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3 December 2015

Assad’s barbarism, white women’s fiction, and how my imaginary cat didn’t get me a house

I have to admit my eyebrows lifted at Marlon James' assertion that “if I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particular[ly] older white female critics, I would have had ten stories published by now”. 

By Helen Lewis

In 2013 a military policeman code-named “Caesar” fled Syria and his job working for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. With him was a memory stick containing more than 50,000 photographs of people tortured to death in Syria’s jails. Academics call such photographs “perpetrator images” – a deliberate record of atrocities made by those carrying them out. The Nazis did the same with their death camps, and the Khmer Rouge with their prisoners. Isis also makes perpetrator images of its beheadings and burnings.

You might have seen some of the photographs taken by the latter groups, but few in Britain have seen the “Caesar images”: row after row of starved bodies, pockmarked with wounds. “Some people had deep cuts, some had their eyes gouged out, their teeth broken, you could see traces of lashes with those cables you use to start cars,” Caesar told the journalist Garance Le Caisne. “There were wounds full of pus, as if they’d been left untreated for a long time and had got infected.” At one point, Caesar photographed the corpse of a man he had known well before the war: but after what had happened to the man during two months in prison, he didn’t recognise the body.

In January this year, a journalist raised the existence of the photographs with Assad, who claimed they were “funded by Qatar” and not verified. But the images, and their metadata, have been examined by forensic investigators, and shown in the European and British parliaments. If you can bear it you should see them. We might look back in five years and realise the effect of our air strikes was to stabilise the rule of the man who ordered those beatings and gougings.


Pander popped

Since winning the Booker Prize, Marlon James has emerged as a fierce critic of the literary establishment. On 25 November, he wrote a thought-provoking Facebook post saying that “we writers of colour spend way too much of our lives pandering to the white woman”, and that he had failed to win an unnamed prize twice before because the judges were only looking for stories that followed a template of “bored suburban white woman in the middle of ennui, experiences keenly observed epiphany”.

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There’s plenty to agree with – the majority of worker bees in publishing are indeed white women, and the industry is guilty of assuming that fiction readers (again, mostly women) really only want to read about people like them. We all lose out as a result.

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Secret society

Still on James, I have to admit my eyebrows lifted at his assertion that “if I pandered to a cultural tone set by white women, particular[ly] older white female critics, I would have had ten stories published by now”. His Booker-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings was reviewed in the Tele­graph by Nicholas Blincoe, by Ian Thomson in the FT, Zachary Lazar in the New York Times, Christopher Tayler in the LRB, Kei Miller in the Guardian and Randy Boyagoda in the New Statesman. All men. The only female reviewer of the book for a British newspaper I can find is Hannah McGill. Perhaps she is the all-powerful gatekeeper James has been pandering to? But no, that can’t be, because McGill loved the book, although she found its violence slightly off-putting. Anyway, if anyone finds out the identities of the All-Powerful Guild of Female Tastemakers, do write in. I bet they have a great Christmas lunch, and maybe a keenly observed epiphany at the end of it.


Sex negative

The porn industry is in shock after accusations that one of its biggest stars, a personable, clean-cut 29-year-old who uses the stage name James Deen, raped his former girlfriend and frequent co-star Stoya. He denies the allegations, so that’s now a matter for the courts, but perhaps let’s dwell for a moment on the madness of Deen previously being hailed as a “feminist porn star”, and given a sex advice column on a feminist website. (He has now been ditched.)

There seems to be a consensus among younger feminists that anything involving an orgasm exists in some la-la fantasy land, totally off-limits from criticism, in case that plays into the hands of those who would like to abolish the sex industry entirely. So we’ve ended up in a situation where the TV writer Lena Dunham gets loudly criticised for the all-white cast of the first season of Girls, but sex-positive feminists coo over a man who has starred in Loca Latina Sluts 1, Dark MILF Chocolate and My Daughter’s F***ing Blackzilla 12, among 2,000 others.


No room at the inn

No one likes young professionals moaning about the housing crisis when its failures affect low-income families far more harshly, but I hope my recent experience might give you an idea of the sheer craziness of the London property market.

Having saved throughout our twenties, my husband and I finally have enough money to put down a deposit on somewhere poky in Zone 3. Except just offering money isn’t enough these days: you also have to outline why you want the house, and how much more you deserve it than all the other wretches you’ve side-eyed on the open day. These potted biographies are used in the event of a tie-break when you all submit your “next and final” bids.

Internet forums have now sprung up to give advice on the most tear-jerking and fiscally responsible-sounding things to say. Buyers are advised to mention their commitment to the house, their desire to bring up children in the area, the deserving nature of their occupations. Being both childless and a journalist, the only profession more hated than estate agents, I freestyled with a moving account of my desire to buy a cat called Henry V (long story).

The estate agent called it “brilliant” – after getting used to internet comments, I was pleased to hear someone praise my writing for once – but it couldn’t match up to the people who offered £40,000 more than the asking price.


Now listen to Helen Lewis discuss prejudice in the publishing industry with Barbara Speed and Stephen Bush in this week’s New Statesman podcast…

This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war