The future of reading in our schools and the Lanchester consensus

Leo Robson asks why all the fuss about Capital and Michael Rosen says children's authors actually kn

The Critic at Large in the next issue of the New Statesman, out tomorrow is broadcaster, poet and children's author Michael Rosen. Rosen asks why children's novelists are so seldom consulted by politicians on the best way of encouraging young people to read. Rosen canvasses five possible explanations:

Your rough guide to likely reasons goes like this: 1) The author of a brand-new children's book about some characters called Wifflies is a celebrity once seen in a jungle, on ice or in Buckingham Palace. 2) The author sold a billion books last week. 3) The author's writing has been described by a bishop, Tory MP or private-school head teacher as obscene, left-wing, miserable, atheistic, horrific, violent, gay or feminist. 4) A publishing company has republished an old family favourite but edited out nice old family-favourite expressions such as "nigger". 5) The author is dead, English and classic but (it has just been discovered) had a very, very small penis, was hated by his grandchildren, had an affair with Trotsky and told lies about his incarcerated younger sister "Giddyboots".

Perhaps the main reason for authors not being asked for a second opinion, says Rosen, is the longstanding official interference with their to intellectually and aesthetically engage their intended audience in schools

Authors and illustrators for children are part of a long history of trying to engage children's interest in anything from factual, ideological, figurative and graphic traditions ... What infuriates me - and virtually every other writer for children I meet - is that the past 30 years has seen successive governments waging war on the democratic sharing of [their] wisdom.

Also in tomorrow's NS, our lead fiction reviewer Leo Robson discusses John Lanchester's Capital, a sprawling novel of London life. Robson departs significantly from the early praise heaped on the book (Lanchester's former London Review of Books colleague Andrew O'Hagan described it as "amazingly good; I doubt there will be a better novel this year. The well-written English novel of society - of the here and now - is such a rare beast, and especially rare is the one that also captures with style the inner lives of its characters"). Robson, for his part, acknowledges Lanchester's grasp of London's sociology and demography, but wonders if all that knowledge amounts to a satisfying novel:

Lanchester is fluent in the relevant codes at every level of society and on every rung of the property ladder, but vignettes don't add up to a vision. What's missing is a central device - a scam or legal case. There is a subject of sorts - a harassment campaign aimed at the inhabitants of Pepys Road [the south London street in which the novel is set]- but it has no propulsive force.

Capital has been praised for its social critique, but Robson wonders if Lanchester hasn't sacrificed depth for breadth:

A portrait of metropolitan decadence, the novel is all surfaces and stereotypes, all symptoms. The damning truth we yearn to hear has yet to be delivered.

Also in the 5 March issue of the New Statesman: Jane Shilling and Jonathan Derbyshire on Rachel Cusk; Norman Lamont on Trita Parsi's book about Obama's Iran policy; Kate Mossman on Madonna; and Will Self's Real Meals.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism