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9 June 2021

What Lyndsey Stonebridge gets right – and wrong – in Writing and Righting

One of our most interesting critics turns to the relationship between literature and human rights in contemporary society – but her focus is too narrow.

By David Herman

Over the past 20 years, Lyndsey Stonebridge has emerged as one of our most interesting literary critics. She brings together modern writers and their experience of some of the darkest episodes of the 20th century: exile, war crimes trials, humanitarian disasters. Did these new, extreme situations, she asks,  call for a new kind of writing?

Stonebridge is best-known for her books The Judicial Imagination (2011) and Placeless People (2018). The former focused on a group of mid 20th-century women novelists, reporters and political thinkers nearly all of whom attended and reported on one of the war crimes trials or peace conferences following the Second World War, including Hannah Arendt and Muriel Spark, who covered the Eichmann Trial, and Elizabeth Bowen, who reported on the Paris Peace Conference. What worried these writers was that the trials seemed curiously flat, even dull. Rebecca West, who covered the Nuremberg trial for the Daily Telegraph and the New Yorker, wrote of the “staleness” of proceedings. They may have been judicially correct, but they failed to rise to the extreme occasions with which they dealt.

Placeless People takes another group of writers – including Arendt again, George Orwell, Simone Weil and Samuel Beckett – and examines how they wrote about the refugee crisis of the mid 20th century. What is the difference, for example, between the way Arendt writes about “we refugees” and Orwell’s perception of refugees as other? Stonebridge’s best essays focus on such “turns of perspective”. “What Orwell saw,” Stonebridge writes, “was restricted by his Englishness”, by his “inside-ness”. This may seem a curious way of reading Orwell: the question of who is inside and who is outside is at the heart of his writing from Burmese Days to 1984.

[see also: What Hannah Arendt can teach us about work in the time of Covid-19]

Writing and Righting completes Stonebridge’s trilogy. She now turns to the relationship between literature and human rights and moves to the present day. Have writers brought something new and different to the way people have thought about human rights? Is empathy enough or do we need something more from writers – and if so, what? She is particularly interested in women and post colonial writers – some well-known (Arendt, Weil, Virginia Woolf), others less so (Suzanne Césaire, the poet Yousif M Qasmiyeh, Behrouz Boochani). The book often has the strengths of Stonebridge’s earlier works. She moves between detailed literary criticism and large questions about human rights and contemporary society. Perhaps most important of all is the originality of her subject, expanding the remit of literary criticism.

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At one point, Stonebridge writes of “the suppression of refugee history”. She’s right. With obvious exceptions such as John Berger’s A Seventh Man and Edward W Said’s Reflections on Exile, literature, and literary criticism, have for too long neglected refugees and human rights. But Stonebridge’s remark raises the question of whom her own approach suppresses. Apart from Weil and Arendt – a key figure for her and the subject of her next book – she is surprisingly uninterested in Jewish or European refugees and certainly not in Jewish refugees driven from the Muslim world. Nor in Asians forced out of East Africa, nor in white refugees, whether from the dictatorships of South America, the Soviet Union or central and eastern Europe. What was exciting about her earlier books was how she combined major writers with wide-ranging history, whereas here her focus is narrower.

The book is also suffused with a kind of casual leftism, which can feel hectoring if you don’t share her values and assumptions. “Not only did the West appear to think it owned human rights,” she  writes, “it was also, on more than a few occasions, proving to be spectacularly bad at them.” Compared to whom? Russia, China, Syria? The villains are too predictable and general: “patriarchy, colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism”.

Stonebridge is particularly pessimistic about the present. “By the time Baghdad was razed in 2003… the shattering of international law and the traumatising of politics had become grotesquely real.” Was it not “grotesquely real” in the Congo in the 1960s or in Rwanda in 1994, or during the 1950s-70s when approximately 35 million people suffered violent deaths, mostly in the developing world? Stonebridge is at her best offering fascinating close readings that open onto big, important subjects. But too often this short book reads like a string of op-ed pieces, not the first-rate literary criticism her earlier books promised. 

Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights 
Lyndsey Stonebridge
Oxford University Press, 176pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 09 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Covid cover-up?