Mine craft: Breece D'J Pancake's stories explore lives defined by their geology. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty.
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This year’s Stoner? Introducing Breece D’J Pancake

The publisher who brought John Williams’s Stoner to Random House believes he has found its successor: a “hillbilly” from the US coal belt with a precious talent.

When I first heard about John Williams’s Stoner, like everyone else I assumed it was a book about drugs. I was wrong. It turned out to be a sad American novel, first published in 1965, about a university English teacher who enters into a miserable marriage, has a brief love affair and then dies.

The book become a bestseller in Israel, the Netherlands and France. It sold more than 160,000 copies in the UK last year, ushering in a frenzy for so-called Lazarus literature: reissues of neglected or out-of-print texts. Robert Walser, Elizabeth Taylor, Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig have all enjoyed a posthumous upsurge over the past 12 months, buoyed by imprints such as Serpent’s Tail Classics, Pushkin Press and Melville House’s Neversink Library.

Now the publisher Robin Robertson, who brought Stoner to Random House in 2003, believes he has found its successor.

Breece D’J Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952. He grew up in an area known locally as “Chemical Valley”, among the region’s many coal mines. An earnest, self-motivated student, he attended Marshall University and taught for two years at a military academy before accepting a fellowship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There he wrote 12 short stories, three of which were bought by the Atlantic Monthly (the magazine responsible for the elision of Dexter and John to “D’J” – an printer’s error which amused Pancake for its pseudo-aristocratic air).

When Pancake died, aged 27, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to John Casey, the young man’s writing instructor at Virginia: “I give you my word that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read,” he wrote. “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”

Those 12 stories, now published in paperback as Trilobites and Other Stories (Vintage Classics, £8.99), tell of difficult lives defined by geology. “Ain’t nothin’ but coal in this here hole. When we gonna hit gold?” asks a pit worker poignantly, early in the collection. The snappy, rusty vernacular, first-hand knowledge of physical labour’s debilitating effects on the body and spirit, coupled with vivid, painterly depictions of rural Appalachia, are the parts that make the sum of Pancake’s impressive output.

What emerges is an anxiety not so much about being good, but about being inferior. Amid the Southern gentry of Charlottesville, Pancake struggled to define his position. He both relished and detested his status as a “hillbilly”. He wrote to his mother explaining that his landlady had asked him to be a waiter at a party for the English department that should have counted him among its members: “[She] said if I didn’t she’d have to hire a coloured and they don’t mix a good drink. That tells me where I stand . . .”

Like Stoner’s sad professor, Pancake – and so many of his characters – considered himself a disappointment. Now that judgement is out of his hands.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

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