The Man Booker Prize judges for 2012. From left to right: Bharat Tandon, Peter Stothard (chair), Dan Stevens, (sitting) Dinah Birch, Amanda Foreman. Photograph: The Man Booker Prizes on Flickr
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The Booker judges have stood up for seriousness

Serious literary debate is what makes the prize worth having.

Here we go again. For about a quarter of every year – from the announcement of the long list to the announcement of the winner in October – the Man Booker Prize provokes speculation and talk, though not much more than that. There are a few agenda-fixing headlines (“Amis snubbed again”, “Big year for small publishers”) and then everyone waits to see who the winner is.

Despite this apparently unbreakable pattern, the prize retains a great deal of dignity. It draws people’s attention to the state of the Commonwealth novel (a category it is more or less alone in recognising) and helps a number of books, many of which received little, if any, coverage, on their way to a readership and a reputation. Its potential positive influence makes it worth caring about. And when, last year, there was a bit of a scrap over how the prize was discussed by its judges (in particular Chris Mullin), the stakes were bigger than is customary in metropolitan sniping (though I would say that).

There is some evidence to suggest that the fuss was worth making. The organisers have done a canny job with the jury this time around, managing to appeal, as it were, to the circle and the pit. (Which is which depends on where you’re sitting.) The chair of judges, Peter Stothard, is an impeccable Establishment figure, a committee type and a former editor of the Times, knighted for his services to journalism; but he is also the current editor of the Times Literary Supplementand, as the occupier of that position, a legitimate, you could say obvious, candidate. It’s understandable that a prize with  a corporate sponsor, seeking national press coverage, should put emphasis on name recognition as well as cast-iron suitability and, within the constraints of this necessary and hardly abhorrent compromise, Stothard is as good a choice as any.

A similarly canny logic underpins the selection of the actor Dan Stevens, who also ticks the relevant boxes. Stevens, one of the stars of Downton Abbey, studied English literature at Cambridge and his Booker credentials are strong – he played Nick Guest in Saul Dibb’s adaptation of The Line of Beauty, he read the audio book of Wolf Hall and he appeared on The Review Show last October to discuss the prize. Stothard was careful to play down the extent to which his jury stands in reproach to Stella Rimington’s but it’s too late for Stevens, who, when discussing the “books that zip along” shortlist, said that the jury last year had failed in their stated aim to pick “readable” books by including Carol Birch’s novel Jamrach’s Menagerie.

I have a few quibbles with Stothard’s rhetoric. I am uneasy about the insistence, as a criterion, on “the shock of language” – it risks constructing a system of judgement whereby Will Self (Umbrella) and Jeet Thayil (Narcopolis) would have to be preferred to Pat Barker (Toby’s Room). And he has been too diplomatic in his stated refusal to pass judgement on publishers who have turned down particular books. He claims that a prize jury is the only professional audience concerned with quality alone – but
a shrewd publisher ought to see that a novel stands a good chance of winning a prize, a reliable route to commercial success. One of the books on Stothard’s shortlist, Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, was published by the independent imprint And Other Stories (AOS), which works by annual subscription (£50 buys you six books), after being rejected by what we are encouraged to call “mainstream publishers”, though, as a result of a distribution deal between AOS and Faber, it is now being distributed by one of the houses that (I am told) turned it down. (Another book on the shortlist, Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, is published by the small but well-established independent Salt.)

It’s part of the job description of a Booker judge to be deflective and non-committal. My attempts to ease secrets out of a judge I spied swaying in a tent about a month ago met with no success. So I will be left wondering – for as long as I keep up the energy to care – how it came about that a jury of intelligent and apparently careful readers produced a longlist containing a clumsy farce by Michael Frayn but neither of the trenchant novels about South Africa, Patrick Flanery’s Absolution and Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like the Present, both of which were eligible. (That the jury didn’t make use of the 13th spot on the longlist suggests a lack of collective desire to recognise these novels or prominent work by Ian McEwan, Lawrence Norfolk and Zadie Smith.)

As for the shortlist eventually settled on, there is no clear front-runner (as distinct from a book that received the most attention – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies), though to set the bar low, it looks likely that whatever novel takes the laurels will reflect better on the prize and on the possibilities and reality of the Commonwealth novel than Howard Jacobson’s reflexive cynicism or Julian Barnes’s crabbed cleverness. (A year on, admirers of Barnes’s book The Sense of an Ending appear incapable of agreeing of whether it’s ironic or sincere – whether it’s a narrative of recovery and epiphany or stasis.)

Answering the question before it was put, Stothard said that the books were whittled down – from 145 to six – through “argued literary criticism. There really isn’t any other way.” But one of the limitations, and possibly mercies, of Booker judging is that some variation on good manners prevents judges from describing the process in any detail. It would be invidious or unfair, so the thinking goes, to single out a book for praise or blame and it has therefore to be taken on trust that the discussion was of a high standard and not what Stothard calls “opinion masquerading as literary criticism”. Even if we’re not permitted to hear the individual notes, Stothard has been making the right noises and an unabashed seriousness about literary debate has always been not incidental but central to what makes the prize worth having and even cherishing.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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“The guards WANT you to mess up”: meet the prison wives of Instagram

How memes featuring Disney Princesses, Spongebob Squarepants, and saggy jeans have empowered women with incarcerated partners.

During a recent trip to visit her boyfriend in federal prison, 27-year-old Makenzie wore a floor-length black skirt and a grey shirt that completely covered the top half of her body. After a brief inspection, the guard on duty deemed her outfit appropriate and waved her through, and she was able to spend a happy eight hours with her incarcerated boyfriend and her six-year-old daughter. The next day, she came back to visit again.

“I wore the exact same outfit the second day of visitation because I didn’t want to fight with the guards about any other clothing,” says Makenzie, who had to drive five hours out of her home state, Texas, in order to visit her partner. “I was sent away by a guard who had seen me the day before.”

Makenzie felt “belittled and humiliated” by the guard, who forced her to go to the nearest shop to buy a new shirt. “I wore the exact same outfit down to my shoes and earrings,” she explains. When she confronted the guard, Makenzie says he said: “I honestly don’t care.

“All I’m telling you today is you’re not going in there dressed like that.”

Being a “prison wife” can be isolating and confusing. When wives and girlfriends first go to visit their newly-incarcerated partners, the rules and regulations can be overwhelming. When visiting her boyfriend, Makenzie has to place her money in a clear plastic bag, go through a metal detector before a smaller metal detector is used on her feet, and be patted down by guards. If her clothing is too loose or too tight, she is sent home.

“The guards WANT you to mess up,” Makenzie tells me over email, emphasis hers. “They want to make you mad, make you get in trouble.” For wives and girlfriends isolated by these experiences, the internet has become a haven.

***

Makenzie’s Instagram account has 1,123 followers. Under the handle “Texas Prison Wives”, she has been posting memes, photographs, and advice posts for five years. After incidents like the one above, Makenzie can use her account to vent or warn other wives about changes in clothing rules. Followers can also submit text posts to her that she screenshots, overlays on scenic pictures, and publishes anonymously.

One, imposed on a city skyline, asks if anyone wants to carpool to a prison. Another, overlaying a picture of a nude woman, reads: “I’m wondering if I can get some ideas on sexy pics I can take for my man. I’m about 85lbs heavier than I was the last time he saw me naked.”

The prison wives of Instagram recently went viral – but not on their own posts. A Twitter user discovered the community and tweeted out screenshots of prison wife memes – which are formatted with an image and caption like all relatable memes, with the crucial difference being that not many of us can actually relate.

“The life that we live is not widely accepted by families, friends, and the general outside world because people hear ‘inmate’ and automatically assume the worst,” says Makenzie, whose boyfriend was sentenced to two fifteen year sentences for drug possession.

“This account has given women a safe space and anonymity to seek personal advice, ask questions, and seek other women within their area if they want to reach out.” Her account, Makenzie says, also allows prison wives to laugh during tough times. She both makes her own memes and shares those from similar accounts. One, from May 2016, features a collage of four celebrities rolling their eyes. The caption reads: “When you hear ‘Babe, we are going on lock down again…’”

To outside eyes, some prison wife memes can seem flippant or – to those who retweeted the viral tweet – laughable. “My Life As A Prison Wife” is an account with over 12,000 followers that posts a wide array of memes, often using stills from Disney movies to portray emotions. A post featuring an image of a crying Belle – from Beauty and the Beast –  is captioned “that feeling when… when your visits get suspended”. Yet though many online criticise what they see as the glorification or normalisation of a life choice they don’t agree with, Makenzie emphasises that memes – especially funny ones – are important.

“I think it’s fun to have so many people relate to funny memes even though the direct meaning behind it is about being lonely or the hard things we go through to make this relationship work,” she explains. “It’s a reminder we aren’t alone in our struggle and we can laugh through the pain.”

Jemma, a 22-year-old from London who runs an account called “Doing time too”, concurs. Her profile – which has 1,369 followers – showcases memes featuring puppies, Disney princesses, and stills from Spongebob Squarepants.“I'm sure ordinary members of the public would disagree with our light-hearted way of looking at our loved ones being in prison and I would totally understand that,” she says – also over email.

 

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY LADIES  #prisonwife #prisonwifelife #doingtimetoo #inmatelove

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Before I was in the situation myself, I would have probably reacted in the same way to an account like the one I now own. But sometimes you end up in situations you never expected to and you deal with things in a way that others won’t understand.”

***

Prison wives don’t use Instagram just for memes. Makenzie’s account helps women in need in an array of ways: they can find out if there have been riots in their partner’s prison; get advice on gifts to send a loved one; and even find out how to appeal sentences. Alongside her Instagram, Jemma also runs a website called www.doingtimetoo.co.uk

Via @TexasPrisonWives

“I started the website because I was in a relationship with someone a couple of years ago who ended up going to prison. It was totally out of the blue for me and something neither of us saw coming,” she says. “I had no idea how to deal with it.” Her site provides information about individual prisons, what to expect from a prison visit, and what to do after release. She also provides tips on how to send creative gifts made out of paper to incarcerated loved ones.

“I believe the internet has been a massive help in supporting prison wives,” says Jemma, who finds most people don’t understand or relate to her situation. Her boyfriend was charged with GBH (grievous bodily harm) and sentenced to two years in prison, after getting into a fight.

Jemma also feels that Instagram can provide prison wives with information that the prisons themselves withhold. “I can't speak for everyone but in my experience, prisons and the visit centres are far from helpful in providing any information, support or advice,” she says. “Sometimes people won’t hear from their husband when they expect to but through interacting with other ‘prison wives’ they may find out that that particular prison is currently on lock down, providing an explanation and reassurance as to why they hadn’t heard from their husband. Without the internet, this wouldn't happen.”

 

Advice! @mothafukn.irvin

A post shared by OFFICIAL N. CALI SUPPORT (@north_cali_prisonwives) on

When Jemma reached out to prison visitor centres in the UK to promote her website to those in need, she never heard back. When she emailed her boyfriend’s visitor centre prior to her first visit to ask what to do, what to wear, and what to expect, she also never received a reply. “There is no communication with family and no support offered… It’s important to remember that the families themselves did nothing wrong or illegal and so don’t deserved to be punished or treated like criminals themselves.” In such circumstances, information shared online is crucial.

Makenzie also believes that the US prison system has it faults when it comes to visitors. “While I know and understand that inmates are being punished for a crime they committed, the guards treat their families disrespectfully and unfairly almost as if we are being punished as well,” she says. “Being a larger woman, I have gotten in trouble for my clothes being too tight AND for my clothes being too loose. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

Makenzie explains that sometimes visitors are forced to wear gowns similar to those worn in hospitals if their clothes are deemed unsuitable. In the past, she has even been sent away to buy a new bra after she wore one without underwire in order to get through the metal detector. In one prison her boyfriend was incarcerated in, visitors had to wait outside to be signed in, one-by-one, regardless of the weather. “We had to wait two hours several times, sweating, drenched in rain, they don’t care…

“The guards degrade your loved ones right in front of your face, they are mean, hateful, and over the top rude, even to the inmates who are the most well behaved and respectful.”

For these women, Instagram has become an invaluable network of support.

***

There are hundreds of Instagram accounts just like Jemma and Makenzie’s. Many often take memes from each other, but Jemma explains there is no competition. In fact, she says, the network is incredibly supportive. “I spoke to one lady regularly about her situation and I remember counting down to her boyfriend’s release date with her,” she says. Jemma and Makenzie also use their accounts to help lonely prisoners find pen pals.

Instagram allows prison wives to find likeminded people, free from judgement. Yet the accounts can also be incredibly informative to outsiders. By using the “When…” format, memes provide a detailed insight into the lives of prison wives. “When you’re kissing baby towards the beginning/end of the visit and the CO yells ‘enough’,” reads one. “When you check your phone and see… not only did you miss 1 call, you missed two,” is the caption on an image of a crying child.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

“Nobody understands this long distance, no physical intimacy, and then the added stresses of dealing with prison politics, corrupt guards, and the worry of riots, lock downs, and retaliation like women who are living through the same thing,” says Makenzie. Yet thanks to these Instagram accounts, outsiders do have an opportunity to understand.

For prison wives, memes are an easy and fast way to talk about a topic that many deem taboo. The fact that Jemma and Makenzie wished to communicate with me over email, and the fact many more prison wives didn’t want to speak to me at all, shows how difficult it can be to talk about these issues. For many, memes are just a bit of fun. For prison wives, they can be a lifeline.

 

A post shared by doing time too (@doingtimetoo) on

 “None of us enjoy prison visits or being treated like we are criminals ourselves. We don't enjoy waiting for phone calls that never arrive or having to deal with situations all on our own but if we can laugh about it, that’s something,” explains Jemma.

“Memes allow us all to laugh at the situations we are in, rather than cry.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special