The author Jhumpa Lahiri, whose novel "The Lowland" has been shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Photo: Getty
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Writers of Colour: Shortlisted for prizes because of their individual worth, nothing else

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of head counts. But a good book just needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing.

We have always been told not to judge a book by its cover, so when did it become acceptable to judge a book by its author? Or, more specifically, the author’s sex and ethnic origins?

Last week the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Award for non-fiction was announced which prompted a blog complaining that the list was: “all-white and only five women”.

As a British-Indian woman writer, neither element had occurred to me. My reactions ranged from being thrilled to see William Dalrymple’s Return of a King after I’d helped edit the manuscript, to immediately buying Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike, and reminding myself to finish Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon. Certainly it’s permissible to dispute the nominated books if there are glaringly obvious absentees. But the complaints were never followed up with a list of alternative authors and books or reasoned argument in favour of either. In a blog about judging the prize, Mary Beard wrote that it’s impossible not to reflect on the different male and female styles in non-fiction but that ultimately “would I recommend this book to a friend”?

Knee-jerk reactions to representations of skin colour and sex have become so commonplace that individual worth is increasingly overlooked in place of colour-coordinated, gender-related head counts. Naturally when it comes to Parliament, or councils and committees with whom my fate rests, I want to see members chosen who best represent my voice and who reflect the diversity of the society in which we live.

But if I thought I had been hired for my job because I have brown skin, wear a bra, and make the masthead look exotic, I’d be nothing short of livid. I should be there because I’m the best candidate for the role, I can edit more tightly than anyone else who applied, and I understand what constitutes a dangling modifier. After all, I want to feel like my two degrees were worth my time and hard work.

And of course this isn’t just restricted to ethnic origins or gender.

Only recently an article appeared in the Guardian expressing outrage that a grammar-school pupil who had achieved 7 A* at A-level had been rejected by Merton College, Oxford, yet accepted by Harvard and Stanford. Oxford’s standard rejection letter revealed little about the reason behind their decision, but it’s a gross accusation to cry blanket elitism without scratching beneath the surface. Perhaps the pupil didn’t interview well, maybe the other candidates – in addition to having similar grades – were county tennis captains, debating champions or musical geniuses. Only recently I’ve seen job applications attached to CVs packing first-class Oxbridge degrees, enviable internships and numerous awards. These included: a food writer who misspelt Gordon Ramsay; a fact-checker who highlighted his 14-hour “shits” on Newsnight and a travel writer who turned up 90 minutes late for an interview because she couldn’t find her way to the office. The decisions to hire, or not to hire, boiled down to the individual’s worth and their suitability for the position.

Which brings me back to books.

Two days ago the Man Booker shortlist was announced. “Only one British author on shortlist” said the Daily Mail. And when this year’s Guardian First Book Award shortlist revealed seven women and four men, one blog declared, “yet more vindication that the reading public want female literary talent to be recognised”. Well, no, not really, that’s what the Women’s Prize for Fiction is for. The argument that awards should represent women as 50 per cent of the population holds no water. Women might make up 50 per cent of the population – but do they make up 50 per cent of the writing population? Currently the Top 100 books on Amazon contain only 26 books written by women – 27 if you include Robert Galbraith/ J K Rowling – which seems a better indication of what the book-buying public is reading.

A good book needs energy, soul, and fabulous writing, and it doesn’t matter where its author comes from or whether they have to stand or sit to pee. The last two books I read were Jim Crace’s Harvest because the opening paragraph was at once lyrically beautiful, intriguing and unnerving, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland because I’ve loved her other work. And unlike V S Naipaul, I can’t claim to be able to identify female prose from the outset – if at all. George Eliot aka Mary Ann Evans used a pen name to make sure her works were taken seriously, and I remember aged nine, reading Silas Marner at school, adoring the book and being none the wiser about the sex of the writer.

It’s not about where the author was born, what passport they hold or whether they are women or men, it’s about an individual’s worth and their words should speak for themselves.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era