Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kwasi Karteng, Nicholson Baker and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Karteng

Labour MP Tristram Hunt admires this "compelling and important history of the British empire" in the Observer, by his colleague from the opposite benches, the Tory MP for Spelthorne. It goes fiercely against the Cameronite sense of history: "Its target is those neoconservative cheerleaders of empire - Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove - who regard British colonialism as a 'good thing' and the model for a modern Pax Americana.... Instead, Ghosts of Empire marks a return to traditional, Tory scepticism shorn of ideology and purpose. There is little rhyme or rhythm to this history". In the Telegraph George Walden noted that the problem was not an imperialist central government but the free reign given to the "cranks, oddballs and romantics" who ran the empire. Sholto Byrnes, in the Independent agrees, but is less pleased with the style, calling it merely "amusing and mostly well-written".

House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

"The real story here," writes James Lasdun in the Guardian, of Nicholson Baker's picaresque of comic smut, "is why the cleverly observant author of works such as The Mezzanine and Room Temperature has chosen to publish something at once so daft and so half-hearted. He calls it an 'Entertainment' but 'Wank Book' would have been more accurate." Set outside of normal spacetime, in the eponymous, fantastical sex-resort, a stroke of invention admired by Sam Lipsyte in The New York Times: "one of the loopier spots in literary memory -- Plato's Retreat by way of the Magic Mountain, or maybe the Oneida Community via Fantasy Island.... not even Mr. Roarke's paradise boasts 'pornsucker ships' (which fly over American cities and suck up the bad porn) or 'crotchal transfers'. Nor does it feature 'mastur­boats' or 'groanrooms' or a 'squat line' organized for the pleasure of female guests." In the LA Times, David L Ulin finds "an unexpected depth, a tenderness" to the novel, although "in the manner of superficial sex, [it] leaves us feeling oddly unfulfilled."

"House of Holes" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

The author of what Sukhdev Sandhu in the Guardian calls "an allusive, elusive creature - not quite memoir, fragmented social history, partial documentary", has lived in Harlem since 2004, when it was subject to gentrification: "In 1990, 672 white people lived in central Harlem; in 2008, there were 13,800. Columbia University has even sought to gobble up real estate to convert into student dormitories." In the FT, Bonnie Greer praised the book's style: "Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts marks herself out as a first-rate noticer with the gift of being able to allow us to notice things exactly when she does. Her lyrical prose flows like the human gaze: a glimpse here, a longer look there, a quick turning away when something is too contradictory, or too difficult to sort through"; Sandhu likewise compares her to Walter Benjamin, a poet of the unnoticed, working "through bricolage and delicately diaristic prose". In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Kosner is less pleased with "memoir mixed with social anthropology is at once affected and affecting", which compares unfavourably with other recent books on Harlem.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

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