The Books Interview: Nathan Englander

Your stories often have both a comic sensibility and a dark undercurrent. Is that how you see the world?
I think that is maybe the way my brain is patterned, my expectation of the world. That line has always been part of my work - even when I was at Iowa [Writers' Workshop] a hundred years ago, I'd show friends a story and say, "Look, I wrote the funniest story ever!" and they'd be, like, "I cried," or, "That was the saddest story ever." I started to understand I can be tone-deaf to what the response will be. It's less a structural thing than honestly just the emotional pitch of how I see the world.

I always call myself either an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist - I'm not sure which way it goes. "I'm having a lovely day. I guess I'm going to get hit by a bus": that is how I move through the world. I need to work on that. I think I'm afraid to enjoy. I'm always waiting for things to turn horribly sour.

You mentioned the way that your brain is patterned. Do those patterns change?
I spend a lot of time inside my brain. I didn't teach for years and now I'm teaching again [at the City University of New York]. I've started to see how much of the writing life is psychological. I feel like I'm getting more interested in relaxing into where my brain is at. That's what forms these stories and, when you get into them, they take over your head. You're building a world from nothing. It shouldn't be born in a perfect way, if you're a human being. Your brain forms a story and, if you're lucky, there's a line where the story takes over the brain. You don't even know what you have.

When the story takes over, does the intimacy with which you write surprise you?
As a suburban Jewish boy, I surprise myself when there's any level of intimacy. To have emotion in the outside world might be a better thing to work on now. There was a terrible fear for me when I started writing, which was that if you'd been denied unbelievably tumultuous experience, you didn't have permission to write. But if I'm afraid to go to sleep-away camp and someone else is afraid because they've just been taken to the Gulag, you can write [about] both, if the level of fear is the same. I got interested in this idea of the personal. We prized privacy in my family. I wanted to explore different kinds of truth and the line between memory and fiction. I believe that fiction is a supreme form, in a sense.

One of your stories is about the writer-reader relationship. Are you acutely aware of this as you write?
When a book is functioning, the connection between writer and reader is a crazy thing. I think about it all the time - this idea, where space is erased. Isn't the idea of success and work to find someone who truly gets it? That's how we feel with books that really work. I'm not picturing anyone when I write. It's a very vulnerable place to be in. It's painfully sincere, the way I feel about certain books, and I wanted to explore that in fiction. You know certain characters in books [better] than most people you know.

You've returned to writing short stories after writing a novel. Why?
I just felt very free. After the first book of stories, which I was very fortunate with, people would say, "It must be very hard to follow up such a success." And I'd be like, "Oh, thank you very much. It must be less hard than following up a huge failure." In our super-ADD world, where people fall asleep mid-tweet, why wouldn't people want more short stories? I feel that line between poetry and novels - this compressed form.

I happen to appreciate and love the form but another thing that allowed this book [to happen] was that I wrote it in secret. There was so much pressure when I was writing the novel. I've also freed myself from this idea of definition. I wrote a novel, so now they can call me a novelist. I tell stories: that's it. I have a play opening in the fall, I have two translations coming out in the spring (New American Haggadah and a collection of stories by Etgar Keret), but I would never call myself a translator or a playwright.

So much of the pressure of work is how you identify yourself. If a book has touched you and you want to make one, it's so overwhelming. People ask me how I write. I say there's a voice in your head telling you to quit - ignore that one. And there's one saying, "You can do this!" - listen to that one.

Nathan Englander's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank" is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£12.99)

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.