Hilary Mantel's precise, unkind words have been twisted into a "venomous" attack on Kate

If it's Team Mantel or Team Middleton, Sarah Ditum knows which side she's on...

There's an irresistible circularity in the Daily Mail making a front page story out of Hilary Mantel's sinuous essay on the public scrutiny of the Royals' most intimate bodies. 5,500 words of sharp, considered prose in the London Review of Books becomes a one line bitchfest on the cover of the Mail: "'A plastic princess designed to breed': Bring Up the Bodies author Hilary Mantel's venomous attack on Kate Middleton".

Though she never singles out the Mail by name, the Mail is one of the primary producers of the kind of Royal scrutiny Mantel anatomises. The Mail has tugged at the threads of every outfit that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge has worn, hungrily anticipated her pregnancy from the moment she got married, sniffed at the fertile perfume of princessly nausea, and snorted derisively at the Middleton family – especially Kate's sister, who has been cast as both a grasping middle-class arriviste capitalising on her sudden accession to quality, and as the princess-a-like you can wank over without landing yourself in the Tower.

Mantel's essay is about that doubleness in the outwardly reverent attitude to royalty. "We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way," she writes, "making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all." She ends – not that you could possibly know this from the papers' retelling today – with a plea for Kate to be spared from the public's appetite for princess's bodies: "I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes." And for writing that, Mantel herself has to be cast as the brute.

In the retelling, we're even informed that Mantel "suggested Kate could have few complaints about private pictures of her being taken on holiday – observing: 'The royal body exists to be looked at.'" You only need compare that malformed quotation to the "back off and don't be brutes" line to see that it's a sheer sly distortion of Mantel's intent. But Mantel will recognise the technique, and so will anyone who's read her incandescent recreations of the political world of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall ("A rich and subtle wonder" – the Daily Mail) and Bring Up the Bodies ("Mantel's remarkable prose and turn of phrase … makes this a must-read" – the Daily Mail).

The Mail is playing the role of court prosecutor, assembling its case for treason the same way Thomas Cromwell does in the novels – shearing off a little of the truth here, elevating a select portion of it there, so that without ever telling an outright lie, it can turn the truth into something very unlike its original self. That's not to say, of course, that Mantel is just a sadly misrepresented purchaser of commemorative plates: she's too good a writer for the precise unkindness of her descriptions to be a slip. But Mantel's guillotine-sharp descriptions (the juxtaposition of Kate to Marie Antoinette is, again, not mere clumsiness) aren't aimed at the Duchess herself, but at the entire strange edifice of royalty and the public's bizarre relationship to it.

Of course, Mantel includes herself among the public: she makes herself its principal exemplar, catching herself in the act of consuming the Royal body when she has an encounter with the Queen:

I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones … And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.

The Mail can't identify that mix of sympathy and savagery with its own methods (maybe because it only really has the savagery), so it alchemises Mantel's subtle critique into a woman-beware-woman narrative. Kate on the right, doe-eyed and beaming softly; Mantel on the left, middle-aged and round-faced, menacing the poor princess. Choose your side: Team Mantel or Team Middleton. Well, if the Mail insists. I've never been all that fond of well-behaved princesses anyway. I'm with Mantel.

 

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton for the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The myth of the Entitled Fan

From abuse of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones to the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend movement, accusations of “fan entitlement” are simplistic and wrong.

I spent the past weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest gatherings of fans in the world. SDCC is a big, complicated scene, a vast sea of vendors and queues and what feels like all of Hollywood popping down the California coast to plug the next instalments of their franchises.

The dialogue between fans and creators varies at Comic-Con and similar conventions (SDCC, it should be noted, is a professional event for many, so the fan/creator line can get blurry). But with the biggest media properties, the general tone was best described as reverential. Actors, writers, and directors thanked fans for their dedication and their passion; fans asked creators the gentlest questions and heaped on the praise.

As the convention wore on, I was struck by how disconnected the conversations I was hearing were from the fannish world I encounter online. Every day on the internet, I watch fans critically engage with pop culture. Fans read deeply and watch closely, and they simultaneously create new works around the stuff they love while interrogating it rigorously. They squee over Marvel releases while calling out the whitewashing in Doctor Strange. They continue to celebrate Harry Potter while pushing back against the racism and appropriation of the “Magic in North America”.

Comic-Con hasn’t historically been a space for this sort direct discourse with creators – but whether it could or should be is an open question. The way fans and creators talk to each other is shifting, and these days, it’s arguably under more scrutiny than ever before.

For the past few months, people have been debating whether fandom is “broken”. The instigating article, by critic Devin Faraci, suggested that we live in an age of unparalleled fan entitlement: people who aren’t satisfied with their media, and don’t hesitate to be vocal about it.

The men who lashed out about an all-female Ghostbusters were one example; the Twitter hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend – which urged Disney to consider making the Frozen protagonist its first queer princess – somehow wound up in the same breath.

He even took a bizarre swipe at fanfiction, suggesting that fans’ desires to spend time in fictional worlds, writing explicitly for other fans, was the height of entitlement.

If you spot a false equivalency here, you’re not alone – and plenty of fans and critics pushed back. Despite its messiness, the article contained some truths: threats and harassment of any kind are never OK, no matter what your cause. But it pinned the massive problem of online harassment on fan culture, and in the weeks that followed, others followed suit.

In its Comic-Con coverage, the LA Times asked filmmaker Joss Whedon – who famously left Twitter in 2015 – about interactions with fans, or what the article dubs “The Age of Entitlement”.

And in a breathtakingly irresponsible piece in the Guardian, another journalist ascribed the vile racist and misogynistic Twitter attacks on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones – a deliberate swarm that had little, if anything, to do with the film itself, and led to the platform banning notorious conservative troll Milo Yiannopoulos – to angry “fans”.

What’s going on here? It’s true that fans on both ends of the spectrum, from hate-speech harassers to progressive activists, are speaking out using the same channels. But why do some people think they sound the same?

When I remember Comic-Con, all smiles and cheers, I can’t help but speculate that it’s down to the fact that fans are speaking at all. Fans have always talked back, but prior to social media they weren’t even a fraction as visible as they are today.

We’re witnessing the destruction of the fannish fourth wall in real-time: fans and creators are now seeing each other clearly on a massive scale, and creators are unsure how to – or if they even should – listen to fans.

To the creator, especially one who isn’t well-versed in online exchanges, any fan/creator dialogue can look like an attack. The traditional portrait of the fan as slavish consumer, treating a creator as god and cataloging their every word, was only ever one sort of fan. But for decades, it’s been the one that was easy for the entertainment industry to see.

Much has been written about the opening up of geek culture to people who aren’t straight, white, and male (not to mention the mainstream exposure of fan practices – like fanfiction – which have historically been the province of women).

In the democratised spaces of social media, marginalised fans are amplifying their voices just as marginalised non-fans are. For decades, our screens and pages have suffered from a lack of diversity, even if they didn’t actively peddle harmful stereotypes. Now that fans can talk back and potentially be heard, is it any wonder that they’re asking for more?

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.