March 2021 Wrap-Up

Hahahahaha. Well, that didn’t last: I managed two months of reviewing pretty much everything I read, and then this month, it all went wrong.

In my defense, that is because I was reading for, and writing up, an application for an MPhil/PhD programme in English, which consumed a lot of time and brain energy. It also led me to read several academic books in quick succession, none of which I could really adequately review, and to reach mainly (although not entirely) for palate-cleansers in between.

So, this month, I read fourteen books, which is a lot more like the olden days. Of those, I have managed to review one, Revolting Prostitutes by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Of the rest, five were new releases and/or proof copies: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (a truly wonderful, eerie novel set in Cornwall and based on the true story of three lighthousemen who disappeared without a trace; Stonex’s ability to depict human emotion and her firm grasp on the nature of insanity is never less than bracing); The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans (I never read anything billed as “stories and a novella” and good Lord am I glad I made an exception for this, a near-flawless collection on emotional loss and the deceptions of American historio-mythology; my two favourite stories are “Richard of York Gave Battle In Vain”, set during a wedding that doesn’t happen, and the title story, a novella that makes devastatingly clear the cost of being honest about history); Hot Stew by Fiona Mozley (a rather broadly drawn but engaging romp through all levels of society, centering on the attempted demolition of a Soho brothel and gentrification of the neighbourhood; Mozley works in types here, and the prose is less remarkable than in her debut, Elmet, but Hot Stew is in a Dickensian tradition of London novels that connect the homeless with the high and mighty and everyone in between; it’s a lot of fun); Harvest by Georgina Harding (the third in a loose trilogy–I’ve read the second but not the first–and a book that grows on you, quietly, the further you read; dealing with the unspoken traumas and losses of a Norfolk farming family which are revealed when Kumiko, the Japanese girlfriend of youngest son Jonathan, comes to stay; Harding moves from perspective to perspective seamlessly and with great empathy, and although the book is certainly a rural tragedy of a sort it never feels melodramatic or Hardy-esque); and The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix (sadly, mildly diverting but there’s nothing going on here that China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, Ben Aaronovitch, Michael Moorcock, CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner and JRR Tolkien–the latter four of whom are frequently name-checked–haven’t done already, and better; the story of a half-mortal girl discovering her parentage, aided by an eccentric and sometimes violent extra-governmental secret agency, spirits of ancient wells and mountains evoking a deep-time England, etc; it should all be very evocative but Nix never really grounds his setting in a feeling of place: he gets street names and geographies right (down to his booksellers’ headquarters on, ahem, Curzon Street, in a Georgian townhouse, right across from Shepherd Market… looks a lot like home…) but unlike Cooper, Garner, Mieville and Tolkien (at least), he never manages to make me feel as though I understand the spirit of his settings. Which is fatal for a book about topographical magic.) A final, and unexpectedly wonderful, read for March was Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1920 novel Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, which Penguin Modern Classics have reissued in one of their lovely eau-de-nil-backed editions; the premise–a middle-aged English bank clerk receives a small inheritance, becomes a missionary in Polynesia, feels a call to convert the inhabitants of the tiny island of Fanua, but makes only one convert, a boy, and finds himself put to “a terrible test”–seemed fertile ground for Graham Greene-ish misery, but Warner is nothing like Greene, nowhere near so predictable in her belief in human wretchedness, and instead the novel is profoundly moving: Mr. Fortune’s friendship with the boy Lueli changes his life, and eventually it is love that compels him to give up his own happiness, because he realizes the damage he will do to the Fanuan way of life if he stays. Quietly stunning and under two hundred pages long; I urge you to give it a go.

Three of the other books I read were for background purposes as I worked up an abstract and then a research proposal: Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture by Laura J. Rosenthal (a broad overview of 18th-century literary depictions of prostitutes), Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture, an anthology of literary and historical essays edited by Ann Lewis and focusing on British, French and Dutch sources, and Mastery, Tyranny and Desire by Trevor Burnard, an in-depth look at the diaries of Jamaican slave-owner Thomas Thistlewood, from whose extensive journal-keeping comes much of what we know about the experiences of enslaved people and Anglo-Jamaican colonialists during the eighteenth century. It’s both genuinely fascinating, and utterly horrifying.

In between, I’ve read two science fiction novels as palate-cleansers: a re-read of Alastair Reynolds’s gripping and entirely inessential Revelation Space, whose failings on the level of character become more obvious the second time around but which still has a pretty compelling mystery at its heart, which rescues it, and Tricia Sullivan’s 1999 Clarke Award-winner Dreaming In Smoke, a planetary colonization novel whose plot is catalyzed by the apparent implosion of the AI, Ganesh, that keeps operational a fledgling human outpost on the fiery planet T’nane. (Verdict: also pretty compelling, though with great lashings of cyberpunk-ish technobabble, which I always find myself having to skim, and a protagonist whose profound insecurity and passivity is both infuriating and a fascinating character choice in a genre where indestructible badass bitches are more the order of the day.) I also reread Adam Roberts’s collection of sci fi and fantasy criticism, Sibilant Fricative, which, like all of Roberts’s criticism, is always amusing and largely illuminating. Finally, I read the short story/novella Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, which is utterly brilliant, revolting and entrancing and poignant and horrific all at once, about a reproductive relationship worked out between future humans on an alien world and that world’s indigenous insectoid race, the T’lic. The story’s thirty pages long and says more about consent, bodily autonomy, love, coercion, and choice than most novels can hope for.

What did this all mean for my self-imposed reading resolutions? Oddly, not everything was a loss: nearly half of this month’s books were nonfiction. Only two were by an author of colour, though (The Office of Historical Corrections and Bloodchild), and only one by a queer author (Hot Stew). No translations, and my progress through the Great Unread stalled entirely (although I enjoyed my rereads). I did, however, set myself the goal of reading “eighteenth-century stuff” and “stuff on sex work” in March, which, I think we can all agree, has been a success. And did I succeed at “generally not stressing myself out too much”? Not really. But that’s an ongoing project.

In April, I’ll have little to do but wait for a reply to my application, so my reading can be a touch more expansive. Certainly, maintaining reading diversity and getting through the Great Unread are still general aims. I’m also enjoying my rereads so much, and usually give rereading so little thought, that I’d quite like to do more of it. Finally, I went hog-wild during a Gollancz 99p ebook sale yesterday and bought eight titles for the price of one, so I really must attempt to justify that by actually reading them. (The first I read was the underwhelming Nix, mentioned above, but most of the others are in the SF Masterworks series – aka classics of the genre – so I expect better things to come.)

I can’t think too much about the fact that it’s been a year since lockdown one. I remember it felt like a strange, hallucinatory holiday – I bought a Disney+ subscription and ordered a lot of sushi and drank a lot of gin, and it was a sunny spring, although a lonely one. That feeling is long gone. We’ll readjust, of course, in a superficial way, once we’re allowed to see our loved ones and go out and about again, but we’ll be experiencing the effects of these two years in a more subtle fashion for a long time, I think.

Revolting Prostitutes

Eye-catching post title, no? And eye-catching book title. Anyway—this is going to take the form of some reflections upon, and consolidations of, what Molly Smith and Juno Mac lay out in the above.

Smith and Mac are both sex workers, and their stance on the legal status of sex work is that, first and foremost, it should proceed from the standpoint that a) sex workers are working, and b) workers deserve access to labour rights. These are two seemingly straightforward premises, but, as the current global status of sex work demonstrates, they are remarkably difficult ones for politicians and anti-prostitution feminists (a term Smith and Mac use and which I will adopt) to get their heads around. Using interviews with current sex workers and activists all over the world as well as former sex workers, they draw attention to two false figures, the Happy Hooker and the Erotic Professional. They are closely related, and are often used in media pieces by or about sex workers who are among the most privileged in their profession, the “elite” or “high-class” escorts, many of whom say that they love sex work, find it empowering, and don’t think there is any need for further regulation. As Smith and Mac demonstrate, any emphasis on fulfillment misses the point. An individual in the highest rungs of any industry may love their job and find it empowering (or that may all be part of the marketing material, since many elite escorts are selling emotional intimacy and “the girlfriend experience”, as well as sex). That does nothing to change the fact that there are workers of lower status in the industry who require access to labour law. Whether a high-class escort feels empowered by her work or not is irrelevant to the question of whether we should give workers in her industry legal protections from harassment, rape, eviction, and prosecution simply for trying to exist. One would not expect a representative worker in the retail, hospitality or media industry to find their job “empowering”, necessarily; one would expect that they are undertaking work in order to survive, and that they therefore have the right to work reasonable hours, not be harassed by management or customers in their workplace, and not be subject to punitive measures outside of their workplace (such as being arrested themselves simply for, let’s say, looking like a barista, if they call the police to report a crime committed against them). Yet this is exactly what mainstream media and much contemporary feminism tends to expect of its sex workers—that they either claim to represent all sex workers in their empowerment, or be made to represent all sex workers in moral panic-mongering about degradation and “trafficking”.

Trafficking, as Smith and Mac also point out, is a real phenomenon; it is just that it merges into a wider phenomenon, which is that of people smuggling and undocumented migration. In their early chapters, they skilfully demonstrate that the criminalization of sex work is inextricably connected to much wider issues, like the ongoing tightening of borders, the ongoing criminalization of drugs, and austerity policies that drive more and more people into poverty and homelessness, then punish and humiliate them for being poor and homeless. In these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that people turn to sex work. (Smith and Mac mostly figure sex workers as women, both cis and trans, which reflects the realities of the industry, but they do acknowledge cis and trans male sex workers, and use studies focusing on them, as well.) Smith and Mac are pragmatic about this, and their proposed solutions are radical in the truest sense, in that they strike at the root of the problem: liquidate borders, decriminalize drug use, reinstate (or instate, in some countries) a proper social safety net, and decriminalize sex work. Using both statistics and anecdote, they demonstrate that in every place where drug use and sex work have been rendered safer (which decriminalization would do), and where so-called “exit programmes” prioritize the needs of workers in giving them money and genuine career development pathways, instead of patronizing them with punitive benefits measures and lower-paid jobs making garments or jewellery, neither drug use nor sex work has increased in frequency; in many places, it has decreased, because workers are no longer in such desperate need; and deaths have decreased substantially.

I say “in every place” where drug use and sex work have been made safer; there is only one country in the world that has pursued full decriminalization, and that is New Zealand. A case study on NZ makes up the final chapter of the book, and interviewed sex workers are palpably more confident in their safety at work, their ability to access labour law, and their security from police brutality and abuse. Police abuse of power is a horrifying constant throughout the other chapters. These explore countries that have fully criminalized sex work; the “Nordic model”, which criminalizes buyers but not sellers, and is not the silver bullet its proponents claim it is (clients who are frightened they will be arrested can demand increasingly unsafe environments and practices from their sex workers, who find themselves less and less able to refuse because they need money, while the client can always choose not to purchase sex from them); “legalization”, which is the model used in Germany and the Netherlands, requires things like registration for sex workers and mandatory health checks, the former of which leaves undocumented migrant sex workers out in the cold and the latter of which is a human rights violation; and full decriminalization, which only New Zealand currently uses and which essentially removes state apparatus, and policing, from the sex industry altogether, except in the sense that police officers are required to protect the rights and safety of sex workers at work in the same way they are required to protect the rights and safety of office workers or waitstaff. Sex workers are safer when they do not have to fear the police, either while a transaction is taking place or afterwards. (The numbers of arrests for “brothel-keeping” in countries that criminalize are ridiculous, and include such people as a sex worker’s pal who lets her crash at their place for a few weeks, and, memorably, a seventy-year-old cleaner in Melbourne, Australia who called an ambulance when a client had a heart attack and was promptly arrested under anti-pimping legislation, thus ensuring, as Smith and Mac write, that no one in any part of Melbourne’s sex industry ever again calls an ambulance for a client or worker in need of medical attention.)

If Smith and Mac sometimes seem to focus on the negative or dangerous elements of sex work, it is not because they wish to shame or stigmatize members of their own community; it is because they wish to draw attention to the fact that workers of any kind, anywhere, have a right to safety and comfort, and that when those rights are ignored, the consequences are devastating and unjust. Putting current sex workers at the centre of the movement for their rights seems so obvious, yet so many policymakers, governments and institutions appear not to understand the principle; Smith and Mac never lose sight of it. As a starting point for anyone interested in the political dimensions of sex work, or in how to reduce harm to vulnerable people, or in the interconnectedness of many of today’s most pressing social issues, Revolting Prostitutes is essential reading.


Revolting Prostitutes was first published by Verso Books in the UK in 2018; my paperback edition is from 2020.