Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on Victor Serge, Harry Mount and Robert Caro.

Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge

Victor Serge stood out amongst the revolutionaries in the early years of the Soviet Union because of his rejection of the violent methods employed by its leaders. He wrote his memoirs in 1942 and died in 1947. This first full edition of the book in English was a long time coming, but has been welcomed with enthusiasm. John Gray, writing in the New Statesman this week, describes Serge’s tale as an “extraordinary story”, carefully depicting the changing nature of politics in the USSR. Whilst not centering the book on his own story, “the strand that links everything together is Serge himself - a courageous and generous man who was loyal to his vision of how revolution could usher in a new era in human history”.

Nicholas Lezard, writing in the Guardian, agreed. He wrote of Serge: “This is a man of great courage, then, and utter decency. If there is a note in those words which reminds one of Orwell, bear in mind that Orwell didn't have to labour under the constant fear of the state murdering him, or his wife, or his child.” As well as a huge personal respect for the author, Lezard also has huge amounts of respect for the book itself as “essential, above all, as a denouncement of oppression, an eye-witness account, written in heat and at speed, but with the talent of the true writer, of what it was like to be at the heart of the machine – and to stand up to it”. Gray identified weaknesses in Serge’s understanding, where he was “consistently deluded about how the revolution would develop”, and unable to accept that “Mass terror was a condition of [the Soviet Union’s]survival”. Taking that into account, Lorna Scott Fox in the London Review of Books still described Memoirs of a Revolutionary as a “classic” account, showing a “heroism” in his stance. In Lezard’s words, “anyone who cares about justice and freedom of speech should have a copy”.

How England Made the English: From Hedgerows to Heathrow by Harry Mount

Harry Mount took on a formidable task in attempting to explain how exactly English society has come to be. Looking at the impact of geographical location, foliage and even soil type, he takes the reader through a comprehensive attempt to understand why exactly England looks as it does and the English act as they do. Alexandra Harris, writing in the Guardian, argues that even if Mount doesn't completely succeed in that task, his book does at least make the reader think: “If more people look around them in England this summer and notice what the kerbstones and window-frames are made of, then that can be no bad thing.” However, the cost of this new light on the mundane has been the crippling focus on fact and figures. Peter Wilby, writing for the New Statesman, argued that the tone is “discursive, understated and oddly flat; at times, as the author details soils and the genesis of place names, one has the sense of reading a GCSE textbook.” Harris agrees, lamenting Mount’s narrowly empirical focus on such an otherwise interesting subject: “why reduce it all to a relentless list of facts and figures?”

Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, offers Mount little solace. Aslet welcomes Mount's defence of England’s “particularity”, which, he claims, has been eroded in recent years. It’s a conservative slant which Wilby claims may well be one of the most interesting parts of the book, leaving the reader “wiser and better informed on a range of other topics, not least the mood of One Nation Tories.” The cost of focus on this particularity is a recurrent theme: it falls into stereotypes, claims Aslet, an issue which Harris agues adds to the blandness of the book.

In conclusion, Harris asked: “Does all this get us any closer to understanding Englishness? Not really, though that's a lot to ask”. Wilby wrote:“I wasn’t sure that, beyond banalities about the weather, I was much clearer about how England made the English – How the English Made England might have been just as good a title”.


The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume IV: the Passage of Power by Robert A Caro.

Almost 40 years ago, when Robert Caro agreed to write a biography of Lyndon Johnson, it was expected that the series would be made up of three books covering all of Johnson’s time in office. Two and a half million words later, this fourth volume is expected to be the penultimate. It has become a series which, Tom Carson argues in GQ, has a Harry Potter-like following amongst an audience of “people deformed by Washingtonitis”.

It is a following which Lord Andrew Adonis, writing in the New Statesman this week, believes was hard-won. This most recent volume contains “one central insight: that Johnson’s legacy, good and bad, was determined by both moves and decisions made within a matter of days of John F Kennedy’s assassination on 22 November 1963.” Caro’s latest volume moves beyond a simple biography to an analysis of not just Johnson’s time in office but the nature of office. Adonis argued that “in telling the tale [of Johnson], Caro not only re-creates one of the giants of modern politics, he tells a giant tale about power and about life itself”. Thispraise is echoed by the Economist, identifying not only Caro’s ability to look at the structure of politics but also the judgments made by individuals: “Mr Caro’s strength as a biographer is his ability to probe Johnson’s mind and motivations”. Caro manages to guide the reader through Johnson’s leadership skills, his civil rights successes and the reasons for his poorer choices.

The final volume of this series will deal with Johnson’s eventual downfall, Vietnam and the emergence of what the Economist refers to as the President’s “darker side”. It argues  that “Mr Caro’s many fans eagerly await” the final volume. This series may have prompted a Harry Potter-style frenzy, but this has been justified on all counts.

Lyndon Johnson with his cabinet in 1967 (Photo: Getty Images)
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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.