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.

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Who Should We Let In? pulls the rug from beneath its viewers' complacent feet

A gold star for Ian Hislop's BBC2 immigration documentary.

People talk about context as if it’s a straightforward matter: a thing to be conjured with a click of the fingers. But taking the long view, the better to put contemporary stuff into perspective, is a difficult business, on television as in print.

It’s not that viewers don’t want a history lesson: sometimes they absolutely do. Rather, it’s that it is harder than it seems to connect yesterday and today convincingly. The past, whatever some of our historical novelists might like to believe, really is another country.

The Britain of Who Should We Let In? Ian Hislop on the First Great Immigration Row (22 June, 9pm) certainly seemed to me to be another country, its empire still intact, its class system a suffocating prison. But if we’re talking context, well, here it was; deployed quite brilliantly so as to pull the rug from beneath its viewers’ complacent feet.

I’ve seen few things on television this year more disgusting than Katie Hopkins praising a 1906 account of the so-called Yellow Peril as it manifested itself in Liverpool’s Chinese community. “It’s so contemporary,” she said, smilingly relishing the racial slurs and slanders of an Edwardian hack journalist whose accusations, later exposed by an alarmed Liverpool City Council as complete fabrications, mostly had to do with opium. No wonder that the ever-equanimous Hislop looked, just for a nanosecond, as if he might be about to throw up. I was pretty close to being sick myself.

Hislop’s tale, deftly told, began in Victorian times, when Britain maintained an open-door policy, a welcome that was born both of pride (why wouldn’t foreigners want to come to such a fabulous place?) and of moral leadership (a Times leader of 1853 spoke of “the asylum of nations”).

But then . . . ah yes, here come the politicians, as reliably opportunist as ever. I give you Sir William Evans-Gordon, the Conservative MP for Stepney, who made it his mission to point out to his constituents, and the rest of Britain, that Jews were not to be trusted; and his fellow Tory Mancherjee Bhow­nagree who, despite being Indian-born, insisted loudly to anyone who would listen that immigration ought to be controlled in Bethnal Green North-East, his own seat, as well as everywhere else.

Hislop drew a clear line from the resentment whipped up by this pair in the early 1900s to the attitudes of politicians on both sides in the 21st century (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration,” as a flyer distributed by one of his interviewees, Sayeeda Warsi, once put it). Yet he also reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Britain warmly received a quarter of a million Belgian refugees.

Yes, a few of their hosts eventually began to grumble about their house guests: “garlic, blah, won’t even open a window, blah”. But in the main, the arrangement worked perfectly well until the end of the war, when, incidentally, most of these Belgians returned home to feast on their stinky food in peace.

As Hislop put it in a final, rather daring speech to camera, perhaps we should treat the arguments about immigration the same way we seem to regard immigrants themselves: with extreme scepticism and not a little ruthlessness.

The Keepers is a Netflix documentary series about the brutal murder of a Catholic nun, Sister Catherine Cesnik, in 1969. It’s a mystery, an attempt to discover who killed this beloved Baltimore Catholic high-school teacher. Leading the investigation are our unlikely heroines Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub, former students of Sister Cathy’s who have become, late in life, a pair of Nancy Drews. It is also, like Making a Murderer before it, a damning indictment of a certain kind of white, male power.

But what makes it special – akin to a richly imagined novel – is the way it portrays a particular society at a particular time. How unnerving it is to see grainy photographs of smiling young women with backcombed hair and groovy jeans, and to know that while others were thinking of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, their world continued to be ruled by priests and rosary beards. If I had a Kitemark, this one, haunting and highly addictive, would be stamped with it, pronto.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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