Ali Smith with her award-winning novel "How to be both". Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
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Why we still need women-only book prizes

Ali Smith’s How to be both, the winner of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a particularly apt riposte to the literary class divide that says men are serious and women are silly.

Here are some things that wouldn’t exist in a just world: restrictions on the amount of lead a children’s toy can contain, rules against billboards openly lying, women-only book prizes. But because we live in the kind of world where manufacturers will risk poisoning infants with heavy metals to use a cheaper paint, where advertisers will tell honeyed fibs to coax your money out of you, and where men hoard the literary power to themselves, we need all those corrective things. It’s good that they exist, even if their existence is a mark of the fundamental shitness of the world we’ve made so far. They are the promises we make to ourselves that we will be a bit less shit in future.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is my favourite literary prize because it’s the only one that recognises stories I can recognise myself in. It shouldn’t be this way, of course: other prizes are supposed to reward literary excellence in a pure, ungendered way. Except of course, they do not. Excellence is a quality that is for some reason so much easier to recognise in men. Not only are books by women much less likely to win prizes than books by men, but books about women are even more unlucky.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mantel’s two Bookers are for her eerily firm-fleshed evocations of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies rather than, say, the imperious but female-focused Beyond Black: it is poor form I suppose to be a woman and insist on writing, but at least Mantel eventually had the good grace to write about a properly important (ie male) subject.

And this class divide, where men are serious and women are silly, applies at every level of fiction, from the most solemnly literary to the most warmly commercial. As Marian Keyes told the Hay Festival last week, female authors who write about and for women are likely to be pegged with the dismissive “chick lit” tag: “This is very much a patriarchal society,” she said. “And I think one way of keeping women less well paid and having to do more work is to mock them and anything they love.”

Prizes designed specifically to reward women are a riposte to that attitude, and this year’s Baileys winner is a spectacularly apt one. How to be both by Ali Smith is not only a very fine novel: it is a very fine novel about the ways in which women are bundled out of the culture we supposedly have half shares in, and the ways we find to speak anyway. Of course, it is about lots of other things besides – about love and loss and art and craft and the tender lines that let us find each other. Its double narrative makes a strange mirror between teenage George in contemporary Cambridge and fifteenth century Italian artist Francesco del Cossa, imagined by Smith as a woman cross-dressing to pass as someone whose talents can be recognised. (The novel is published in two versions: “Italy first” and “England first”, so neither of the two self-contained stories can take precedence.)

“We need both luck and justice to get to live the life we’re meant for,” Francesco’s wise and ambitious mother tells her daughter. “Lots of seeds don’t get to. Think. They fall on stone, they get crushed to pieces, rot in the rubbish at the roadside, put down roots that don’t take, die of thirst, die of heat, die of cold before they’ve even broken open underground, never mind grown a leaf.” Determined that her girl will avoid all these wasteful fates, Francesco’s mother sets her on the path to become an artist – which means setting her on on the path to become Francesco too, because of course a girl born in the 1440s could not become an artist.

And by becoming an artist, Francesco is able to produce the pictures that connect her to George, that create the inexplicable but insistent tie holding the two halves of the book together. Smith maintains a craftswoman’s respectful insistence throughout the Italy half of the book on the materials that Francesco needs: “plants and stones, stonedust and water, fish bones, sheep and goat bones…” But most important of all are the eggs for the tempura: “above all we need eggs, the fresher the better, and from the country not the town mean better colours when dry.”

It’s hard not to feel Francesco taking pleasure in this as a secret assertion of femaleness in the production of her work (“blips of life”, George thinks of these eggs more than half a millennium later), but eggs are also the binding agent that will fix her colours to the poplar boards and so fix George to Francesco in a strange and subtle sort of summoning that takes place in room 55 of the National Gallery.

Women taking pride in our own work and paying attention to each others’ is the foundation of a kind of community in How to be both, one that can stretch across centuries and allow one person to find a home within another when they are invited in. It is a terribly simple, terribly important point, but art is how we show ourselves that we exist, and art is how we know each other. As long as women are patronised into obscurity, it is impossible to tell each other that we’re alive, impossible to work together to invent more just worlds for ourselves.

What is justice, Francesco demands of her mother, and her mother answers: “Fairness. Rightness. Getting your due. You getting as much to eat and as much learning and as many chances as your brothers, and them as much and as many as anyone in this city or in this world.” Women need our due as writers and as readers, we need our chances and we need something to eat as well; and the Baileys prize can give us some of that while society at large holds out.



Now listen to the team discussing Ali Smith and “How to be both” on the NS podcast:


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

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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.