Woman in the crime mask: J K Rowling, AKA Robert Galbraith
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Mark Lawson: J K Rowling and the chamber of secret names

Cuckoo’s Calling sold just a few hundred copies when thought to be by “Robert Galbraith”, then millions when its true author was revealed. But should the mask have stayed on longer?

Although Agatha Christie and Philip Roth may seem an improbable pairing, both authors dramatised the experience of literary celebrity through an alter ego: Christie’s fictional crime writer Ariadne Oliver and Roth’s invented Jewish-American author Nathan Zuckerman tantalise readers with an apparent dance of self-revelation that may in reality be steps of disguise. Other writers who have suffered serious fame have reacted in a similar way: “Mailer”, the third-person reference somehow more egotistical than “I”, is a frequent protagonist in the books of Norman Mailer, while John Updike had Henry Bech, an American author who wins the Nobel Prize in Literature, in presumably therapeutic compensation for Updike’s own failure to do so.

This literary subgenre seemed threatened by the fact that destabilising stardom is a decreasing risk for authors. But two current writers – Dan Brown and J K Rowling – have achieved a level of renown far beyond Byron’s reported shock at waking up to find himself famous; and this giddy prominence has filtered into their books. Brown’s take on fame is oblique: one of the loudest false chimes in his latest novel, Inferno, is that its hero, Robert Langdon, has a lifestyle (private jets, etc) and public name-recognition that fit a super-selling thriller writer rather better than they do a Harvard academic.

Rowling has responded more directly to the predicament of being a writer so well known that her intervention in the Scottish independence debate (urging a No vote and giving the negative campaign a million quid to encourage others) was more widely publicised than anything said on the subject by Cameron, Salmond or Obama.

The subject matter of The Silkworm, her second crime novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, is the hunting of an author. Cormoran Strike – the one-legged private eye first met in The Cuckoo’s Calling, which sold a few hundred copies when thought to be by Robert Galbraith, then millions when its true author was revealed – is hired to find Owen Quine. This British horror-crime writer has vanished with the manuscript of a fiction called Bombyx Mori, an exposé of the literary world that includes defamatory versions of famous writers including Michael Fancourt, whose wife committed suicide after a parody of her writing in a satirical magazine.

Because Rowling’s first published works were a series of fantasies about adolescent necromancers and a sort of lacrosse played on broomsticks, the extent of autobiography and editorialising in her writing only belatedly became apparent. But, across the seven Harry Potters, her adult novel The Casual Vacancy and the two Galbraiths, personal preoccupations increasingly recur: single parenthood, press intrusion, class and racial prejudice.

Phone-hacking and fatherless children get another airing in The Silkworm and so there is an inevitable temptation to suspect that the viperous writers, slippery agents, duplicitous publishers and cruel critics who populate the book also represent heart-felt memories or observations. But Rowling is on record as saying that she had hoped her crime mask would stay in place for longer than it did. And I think it’s clear that The Silkworm was intended to be an even more elaborate tease than it now is.

Internal references (the News of the World still being published, Prince William’s engagement to Catherine Middleton) place the story in late 2010, an unusual time lag for contemporary crime fiction, which may lead some literary sleuths to wonder whether Rowling began it before, or possibly alongside, the first Galbraith novel. Strikingly, a major plot line turns on the true authorship of a novel and, if the pseudonymous ruse had endured, readers wondering whether Quine and Fancourt were caricatures of actual celebrated authors would have been dumbly unaware that the best-known British novelist of the age herself was hiding between the lines.

It’s a shame that the fun was spoiled. Even so, reading a Gal­braith while knowing that it’s a Rowling is still a pleasure. Surely, whatever happens in September’s referendum, her first specifically Scottish novel, under one name or another, cannot be far away.

 

Going it alone

Solo shows are popular with theatre accountants because only one actor has to be paid, and loved by performers because there is zero risk of being upstaged. Two recent productions, though, have confirmed that they can be a perfect form for audiences as well. Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of the American civil rights lawyer in David W Rintels’s Clarence Darrow and Fiona Shaw’s depiction of the mother of Christ in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary will surely be contenders for this year’s theatre awards. Though working in huge theatres – the Old Vic and the Barbican – Spacey and Shaw made every phrase resonate, conjuring up not just the title character but dozens of others in the narrative. One-person performances can be the speech equivalent of an operatic aria: the ultimate test of vocal dexterity and stage presence. These two actors passed with singular success.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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“Real Housewives of Isis”: How do British Muslim women feel about the controversial BBC sketch?

The sketch show Revolting's satiricial take on jihadi brides has divided opinion.

“He can’t stop talking about his 40 virgins. Why can’t he be happy with me?” says a crying woman dressed in an abaya (a robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women) to her friend. “Ali bought me a new chain . . . which is eight-foot long, so I can almost get outside, which is great,” says an identically attired woman talking to camera in another sketch.

The scene flits to her wrestling with a chain attached to a cooker as she struggles to move.

Thus did the BBC announce the forthcoming arrival of “Real Housewives of Isis”, the first sketch in a new comedy series called Revolting. For some, the name of the show is apt. The trailer, which is just under two minutes long, caused uproar from certain sections on social and legacy media, with many describing it as offensive and Islamophobic. Others, however, held a different view. Satire, went the argument, should never be off limits, especially when directed at a group as heinous as the murderous death cult that is IS.

Sulekha Hassan, a British Muslim woman who lives and works in Hackney, tells me she is unhappy with the video. “I don’t think that the entire sketch is without any merits,” she says. “It succeeds in capturing the fact that these young women – they are depicted as very young in the sketch – who have gone to join Isis are no different to their non-Muslim peer group. The references to social media in particular really capture this well.”

But, she continues, “As a visibly Muslim woman who wears the abaya on occasion and the scarf [the clothes represented in the sketch], I felt offended that my choice of clothing was being inextricably linked with terrorism. I did not feel offended by it from a theological perspective at all . . . The reality is that visibly Muslim women have been physically and verbally attacked on our streets. This isn’t about us being overly sensitive, it is a product of the real dangers we face as visibly Muslim women.”

Indeed, Hassan felt strongly enough about the subject to write a piece on it. She believes it is problematic to poke fun at young women who may have been groomed by IS and who are then further subjugated by them, rather than the perpetrators themselves.

“It does not sit well with my sensibilities as a woman who is concerned for the welfare of women everywhere,” she tells me. “Isis are opportunistic death squads who reserve special cruelty for the vulnerable – including women, who they view as little more than expendables for their cause.”

But other Muslim women, like Sara Khan, director of the counter-extremism and women’s rights organisation Inspire and co-author of the book The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, take a different view. As a Muslim woman, does the video offend her? Her response is blunt as it is strident:

“As a counter-extremism campaigner who has delivered counter-narrative work against Isis, why would it offend me?” she asks in reply to my question. “What offends me more is the fact that there are Muslim women who endorse and support Isis’ patriarchy and subjugation of women, as opposed to a sketch mocking these very women.

“I’m more offended by people who, while well-intentioned in seeking to combat anti-Muslim prejudice, downplay and ignore the reality of Islamist extremism and its radicalising power on even teenage girls,” she adds. “The fact is, many British Isis female supporters have endorsed not only the oppression of Muslim women, but also of Yazidi women, they have glorified the killings of aid workers and non-Muslims, they have expressed the desire to commit acts of horrendous violence and revel in the brutality of it.

“If that doesn’t offend you more, then you clearly have little understanding about the reality of these women jihadists.”

The case of the “Real Housewives of Isis” centres on two distinct issues. The first is the video itself; the second is the outrage that greeted it. And here the differences within the community are plain to see. For Hassan, “the outrage is reflective of the political anxieties that Muslims face due to the climate at this moment in time. I have not seen Muslims arguing that their faith was being mocked – Isis after all are not representative of Islam, they just happen to dress and look like people who adhere to the faith.”

Khan, however, takes an entirely different and characteristically robust, line. “I’m not surprised by the faux outrage,” she says. “It seems in this day and age the issues we should be offended by we are not, and the issues we aren’t offended by are precisely the ones we should be.

“It is clear in some quarters that people are in denial that there are female Muslim terrorists and supporters. Rather than taking offence at that, they misguidedly attack a sketch mocking these women. What’s been amusing to see is how some have tied themselves in knots about this: on the one hand they argue Isis has nothing to do with Islam, but then they accuse the sketch of being ‘Islamophobic’. So which is it?”

I’ve spent the last year researching IS for my forthcoming book, focusing on propaganda and recruitment methods geared both towards men and women, as well as interviewing a female IS returnee in Paris. When I was trying to work out people’s motives for joining IS, Melanie Smith, a researcher and project coordinator for the Women and Extremism programme at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, told me: “I think this is less about grooming online. I don’t subscribe to that because it takes away the agency of the person being radicalised and speaks to gender stereotypes around Isis, with the press and government saying ‘innocent’ women are groomed while men are ‘angry’ jihadists. Our research shows that many women are just as aggressive and violent.”

I have also researched the reaction to IS in the Islamic Middle East for my book – and what emerges is a clear pattern of sustained mockery toward the group from the Muslim mainstream.

From Lebanese comedy songs that IS will lead Muslims into “an abyss like no other” to clips satirising the absurdity of IS’ literal readings of the Quran, lampooning the group is widespread. An especially popular example of the genre is a sketch showing three jihadists asking IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the correct way to urinate. Can one hold his penis? No, says al-Baghdadi, because that’s the finger they use to fire their weapons on jihad. Can they squat?, asks the other. No, because girls squat. How do we piss?, asks the third. Like this says al-Baghdadi and they all urinate in their pants. The sketch ends with them all taking their urine-stained clothes to the dry cleaners.

The “Real Housewives of Isis” lacks a degree of nuance, but it does carry on a tradition long-established in the Muslim world of satire and ridicule. But whether Muslim women in the UK are comfortable about this tradition moving West-wards remains to be seen. Mockery might not be the ammunition that will ultimately defeat IS, but by being outraged at this sketch, we may be overlooking a powerful weapon at our disposal in this effort.