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Why I hate Giles Coren

Honestly, Coren and Austen would have got along famously, because Austen was also a messy bitch who lived for drama.

If you see the headline “Giles Coren: Why I hate Jane Austen” and your eyes roll so far into the back of your head you can see the back of your chair, you’re not alone.

Yes, known controversy-seeker Coren – whose reputation currently amounts to “ah, the one who hates fat people and ridicules his own children for cheap laughs” has gone full contrarian in a documentary, Times column and Today appearance, all purporting to take down beloved British author Jane Austen. (Complete with pictures of Coren dressed in full early 19th century formal attire and doing exaggerated yawns while holding copies of Pride and Prejudice: because where would Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins et al be without photos of themselves illustrating their opinions with hyperbolic gestures?)

But the mild (and eventually withdrawn) critiques made against Austen in the documentary itself ensure it doesn’t live up to its incendiary title. Neither, incidentally, does this blog.

It would be easy to make jokes at Coren’s expense here – about how it’s perhaps not surprising that the great works of literature have passed him by if you’ve flicked through his novel Winkler. But, honestly, Coren and Austen would have got along famously had they known each other, because Austen was also a messy bitch who lived for drama.

Just like Coren, Austen delighted in reducing her associates to deliberately provocative insults, writing barbed descriptions of her family members, and cheerfully mocking fat people. After Pride and Prejudice was published, friends’ perceptions of Austen shifted from that of a virtuous, silent bystander to, as one acquaintance wrote, “a poker of whom everyone is afraid”.

Take, for example, her ridiculing of Persuasion’s Mrs Musgrove and her “large fat sighings”. While “a large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world”, a fat person’s tears are, Austen writes, inherently ridiculous.

Maybe the problem is that Coren has stuck to Austen’s novels, which are spared her most poisonous venom: her letters are the site of most vitriol. In one letter, written on 20 November 1800, Austen admits she is so hungover she has the shakes, thanks to a ball the night before. She sneers at the other guests, from “the fat girls with long noses who disturbed me” to the woman whose husband is “ugly enough, uglier even than his cousin John”. “There were very few beauties,” she writes, “and such as there were, were not very handsome”. In fact, she catalogues with cruel specificity the particular things she finds ugly about other guests (be it “vulgar, broad features” or a “queer… white neck”). Of three others she writes, “Miss Debary, Susan and Sally, all in black, but without any stature, made their appearance, and I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me”.

In other letters, she snipes about those who are “horridly poor” (deciding instead that “Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there”). Of a woman who gave birth to a stillborn child, Austen infamously writes, “Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

The only difference is that Austen did not confuse these inflammatory remarks with great literature, which is why she didn’t seek to publish them. (“Seize upon the scissors as soon as you possibly can on the receipt of this,” she writes in one letter.)

Of course, as with many of Coren’s incendiary opinions, his “I Hate Austen” take is insincere. Throughout his Sky Arts documentary Passions: I Hate Jane Austen, Coren throws himself into the lion’s den of Austen academics and fans while flippantly repeating his most controversial possible opinions for catchy soundbites. He tells celebrated writer Joanna Trollope that his problem with Austen essentially can be summarised as “Oh, dear. Chick lit. Girls.” He finds some reluctant boyfriends at an Austen-themed ball in Bath to agree with him that “proper honest novels by blokes” are better than any Austen novel.

If this all seems like contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake, you’d be right. Coren is soon persuaded by the Austen readers who tell him that his hatred is merely a performative misogyny directed at the adaptations, merchandise and fandoms that have sprung up around her work. Austen biographer Paula Byrne tells him he is an “incompetent reader”, while Trollope notes, “Your objection to reading Jane Austen will have been clouded by this idea that it was just for a rather fluffy kind of girl.”

At one point he decides what he really hates are the Austen fanatics who reduce her work to something cute – in other words, the idea that people would have an emphatic opinion about something they don’t understand. A bit like, um, Coren deciding he hated the books without having a clue what they were about. “The moment someone becomes an icon, you cease to think critically about them,” Coren announces proudly half-way through, in reference to Austen fanatics – a statement that is, of course, equally applicable to his own knee-jerk obsession.

By the end of the programme, Coren has read the six novels and is passionately declaring them “six extraordinary masterpieces”, and himself superior to the unthinking Austen fans who gobbled up her work without question: “I realised that, OK, as it happens – not because anyone forced me to say so – they’re actually brilliant and it’s OK to read them.” His praise, of course, only comes in typically patronising terms, as he effuses over “this funny little girl from the Home Counties”, and almost tears up imagining Austen, aged five, writing plays for her friends and family “in her little bonnet”. Which is a bit weird, to be honest.

The insincerity of the whole project (his appearance on this morning’s Today programme and last night’s Times 2 column included) is screechingly obvious. Coren’s posturing is tired, clichéd – and far more boring than a 19th century ball at Netherfield.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

Samuel Beckett in Paris, 1960. Credit: OZKOK/SIPA/REX
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The poets’ home: how one small, heroic publisher shaped modern poetry

Founded in 1967, the pioneering Enitharmon Press established a new poetry world.

Some books make little impression, others earn our respect. And others again make us greedy not just to read but to own them and return to them time and again. Enitharmon’s aptly titled The Heart’s Granary belongs to this last group. Beautifully produced, and with “poetry and prose from 50 years of Enitharmon Press” bursting the seams of its 380-odd pages, it’s an anthology designed not to prove a theory or establish a canon, but to celebrate the work of one of our most remarkable small publishers.

Enitharmon is well-known for its wide-ranging poetry list, but there’s plenty of prose here too. I particularly enjoyed this section of The Heart’s Granary, a tight-focused, characterful set of extracts from, among others, Sebastian Barry, Edward Thomas and Edmund White. There’s also extraordinary artwork. Alongside his literary list, Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s editor for the last 30 years, has run Enitharmon Editions, publishing many of the major names in postwar British art. Peter Blake, Gilbert & George, David Hockney, RB Kitaj and Paula Rego have all worked with him, and are represented in here alongside recouped treasures from David Jones and Gwen Raverat. Also among the colour plates are stunning cover designs from the press’s half century.

So this book is an unusually beautiful object. But its beauty shouldn’t detract from its seriousness. Enitharmon was among the crop of independent poetry publishers that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s. Poetry was then passing through one of its phases of heightened popularity – it was the era of the Liverpool poets, and of 1965’s International Poetry Incarnation gala at the Albert Hall – just as trade publishers began to trim their lists. Together with Anvil (also founded in 1968), Carcanet (founded a year later), Peterloo (founded in 1972) and Bloodaxe (founded in 1978), Enitharmon established a new poetry world, in which some of the best writing from home and abroad appeared thanks to the editorial flair of a handful of visionary individuals.

Editors like Enitharmon’s founder Alan Clodd, who ran the press for 20 years, and his gifted successor Stuart-Smith, act as both acute literary minds and as entrepreneurs. They present readers with established giants while also mentoring home-grown talent. Early, Enitharmon published Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges and David Gascoyne; as well as much from Kathleen Raine, who had encouraged the press’s foundation. The list has remained markedly cosmopolitan. This tendency for independent publishers to brave the commercial risks associated with translation means that they become the go-to lists for adventurous readers.

But Enitharmon has also supported an exceptional number of important British and Irish poets at all stages in their careers. To browse The Heart’s Granary is to realise again what a mighty body of work, solo and collective, 50 years of the press represents. Here are Dannie Abse, Fred D’Aguiar, Simon Armitage, Ronald Blythe, Alan Brownjohn, Frances Cornford, C Day Lewis, Douglas Dunn, Ursula Fanthorpe, Thom Gunn, David Harsent, Lee Harwood, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Frances Horovitz, Michael Longley, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Pascale Petit, Robin Robertson, Benjamin Zephaniah… not to mention four Nobel laureates: Beckett, Heaney, Pinter and Tranströmer. Even this roll-call of “headliners” – just a small proportion of the poets Enitharmon has published down the years – gives a sense of the tremendous range of work the press has nurtured.

Opening up such a broad church might risk diluting the publishing vision. How can, say, Geoffrey Hill and Benjamin Zephaniah be juxtaposed coherently? I suspect the answer lies partly in Stuart-Smith’s acute editorial sensibility, and partly in his poets’ shared shamelessness of artistic purpose. Enitharmon’s house style traditionally stands against hedging or fakery, and for sincerity in whatever poetic form. Open this book at random and, “Bury me up to my neck/in the sands of my father’s desert,” Pascale Petit’s incendiary “The Burning” declares, while in “Irting Valley” Frances Horovitz questions “can a star be lost/or a stone?”, and Isaac Rosenberg, in “August 1914”, asks “What in our lives is burnt/In the fire of this?/The heart’s dear granary?/The much we shall miss?”

Rosenberg’s is of course the anthology’s title poem. For, like Anvil and Peterloo, Enitharmon’s literary list was dealt a mortal blow when the Arts Council cut off funding. The work collected richly here adds up to a joyous read that should be on everyone’s bedside table. But it also reminds us that in certain fields – education, faith, philosophy, poetry – the market is not always right, and neither is cultural fashion. It reminds us, that’s to say, of “The much we shall miss” if every Enitharmon has to close, and the lights of writing, thinking and art go out. 

The Heart’s Granary: Poetry and Prose from Fifty Years of Enitharmon Press
Compiled by Lawrence Sail
Enitharmon Press, 384pp, £30

Fiona Sampson’s books include “In Search of Mary Shelley” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war