Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Paul Morley and Kristine Barnett.

Joyland by Stephen King

Joyland is a Bildungsroman narrated by Devin Jones, an old man looking back on the summer of 1973 when he worked at an amusement park. Its ‘whodunit’ detective story-like genre appears to be only held together by King’s infamous style; it does not appear to leave a lasting impression, unlike some of his other work.

The Independent’s Laurence Phelan believes that although the plot is “corny”, King “describes being young with the necessary vigour, and the slow agony with which a broken heart heals with the necessary tenderness”, although “there isn't a lot of suspense, detective work, or peril, there are too few suspects”.

Writing for The Telegraph, Tim Martin is of the opinion that “material that might disintegrate in other hands is held together by King’s evident enjoyment of his material and by his consummate skill, rarely surpassed among contemporary writers, at moving a story along”.

Tom Cox of The Express thinks that: “it feels like coasting, pleasantly, on a hang glider, at a height that, while impressive, doesn't quite give you the bigger, more spectacular view that you hanker for”.

The North (And Almost Everything In It) by Paul Morley

The North (And Almost Everything In It) divides critics in terms of the overall success of Paul Morley’s writing. Some wonder whether this arguably overlong book (it is 592 pages in length) drifts away from explaining the north-south divide in England. They all agree to some extent, however, that Morley’s emotional attachment to the north is endearing at times.

Sean O’Brien of The Independent is of the opinion that although the book is “often funny and occasionally inspired”, it is also “overlong, padded out with inserted captions dealing with northern facts and faces”. Additionally, O’Brien suggests that the book is flawed as “Morley is a journalist, strong up to 800 metres but sometimes struggling over longer distances”.

Stephen Armstrong, writing for The Sunday Times, comes to a similar conclusion: “Morley leaps between history, geography, reflections on famous northern figures, a memoir of moving to the north as a child…This ambitious mix struggles to fulfil his subtitle’s promise — the north and almost everything in it — but it is packed with raw emotion and ambivalent passions.”

The Spectator’s Philip Hensher is more damning of Morley’s personal link to the north: “The truth is that this book — which persuades us that everything comes down to the author’s personal experience of a tragedy, and which goes on about how brilliant at comedy northerners are while not being funny at all”. He also believes that “this book is really about working-class culture in Manchester and Liverpool”, rather than the being about what the title suggests.

Look out for our review by Stuart Maconie in Thursday's issue of the New Statesman.

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing Genius by Kristine Barnett

The Spectator’s Charlotte Moore is sceptical towards the book. According to her, the book “is misleading, and disheartening. One can never, in any case, be certain of what affects the outcome [of autism]”. She believes that “their story deserves to be told... but it is not a full depiction of autism”.

In contrast Maureen Corrigan. writing for The Washington Post, holds more admiration for Barnett. She is of the belief that “Barnett’s woman-warrior battle…to defy the experts and unearth Jake’s personality and potential is inspiring”.

Tina Moran of The Express is in agreement: “This is a truly inspiring story told in a humble, easy manner that doesn’t encourage pity or sympathy so you root for the family throughout and can only marvel at the unexpected and astonishing turn Jake’s life took.”

Joyland is King's second book for the Hard Case Crime imprint following The Colorado Kid (2005). Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.