Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Need To Pretend That They Read Books

Malky Muscular has a splendid post on Nick Cohen's Standpoint articles: The Souls of Secret Policemen.

No novelist with any talent just deals with political themes, and readers who scour their books for ideological clues have the souls of secret policemen.

A Reader's Guide to Thatcherism. If you're in any doubt that Standpoint is a miserable publication desperately in need of content, Cohen's singularly pointless article makes the case for the prosecution wonderfully. What is Cohen's point? I really don't know. Clive James (a much better critic, as I'm sure even Justin would agree) appears in the same issue as a poet. James could have provided a much better appraisal of literary fiction during the Thatcher years.

What can I say about this? First that Nick's move to Standpoint consists of a sort of standing still: a conceit which ought to please him, as no doubt he wishes to think that the Left left him, rather than he them (or it). As readers of John Cole will have noticed by now, the new right in the US sees everything as political. As does Nick. He and his new allies "have the souls of secret policemen." Worse, unlike the rest of the British left, Nick has been denuded of irony: he really can't see that the rest of his piece consists of nothing but "scour[ing] books for ideological clues".

A couple of observations are in order. First, take a peek at Christopher Hitchens in the New Statesman (hat tip, as they say, to Jamie Kenny).

All these remain to be acted on, and as the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussain will rise more clearly to the top. Make a note of the name. Iraq has been strengthened internally by the construction of a ‘strategic pipeline’ which connects the Gulf to the northern fields for the first time. She has been strengthened externally by her support for revolutionary causes and by the resources she can deploy. It may not be electrification plus Soviet power, but the combination of oil and ‘Arab socialism’ is hardly less powerful.

According to the Staggers, that accolade was published (in the Statesman) on 2 April 1976. Nick:

...I should explain to younger readers that the Left was against Ba'athist fascism in the 1980s...

Well, by the 1980s maybe. As Hitchens said, in a rare dip into the single verb sentence: "Relations with Iran are still far from cordial." Wasn't that the truth! While Oliver North and Donald Rumsfeld took sides in the Iran-Iraq war, the left, as I remember, remained consistent: it stayed against arms dealing and belligerence.

But this is a molehill compared to Nick's greater mistake.

Modern laments about the decline of deference notwithstanding, the English have always regarded their leaders as idiots or crooks, and nowhere more so than in their literature. Today's politicians do not feel the need to pretend that they read books. But in the 20th century, they had to put on a show of sophistication. When interviewers asked them to name their favourite novelist, they invariably picked Trollope -- the only great writer to respect their trade.

Off the top of my head, I could only think of one politician who named Trollope as his favourite novelist. That was John Major, who occasionally came across (with his fondness for cricket, his allusions to Orwell, his dated idioms) more like a comic immigrant who learned English from 1950s gramophone records and the Goons than as a Brixton lad and true-born Englishman. If I'm honest, the list of politicians who had favourite novelists whom I could name stretched to three. Major: see above. JFK: Ian Fleming. Margaret Thatcher: Frederick Forsythe (and that was typically disingenuous). I had a feeling that Denis Healey would have expressed a preference, and a bit of a Google found Geoffrey Wheatcroft.

When Tony Blair was asked recently to name his favourite book, he said The Lord of the Rings. Pausing only to stifle a low groan, and to recall the late Maurice Richardson reviewing Tolkien under the words "Adults of the world, unite!", I thought that this dispiriting choice was at least an improvement. As Sue Lawley's castaway, Blair had previously chosen for his desert island book Ivanhoe, the worst novel even Scott ever wrote.

Wheatcroft's piece is a joy. It demolishes Nick's "invariably" of course, but a moment's reflection would do that. His second paragraph begins (contra Nick 11 years later):

What is it with our politicians nowadays? In 1943 George Orwell complained that "the illiteracy of politicians is a special feature of our age".

Finally, I have no idea what Nick's point is. I think Jonathan Coe is wonderful, as Nick seems to. I enjoyed The Ploughman's Lunch. But there are so many names Nick doesn't even consider. What about Irvine Welsh? Can't he see that Trainspotting was angry and political? Or Zadie Smith? Or Monica Ali? Or Alan Hollinghurst? Why doesn't he mention the literati who voted Tory - like Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch?

Labour was not operating in a vacuum. Ordinary people may not have liked what they saw on Wall Street and in the City but the boom seemed to validate it and there were no popular protests. Nor were artists telling the government that the lesson of financial history was that speculative excess always leads to bust and that the fortunes earned by the winners would have to be paid for by ordinary taxpayers.

No, no artists at all. OK, from the 80s, but it cast a shadow: anyone who had a similar point would have suffered from the comparison.

I may get round to a discussion of Spooks and the Die Hard and Bond franchises, none of which Nick gets at all. (Because he wants them to be political, rather than entertainment. This is almost as silly as expecting Top Gear to review cars.)

In the meantime, best wishes for 2010.


Anonymous organic cheese board said...

i don't really have internet access at the moment but just to say-the reason nick doesn't mention anyone else is because he doesn't actually read, which is what truly depresses me about him. The list of books in the standpoint piece is identical to one in an obs piece making the exact same 'point'-or rather not- from a few years ago. He won't mention hollinghurst, for example, because he only saw the tv version of the line of beauty. Just like the standpoint piece on the lrb this reeks of wingnut philistinism. And nick can't even work out what he wants-he castigates others for looking for simplistic political points from novels but that's actually exactly what he wants. It's very telling that his favourite novelist is steig larsson...

12/27/2009 09:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My great bugbear with Socialist Worker, even when I occasionally contributed, was the bloody awful reviews page that, instead of reviewing things on their own terms and bringing in politics with a light touch, tried to reduce every book/film/record/TV show to politics, with the angle of attack being how far it deviated from SWP thought. So you might get a review of Goodness Gracious Me that furiously denounced Sanjeev Bhaskar for not putting forward a Marxist analysis of racism. (Of course the rest of the left press was prone to this as well.) It seems to me that Nick is adopting the selfsame approach. No wonder he thinks he's still on the left, if he's continuing the left's bad habits.

12/27/2009 11:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I suggest (which I'm sure I've suggested before) that Nick can only see 'Art' in terms of whether or not it contributes to 'The Struggle', like the worst kind of party/identity politics hack, so he would have to overlook work that either doesn't 'fit' or which resists such easy classification (see Alistair Beaton's Feelgood from 2001, which pretty much nailed both Blair's vacuity and New Labour's reliance on spin).


12/28/2009 12:59:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am fairly certain that the "Politicians only choose Trollope" thing is in Paxman's book on Politics.

12/28/2009 01:21:00 AM  
Anonymous saucy jack said...

Macmillan was certainly a genuine admirer of Trollope. Eden's passion was for French literature. And Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Whatever the merits of that decision, he was hardly a semi-literate barbarian who pretended he had read stuff.

12/28/2009 03:14:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

Churchill liked Kipling didn't he?

The trouble with most novelists who deal with political themes is that they're such slippery bastards. A book can't be great without being complex, and that complexity is always going to make its political themes/arguments hard to pin down.

12/28/2009 03:21:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

instead of reviewing things on their own terms and bringing in politics with a light touch, tried to reduce every book/film/record/TV show to politics, with the angle of attack being how far it deviated from SWP thought.

Ah, this is somewhat of a caricature. Actually I'd have said the SWP was possibly the least prone of all the left groups to take a politically-reductionist line on art. No doubt reviews can be found which fit the caricature, but one of the pleasures of my days as a Cliffite was attending talks about the arts at the annual Marxism event which were about as far away from aforesaid caricature as possible. I can recall among many others the late Dave Widgery on Allen Ginsberg, a lecture on Dylan which was my introduction to the man - oh, and a talk on the socialist novel by Raymond Williams that may even have been the last lecture that great critic ever gave. Not quite the cariacture.

Of course short reviews in a weekly newspaper called Socialist Something are going to focus on the politics of the item reviewed: but both I and SS can think of rather better, longer pieces in different publications.

12/28/2009 04:40:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

At the same time I've met plenty of leftists who do tend to take a supporter's view of art, liking what appears to agree with their viewpoint and not liking what does not. But then again I've met these people right across the political spectrum, liberals and all - don't tell me there hasn't been plenty of that last in the US culture wars, for instance.

I know it's a hobby horse I ride occasionally on the site, but I don't think of Decency and its habits of mind as something that comes purely or even mainly out of the hard/far left - people learning habits there and retaining them while turning their fire on their old comrades (though of course it's an element, and does apply to a number of individuals). I think the habits of mind can spring from almost any original position, liberalism and all - the crucial thing is the view one takes of oneself and one's targets, oneself as an exposer and deouncer, one's targets as people needing to be exposed and denounced. All a matter of tone, really. And hence you can find Clive James alongside the rest of them.

12/28/2009 04:52:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

Oh, sorry to post three times in a row - I'm killing time on Insomnia Night - but readers are invited to guess, without looking it up, who wrote the following:

How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics.

12/28/2009 04:58:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

the wrestling post was funnier. Back on topic, a fair few novelists have clear and direct - not least dickens or eliot- but someone above is right to say that it's never completely straightforward. That's what's so depressing about ian mcewan-that his even-handedness was a mistake and that he always took sides. But i'd missed the truly boneheaded part of cohen's piece-that bit at the end of the above piece where he claims that no novelists addressed the boom and bust economy. The line of beauty, which nick hasn't read but he saw the unfaithful adaptation, is entirely about that-and the successful, yet culpable, tories emerge victorious. A ou of reviewers missed this, too, but rather than being an amusing slice of office life, Joshua ferris's book then we came to the end is a bleak account of the effects of the dot com boom. The problem with writing pieces on things that aren't featured in art is that you need to be very sure that you have considered enough to justify your claims. It's manifestly clear that cohen hasn't and that's what is truly depressing about stand point-the editors don't seem to care because nick is attacking lefties. I'd ask if their readers do, but the tone of the entire mag is so boorish and unintellectual that they must like this kind of crap.

12/28/2009 09:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, Justin adds the necessary nuance. I can remember having to defend my fondness for Hugh MacDiarmid against furious ideological criticism; I can also remember a boozy afternoon spent discussing the Bronte sisters with an SW journalist, who could have written brilliant reviews if she'd had more than 300 words to play with.

Amongst the Irish literati, or rather that segment of the south Dublin bourgeoisie that a lot of them spring from, the politics is much more a strain of intolerant liberalism. And there's very much a party line, and art has been judged on whether or not it contributes to the Struggle (against Catholicism, against republicanism, for divorce and abortion, for the EU) rather than on its own terms. So you can do crude agitprop in favour of the party line, or you can produce art that says nothing very much at all. Think of it as U2 versus Seamus Heaney.

Possibly you can get away with more in Gaelic - I don't have enough Gaelic to be able to tell - but our more advanced intellectuals tend to think of Gaelic itself as ideologically suspect.

So, Nick. You could do a sort of Marxist riff on The Simpsons, about the proletarian hero Homer and his struggle with the plutocrat Burns, and get away with it if you were entertaining and insightful. But Nick would just loudly demand to know why there were no Muslim terrorists in it.

12/28/2009 10:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Pesto Pete said...

Justin's quote is from George Orwell's "Inside the Whale". Orwell continues, "The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. ... Good novels are not written by by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscienee-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened."

12/28/2009 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

"Good novels are written by people who are not frightened."

Oh, and Graham Greene. But he wasn't really frightened. Or at least, the novels he wrote when he was really frightened aren't good novels. QED.

I pegged the quote as Orwell, although I didn't guess that it was "Outside the Whale". Readers may like to contemplate the vast acreage of wiggle-room which opens up when the statement

"No A are B"

is modified to read

"No good A are good B"

12/28/2009 12:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

"Inside", obviously - "Outside" was Thompson.

12/28/2009 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

yes the "frightened" observation falls apart immediately i think: unless you gloss it as "no novelist was ever good who is frightened of being a good novelist" -- the (excellent) novelist i am closest friends with is frightened most of the time, except of actually when it comes to it committing herself in sentences she is committed to

12/28/2009 01:08:00 PM  
Anonymous belle le triste said...

i myself am not frightened of leaving the surface of planet grammar

12/28/2009 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

It just amuses me that it comes from Inside The Whale, his great essay railing against people subjecting literature to that sort of judgement.

12/28/2009 03:17:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Oh, it's a shame that loony posting got nixed. I nearly posted to the efrfect of "please don't delete it": I wish I had now.

12/28/2009 03:18:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

From his contemporaries, you've also got Evelyn Waugh, though he was a convert. Later you had Muriel Spark.

Obviously once you start considering European writers it becomes a particularly stupid comment. Start with Cervantes and...

12/28/2009 04:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to mention a good half of German/Austrian literature... and the Russian novel certainly isn't the product of a Protestant culture.

Larsson is, but I wouldn't want to hold him up as a shining example.

12/28/2009 04:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Der Bruno Stroszek said...

I'm currently re-reading Orwell's essays and it's funny how much he struggles against the impulse to make purely political judgements before giving in. 'Inside the Whale' comes perilously close to giving up being about Henry Miller halfway through, and 'Charles Dickens' spends so much time criticising Boz's political opinions that he has to remind readers at the start of the last chapter that he does actually like Dickens and thinks he's a good writer.

(Occasionally this gets the better of him - reading 'Benefit of Clergy' straight after 'Inside the Whale' will produce the suspicion that, for all his attempts at objective justifications, Orwell dislikes Dali because Dali personally offends him and likes Miller because Miller doesn't. The defence he puts up for one could easily be applied to the other, and vice versa)

How is this different to Nick's criticism? Three ways. The first is nuance. Orwell is capable of recognising that Dickens was a brilliant author but not a socialist, whereas for Nick a good book is one he agrees with and that's that. The second is in the closeness of textual analysis - compare the sheer weight of characters, plot twists and situations Orwell references from Dickens's novels to the number of specific incidents from Shameless that Nick has cited in his occasional rants against that series. I believe it stands at about nil. He's offended by the concept of it, so he won't watch it - which is coincidentally how I feel about Standpoint, but if I was hired to review the wretched thing I'd at least pick up the latest issue.

The other one, of course, is that it's old hat by now. When Orwell wrote 'The Art of Donald McGill' ideological assessments of so-called 'low' culture were quite uncommon, whereas now it brings to mind the infamous HP post about Nando's. There are a million magazines, blogs, TV and radio shows where dipsomaniac ex-Communists can bark nonsense about how the latest series of In the Night Garden shamefully fails to confront the Islamist menace; there are still a few examples, though hardly as many as there once was, of this kind of criticism on the left.

The crucial difference is that - as noted in 'The Lion and the Unicorn' - by the 1930s Western intellectuals started to shift en masse to left-wing causes, so even the most silliest and dogmatic left-wing critic can season their denunciations with a bit of academic colouring. Shorn of such support, the tenor of right-wing ideological criticism tends to be hysterically anti-intellectual, to the extent where even works whose messages are ambiguous or open to debate are viewed as unacceptably pointy-headed and elitist; and it is this tradition, rather than Orwell's, that Nick is drawing on. The hatred for thought and opinion is rather unbecoming in a wannabe thinker and opinion-maker.

12/28/2009 06:59:00 PM  
Blogger Gregor said...

'The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual. ... Good novels are not written by by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscienee-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.'

That'll be why Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have produced such a superior body of literature to Dostoyevsky.

(perhaps you could say that Orwell began the decent meme of religion as an evolving thing that is ameliorated by time and contact with other societies, when history offers no such simple analyisis)

12/28/2009 08:12:00 PM  
Blogger the management said...

My mum used to subscribe to "New Internationalist", which always used to (and presumably still does since it is still going) give reviews with a dual rating - you got marks out of 5 for politics and marks out of 5 for artistic merit. It was a good way to introduce young minds to the concept of incommensurability.

12/28/2009 08:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Some day I'm going to blog the story of my time working for Red Pepper. One month I gave the lead review to a book which wasn't remotely political but which was getting a lot of press elsewhere - and I gave it to a guy who wouldn't necessarily have anything political to say about it, but who was a good writer & a fan of the author in question, and could basically be trusted to write an interesting review. I liked the idea that RP could be one of the places where you'd look for interesting reviews of interesting books, as well as (certainly not to the exclusion of) being one of the few places to find reviews of radical books.

As it turned out the book wasn't that great*, and in retrospect I think it was a bit of a miscalculation. What was interesting was the fallout. I didn't get anything so mundane as a complaint; I got a very polite phone call from somebody asking what the mechanism was by which the reviews editor's decisions were overseen and ratified. I explained that there wasn't really any mechanism, there was just me choosing books and sending them out** to whoever I could get to write ridiculously brief reviews for no money. I see, he said, but do you think perhaps it might be a good idea to set up a mechanism by which the decisions of the reviews editor could be monitored, with a view to ensuring that there was some form of political oversight over the section? Well, not really, I said - if there were any issues about the reviews section, they could be raised at the editorial committee and the editor would communicate them to me. Very well, he said, and when does the editorial committee next meet? I told him, and he was about to ring off when I asked if he could tell me what he was actually phoning about. Oh, he said, I was just concerned that the distinctiveness of the Red Pepper reviews section should be preserved, and that a radical magazine shouldn't waste its limited space on books which were already amply covered in the mainstream press. I eventually prevailed on him to say "I didn't like the main review in the last issue", but it was a bit like pulling teeth - in his mind he wasn't a punter with a complaint, he was making a constructive contribution to the articulation of the democratic underpinnings of the revolutionary project.


*It was Martin "Bloody" Amis's memoir Experience, embarrassingly enough.

**At my own expense & inconvenience - although I offset postage against the sales of review copies to secondhand bookshops, & came out slightly ahead.

12/28/2009 11:38:00 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Beijing Cat is right - Paxman goes on and on about it but concludes: "but the politicans can derive comfort, too, from the fact that Trollope took them seriously"

12/28/2009 11:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Dave Weeden said...

B2 - I like that idea. I'd like it even more if it could be proved that it was nicked from 'From Russia With Love' where Red Whatsisname was graded as IIRC 5/5 as an agent and 0/5 for ideological understanding. (Much the same could be said of Commander Bond, of course, who remained something of a Cavalier in the employ of Roundheads.)

For similar ideological fun, check out the Telegraph's Top 100 Movies defining the noughties. Check what's a number 1 and enjoy the comments...

12/29/2009 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger Gregor said...

I also looked up the Telegraphs' 100 books that defined the 'noughties'. The first comment was by someone who thought Ayn Rand should have been no 1. Telling if they really are a thick as pigshit objectivist or if they are obviously taking the piss is near impossible.

12/29/2009 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

That Telegraph think is link bait, surely?

12/29/2009 08:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oliver Kamm's role in latest iranian nuclear forgery:


1/04/2010 07:56:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home