Fiction Uncovered 2013 is no literary John Peel sessions

Do we need yet another self-serving literary prize list? The Fiction Uncovered 2013 list purports to give prominence to promising and innovative writers that have been overlooked elsewhere, but the many of the books it has selected are anything but, write

We’ve got literary lists and prizes for everything. Now we’ve got Fiction Uncovered 2013: a promotion for books which wouldn’t look out of place on other middle-brow prize lists, but didn’t make them. If there is room for another list, it’s one that wears its "un-" prefix unapologetically: an alternative list of brilliant books that would never be considered for the big prizes or summer reads round-ups. This isn’t it. But then, the Booker has at least pretended to get more interesting recently. Last year it flaunted Will Self’s Umbrella, before giving the prize to Hilary Mantel again. This year it put three debut novels on the long list, though Colm Toibin will win, because he’s due the prize. If the major prizes are notionally looking elsewhere, what happens to all the worthy, heart-felt, innocuous and uncharismatic books? The one about a west London couple who discussed pension plans on their first date, or the one where a woman writes an account of her parents’ relationship?

The Fiction Uncovered promotion is confused and euphemistic. The packaging would have us believe that it is giving us eight books by Britain’s finest writers, but is in fact promoting mid-list authors that the judges believe to have been unfairly overlooked, either critically or by prize committees. What is also apparent is that the judges want to award a writer for career achievement and previous, better books, but has to push his current book in the promotion. Does every author deserve recognition for taking part, for competence? The Fiction Uncovered list seems to perpetuate a cycle of deserving, whereby writers who have been praised in the past are seen to deserve praise even when their books aren’t up to scratch. This effectively keeps writers who might deserve "uncovering" covered. It makes you long for the sort of thing it isn’t: a kind of literary John Peel thing which genuinely does "uncover" promising and innovative writers. The only clear rule in the rubric of Fiction Uncovered is that debut writers aren’t eligible. Fair enough: first-timers traditionally generate goodwill, buzz, and an optimistic marketing budget. They are also likely to get passed over for review in favour of established authors. The better books on the list corroborate this, having been reviewed extensively and positively. So why do they need this promotion?

Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, a book about a teenage farm girl in the early nineteenth century who learns to read from the King James Bible, is the best on the list. It has rightly been praised by pretty much every paper and magazine, more than one comparing Leyshon to Hardy. ("The best bits of Tess of the D’Urbervilles" was what one paper said – the best bits!) Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy and James Meek’s The Heart Broke In have also been highly praised. They were bound to be good, at least technically, because these authors have had the most practice. The Heart Broke In was even shortlisted for the Costa Prize last year: one of about three major prizes in the country. You’d be forgiven for wondering why, after that, it needs uncovering, and whether this list is doing anything that hasn’t been done elsewhere.

Nikita Lalwani’s The Village seems to be the only well-reviewed book which deserves further "uncovering", as it inverts a usual middle-brow prize contender: the Brit abroad moral travelogue. Ray, a BBC camerawoman with an Indian background, is making a documentary about an Indian open prison. As she records the inmates’ stories, her colleagues pressure her to emotionally exploit her subjects for dramatic viewing. Ray finds herself "fetishising" images of her own hand holding fennel seeds, affecting an Indian accent on English words, and ashamed of the way her film-maker’s visual sense patronises and exoticises her surroundings. It is a sophisticated antidote to the gawping narrative optimism displayed by most prize-friendly books about other continents.     

The other books, whose authors have been reviewed well in the past, are either unremarkable or inconsistent. Worryingly, this indicates that the list is there to comfort writers who haven’t fulfilled their promise. Isn’t this an insult to the better books on the list, to be included in what is effectively a consolation prize? It is hard not to admire Anthony Cartwright’s How I Killed Margaret Thatcher and Lucy Cadwell’s All The Beggars Riding as stories. The former is a publican’s retrospective of a childhood in the West Midlands under Thatcher. The latter is a woman’s investigation of her parents’ relationship – her father had another family – and her attempt to write her mother’s memoirs. They are nice books, carefully put together, but pedestrian. If their counterparts strangely didn’t appear on prize lists this year, they’ll no doubt always have a place in book clubs.

Amy Sackville’s Orkney, an allusive, mythic novel about a fruity old English Lit don who takes his ex-student bride to honeymoon on an Orkney island, is too imperfect to sit confidently on a prize list. The success of this sort of thing is down to style. At her best, Sackville is a fine pupil of John Banville: someone else who likes writing arch old dons on the shore. The rest of the time her writing is bargain-Banville: too dreamy and quaint, and at its worst slippery with unsayable alliteration (‘sit down safe within my fortifications in the forecourt’) and unfortunate wordplay ("even tinned custard, in her custody. . .") Yes, the narrator is intentionally, playfully verbose and says things like "argent" and "whence". He’d have also spent his life striking ugly sentences out of students’ essays. Sackville has a good eye, though, and will hopefully write something very good and innovative soon. This isn’t her at her best, though.

Niven Govinden’s Black Bread White Beer was literally uncovered by this promotion, and wouldn’t have been available in print otherwise. This is the prize’s most admirable gesture and its biggest mistake. Amal and Claud, two thirty-something professionals who live in Richmond and sing Blur in the car, have an early miscarriage which undoes their relationship. They pretend they are still pregnant to Claud’s parents in the country: routine provincial bigots who think all Eastern Europeans are prostitutes and have a go at making curry when their Indian in-laws visit.

This book raises an issue that isn’t discussed enough, but is often a fault of book-clubby novels. Realist books built around a quietly affecting human tragedy can not only fail to be affecting or "real", but be tacky as well. There is a charity-mugging element at play: readers might feel guilty for being unmoved, or that they owe the events portrayed a certain solemnity. It isn’t that Govinden wants to make us sentimental. Amal, who isn’t the problem, is most sympathetic when thinking unkind thoughts and displacing his grief onto innocent bystanders in a village tea-shop. But Claude is so meagrely evoked that her miscarriage and its attendant sadness is trivialised. Perhaps it’s the way Govinden has her and all his characters speak, which is both unconvincing and clichéd – full of lazy sarcasm and throwaway rhetorical questions, like a script that hasn’t yet been read aloud by actors: “Read between the lines, Amal. Are you really that stupid?’ “Thanks for that, ‘Mal. You’re doing a really good job of making me feel better.” (Characters refer to each other by name more often than necessary, as if reminding themselves of their existence.) Why any discerning prize committee would favour this book, or actively introduce it into circulation, is baffling.

Paradoxically, readers still look to prize lists for non-bureaucratic recommendations. If there’s one thing we don’t need another prize or list for, it’s unremarkable books which probably don’t give the best impression of their authors. 

Does every author deserve recognition for taking part? Photo: Getty
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Poldark is the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers insist it is.

So Poldark has become the latest show to throw in a lazy, irresponsible rape scene to spice things up. We’ve sat through them in outrage-courting Game of Thrones, in cosy Sunday night drama Downton Abbey, and even at the opera. Now, they’ve come to BBC period adaptations, too.

This is how the scene plays out (a detailed description of the events leading up to the rape follow):

Poldark (Aidan Tuner) turns up at his friend Elizabeth’s bedroom door in the middle of the night, in a rage. She suggests he come back tomorrow morning. He refuses. She suggests they relocate downstairs. He refuses. She suggests he should not be in her bedroom. He refuses to leave, and shuts the door behind him.

They argue about Elizabeth’s plan to marry an enemy of Poldark’s, a decision that disgusts him. She asks him to leave, again. “I’m sorry you feel like this, but I cannot help it,” she tells him. “Oh, you’ve never been able to help anything, have you?” he says, mockingly, adding, “well, perhaps you can’t help this either,” kissing her forcefully before she pushes him off her.

Poldark threatens her, approaching her again as he insists, “I oppose this marriage, Elizabeth. I’d be glad of your assurance that you will not go through with it.” She says again that she will be married. Poldark kisses her again against her will. She tells him she hates him. “You would not dare,” she pleads, looking at the bed. “I would, and so would you,” he says. He pushes her onto the bed. You can guess the rest.

Of course, this is a rape scene. Some say it isn’t – because Elizabeth shows signs of enjoying the sex, and she’s nice to Poldark the next morning, because she has (or has had) feelings for him. None of these things are relevant. Poldark verbally pressured and physically forced a woman who was refusing to have sex with him. That’s rape.

It’s particularly dangerous to present a scene like this as consensual, as the writers and cast insist it is. Andrew Graham, the son of Poldark novelist Winston Graham, who was a consultant on the BBC's current screen adaptation, said:

“There is no ‘shock rape’ storyline. The only way to judge what my father intended is to read the novels as a whole. Doing so it becomes clear, from earlier scenes as well as from Elizabeth's immediate reactions and later mixed emotions, that what finally happened was consensual sex born of long-term love and longing. It was, as Aidan Turner has put it, ‘unfinished business emotionally’.”

His opinion was supported by Poldark screenwriter Debbie Horsfield as well as Turner – who said the scene “seems consensual”.

This is not how consent works. Consent is not something you can assume based on “earlier scenes”. And it’s certainly not something you can retrospectively achieve based on the “immediate reactions” or “later mixed emotions” of someone you forced to have sex with you. That’s just you attempting to justify the fact that you raped someone.

The idea that Poldark knows Elizabeth so well that he knows what she truly wants (sex with me, the man of her dreams, duh!!) might seem romantic. But no love is so great that it imbues the lover with the ability to read minds. Implying that Poldark knew best peddles the dangerous myth that when women say no, they mean yes. Beliefs like this create rapists. The only way to know what someone wants is to ask them, and to listen to what they say. Elizabeth said no.

Adapting period material can be tricky – not least in its presentation of women, gender dynamics, and sex. The Poldark books are from the Fourties, and set in the eighteenth century. It’s a miserable state of affairs when the understanding of consent presented on primetime television, in 2016, is as dated.

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