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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But the mild (and eventually withdrawn) critiques made against Austen in the documentary itself ensure it doesn’t live up to its incendiary title.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 a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist