Seduced by herself: Caitlin Moran. Photo: Gettty
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A hasty rehash: Frances Wilson on Caitlin Moran’s new novel

Those expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them.

How to Build a Girl 
Caitlin Moran
Ebury, 343pp, £14.99

When How to Be a Woman appeared three years ago, it was like the turning over of fresh soil. Here, in a blend of memoir and polemic, was the new feminism: buoyant, transgressive and up for a fight, “rugby style, face down in the mud with lots of shouting”. Caitlin Moran, a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who began writing for the Times as a teenager, had caught the spirit of the age: feminism was about being treated with politeness and equality, and not being a feminist was like bending over and saying, “Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy.” Along with everyone else I punched the air as I read her book. With Moran in the driving seat, we could relax about showing the way ahead for our girls.

There was only one problem, which seemed unimportant at the time but signalled the car crash to come. Although Moran had a clear sense of her own direction, she never looked in the rear-view mirror. Before Lady Gaga felt free to shoot fireworks from her bra, there was some groundwork done by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, but Moran wrote as if the world was born the day she came into it. Feminism, her younger readers might think, was something she alone constructed, brick by brick, on foundations she herself laid down. In that sense, it is appropriate that her first novel is called How to Build a Girl, but a better title might be How to Make a Fast Buck.

A coming-of-age tale about a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who starts writing for a music paper as a teenager, How to Build a Girl comes with a level of hype otherwise reserved for Philip Roth. Added to which it is being promoted by a “rock’n’roll literary tour”. Those in the mosh pit expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them. Apart from the heroine, there are no girls to be found in the threadbare plot, unless you count the bit parts played by her washed-out mother, nasty cousin and a sexual rival called Emilia. Any character roles are given to the men, who also have all the best lines.

Otherwise there is very little difference between Moran the novelist, who says “cunt” a lot, who “gets her freak on” over cartoon characters and describes the state of her mouth after giving a blow job, and Moran the journalist, who does all the same things. How to Build a Girl is simply a hasty rehash of How to Be a Woman. Even the jokes are recycled; the only job available for Moran in Wolverhampton, she says in the first book, is a dead prostitute. The only job available for her in Wolverhampton, she says, less wittily, in the second, is as a prostitute. Except that it is not Moran but Johanna who now says it, and a disclaimer at the start of the novel stresses that “this is a work of fiction” and “Johanna is not me”.

Who, indeed, would want to be Johanna? Even Johanna doesn’t want to be Johanna, so she gives herself the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, demon journalist. Being in the company of Johanna or Dolly for 343 pages is like being pinned to the wall by a bore at a party, who guffaws at her own gags, boasts about her vagina and sees herself as a “legend”. What was once refreshing about Moran’s writing now comes across as laboured and tiresome. When we first meet Johanna she is masturbating, or “seducing herself”, and her self-adulation wavers for only a nanosecond at the end of the book, when a sexual threesome goes wrong. For those who can’t get enough of the world according to Caitlin, Channel 4 has commissioned a six-part comedy series, Raised by Wolves, written by Moran and her sister and based on their childhood.

How to Be a Woman was a celebration of all women, and How to Build a Girl is a celebration of one woman. You might argue that in our age of selfie-obsession this is what we should expect from a writer capable of defining a generation. Or you might see it as lazy and cynical. “Like all the best quests,” Johanna reflects of her experiences, “I did it all for a girl: me.” 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge