Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Colm Tóibín, John Lanchester and Stefan Collini

New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín

In the Financial Times, NS editor Jason Cowley advises caution, lest a brutally honest memoirist be one of our own: "Beware the family that has a writer in its midst, the one who watches, records, remembers and confesses ... those closest to them invariably suffer most". Cowley observes how Tóibín's anthology is semi-autobiographical rather than purely a commentary on the lives of others: "In New Ways to Kill Your Mother, a series of review-essays, he works away at and through his obsessions: family, homosexuality, homeland, the anxiety of influence." Cowley acknowledges Tóibín's "understandable interest" in other Irish writers, but wonders if his essay on Beckett carries either sufficient insight or the scholarly appreciation exhibited by others: "But one has little sense from it of the complexity of Beckett's relationship with his mother; you have only a mild sense of the misunderstanding that existed between them. It was written before the publication of the second volume of The Letters in 2011 (no attempt was made to update the essay or to write a postscript to it, as Martin Amis did to the literary essays collected in The Moronic Inferno: And Other Visits to America)." Cowley notes certain of the book's continuities, but feels the project could have been more tightly executed: "As it is, these review-essays share a family resemblance as themes overlap and interconnect, but the whole turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts."

John Preston, in the Telegraph, detects a Freudian inevitability in child-maternal acrimony, citing how many writers commit literary matricide: "It comes as no surprise to learn that writers should often have had troubled relationships with their mothers, but as Colm Tóibín points out, the real interest lies in seeing how they exact their revenge. They do so in a lot of cases by murdering them - not in cold blood, but metaphorically, on the page." Citing Tóibín's perceptive solitary essay on a female author, Preston notes Jane Austen's exclusion of a mother figure in the name of a protagonist's burgeoning independence: "There is a long and surprisingly distinguished history of matricide in fiction - especially in the 19th-century novel. Jane Austen's last three novels all have motherless heroines and they do so, Tóibín believes, for a very good reason. "Mothers get in the way in fiction; they take up the space that can be better filled by ... the slow growth of a personality." Without mothers, Austen's heroines are free to grow outside of the family's arena of influence - and to become themselves." For Preston, Tóibín is as able a historian as he is a storyteller: "Delicacy is one of Tóibín's great strengths as a novelist, and it's here in abundance, too."

* Colm Tóibín's New Ways to Kill Your Mother will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

Capital by John Lanchester

In the Guardian, Theo Tait sees in London-based epic Capital the aspirations of multiculturalism and the cruder reality of financial meltdown: "Roger Yount, an investment banker; Zbiegniew, a Polish builder; Matya, a Hungarian nanny; Freddy Kano, a young Senegalese professional footballer; the Kamals, a British Pakistani family who run the corner shop; Quentina, a Zimbabwean traffic warden; and Petunia, an elderly working-class woman - the last of the aborigines. The story begins just before Roger's bonus is revealed to him in December 2007; it ends in November 2008, with the world economy grinding to a halt." Whilst pointing out that sharp cultural insight is sometimes lacking in a text as sweeping and broad as Capital, Tait acknowldges Lanchester's spirited efforts to achieve a sharper focus: "a decent stab at describing what it must be like to run a corner shop, or to be detained under terrorism laws, or to leave a shack in Senegal to play alongside world-famous footballers". Tait, with cautious praise, notes that Lanchester's slightly flat conclusion is no anti-climax: "All in all, Capital is a diverting read. It holds your attention all the way to its strangely inconsequential ending, and will probably sell well".

For Keith Miller, in the Telegraph, Lanchester heeds William James's advice that we must intuit what to leave out: "Capital attempts an allegorical portrait of the Smoke during those turbulent times. Squeezing a bafflingly diverse city of more than seven million inhabitants into even quite a thick book without letting a good portion of the diversity slide is a tall order: to pluck a few examples out of the air, there are no Brazilians, intellectuals, charity muggers, public-sector employees, gangsters, media workers or entertainers in these pages. But the book is a more or less unimpeachably plausible portrait of one (fictional) street in Clapham, a popular south London 'village' where a spacious but fairly hideous Victorian house can command a price approaching a hundred times the UK's median annual income." To the purported truth that deft characterisations are key to a sound narrative, Lanchester, says Miller, was long ago converted: "Gently and slowly, Lanchester tightens the screws, alternating hope and despair, flitting between protagonists neatly and dexterously. New characters are introduced: a successful, terrible street artist (all street artists are terrible, though not all, significantly, are successful) called Smitty, the newsagent's brothers Usman and the hapless jihadi-turned-web designer Shahid." Though the scope of Lanchester's ambition here is daunting, Miller identifies an attractively costive, nuanced style: "There is a reticence, an austerity - to use a modish term - about the book that I very much liked."

* John Lanchester's Capital will be reviewed in the next issue of New Statesman.

What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini

In the New Statesman, Alan Ryan sees two disciplines fusing in Stefan Collini's timely primer on the current state of higher education: "It is really two books, the second half more polemical and the first half an essay in cultural criticism", merging Collini's contribution to an ongoing dialogue with a series of pieces he has published in different journals. Not, says Ryan, that the two styles don't fit together: "The two halves of the book hang together because Collini has a very definite vision of what universities can contribute to the welfare of societies that shelter them and pay for them, and an equally definite vision of the ways in which the higher education policies of successive UK governments since 1980 have made it hard for them to do it." Whilst echoing Collini's advocacy of learning for its own sake, Ryan worries the liberal ideal will be entirely subservient to corporate dogma: "Not that I imagine that the new breed of CEO vice-chancellor, let alone a government that parks universities under the umbrella of "business, innovation and science", will understand the point of even take any notice of it."

Sir Howard Newby, in the Independent, wonders whether this volume's inclusion of Collini's articles from the London Review of Books and elsewhere, supposedly to make them more widely accessible, is entirely valid: "Their inclusion is justified on the grounds that they are thereby made more available. In reality, they serve to demonstrate how much Collini's thinking has matured and moved on." Yet, these fragments are not without their value, observes Newby: "It does, though, focus on some easy targets - the depressing utilitarianism of the debate over the past 30 years; the decline of trust in professional judgments and the rise of egregious audit; the conflation of quality and standards." Ultimately, then, Newby, like Collini, condemns the bureaucracy to which higher education is increasingly vulnerable, and says that, if nothing else, the book does what it says on the tin: "Collini's book, I hope, will kick-start a serious debate. As a precursor, he has successfully reminded us what, indeed, universities are for."

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Women don’t make concept albums: how BBC Four’s When Pop Went Epic erases popular music’s diverse history

Why are the only albums blessed with the grandiose description of “conceptual” the ones made by white men?

Tonight, BBC Four airs a documentary exploring the history of the concept album called When Pop Went Epic: The Crazy World of the Concept Album. Presented by prog rock veteran Rick Wakeman, the programme set out to “examine the roots of the concept album in its various forms”, as well as cycling through the greatest examples of the musical phenomenon.

“Tracing the story of the concept album is like going through a maze,” says dear old Rick incredulously, while ambling round a literal maze on screen, just so we fully get the symbolism. But if the history of concept albums is a labyrinth, Wakeman has chosen a gymnastic route through it, one filled with diversions and shortcuts that studiously avoid the diversity of the format’s history. He imagines the concept album to begin with Woody Guthrie’s 1940s record about poverty and class struggle in America, Dust Bowl Ballads, following on with Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely (1958) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), before moving on to big hitters like Sgt Pepper and Tommy. It quickly seems apparent that the first albums blessed with the grandiose description “conceptual” are the ones made by white men, and Wakeman’s history credits them with inventing the form.

What about Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige (1943-58), a history of American blackness? Miles Davis’s Milestones, a 1958 LP-length experiment with modal harmonies? Sun Ra’s particular blend of science fiction and Egyptian mythology on albums like The Futuristic Sounds of Sun Ra (1961)? When Wakeman reaches what he considers to be the first from a black artist, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On , he notes that it “comes from a musical culture where the concept album was quite alien”.

Certainly, Motown was a towering monument to the power of the single, not the album, but we know that one of Gaye’s greatest inflences was Nat King Cole: why not mention his 1960 concept album, centring  on a protagonist’s varied attempts to find The One, Wild Is Love? Wakeman does recognise the importance of black concept albums, from Parliament’s Mothership Connection to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but his history suggest black concept albums begin with Gaye, who is building on the work of his white predecessors.

It takes rather longer for Wakeman to pay his respects to any conceptual woman. 53 minutes into this 59 minute documentary, we discover our first concept album by a woman: Lady Gaga’s The Fame. The only other female artist discussed is Laura Marling, who, perhaps not coincidentally, is also a talking head on the documentary. That’s two albums by women out of the 25 discussed, given cursory attention in the last five minutes of the programme. It feels like a brief footnote in the epic history of conceptual albums.

Jean Shepherd’s Songs of a Love Affair is perhaps the earliest example of a female-led concept album that springs to my mind. A chronological narrative work exploring the breakdown of a marriage following an affair, it was released in 1956: Shepherd has a whole two years on Sinatra. Perhaps this is a little obscure, but far more mainstream and influential works are equally passed over: from themed covers albums like Mavis Staples’ duet record Boy Meets Girl to more conventionally conceptual works.

The Seventies was a decade that did not solely belong to pasty men rambling about fantasy worlds. Female-fronted concept albums flourished, from Manhole by Grace Slick, conceived as a soundtrack to a non-existent movie of the same name (1974) and Joni Mitchell’s mediations on travel in Hejira (1976), to Bjork’s debut, an Icelandic covers album (1977), and Heart’s Dog & Butterfly (1978).

The Eighties were no different, featuring gems like Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm (1985), which pulled a single track into a wild variety of different songs; the Japanese distorted vocal experiment Fushigi by Akina Nakamori (1986), and Kate Bush’s playful faithfulness to A and B sides of a record, producing “The Ninth Wave” as a kind of mini concept album on Hounds of Love (1985).

Wakeman skips over the Nineties in his programme, arguing that conceptual works felt hackneyed and uncool at this time; but the decade is peppered with women making thematically unified works from Madonna’s Erotica (1992) to Hole’s mediations on physical beauty and trauma, Live Through This (1994) and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998).

Since then, women arguably led the field of conceptual albums, whether through the creation of alter egos in works like Marina and the Diamonds’ Electra Heart, Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce or through focusing on a very specific theme, like Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow or in their storytelling, like Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown and Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm. Wakeman includes no black women artists in his programme, but today, black women are making the most experimental and influential conceptual records in modern pop, from Janelle Monáe and Kelis to Erykah Badu, and, of course, Beyoncé. It’s no coincidence that Lemonade, which would have been considered an abstract conceptual album from a male artist, was immediately regarded as a confessional piece by most tabloids. This issue extends far beyond one documentary, embedded in the fabric of music writing even today.

Of course, concept album is a slippery term that is largely subjective and impossible to strictly define: many will not agree that all my examples count as truly conceptual. But in his programme, Wakeman laments that the phrase should be so narrowly defined, saddened that “the dreaded words ‘the concept album’ probably conjure up visions of straggly-haired rockers jabbering on about unicorns, goblins and the end of the world”. Unfortunately, he only confirms this narrative with a self-serving programme that celebrates his musical peers and friends, and ignores the pioneers who would bring variety and colour to his limited classification. 

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