Reviewing the Review – a Review!

On Saturday 5th January 2019, alongside many other Guardian readers, I received a copy of the Review section of the paper which included a year calendar of books ‘to look forward to’ and ‘literary dates to note’. It was the Review’s cover story and was sizeable piece of journalism covering a whole eight pages of the Review.  I was curious about how the list came about and its purpose.  Was it just a fat advertorial, sponsored perhaps by the publishing industry?  Was it maybe a filler task handed over to some junior intern or newbie-learning-the-ropes?  I pondered the possibility that it was very carefully put together by an incredibly learned bookish person and was indeed filled with terribly important knowledge I really should take note of. No author was ascribed (if I had written it, this would have upset me greatly!)

As I wrote in my first blog post, on 2nd February I decided to Review the ‘Literary Year Ahead’ calendar published in that edition of the paper.  As I mentioned in that post, I hoped it was something Guardian editors over at the Review might be interested in. Their failure to respond to a number of approaches on email, twitter and by actual posted letters (yes, I did that) suggested not.  So, as a potential article pitch, my efforts failed.  Having drawn on the Review for my reading matter during the previous year (for reasons also explained in the first blog post), I found many of their monthly recommendations disappointing reads.  Indeed. Some of the positively reviewed books were downright terrible.  Was the ‘literary year ahead’ calendar, abundant in recommendations, going to offer richer pickings?  I decided to choose one book recommendation and follow up on one ‘event to note’ per month to read, research and write about (see choice methodology below). But first, I wanted to know – why were these books and events to note? What authority did they have?  Who said so and why?  So I wrote, emailed, tweeted to Sian Cain (the Guardian’s books site editor) and Lisa Allardice (the Guardian’s chief books writer).  I asked each:

  • who is the author of the Literary Calendar (none is attributed)
  • how was the ‘books to look forward to’ list arrived at – why were those books in particular chosen?
  • how was the list of ‘dates to note’ arrived at? who put this list together and was there a rationale or inclusion criteria?

Eventually, after a few emails, I had a response to question 2 from a staff member at the Guardian (no role title given) called Hanako who replied:-

“we have a fiction and a non-fiction editor who both read widely and decide which are the most interesting books to include based on catalogues from publishers. Obviously we can’t include everything, but they do their best to make sure a wide range of new and established authors are included in the list”.

(Email correspondence 5 Feb 2019).

I followed this up with Hanako, but unfortunately, no further responses were offered.

It would seem then, the list is drawn up based on the personal choices of the editors. I assume these are the two book editors referred to on the Guardian website – Sian Cain (#siancain) and Lisa Allardice (@LisaAllardice), but I acknowledge this may be an incorrect assumption.

Anyone who follows Sian Cain and Lisa Allardice on Twitter will know these are women who understand the book world and have enviable knowledge about the industry, books, authors and are fine writers themselves. I admire their work tremendously. There is though, a responsibility that comes with creating a list others should ‘note’. The inclusion methodology should be transparent – is this a well thought out list or just a huge book flogging (paid for??) advertorial for some publishing house/s? The trustworthiness of our media is important, and it shouldn’t matter whether this is news about 2019 (UK) election, or a pert but somewhat throwaway little filler magazine insert into the weekend paper.

Analyzing the list: my methodology
I decided to spend a little time analyzing the list, and it is just as important to make my methods transparent.
‘Analyzing the list’ turned out to be much more of an effort than I had first imagined. I looked at both the books and the dates to note listed for each month of the year. I used a spreadsheet to do a count.

Books to note list
For the book list, specifically, I counted:

  • whether fiction, non-fiction or poetry
  • the gender, sexuality and ethnicity of the writers
  • whether authors identified as disabled
  • (from May only) the class/educational level of the author

To be completely transparent I need to acknowledge that this count was literally me running my fingers down the monthly list and looking the (first named only in the case of dual authored books) authors up on the web. In May I added a further very loosely framed category of class/educational level of the author after recognizing a pattern of very high academic achievement of listed authors but I did not go back and find this data for the previous five months. By any research standards, it was a roughly hewn methodology and approach. Counting is almost certainly awry and therefore, it should be viewed as a general big picture rather than micro perfect.

I need to add a couple more important caveats:

‘Straight’ sexuality was identified and assumed only by the author being married to someone of the opposite sex in materials I found online. No ‘straight’ author actually self-identified as such in any articles I viewed.

Gay and lesbian authors were identified specifically by biographical material found online where they identified with this naming specifically-

Some authors identified as queer.
One author identified as non-binary.

The sexuality of some authors could not be identified through biographical information found online.

Disability information was taken from biographical information found online and language used here reflects how it was presented on-line.

One author self-identified as ‘mixed nationality’. Some identified as dual nationality. International includes Canada, US, Australia, Jamaica, Chile, Argentina, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Sudan, New Zealand, Georgia, Russia, Mexico, India. The country with the biggest representation within this group was the US with 25 writers featured.

Ethnicity data proved to be the most challenging to gather from on-line sources due to the broad range of ways people’s ethnicities were described and in some cases, it could not be found and only assumed from images. The term ‘mixed’ is only used where authors have specifically referred to themselves thus in on-line sources.  I have used the categories provided by Gov.UK’s   ‘List of ethnic groups’ but attributing descriptions as given in on-line information to these groups involved somewhat clumsy decision making and data presented here should be understood in that context and as relatively poor quality data.

The book breakdown

  • Fiction 61
  • Non-fiction 53
  • Poetry 9
  • Young adult 1
  • Children’s 1

Gender

  • Male 59
  • Female 65
  • Non-binary 1

Sexuality

  • Not known 35
  • Straight 76
  • Non-binary 1
  • Queer 3
  • Lesbian 4
  • Gay 6

Disability

  • Mental health issues 1
  • Physical health issue 1
  • Dyslexia 1
  • Deaf 1
  • Not known 121

Author Nationality

  • UK 56
  • Europe 22
  • International 46 (25 US writers within this group).
  • Mixed 1

Ethnicity

  • White 83
  • Mixed/multiple ethnic groups 2
  • Asian/Asian +other 7
  • Black/African/Caribbean/Black +other 20
  • Other ethnic group 1
  • Not known 12

I intended to have a category called ‘educated or posh. By the time my web based research of the authors on list got to the month of May I came to realize that the majority of authors seemed to be Princetown, Harvard or Oxford educated, were Professors of Literature, University lecturers, held degree’s, MA’s, and doctorates and/or were prize winners from Laureate to other prestigious prizes. There were of course authors who identified as working class (in on-line bio’s), so not everyone was posh. Still, the vast majority were at the very least educated to degree level and most far beyond (and, yes, I do equate access to funds to participate in education at beyond degree level to equate to some level of privilege. Sue me). The Ivy League and Oxbridge had a significant presence in the list of authors.

So what might we make of the ‘books to look forward to’ list?

The list is balanced well between fiction and non-fiction aimed at an adult audience. Poetry appears to be underrepresented in this list but this, of course, depends on the annual number of poetry books published by the major houses. Women were marginally over represented. The majority of authors were straight. Although in number terms UK authors had a good showing, in terms of the geographical size of the potential pool of authors both it and US writers were arguably over represented. As mentioned above, the breakdown of ethnicity is complicated because of the challenge of attributing ethnicity accurately and respectfully. However, even with that caveat, white authors significantly dominate the ‘books to look forward to’ list.

Disability information proved to be the most difficult to gather. Very few authors mentioned any kind of disability. As a person with disabilities myself I have long noted both the absence of characters with disabilities portrayed in books. Conversely where we are portrayed we are often the cripples – physically or mentally lessor as a story telling short-cut to enable the help/pity etc of an able bodied character to be evidenced. While it is not the responsibility of people with disabilities to educate society about the subject, it is true that ‘writing from within’ and telling stories from our point of view has an important place. Still, these stories were largely missing from the Guardian list. I have also been influenced to think about the struggle disabled writers face to be published, experiences of ableism within the industry and the impacts of that upon both writers with disabilities and how we are represented in published works. Is this represented in the Guardian List? I guess it is hard to say.

I highly recommend spending time with Alice Wong (@SFDirewolf) and Nicola Griffith (@nicolaz), their #CripLit twitter chats and the Disability Visability Project to understand why representation is important.

The ‘dates to note’ list.
The literary ‘dates to note’ could be separated into book festivals (ie Hay), prize awards (ie Man Booker), historical events (ie Peterloo Massacre), film releases – or dead white men. There were exceptions – for example, the death of the fascinating Sarah Kane – but from whichever viewpoint you look at the list of dates to note featuring people rather than events, is dominated by white, mostly dead, men.

How I used the lists and what I gained from them
Each month I chose one book to review and one event to write about. I tried to get a balance across fiction and non-fiction books but only reviewed one poetry book (Simon Armitage – marvellous BTW) because the second possibility (John Cooper Clarke) had a delayed publishing date. I actively tried to choose books from the list I would ordinarily pass by in bookshops – not actively avoid, but not seek out either. I wanted to leave my reading comfort zone.

I was a rather fabulous adventure! I learned a lot from the ‘dates to note’ list. For example, the Peterloo Massacre was new knowledge to me. I am both astounded and a little ashamed that until my research for this blog, I had been woefully ill-informed about such an important historical event (and I ponder on how this could be). Ditto my ignorance of the wonderful Sarah Kane. I rediscovered a joy for Whitman and decided that for the sake of my bank balance, I must never visit the London Book Fair.

From the books to look forward to I read a couple which underwhelmed but I also read books I absolutely loved and yet, would never have chosen were it not for this blogging adventure. – The standouts were:

  • Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez (@CCriadoPerez) which was mind blowing and reignited a long damped feminist call to arms. I am delighted to see how widely her book is being recognised as trailblazing and congratulate her for winning the Financial Times Book of the Year award.
  • Black, Listed: Black British Culture Explored by Jeffery Boakye (@unseenflirt) which was written beautifully, was funny and had radical and compelling content. I learned so much from this book. As I wrote at the time, ‘Jeffrey Boakye… opens eyes and minds and I wish I could write like that’.

The Guardian Review, Review – the Review!

I still wonder what the list was written for. Was it written to be used as I used it? How many people still have copies, consulted monthly from which a choice is made. Not many I suspect, and that is a shame because with a little attention to the caveats cautioned by the data breakdown, it was a damn fine list which facilitated an enjoyable literary journey across my year. The author – whoever that was – could rightfully be proud of it but may I make a suggestion for next year? Please pay less attention to dead/old/white men and more attention to disability.

Finally as this literary journey comes to an end, to the readers of this blog a warm thank you for following!

Date to note November: 22nd 150 years since the birth of André Gide

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
1st Centenary of JM Keyne’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace.
22nd Bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot.
22nd 150 years since the birth of André Gide.

It would have been so easy for me to choose the bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot as my date of note for this month. Adam Bede and Silas Marner are two of my favourite books. Add in the opportunity for a feminist discussion of her writing under a male pen name and there is tasty material to cover. However, this blog has been a journey of learning and new material for me (I will write about my methodology and choice making in my December post) so I chose to explore someone I had never previously heard of.

Andre Gide (1869 – 1951), French essayist, humanist, playwright and novelist was a Nobel Prize winner and thought by many, as he was described in an obituary, as one of France’s greatest writers. Gide was also a self confessed pederast who celebrated his enjoyment of sex with young people.

Anyone who wants to know more about Gide – about his writing, his drive to explore identity and ideas about the nature of sexuality (his ‘investigation of freedom and empowerment in the face of moralist and puritanical constraints’) need only view the detailed, factual but somewhat neutrally toned Wikipedia page or alternatively the on-line version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica which refers to Gide as having ‘tolerant and enlightened views’.

Gide, suggests in his most (in)famous work Corydon that homosexuality is a more natural state of being whilst heterosexuality is merely a useful to society, social construct – though it is also important to note that his is a distinctly male gaze, with male sexuality as the exclusive default. Interestingly the Wiki has this listed as an LGBT topic and as a person who identifies as queer – and as a woman – here is where I struggle.

Many writers have written about the nature/nurture debate relating to human sexuality. I guess the writings – whether good, bad, controversial or provocative have helped to move discussion along and develop ideas about sexuality and sexual identity. I guess, knowing so little of Gide, his work on identity framed in the context of social moralism has been a contribution to that which may explain the admiration for his work. I too am a product of the society in which I have developed. Make of it what you will, but I cannot value, celebrate or ‘own’ any kind of allegiance, respect for or interest in the work of a man who wrote in such sickeningly glowing terms (see autobiography, 1935, p288) about what he refers to as ‘pederasty’ but is of course, the rape of children. Andé Gide raped children.

Much has been written about ‘the problem of history’ – see for example, the debate between Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day. The Guardian Review suggests that the birth of André Gide is a ‘date to note’ – ie to recognise or observe and I wonder what the thinking was behind the suggestion that it be ‘noted’. Is the suggestion neutrally made (like the tone of the Wiki page) or allusion to some kind of quality? I am mindful there is a power in honour naming. Whilst it may or may not be true that Gide made a significant contribution (one writer referred to him as ‘ahead of his time’), failure to contextualise this with recognition of his abuse of children makes it an odd and, I would argue, a careless inclusion.

Date to note October: 100 years since birth of Doris Lessing, winner of Nobel Prize in 2007

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
4th Cheltenham literary festival
11th Film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch
14th Man Booker prize ceremony
22nd 100 years since birth of Doris Lessing, winner of Nobel Prize in 2007

Doris Lessing was a British-Zimbabwean novelist famous for works rich in story, social commentary and political message. The Golden Notebook is one of her most extraordinary works drawing together themes of mental ill-health, fragmentation and separation into narrative woven story and interactive description.

In 2007 Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sarah Crown wrote a lovely piece about this in October 2007 which can be found here

The Nobel Prize for literature was famously not awarded in 2018 following an alleged sexual assault scandal and the complicated membership regulations, subsequently amended. The amendments also paved the way for changes in how awards are made. In that context, two winners were announced in 2019 – Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke – the latter author also subject to controversy because of his political views.

For this post I am interested less in the awards made – about which much has been written – or about Doris Lessing marvellous as she is, about whom there are almost as many words. This blog will focus instead upon both the process of award making and the relevance of the award to authors.

Albert Nobel – ‘the merchant of death’

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish business, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist who, amongst other things, invented dynamite. Nobel was instrumental in weapons manufacture for which he was subsequently condemned as ‘the merchant of death’. Concerned about how he might be remembered, Nobel posthumously donated his amassed fortune to create a positive legacy – hence Nobel prizes for sciences, literature and contribution to international furtherance of peace.

The awards process for the Literature Prize

Every year the body responsible for managing the process of making awards, the Swedish Academy, invites nomination for awards sending out thousands of requests to a broad range of representative organisations and individuals. Nominations received – there are usually up to 250 – 300 received – go through a rigorous shortlisting process, which over months narrows the shortlist to five. The shortlisted works are read and reviewed by the selection committee (in 2019, exclusively Swedish and white, mostly but not exclusively older than 60) over six months after which members of the academy vote. The candidate with more than half of the total votes is named the Nobel Laureate for Literature.

This process is to identify the very best writers – novelists and poets across an international publishing arena. It is reasonable to reflect on the magnitude of such a task and what the prize award, actually means. How many books are read by each panel member, for example?

What is the sample representative of?

How do we know these are in any way a representative sample of the best-published literature available and even then, representative of what? How is the international aspect of nomination and judging managed? Presumably not all panel members have more than one, two or three languages so translation and the essence of a writers work – particularly poetry one imagines – being ‘lost in translation’ must factor into the process? Would a panel made up of people from African or Asian nations, even if using the same published selection procedure, come to similar conclusions? A headcount shows that Nobel Laureates in literature come predominantly from Europe and the US, and the overwhelming majority wrote in English. Only one woman of colour, Toni Morrison, has been awarded the prize.

It is hard to understand what the awards process means. Certainly, it highlights literature with a focus on particular authors. There is not a writer who earns a living through the written word anywhere in the world who would turn their nose up at the significant prize money which accompanies the medal and honour. It would seem that a win is more than likely to lead to more book sales. It needs no saying that the award has cachet and it must be wonderful and a joyful privilege to become a laureate but as a measure of literature(s) of worth, it can only ever be something of a blunt instrument.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 27th Release of Joe Wright’s film of AJ Finn’s thriller The Woman in the Window, starring Amy Adams.

It turns out that the release date of the film has been delayed until 2020 after test screenings allegedly confused audiences and re-shoots have been ordered.

The film itself, as mystery/thriller/drama is about an agoraphobic woman who spends time observing/spying upon the world outside her window. She sees something which causes reality to shift and which, like other films of its type (ie Gone Girl) makes the lead character, and the audience unsure of what is real and what is imagined. The director is the excellent Joe Wright and the cast looks great (cannot beat anything with Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore) so hopefully the new planned release date (May 2020) will be realised.

However, this is not the story here…

The story is actually about the author, AJ Finn – the pseudonym of Dan Mallory. Mallory is an American author. The Woman in the Window was his first novel which many publishing houses sought to publish. It hit the top of best sellers lists and deals were secured for the manuscript in 37 different territories. Unsurprisingly, this subsequently generated a lot of interest in Mallory and his work.

In February 2019 Ian Parker published an extraordinary article in the New Yorker accusing Mallory of fabricating illnesses and periods of brain cancer related ill health. Parker further reported that Mallory did not, as he had told employers, have a PhD from Oxford. It also appeared that several members of Mallory’s family continued to be apparently well despite Mallory telling others that his family were dead due to cancer and his brothers suicide. Parker reported that former colleagues of Mallory formed the view that he was ruthlessly and wilfully deceptive in order to get what he wanted with some suggesting that they felt ‘unnerved’ by him.

Mallory responded in a statement in which he acknowledged that he had never had cancer but implied he did as a cover for his struggles with bi-polar disorder which, to some extent, he also blamed for what he referred to as delusional thoughts. In a subsequent Observer interview Mallory blamed depression for absences from work which, at the time, he said were related to ill health caused by a brain tumour.

As Leo Benedictus reminds us, in his February 2019 Guardian article about authors who fabricate literary personas, fiction writers are fantasists and story tellers for a living. Where should we, as readers, draw a line about the ways and means through which an author and their work gains traction? I don’t know if Mallory is a ruthless albeit somewhat perverse narcissist who dances into best seller lists and film options on the back of a useful mental ill health pony, or whether he actually does experience a serious mental health condition – and one he is ‘intensely ashamed’ of.

Mallory has, according to a quote in Benedictus’s article, suggested that readers are not interested in authors biographies and perhaps he is right. I do not suppose for a moment that anyone will choose not to see the film because of the Mallory story. Whether we see publishing houses clamouring for future works by AJ Finn remains to be seen.

Date to note August: Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

1st Bicentenary of birth of Herman Melville, best known for Moby Dick
3rd 75th anniversary of 1944 Education Act gaining royal assent
9th Kenneth Branagh-directed film Artemis Fowl, based on Eoin Colfer’s 2001 YA fantasy novel
10th Edinburgh international book festival, until 26th
16th Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that let to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper
25th 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris

It seems fitting for this review to consider the founding of the Manchester Guardian given the Review section of that paper’s direct descendant is the whole raison d’art of this blog.

So it seems to me there are three fairly big biggies of this post. Firstly, the Peterloo massacre, then the poem and then the dear old Manchester Guardian – subsequently to become The Guardian, so pull up a chair and let us begin.

The Peterloo Massacre.

On a hot summers day in 16th August 1819, the 15th Hussars were summoned by a Manchester magistrate to disperse a large (thousands) but well organised demonstrating crowd gathered to hear a radical reformer Henry Hunt speak about the need for reform in the context of economic depression, severe unemployment and poverty. Manchester had already become something of a hotbed of political activity and radicalism with demonstrations relating to the repeal of the Corn Laws (costs of food products were kept high through tax and import duty) and concern about inequalities in political representation and who could vote.

The cavalry men charged with weapons.

The number of people killed and injured is difficult to estimate with accuracy but it is thought to be in the region of up to twenty people killed and hundreds more were injured.  Injuries are reported as being caused by horse trampling, sabre wounds and musket shots.  The event prompted a wave of protest meetings across a large number of northern counties. 

There was widely reported condemnation about what had happened but the government responded by legislation (the Six Acts) aimed at cracking down on reform, gagging newspapers and preventing meetings under threat of swift legal action and the seizing of funds and goods so that the possibility of a post French Revolution type revolt was kept at bay. 

It has been argued that the event was a turning point for the struggle for the enfranchisement of the working class and and the beginnings of a new political order of reform.


Percy Shelley poem

Percey Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was written in 1819 following the Peterloo massacre although it did not appear in print until 1832 because of concern that it would be misunderstood and perhaps, a call to arms in that it describes the massacre and speaks of the unjust tyranny of the authorities and invites the reader to imagine new forms of social action including the notion of non-violent peaceful process which would shame soldiers of conscience. The poem also names members and roles of government and calls for the people to be revived in hope of a new ways of being.

The poem has been lauded as the most important political poem in history

It is not without criticism for its call to non-violent action and certainty of voice. Whichever way you read it, it is certainly a stirring call to arms!

The Founding of the Manchester Evening Guardian

In 1821 a printed booklet published by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor was distributed proposing a new newpaper. As a direct response to the Peterloo Massacre, which Taylor had give a first hand narrative of in another paper, Taylor wanted a newspaper committed to ‘political change and truthful reporting’.

The first print run of the weekly was to be 5th May 1821 costing seven pence.

The prospectus specifically identified the paper was to be focused upon and actively support and enforce civil and religious liberty, advocate for reform and seek just and unbiased principles of the management of the economy. The paper was to be interesting, avoid slander, report news but also seeks to be of interest to literary and scientific communities.

The plan managed to raise significant patronage to enable a wide distribution. Over the next thirty years the paper went from weekly, to twice weekly to daily publication and to reduce its price.

In 1921 CP Scott writes the essay ‘A Hundred Years’ which has ever since been recognised as a blueprint for independent journalism.

The Manchester Guardian became ‘The Guardian’ in 1959 in response to a more internationally focused editorial position.

In 1976 the Guardian moves to London.

And the rest, as they say is history.

This history includes prize winning notable journalism and journalists, new formats and a radical approach to keeping news free through paying supporters as opposed to firewalls. In 2019 The Guardian announced that it had broken even for the first time in recent history – and, HUGELY importantly, stuck to the principles of the founders of the Manchester Guardian.

So this ‘date to note’ features one of the first thoroughly recorded mass demonstration against inequality, for the eradication of poverty and the power of the will of the people to prompt change. It features an incredibly modern poem proposing both that ‘enough is enough’ and that non-violent direct action is a way forward. Finally, the best English newspaper without question (showing my own colours here) is launched and continues to stick firmly to its ideals, even in the context of a challenging financial climate and new technology.

What is not to like? This is possibly the most exciting of all the dates to note in the Guardian Literary Review supplement. And of course, a helluva story.

Date to note July: Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:
15th – Centenary of the birth of Iris Murdoch
31st – Centenary of Primo Levi’s birth.

While I am a fan of Murdoch’s wonderful novels and consider her to be one of the greats of the last century, this month I chose the centenary of Primo Levi’s birth to write about because of the great significance of his contribution. Levi is celebrated and honoured all over the world this year, with readings, research and commentaries on his work.

Levi was born in Turin in July 1919.  He is, of course, a noted Holocaust survivor and a worthy Nobel Prize laureate, the latter awarded for his three extraordinary memoirs – scripts perfectly nuanced with words painstakingly chosen to ensure unclouded understanding of his message.  His books are translated into over forty languages.

Few have achieved the incisive clarity of Primo Levi’s prose.

In 1947, just three years after liberation from Auschwitz, Levi Published his account of his time in the camp – If this is a Man. In his writing of his time in the camp Levi does not try to be either historian or philosopher – thought there is much of each in his words – but instead focuses on everyday ‘ordinary’ detail of the experience of life in the camps through which the ‘ordinary’ becomes deeply disturbing. He tells of the conditions of the camps and the impact of the brutality upon the men he lives alongside and observes. Following liberation, Levi documented and reflected upon his experience considering why he, rather than so many others, survived and in these reflections, he considered the morality of survival between complicity and coercion.

Levi was not able to conclude any sense or reason to the Holocaust – neither that it was simply the result of evil or absence of voices of challenge but he did argue that it becomes more understandable if we understand individual human motivations – the fundamentals of what humans can be and the choices they make. 

Primo Levi continues to be profoundly relevant not just because of the importance of his documentation of experiences of immeasurable brutality or because of his lucid and compelling reflections upon being a witness to them but because of the intellectual and emotional acuity he brings to the analysis of human behaviours.

Levi’s work reminds us that ‘it happened, and it can happen again’.

His words are a powerful reminder to us to learn, to consider what we know, what we choose to know, and how we choose to act.  His work is arguably more important today as it has ever been and the centenary of his birth is indeed a date worthy of note.

Date to note June: 23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’ including Rip Van Winkle.

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th Women’s prize for fiction winner announced.

23rd Bicentenary of publication of Washington Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book,’ including “Rip Van Winkle”.

This month I chose the bicentenary to write about safe in the knowledge that every woman and her dog with interest in the literary world will have an opinion on the women’s prize for fiction winner.  I was unsure whether the anniversary of a book by a long gone Irving might have had similar interest but thought it likely not.

Most of us have heard of Rip Van Winkle but a quick vox pop of friends evidences that very few had much of an idea of the story other than it is about someone who falls asleep for a long period.


The story, inspired by folklore (there are many very similar variables of this story across Europe), is, in fact, charming, humorous and beautifully written and as so many enduring stories are, is an apologue of sorts. The story said to be about the demands of the British Empire (represented by the nagging wife) upon the USA (represented by Rip Van Winkle), is set in New York’s Catskill Mountains.  Rip, escaping the nagging of his wife, wanders into the woods with his dog where helps a peculiar man carry a barrel. They meet up with another group of odd beings who seem to know Rip.  He drinks with the group and falls asleep.  When he wakes his dog is gone, his gun has rusted, he has a long beard and everything is different.  He recognises no-one in his village and discovers that the American revolution has happened.  He finds most of his friends gone, lost to the war, his wife long dead and his son a grown man.  He is told he was missing for twenty years and that he was likely to have been partying with ghosts in the woods.

Irving, born of British parents but settled in New York City (1783-1859) began his writing career by letters and commentaries to newspapers and literary magazines. After his grand tour of Europe, he returned to the States and studied law but increasingly became involved in writing and publishing through which his reputation grew.

(Portrail of Washington Irving by John Wesley)

The story ‘Rip Van Winkle’ appeared first in Irving’s ‘The Sketch Book’, in 1819 to great acclaim and the subsequent instalments of volumes from the series equally so.  Following their great success, Irving travelled Europe and published more work which was also moderately well received.  Following his successful writing career Irving was appointed as a Minister to Spain, work he did not especially enjoy, before returning to the States where he died aged 76. 

The bicentenary has not caused the bedecking by bunting and launching of fireworks in many places though the town of Sleepy Hollow in Winchester County, USA, is hosting a series of celebratory literary and arts-based events and Tarrytown where Irving lived are also hosting activities and local tours.

The bicentenary is indeed a date worth celebrating. Rip Van Winkle is an enduring story which has been adapted for theatre and film, television, animated films and cartoons several times. The story has influenced comics and music and paintings. Bing Crosby and Al Jolson can be found on YouTube singling ‘who pays the rent for Mrs Rip Van Winkle’. The Rip Van Winkle Bridge spans the Hudson River, near Catskill where the story is set. There is even a Rip Van Winkle Bourbon whiskey. It seems to me there is a lot worth celebrating. (Photograph by Anthony-22, 2017).

My personal favorite inspired work though is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Mrs Rip Van Winkle

I sank like a stone
into the still, deep waters of late middle age,
aching from head to foot

I took up food
and gave up exercise.
It did me good.

And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I’d always dreamed about:

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.
I made a little watercolour of them all.

But what was best,
what hands-down beat the rest,
was saying a none-too-fond farewell to sex.

Until the day
I came home with this pastel of Niagara
and he was sitting up in bed rattling Viagra.

© Carol Ann Duffy ‘The World’s Wife’. Picador. 1999

Date to note: 31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

6th Centenary of the death of L Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

20th Rathbones Folio prise awarded.

21st Man Booker International prize awarded.

23rd Hay festival opens until 2nd June.

31st Bicentenary of birth of Walt Whitman.

It is two hundred years since the birth of poet Walt Whitman and this is still relevant because…? I do not seek to be provocative: as usual with the Guardian Review literary calendar the dates are left to speak for themselves which they may well do to staffers of the Guardian Review or Guardian Books. It could be they present such dates as a simple list of facts, useful for the crossword perhaps but given that this list appears alongside ‘books to look forward to’ for the same month I think the lists are meant to be more than that (as an aside, I did write to ask – twice – but no one from the Guardian has responded).  So, as I have in earlier blog posts, I ponder on this date.

Whitman was an American writer, journalist and essayist but he is known primarily for his poetry. In particular, he is known for the audacity of his poetry, which, depending on the critic was considered either fearlessly bold or brashly unmannerly with some critics calling his work ‘obscene’. It would appear that Whitman took little note of his critics and was a self publicist who might today have been very comfortable in the playground of social media, sending his work to all and sundry, drawing attention to favourable reviews and indeed, even creating his own.

Is audacity alone reason enough to note the birth date of Whitman?

Like many people I readily recall ‘O Captain! My Captain’ written following the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 since is was used so marvellously by Robin Williams in the film ‘Dead Poets Society’ (the boys on the desks scene is still one of the best in cinema) and this poem as a stand alone is arguably good reason to remember him but he contributed so much more.  Whitman changed poetry.  He distained the poetic canons of historical tradition at that time primarily influenced through European history.  He wrote distinctly as an American for an American audience though his work was often contentious even to a home audience discussing as he did, nature, love, friendship, politics, sex and himself.  More important, arguably, than the content of his work is the free verse style he created which has had a huge influence upon modern poetry.  This was acknowledged by, amongst others, so called ‘beat poet’, Allen Ginsberg a devotee of Whitman who speaks to him directly in his own poem A Supermarket in California’.

My own favourite Whitman poem is I Hear America Singing’ which speaks of the different voices of America’s working people without romanticising their labour or refusing them the respect of individual agency.  It is a poem of celebration but also acknowledges difference and a right to belong – or not belong – and in that respect, it might be viewed as a distinctly political poem and one as relevant today as it was when it was written.  

Whitman broke the rules and rejected the then familiar traditions of poetry

His work has rhythm without rhymes, unusual informal and yet highly formal structure of long and short lines, lines grouped in new ways and arrangements which appear both wildly disorganised and yet acutely organised. Not all of his work is an easy read. I am unqualified to make any kind of assessment other than ‘I know what I like’ and some of Whitman’s work, it seems to me, has real relevance to current social and political discussion of diversity, place, belonging and democracy. 

The bicentenary of Walt Whitman’s birth is worth noting and deserves its place on the Guardian Review’s list. 

Date to note: April 22nd Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were: 

5th  – the release of The Sisters Brothers, starring John C Riley and Joaquin Phoenix, based on Patrick deWitt’s Booker shortlisted novel.  And Pet Sematary, the second version of Stephen King’s horror tale. 

21st – Bicentenary of the start of Keats’s “great year”, including most of his Odes.

22nd – Fifty years since Booker Prize first awarded in 1969 to PH Newby.

23rd – 300th anniversary of the publication of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often called the first novel in English

Most readers have heard of the Booker Prize and, it is said to lead readers to books in numbers significant enough for it to still be important to publishers and writers.  However, a deliciously wry Guardian article by Rachel Cooke in 2018 cited an off the record bookseller who suggested that the shortlist was not the draw it once was and had stopped being a good indicator of readers choices.  The article suggests the prize has ‘lost its lustre’ and notes the withdrawal of sponsors from book prizes in recent years.  It is clear that the breadth, remit and aims of this prize  – and perhaps others – may be in something of a flux at the moment.  Nevertheless, the Booker Prize has a significant and important history of promoting and fostering literature and encouraging reading of high-quality fiction.

Has the Booker ‘lost its lustre’ or is it still important in promoting and fostering high quality literature?

My relationship with the Booker has been up and down.  I have actively worked at improving the quality of my (fiction) reading choices over the years (I have trash fiction taste if left to my own devices) via selecting from noted book prize shortlists, including the Booker.  Last year I adored the winner – Anna Burns Milkman – funny and astutely observed but read another which I thought was absolutely awful – could not even imagine why it had been published, let alone nominated or shortlisted.  2017 was a better year. Of the shortlisted six, I read one I loved – Ali Smith’s Autumn, and three others I thought were OK – the latter three did not strike me as magnificent, but I did finish them.  I had a similar experience in 2016.  Every year I have the hope for blow-my-socks-off reading only to feel somewhat let down.  I ponder on why this is.  Although an unashamed fan of crime fiction, I read a lot and broadly.   I am a committed reader and active in trying to expand my reading horizons and tastes and yet I never understand the selections or judge based outcomes.  I must be missing something. I only wish I knew what it was.

On the upside, In this 50th year I note the English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has won the special ‘Golden Man Booker Prize’ for the best work of fiction in the last five decades of the prize. I loved this book.  Well done to Mr Ondaatje – a worthy winner.

Note: PH Newby won for his novel Something to Answer For.  The book kept me reading to the end though it was a confusing and challenging read at times.  I am not sure whether Newby is a good recommendation for the prize or vice versa.

TS Eliot Prize for poetry awarded

January dates of note (Review 5 January 2019)

  • 1 Centenary of birth of The Catcher in the Rye Author JD Salinger*.
  • 7 Winners of Costa category awards announced.
  • 11 Release of the biopic Collette, starring Kiera Knightley.
  • 12 50th Anniversary of the publication of Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • 14 TS Eliot prize for poetry awarded.
  • 29 Costa prize-giving with book of the year revealed.
  • Germaine Greer turns 80.

In this post I will be pondering upon 14th January: The TS Eliot prize award for poetry

Image: TS Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell © The estate of Lady Ottoline Morrell. Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence

I mentioned in my first post that some of the dates are written as if self-explanatory – that anyone would understand why these, rather than other dates, are especially of note in the literary year ahead.  In a future post, I will reflect on the influence of the lens upon the collection offered.

For this post, and for future monthly choices of dates to consider specifically, I will be guided by one simple question:  Why is this a date to note?

I chose this date because I am relatively ignorant about the event.  What I know about the craft of poetry writing could be covered in a seven-line limerick. Beyond ‘knowing what I like’ in a poem (John Cooper Clarke, Maya Angelou, Roger McGough, – popular but arguably unadventurously mainstream) I find many as difficult to interpret as another language.  Learning about the shortlist and the winner provides me with an opportunity to give more time to poetry than I usually allow. 

Helpfully, readings from the full shortlist are posted online:

Personally, I find hearing poetry is a more satisfactory, more sensual experience than reading it and so I spent a couple of hours being variously caressed, battered or bored. 

I do not have the technical knowledge to critique but I found Tracy K Smith’s reading from Wade in the Water (Penguin, 2018) to be distinctive, evocative and politically thought-provoking.

The winner of the TS Eliot prize was announced as Hannah Sullivan for her book Three Poems (Faber, 2018). Her work is precise with a near-forensic economy of chosen words.  Her reading readily evoked visceral imagery. Belying my lack of a framework to understand poetic form and discipline, I did not have as powerful a response to it as the prize awarding panel which found her work ‘exhilarating’. The Chair of the panel and previous winner Sinéad Morrissey is reported, in a Guardian article, to have said of Ms Sullivan that ‘a star is born’.   

A quick peruse of Wikipedia shows there are a great many well-respected poetry prize opportunities internationally and I assume this must be a good thing for poets and therefore poetry.  It must be a very challenging field in which to publish and become successful.  Prizes must help bring work into focus and audience and this can only be a very lovely thing.  The TS Eliot prize is unquestionably much coveted and indeed, valuable. 

I found an unexpected prize.  The TS Eliot Prize website made available for download readers notes for each nominated author.  Notes include brief bio’s of the author, example reviews of their work – some samples of which are also included – and, super-usefully, discussion ideas through which to dissect and debate the authors work. Suggestions for other writers of a similar vein are offered.  The reader notes allow poetry novices such as me a way to engage with and learn how to understand the poems submitted.  It is my intention to now actively use these so go back to the recordings and consider them with a more discerning ear. There was also an invitation to join the mailing list and I enthusiastically signed up.

If one is a poet or involved personally/professionally in the literary world, then I guess the TS Eliot prize is indeed noteworthy and perhaps obviously so.  I am sorry (and perhaps just a little bit embarrassed to admit) it had not crossed my own horizon before, but I am very sure it will become a date to note for me in the future. I am grateful it was included in the list. 

Postscript: *I note that the Review of 2 February 2019 carries a four-page article based on an interview with Matt Salinger, JD Salinger’s son and literary executor.  On 3rd February the Observer (sister paper) ran a ‘book of the day’ article by Tim Adams (@TimAdamsWrites)  about the publication of volume 8 of the letters of TS Eliot. I wonder if perhaps the Literary Review calendar is in fact plan which will be guiding future editions of the supplement?  Time will tell.