Naomi Alderman, Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Jenni Fagan, Adam Foulds, Xiaolu Guo, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Nadifa Mohamed, Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Adam Thirlwell and Evie Wyld are Granta’s bright hopes for the future.
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Harsh critics baying for blood by Nikki Gemmell
YOU hate what you cannot be. Think about it. You could apply that illuminating little aphorism to any number of situations: the office, the school gate or playground, in politics, among neighbours; with different races or religions.
And behold our brave new world where bile and cynicism and sneer and rage are given free rein as never before, in all their bold new forums. Hatred seems to be admired more than ever now. Championed, celebrated.
Take a new literary award in the UK which aptly reflects our sour-spirited age. It’s the prize for Hatchet Job of the Year by a reviewer – the winner being the writer who’s torn apart someone else’s book in the most memorably blistering, excoriating way.
It was won this year by Camilla Long for her attack in The Sunday Times on Rachel Cusk’s memoir, Aftermath, which detailed the end of her marriage with painful honesty. Long wrote off Cusk as “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist who exploits her husband and her marriage with relish”, a novelist who “describes her grief in expert, whinnying detail”. That doesn’t sound like thoughtful, constructive criticism to me; it’s a personal attack.
Cusk is a fine writer in the tradition of Virginia Woolf with 10 books under her belt; Long has none to her name. As Coleridge said 200 years ago: “Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers etc, if they could; they have tried their talents at one or at the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics.” This new prize is rewarding a reviewer for a grand and triumphant spewing of highly personal viciousness; it’s a gleeful stewing of envy and malice that pedestals the little person, and I’m guessing it will only encourage more cruel recklessness like it (and this in a reading world when the power of the books pages is dramatically waning; publishers acknowledge they just don’t hold the sway that they used to).
Because, of course, literary editors prefer the vitriolic review over the benign in order to spice up their pages. It gets noticed, it’s successful, it triumphs.
Take the recent banquet of misogyny, sexism and racism at this year’s Academy Awards, courtesy of its shockingly deflating host, Seth MacFarlane. Once again, he’s been lauded in some quarters. Yet his crude attempts at offensive humour felt flat, uninspired, leaden, obvious. This was meant to be entertainment – but for whom? Why had the academy sunk to this? Because in this day and age they think it works. It’s how to get those elusive younger viewers, how to generate the column inches. Ricky Gervais led the way with his hosting of the Golden Globes in 2010 – so ugly-spirited that he was asked back to do it twice more.
We don’t want civil or graceful anymore, we want memorable. Controversial. Buzz. Traction. It’s just like the newspaper editors who prefer relentless attacks on political figures and stories about party instability whether manufactured or not – because they generate interest in their product. It keeps the consumer glued.
We hate what we cannot be. Let’s play a little game. Apply it for fun, say, to a Seth MacFarlane, whose biggest target on Oscars night was hugely successful, confident, working women; people much more successful in his field than he is. Hmmm, feeling threatened perhaps, mate? Then there’s Ms Long. Does she dream of being as successful a writer as Ms Cusk? The latter maintained a dignified silence throughout the recent grubby little Hatchet Job prize. But in these matters I do love the famed response to a critic that’s attributed to German composer Max Reger: “Sir, I am seated in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me.”
Philip Roth, who turned 80 this month, is full of gloom about the future of the novel. The serious novel that is. Here’s a transcript from an interview he gave to PBS:
Yes, I’m very pessimistic about the future of reading… of serious novels. All other kinds of books may well go on being read.
I think serious novels will be continue to be written by talented people. That’s not going to stop. But the readers aren’t there, anymore. The serious readers.They don’t have the antennae any longer to pick up what’s in a serious novel. What happened to the antennae? They shrivelled up in the presence of all the screens. The movie screen. The television screen. The computer screen. Now, the profusion of a computer-like screen.And there’s only so much time… And to find the concentration and the focus and the silence to spend two or three hours a night reading a serious novel. This isn’t available any longer. There are too many screens to watch… And they’re much more appealing than print.Now I know about ebooks and all of that stuff. That doesn’t change my opinion.American readers, and people who know what VPN stands for, can watch the video and other clips from PBS’ upcoming Roth documentary here.____________________________________________________________________