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Death of the hatchet job

Book reviewing used to be a blood sport. How has it become so benign and polite?

Twenty years ago, I published a novel called English Settlement. It attracted what is known in the trade as “mixed reviews”, which is to say that a handful of people remarked that clearly a new star had risen in the cultural firmament, while a rather larger number declared themselves surprised that a fine old firm like Chatto & Windus should waste its money on such talentless dreck. Absolute nadir among the detractors was plumbed by the gallant ornament of the Sunday Times’s books section – a chap named Stephen Amidon who concluded, after much incidental savagery, that the book was “about as much use as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking competition”.

If this sounds bad – and it was no fun at all to sit at the kitchen table reading the ­review while one’s three-year-old romped around wondering why Daddy was looking so glum – then I should point out that this was an era in which wounding disparagement was, if not absolutely routine, then a frequent feature of newspaper books pages. Comparable highlights from the period include Philip Hensher’s dismissal of James Thackara’s The Book of Kings in the Observer (“could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall”) and, a little later, Tibor Fischer noting of a below-par Martin Amis that being seen reading it would be like your uncle getting caught masturbating in the school playground. Even I once submitted, to this very magazine, a review of a collection of journalism by Jon Savage called Time Travel, which the then literary editor ran under the headline “All the young pseuds”.

There are several questions worth asking about these outpourings of bygone critical spleen, in which the pretence of objective criticism very often disappears beneath a tide of ad hominem bitchiness. One of them is: would anyone be prepared to print this kind of thing on a magazine or newspaper in Britain in 2016? Another is: would anyone – writer, publisher, reader – or literary culture, in general, benefit in any way if they were? The answer to the first question, as the merest glance at a modern-day newspaper arts section suffices to demonstrate, is no. Here, by way of illustration and picked at random from the recycling pile by the back door, are an edition of the Saturday Guardian’s Review and a six-page review section taken from the Spectator.

The latter carries nine book reviews, all of them decent to enthusiastic, although Brian Switek, appraising a work entitled The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: the Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs, does note that it “exists in a strange place between popular science narrative and textbook”. The former runs to 13 solus reviews – I am omitting the paperback round-up – of which 11 are broadly favourable. The most striking thing about the Guardian selection, it might be ­argued, is how desperately the reviewers try to admire what is put in front of them even when it manifestly fails to shape up. James Lasdun, for instance, seems almost to weep over the fact that the new Don DeLillo novel isn’t the masterpiece he so urgently desires, writing: “I have to confess, reluctantly, that I found this section (which occupies two-thirds of the book) hard to like.”

The same air of fundamental good nature hangs over my third source, an edition of the Literary Review. Fifty-six books are covered, with scarcely a makeweight among them, though the polemicist Douglas Murray, seizing up Timothy Garton Ash’s Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World, does quietly hazard that “not very much has been accomplished” and Susan Doran hints that the presumed originality of John Guy’s study of Elizabeth I may be taken with a pinch of salt. In fact, the only halfway equivocal notices come in the fiction section, where, like the man in the Guardian, Sam Leith has trouble with Zero K (“a simulation” of a Don DeLillo novel) and Claire Lowdon is very nearly rude about A L Kennedy (“It’s impossible not to admire the risks that Kennedy takes with her ­fiction, but in the case of Serious Sweet very few of them pay off”).

It can also be detected in an issue of the New Statesman from roughly the same time. Fourteen books reviewed, nearly all of them positively (“I . . . am struggling not to finish this review with a smiley emoticon”), though once again Leo Robson wonders about DeLillo (“suddenly at risk of seeming neat and even cheap”) and a book by the New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff is described as a great idea hitting a wall fast.

This is not a complaint about the Spectator, the Guardian or the Literary Review, nor, indeed, about my current sponsor, all of which are edited with tact, dash and discrimination and are consistently excellent in their books-world coverage. It is merely to note that a literary culture whose tough-mindedness 20 years ago often verged on outright cruelty, has turned horribly emollient, to the point where it sometimes seems that books are not so much criticised, favourably or unfavourably, as simply endorsed. Interestingly, the suspicion that the review pages exist only to bring good news to the true believer has crossed over into other areas of the arts. The music magazines Mojo and Uncut often carry letters from readers complaining that virtually every new album under review gets three or four stars out of five, or seven or eight marks out of ten, and surely they can’t all be that good?

Here, perhaps, a little historical context is in order. The politeness, or otherwise, of British literary culture oscillates wildly from one decade to the next. The early Victorian era was a notoriously spiteful age, in which the writer Grantley Berkeley flogged the publisher of Fraser’s Magazine in his shop doorway after the paper ran an abusive review of his debut novel, Berkeley Castle. The Victorian critic George Gilfillan, author of the three-volume Gallery of Literary Portraits (among much else), could be found lamenting “that tissue of filthy nonsense, which none but an ape of the first magnitude could have vomited” when he was forced to inspect a satirical critique of his sponsorship of the notorious “Spasmodic” school of 1850s poets by the Edinburgh professor of rhetoric William Aytoun. Set against this, Stephen Amidon’s gripes about butt-kicking seem the merest froth. The 1930s, on the other hand, were noted for their reluctance to take offence, or rather for a suspicion that the pundits framing the judgements had so little authority that they could be safely ignored. It was an age when, as Graham Greene once put it, “Gerald Gould, a bad poet, and Ralph Straus, a bad novelist, divided the Sunday forum between them. One was not elated by their praise nor cast down by their criticism.”

Two decades later the wheel had ratcheted back again in favour of retributive score-settling. “The literary criticism that arose in this country after the Second World War was as judicial, as fault-findingly ambitious and as youthful and generationally vengeful as any that has ever been,” Karl Miller recalled of that critical golden age, the 1950s to 1960s, when he served successively as literary editor of the Spectator, New Statesman and Listener. There followed another couple of decades of relative slumber until suddenly we were in the legendarily vindictive late 1980s, a period of mudslinging and reputation-harrying of which Private Eye’s anonymous critic remarked, following several steely-eyed dissections of The Message to the Planet (1989) by Iris Murdoch, that “book-reviewing in this country is beginning to look like a blood sport again”.

 

***

In trying to establish why one or two long-dead generations of writers enjoyed chewing themselves into pieces, it is worth pointing out that the flavour of a particular literary culture, its tone and the protocols by which it operates are nearly always detachable from the identities of the personnel available and the nature of the material they are given to review. If the reviewing circuit of the 1930s was at times absurdly complimentary it was because of the cosy relationship between certain books pages and the publishers that bought advertising space in them, and a degree of collusion that, as George Orwell points out in one of his book-trade jeremiads, encouraged publishers to veto critiques of inferior items on the grounds that there was no benefit in printing straightforwardly damning reviews.

The statue-toppling conditions of the late 1980s, on the other hand, were attributable to security and self-confidence. The aftermath of Rupert Murdoch’s defeat of the print unions was a boom time for newspapers. There were new titles – five quality Sunday papers, at one point, until the Sunday Correspondent went west – with expanded arts section and increasing amounts of space for new blood: James Wood, David Sexton, Anthony Quinn and Nicholas Lezard each made their debut around this time. More importantly, the new blood, in the interests of controversy, was allowed, and sometimes actively encouraged, to set about the reputations of the generations above it with a metaphorical billhook. In this atmosphere it was at all times possible to earn a few pounds by denouncing Kingsley Amis, say, as an ancient philistine, or complaining that the characters in the latest Margaret Drabble took their opinions from Guardian leading articles.

As for the decorousness of the present reviewing pool, and the succession of masterpieces it often throws up: much of this, it seems to me, is down to what might be called environmental timidity. This is the suspicion – common to nearly everyone who reviews literature professionally and also to the people who commission those reviews – that it is a bad time to be a critic; that here in the age of instant online opinion and internet trolls, what used to be called “critical authority” is much less sanctified than it used to be, and that in a world of declining print circulations and concertina-ing arts pages the best option is a modest thumbs-up, the print equivalent of Richard and Judy’s book club or the “Like that? You might like this” suasions of Amazon. Far better in these circum­stances, the argument runs, to encourage general enthusiasm, rather than commission a series of variations on “could not write ‘Bum’ on a wall”.

Yet there is a wider, almost ­philosophical dilemma here, which has nothing to do with the apprentice critic’s understandable desire to prove to some literary panjandrum that he, or she, has been barking up the wrong tree for the past 40 years. For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity. It was Orwell, again, who pointed out that to do their job properly book reviewers need a spring balance simultaneously capable of weighing an elephant and a flea: some delicate mechanism that will enable them to advertise the true merits of a work that may capture the public imagination for a fortnight and gesture at the row of timeless classics that lie on the shelf behind it.

A quarter of a century ago, the solution would have been a hatchet job. The books pages of the early 1990s were full of these detonations of affronted taste, in which highbrow critics solemnly rebuked the authors of innocuous bestselling novels (Clive James, say, on Judith Krantz) for their bad grammar and mixed metaphors. Let loose on a novel by Shirley Conran at about this time, I gamely opined that while orthodoxy might contend that anyone could write a middlebrow blockbuster, the evidence of this one’s three and a half pages of fervent thank yous to associates suggested that, on the contrary, everyone had written it. They are still being filed today by such titans of the form as Lachlan Mackinnon (a 2011 review in the Independent that rated a collection by Geoffrey Hill “the sheerest twaddle”) or Michael Hofmann, with an inspired London Review of Books takedown of Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (“The writing is overstuffed, and leaks sawdust . . . [it] lacks the basic dignity of prose”).

But the hatchet job, a certain amount of experience insists, should be used sparingly, especially in a world where everything is preserved online and a momentary irritation becomes an eternal hurt. I once overheard a quite well-known novelist earnestly entreating Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian to kindly do something about his newspaper’s website, on the grounds that, were you to google the petitioner’s name, the first result was a wholesale monstering of one of his books. Then again, if hatchet jobs are positively encouraged, everyone will start filing them – with the result that reviews stop being considered criticism and turn into straightforward personality stunts. The “Hatchet Job of the Year” award, pioneered by the Omnivore website and now apparently defunct, seems to have foundered on precisely these grounds.

On the other hand, it may be that the hatchet job is the only means of countering the modern literary establishment’s greatest procedural failing, which is the charity extended to some of its senior members. Three or four times a year at least, there comes a flourish of publishers’ trumpets and some grand eminence who began his (and it is usually his) career in the 1983 Granta Best of Young British Novelists promotion brings out yet another moderately, but only moderately, accomplished work – only to have garlands flung around his neck by the critics. It is this part of the book-world demographic on which Stephen Amidon’s descendants should be training their howitzers.

D J Taylor’s latest book is “The New Book of Snobs” (Constable)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Inside the minds of the Isis murderers

As pressure on the terror group who claimed responsiblity for the Manchester attack intensifies, the threat to Britain will only become more acute.

The police and security services had consistently warned that a significant terrorist attack in Britain was inevitable. Yet no warning could have prepared us for the horror of the suicide attack on the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Twenty-two people were killed and at least 60 were wounded as they were leaving a concert by Ariana Grande in what was the most deadly attack in Britain since the London bombings of 7 July 2005, in which 56 people died.

Like the London bombers, the Manchester suicide attacker, Salman Ramadan Abedi, was British. He was 22, lived in Manchester and studied business management at Salford University before dropping out. He worshipped at Didsbury Mosque. The son of Libyans, Abedi is said to have returned recently from a visit to the North African country, where Islamic State has a foothold.

Ariana Grande is a former children’s TV star who made her name on channels such as Nickelodeon. Her fan base is overwhelmingly young and female, and many of those killed or wounded were children, including Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old girl from Leyland, Lancashire.

Islamic State inevitably claimed responsibility for the massacre, dismissing the victims as “crusaders”, “polytheists” and “worshippers of the cross”. This is not the first time Islamist terrorists have targeted children.

A Chechen jihadist group calling itself ­Riyad-us Saliheen (meaning “Gardens of the Righteous”) took more than 1,100 hostages, including 777 children, in a school siege in Beslan, Russia, in September 2004. In the event, more than 330 were massacred, including 186 children. Gunmen from the Pakistani Taliban also stormed a school in 2014, killing 148.

For terrorist actors, these are neither whimsical nor irrational acts. Contemporary jihadist movements have curated a broad and expansive intellectual ecosystem that rationalises and directs their actions. What they want is to create an asymmetry of fear by employing indiscriminate barbarism to intimidate and subdue their opponents into submission.

We have grown accustomed to a wave of terrorist attacks being carried out in the name of the self-styled Islamic State ever since the group’s official spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began prioritising them in 2014. (He was killed in an American air strike on Aleppo province in Syria in August last year.)

The US-led coalition against Islamic State has weakened the terror group in its former strongholds of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, IS has been forced to concentrate more on what it calls “external operations” – by which it means inspiring its sympathisers and operatives to carry out attacks on Western countries. Indeed, al-Adnani encouraged the group’s supporters not to migrate towards IS-held territory but rather to focus their efforts on attacks in their home countries.

“The tiniest action you do in the heart of their [Western] land is dearer to us than the biggest action by us,” he said in an audio statement released last year. “There are no innocents in the heart of the lands of the crusaders.”

Islamic State refers to its strategy as “just terror”. Its framing places culpability for attacks on Western states on these nations themselves by claiming that IS actions are a response to aggression or assault. That much has been outlined in the group’s literature. “When will the crusaders end their hostilities towards Islam and the Muslims? . . . When will they recognise that the solution to their pathetic turmoil is right before their blinded eyes?” the militants ask in the IS magazine Dabiq. “Until then, the just terror will continue to strike them to the core of their deadened hearts.”

IS offered a rationale of this sort as justification for its bombing of a Russian commercial aircraft – Metrojet Flight 9268, travelling from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt to St Petersburg. That attack in October 2015 killed 224. Similar reasoning was offered for the attacks in Paris the following month in which 137 people were killed, in a series of co-ordinated, commando-style gun and bomb outrages across the city.

“Revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe,” IS declared in Dabiq. “Let the world know that we are living today in a new era. Whoever was heedless must now be alert. Whoever was sleeping must now awaken . . . The [caliphate] will take revenge for any aggression against its religion and people, sooner rather than later. Let the ­arrogant know that the skies and the lands are Allah’s.”

***

Through my academic research at King’s College London, I have ­interviewed scores of Westerners who became foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq to quiz them about their motives. Last year, one man from High Wycombe who had joined IS told me that it wanted to attack British targets in response to the vote in the House of Commons to extend British air strikes against IS targets to include sites in Syria (the British had only been targeting the group in Iraq until that point). “Do they [the British government] expect us to sit back and do nothing? ­Idiots,” he said.

In this respect, IS frames its attacks as acts of “revenge” and predicates its response on the Islamic principle of qisas, which is comparable to lex talionis or the doctrine of “an eye for an eye”. Qisas was always intended to be a tool of private redress for an individual or his/her family to seek justice in matters relating to bodily harm. Typically, it relates to cases of murder and manslaughter, or acts involving physical mutilation (say, leading to loss of limbs). The principle creates a framework for retributive justice.

The contemporary Salafi-jihadi movement has adopted a particularly innovative approach to the concept of qisas in two ways. First, groups such as IS have taken the idea and construed it in a way that justifies indiscriminate terrorism, such as the attack in Manchester. They argue that qisas has a political dimension and that it can be applied to international affairs in a way that holds civilians responsible for the perceived crimes of their governments.

Second, qisas is normally applied only in cases where the aggressor is known. IS, by contrast, holds every citizen-stranger of an enemy state responsible for the actions of his or her government. Thus, when it released its statement claiming responsibility for the Manchester attack, it said that it had struck against a “gathering of the crusaders . . . in response to their transgressions against the lands of the Muslims”.

It is this militaristic construction of qisas that allows IS to rationalise the bombing of a venue where large numbers of young girls had gathered to watch a pop concert, dismissing them as “crusaders”.

This is not new. In 1997, Osama Bin Laden told CBS News that “all Americans are our enemies, not just the ones who fight us directly, but also the ones who pay their ­taxes”. His rationale was that all Americans, by virtue of citizenship alone, are vicariously liable for the actions of their government.

Just a few years later, Bin Laden used the same idea to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks and also invoked it in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged,” he wrote. “You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.”

IS used the concept most dramatically in January 2015, when it burned alive a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, whose plane had crashed in its territory. A video of the killing was circulated on the internet and social media. The group claimed his bombing raids had killed civilians and that it wanted to punish him with “equal retaliation”, in keeping with qisas.

What is well known about al-Kasasbeh’s murder is that he was burned alive inside a cage – but that is not the whole story. To understand how IS tethered this to the principle of qisas, it is the end of the gruesome video that is invested with most significance. After al-Kasasbeh has died, a truck emerges and dumps rubble over the cage. It was claimed this was debris from a site he had bombed, thus completing the “equal retaliation” of returning like for like. The idea was that IS had retaliated using the two principal forms in which a missile attack kills – by fire or debris.

***

The Manchester attack came on the fourth anniversary of the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south London. Rigby was killed by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in the middle of the afternoon on a street outside a military barracks. That attack was in keeping with a pattern we have become increasingly accustomed to in Europe: an unsophisticated plot that employs ordinary, everyday items – a car, say, or a knife.

The consequences of such attacks have been seen across Europe, most notably in Nice on 14 July 2016, when 86 people were killed during Bastille Day celebrations after a jihadist drove a truck into crowds on the promenade. Similar attacks followed in Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm.

The security services find that these murderous attacks are extremely hard to disrupt because they typically involve lone actors who can mobilise quickly and with discretion. The Manchester attack was different. Explosives were used, which means the plot was inherently more sophisticated, requiring careful planning and preparation.

We know that two of the 7/7 bombers had previously trained in Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions, where they honed their skills. In other plots, such as the connected attacks in London and Glasgow Airport of 2007, the explosive devices failed mainly because the bomb-makers had found it difficult to travel abroad and develop their skills in safe environments. Whatever Abedi’s connections, the long war in Syria and Iraq has once again created a permissive environment for terrorist training and attack planning.

The devastating impact of this has already been felt across Europe. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, more than 800 Britons are believed to have travelled there to fight. From Europe as a whole, the figure is over 5,000, of which a significant number are believed to have joined IS. Of the British contingent, the security services estimate that about half have returned or become disengaged from the conflict. Of those who remained, a hundred are believed to be active, the rest having been killed.

It is improbable that Abedi acted alone in Manchester or that this plot had no international component. Indeed, he was already known to the authorities (and had returned recently from Libya). As pressure on IS intensifies across Syria and Iraq, the threat to Britain will only become more acute as the group’s sympathisers prepare for what they consider to be a fightback.

This speaks to the scale of the threat facing Britain, and Europe more generally. Our police and security services have been stretched and continuously tested in recent years. Just recently, in March, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley told Radio 4’s Today programme that 13 plots had been thwarted since Lee Rigby’s murder in 2013. Put another way, the police have disrupted terrorist plots every four months for the past four years.

Naturally, Islamic State is not the only threat. On 13 May, one of Osama Bin Laden’s sons, Hamza, released a video, titled “Advice for martyrdom-seekers in the West”, on behalf of al-Qaeda. Hamza, 27, who was his father’s favoured successor to lead the group, called on its supporters to concentrate on attacks in the West rather than migrating to conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond. Scenes of previous ­terrorist attacks in Britain played throughout the video.

The central leadership of al-Qaeda is increasingly looking for opportunities to reassert itself after being eclipsed by Islamic State and losing control of its affiliates in Syria. It needs attacks and a cause in the West with which to revive itself. Hamza therefore cited the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris as a critical example, calling for the assassination of anyone deemed to have “insulted” Islam.

The Charlie Hebdo attack was especially important for al-Qaeda because it enabled the group to transcend the fratricidal conflicts that frequently define relations between the various jihadist groups. In Syria, for instance, al-Qaeda’s affiliates (when it had better control over them) and Islamic State have been in open war with each other.

Yet, the Charlie Hebdo attack brought warm praise from the group’s Islamist rivals because none of them wanted to appear ­unsupportive of an atrocity that had, as the terrorists proclaimed, “avenged” the Prophet Muhammad’s honour.

The British man from High Wycombe who joined IS told me the group had welcomed the attack for precisely those reasons. It was something that, in his view, had confirmed the “nobility” of the attackers, even if they had not been members of IS.

Is it too late for the West to save itself, I asked him. What if the West simply accepted all of Islamic State’s demands: would that provide respite?

The answer was as emphatic as it was stark: “We primarily fight wars due to ppl [sic] being disbelievers. Their drones against us are a secondary issue.”

He went on: “Their kufr [disbelief] against Allah is sufficient of a reason for us to invade and kill them. Only if they stop their kufr will they no longer be a target.”

In other words, we are all guilty, and we are all legitimate targets.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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