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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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“Memes allow us to laugh, rather than cry”: 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 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse