fandom. It’s harassment. 

One Direction’s Niall Horan is the internet’s favourite innocent blond goofball. He spends his days tweeting platitudes about golf and the weather, Snapchatting his reactions to whatever is on his TV, and thanking his fans for everything they’ve done for him. His social media presence is generally one of cheerful bemusement.

So, last night, the web went into maternal #ProtectNiall mode when he took to Twitter to highlight the darker side to fame.

A group of “fans” got hold of Niall’s number, and started frantically texting, WhatsApping and calling him. After two weeks of constant abusive messaging, despite requests to stop, Niall tries to use his platform to get them to stop.

Around the same time, screenshots of the supposed messages started to circle online. (I certainly can’t prove whether they’re real or not, but they first surfaced before Niall’s tweets and feel genuine.) The pattern that emerges seems to be one of frantic, attention-seeking messaging, extreme shock and surprise when he writes back, and, when Niall only requests that they stop messaging him and respect his privacy, the really nasty stuff starts. Messages range from “You invented cancer” to “If [your nephew] was my kid I’d sell it”; from “You’re so stupid and r*tarded” to “I hope your house blows up”.

Niall’s responses are extremely Niall in their politeness. “Why do I deserve to have a bad day?” he asks one. “You guys are bullies,” he tells them. “Go away please.”

As soon as the screenshots emerged, so did suspicions about the identity of the individuals in question. A set of five or six Twitter handles were circled by fan accounts, encouraging people to block and report the usernames to Twitter. Some of the owners of these accounts themselves claim to have been part of the conversations in question, to varying degrees. These account owners are seemingly women, under the age of 18, who have supposedly been involved in other recent One Direction harassment incidents.

One of those incidents came just days before Niall’s tweets. A person suspected to be a member of this group of “fans” got hold of another band member’s phone number: Louis Tomlinson’s. You can listen to a recording of the phone conversation between them that leaked online. After telling him her Twitter handle, Tomlinson asks the caller how she got his number. “You’re a fucking bitch and I hope your baby dies,” she says. Louis responds with a variation on the ancient proverb, “Lawyer up, asshole.” He seemingly tweeted about the incident later that day – and Niall retweeted him.

Fan accounts insist that the same Twitter users were also involved in hacking the iCloud of Anne Twist, Harry Styles’s mother, and leaking hundreds of photos of her son online.

The whole situation is a complicated mess. Parts of the messages feel as though they have been influenced by the style of accounts desperately trying to get the attention of celebrities on Twitter. If you look at the top reply to any tweet from a celebrity with millions of Twitter followers, the responses are calculated to shock the most in an attempt to get noticed. Maybe it’s a weird combination of sexual and violent imagery, or a sexist or racist slur. This is harassment itself, but its ubiquitousness can make it seem less offensive or extreme. Perhaps this kind of behaviour is easier to ignore on Twitter or Instagram – if you have millions of followers, you presumably can’t be notified every time one of them interacts with you online. When it moves into your private sphere, I can image it becomes more terrifying than annoying. Maybe these girls were simply swept up in the cultural moment, and failed to grasp the consquences of their behaviour.

Is it a damning indictment of the hysteria of teenage girls? The scary state of twenty-first century fandom? The problems of anonymity offered by the internet? It’s true that the internet has offered new ways for fans and celebrities to have a more direct connection with one another: for the most part, a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But the revelation of the internet has also been that it is a tool through which fundamentally human behaviours are expressed. Over the last few decades, we have learned that aggressive behaviour online is not limited to largely non-existent stereotypes of spotty virgins in their mothers’ basements, or teenage girls developing “dangerous” sexuality. Grown men and women, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons all do it. It’s also not a behaviour that is inherently connected to online spaces: children and teenagers might experiment with moral boundaries through cyberbullying, but they also might do it via anonymous notes in lockers or whispers in school corridors. People of all ages, professions and genders harass others.

The real problem is not celebrity culture or the concept of teenage fandom or social media. As Louis Tomlinson rightly identifies, it’s that our laws have failed to catch up. If we continue to treat harassment as harassment, in all spaces and by all perpetrators, we’ll have a better chance of minimising it.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.