Of men and land

IMG_0123

Once I wrote a poem, and called it “to all the men I’ve slept with”. It wasn’t the sort of poem you might think. It was about leaving the city and going North, as far North as you can go in this country, to stand on a green cliff and look at the sea. I wanted, when I wrote it, to be able to walk with someone, quietly. “Shiver/in your sleep,” I wrote, “and we’ll wake each other warm./Up there the sky throws salt to tell a fortune/you can’t read.” It did not seem necessary to imagine conversation, or interpretation; we would see what was in front of us, we would see the land and know it, and that would be enough.

I have always wanted to show the men I loved a piece of land. I have taken them to the top of the South Downs and made them see the green turf and the white chalk and the trees in the valleys, demanded that they love it and understand it as fiercely and fully as they loved me. I have wanted to take them to the place I grew up, where the grass reaches to your waist in the summer and the sky bakes white, but the mountains loom blue. One of them, at least, wanted the same, and I obliged him by loving the naked hills and cold streams of Cumbria with all my heart. For some of us, it is land that makes and ties us—even those of us who belong not to one place but to many—and I wonder sometimes how a person might turn out differently if they were born to more or less dramatic landscapes: to mountains or plains, plains or deserts.

Owning the land is not important. A title deed makes no difference one way or the other. It is not a legal right that I claim, but a spiritual one. My heart owns a place in front of a spinney on top of a hill in Sussex; it owns a field spanned by curving mown paths and dotted with tangles of blackberry vines; it owns one particular fell, at one particular violent sunset. I have no more of a right to these places than anyone else, but I certainly have no less.

And why is it that places to which I truly have no right, places I have only ever entered as a guest, seem to have a claim on me? That, for instance, a freezing chateau west and south of Paris, where I sat on a green sofa and wrote part of my book by candlelight with numb fingers; where I went so hungry that it felt like sickness, until a late supper—steak and pasta, nothing fancy, but still perhaps the most welcome meal I have ever eaten; where I drank French whisky and talked about concert pianists with the friend who owned the place; that it should feel as terrible a loss, now that I can never go there again, as the loss of a person does? Why should the smell of cigarettes and the taste of weak tea and cold February morning sunlight make me think of this place with what I can only call homesickness? How can merely having been happy—even as happy as I was there—have such a long half-life?

It goes the other way, too, of course. Places have been poisoned for years. There are buildings, streets—there are whole towns—which have been so out of bounds to me that even seeing the names of the places written down, or hearing them in passing on the news, was sharply painful, so that I would have to stop, or sit, or turn away. To lose a place has always seemed a peculiarly terrible punishment. It is not only the past that is taken from you, then, but the future too; you must shape your steps in other ways, take different roads home or avoid a certain intersection at a certain time of day, and you feel you will never walk whole and carelessly again.

A few years ago, a man showed me a place. I didn’t know what to expect; we knew each other well enough, as these things go, but I could not guess what he might want me to see. We drove for an hour or so, quiet almost all the way, because I was afraid to say something that might sound stupid. And then we crested a hill, and this valley opened out—all steep sides and soft grass, with sheep grazing in it, and a little river running through it, and some half-hidden stone houses—and I have never felt so much as though someone were tossing me a gift. How can I explain it? I had probably said, in passing, that I liked this sort of thing: open hillsides, swift water, that feeling of being both outdoors and within a space as structured, in its own way, as a great cathedral. But to be taken to such a place, almost without explanation, by someone who also loved it… It was as though a friend, pawing through clothes to take to charity, had found a ballgown and handed it to me.

There is something of sex and something of death in this obsession, I’m well aware. The giving of precious things doesn’t have to happen in bed—or at least not always—and the bestowing of a beloved prospect is an act of trust, as much as taking off your clothes is. The love of a place is intensely bound up with a sense both of freedom and of safety. Love itself is the mixing of those things: a beloved person is one with whom I feel both free and safe. And where I feel free and safe, I feel I could die with perfect happiness. In every place I’ve loved, at some point I have had the same compulsion—whether I act on it or not—to lie down on the ground, to try to melt and mingle into the earth. To consummate, or be consumed. Sex and death. Would it be so bad? Like Wordsworth’s Lucy: “roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

I am still a young woman, still seeking a future. Maybe, every time, it is simply a way of posing a question, an idle curiosity that is also—as all questions are—a test. Will you come away?

Advertisements

Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

bookstack

The filter on this photo is oddly pale.

 

Initial thoughts:

Very little of this is surprising, and very few of these authors are new. I think the only debuts are Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and (technically) George Saunders, since it’s his first novel, although I’m inclined to say that doesn’t exactly make him a debut author. On the one hand, this pleases me – I’ve been bitching for years about how publishers fetishize novelty, and about how dangerous it is to cease supporting novelists once they’ve written their Big First Book or are no longer as photogenic as the next young thing. On the other hand, this makes for a list that, despite Baroness Young’s proclamations of its diversity, doesn’t look particularly diverse to me. There are a lot of big, established names – Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Sebastian Barry – and only a handful of authors that you might imagine the general public not recognising.

Thematically, there seems to be a strong focus on social issues: slavery and its repercussions, political repression, neo-liberalism, celebrity charity, the refugee crisis. Personal relationships are also at the heart of many of these books: Barry’s soldier-lovers in Days Without End, McGregor’s traumatised villagers in Reservoir 13, an old man and a young woman in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Zadie Smith’s rivalrous dancers. In terms of formal experimentation, the field seems decidedly conservative, with Saunders, Auster and McGregor the most obviously innovative. (Mozley might be interesting, too, but as no one seems to know much about it, it’s hard to say yet.)

What I’ve read:

Of the longlisted thirteen, I’ve read six: Days Without End, Reservoir 13, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Lincoln In the Bardo, Swing Time and The Underground Railroad. At least four are strong contenders to be among my books of the year, although I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more ambitious than successful, and liked Swing Time a lot without thinking it a work of genius.

What’s missing:

More big names, although in honesty this is probably the right decision; Salman Rushdie seems to me to have been curdling for some time now, and The Golden House looks depressingly like another of those let’s-mock-Trump novels that writers seem to think are appropriate stand-ins for actual social engagement. Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing also deserves to have been left off; the first few pages read like an aggressive Roth parody, which is not a compliment. I’m slightly surprised by the exclusion of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand, which is a very skilful piece of writing in the way it balances a wide range of emotions; Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which if nothing else is balls-to-the-wall committed to its own zaniness; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I actually wouldn’t have put on the longlist anyway but which does have legions of devoted fans and is a pretty good book; and House of Names by Colm Toibin. The Nix, Christodora, First Love, The Power, English Animals, and Spoils were also strong contenders that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the list.

What shouldn’t be there:

Harsh, I know. Maybe this is better phrased as “what surprises me by its presence”. As Baroness Young also pointed out, every book is the result of vast amounts of time and effort and dedication and sweat and tears. At the same time, if this is meant to be a list of thirteen of the year’s best books, I’m not sure why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is on it. As a piece of fiction, it’s so unmoored, so unclear about which stories it wants us to care about, that I found its ultimate effect was to alienate me from any of them.

What I’d like to read:

Of those I haven’t read, Solar Bones, History of Wolves, Exit West and Autumn are immediately appealing. We’ve also been offered proofs of Elmet from the publisher, which I’m very excited about (the author is a bookseller at Little Apple in York! How great is that?) I might be more thrilled by the prospect of 4321 if it weren’t about seven thousand pages long and still only available in hardback. Mais non, my friends. On the basis of available time and wrist strength, non.


The full list:

4321 by Paul Auster

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (my full review)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (my full review)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (scroll down for June Superlatives entry)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Autumn by Ali Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (scroll down for January Superlatives entry)

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

new-books2_2_1

image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.

41cp6wr0vdl-_sy346_

Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.

On J.R. Carpenter’s Gorge, Part 2.5: HTML, web pages, and the DOM

html-code-sample-news-template

It ain’t pretty, but it’s what the Web is made of.

This post is part of a series on digital literature. I’m dissecting the JavaScript code of “Gorge”, an infinite poem by J.R. Carpenter that riffs on Nick Montfort’s program “Taroko Gorge”.  The first post, which defines “variables”, “strings” and “arrays”, is here; the second, which explains “functions” and demonstrates how the program chooses randomly from a list of inputs (a.k.a. words), is here. This post is a brief primer on how web pages are written, how HTML works, and what a DOM is. It will help to know this stuff before we move on to Part Three: putting everything together.

As you probably know, web pages are written in a language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which consists of a bunch of elements. Elements are basically containers for bits of the page. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like an object.” You would not be wrong.) They can also be nested: like the branches of a tree, one element can have one or more “child nodes”, or elements that branch off from it.

As well as containing stuff, elements have attributes or characteristics. (If you know anything about JavaScript, you may be thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a property.” Again, you would not be wrong.) One common attribute is called “id”; we use IDs to mark bits of the page that the program is interested in. Because attribute values have to be unique, you can drop an ID into a section of the page and be certain that, when you instruct the program to look for that ID, it’ll take you to the right place. For example, if I wanted a way of quickly referring to a paragraph about Henry Fielding—and let’s say that’s located the top of the second paragraph in the third div of my web page—I might drop the ID “fielding” in there. It saves me from having to tell the program “look out for the top of the second paragraph in the third div”, which is a pain in the arse to write and also less natural, since no one (almost no one) thinks like that. (Also, when you restructure your piece, so that the Fielding paragraph isn’t the second one anymore, the “id” attribute “fielding” will still take you to the right place. Isn’t that convenient.)

The DOM, or Document Object Model, is a mapping from HTML to JavaScript: elements (in HTML) are mapped onto objects (in JavaScript). This allows your JavaScript programs to fiddle with your web page. Now, this may not bother you, but when it was first explained to me, it bothered me because it seemed inefficient. Why do you have to do that? Why can’t you just do things to your web page using HTML? Well, because HTML isn’t a programming language; it’s a markup language, which is like a fancy form of annotating (make this bit bold, make this bit bigger, put a hyperlink here). In order to change the contents of the page, you have to change stuff in the DOM.

Hopefully, this will have given you the vocabulary/conceptual tools to better understand the next post. In that, I’ll talk about how the code for “Gorge” manipulates the DOM to change how the poem appears on its web page.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

1481451621_silence-movie

Liam Neeson as Father Ferreira in “Silence”

  1. It’s been a while since I did one of these.
  2. We went to see the new Scorsese movie, “Silence”, based on the novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, at the BFI last week. It’s about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Japan, where Christianity was persecuted after the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637-8. It is…rough. I hesitate to use the word “graphic”, because no one gets disembowelled or anything, but there are some pretty distressing scenes. I thought it was a very powerful movie asking very interesting questions about the point at which virtuous loyalty to a faith becomes destructive pride (in this case, the point at which the life at stake isn’t yours, but someone else’s). The Chaos thought it was a very powerful movie with a very superfluous premise, since to him, all religious belief is absurd anyway. I’d really like to read the book now.
  3. Though there are a couple of Endo’s books in the flat, Silence isn’t one of them.
  4. “Reading resolutions” are not really my cup of tea—I like reading somewhat at whim; “challenges” and “lists” strike me as being generally an instance of eyes larger than stomach. However: in the sitting room and the landing bookshelves, we have hundreds of books that the Chaos took from his grandparents’ house after they died. There are many nineteenth and twentieth-century classics (Bellow, Kafka, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene); there is a fair amount of Japanese literature and non-fiction; there is quite a lot of science and poetry. I’d like to start reading them. In between new books solicited from publishers and essential contemporary reading (The Underground Railroad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, etc.), I’ll prioritise those.
  5. This is all I have for you at the moment, I’m afraid: reading, writing my own book (which comes along), turning up to work, and getting quite a lot of cuddles are pretty much all I can manage. January is not my favourite month.
  6. (Although a couple of years ago I wrote a post about how to survive January; it’s on my old blog. It included the advice “eat a lot of oranges”.)

Valley of the Dolls, by Jacqueline Susann

“You’ve got to climb Mount Everest to reach the Valley of the Dolls.”

dolls

Valley of the Dolls is 50 years old this year. It’s being republished by Virago Press, the imprint well known for championing women’s writing; they publish, among others, Angela Carter, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym, and Margaret Atwood. So there’s an obvious question, one that springs immediately to mind, regarding this reprint: is Valley of the Dolls a feminist book?

The short answer is: hell nope. The long answer is: sort of, maybe.

If you don’t know the plot already (and I didn’t, having neither previously read it nor seen the film, released in 1967 and starring Sharon Tate), it revolves around three young women in New York City just after WWII. There’s Anne Welles, a refugee from emotionally frigid New England small-town life, devastatingly beautiful and seeking an existence as an employed woman on her own terms. There’s her roommate, Neely O’Hara, a seventeen-year-old who’s already been a professional performer for a decade, and who finally gets her big break through Anne’s friendship. And there’s Jennifer North, an actress who cheerfully admits to having no talent, but whose body is her primary asset.

Over the course of twenty years, Anne, Neely, and Jennifer get comprehensively screwed. Anne falls in love with Lyon Burke, a theatrical agent who works for her boss; they eventually marry, but he has copious affairs. Neely becomes wildly successful as a Hollywood film actress, but becomes hooked on drugs, ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and begins an affair with Lyon upon release. Jennifer’s story is the worst of all: aborting a pregnancy in New York because the father of the child has a congenital neurological seizure disorder, she moves to France and becomes hooked on sleeping pills. Upon her return to the States, she meets and falls in love with a Republican Senator, who doesn’t want children but is obsessed with the perfection of her body (mostly her breasts). Just before her wedding, she’s diagnosed with breast cancer and is told she must have a mastectomy. Instead, she commits suicide.

So: here we have mental health and substance abuse issues of the highest order. We have women deeply, terribly damaged by the disregard of society–mostly of men–for their worth as individuals. We have relationship breakdown. We have Anne’s (at least initial) determination to be financially independent. We have extramarital sex, demanding parents, the fear of provincial oblivion. You can see why Valley of the Dolls is cited as a direct cultural forebear of Sex and the City.

The problem I have with calling it feminist is mostly this: feminism has moved on since 1966. All of the things I mention above probably did make it a feminist book (or at least feminism-flavoured) when it was first published. Sure, women had sex and breakdowns, but literature didn’t chronicle it very much, let alone validate that suffering. We like Anne; we feel sorry for Jennifer; we’re forced to admire Neely’s grit even if we find her behaviour shocking. These women are hustling for themselves, and there’s a lot of rage in their experiences. Helen Lawson, an aging stage actress, “crucifies” a younger actress, Terry King, who threatens her primacy in a show. She does it because she’s terrified. Throughout this book, women compete with and attempt to destroy one another because they are so goddamn scared: of the future, of aging, of the power of the men in their lives. The women are the artists and performers, but the men are the lawyers, the agents, the directors. The women sign the contracts, but the men draw them up.

Even the most determined of the women in this book are aiming, really, at one thing: marriage. Anne’s refusal to marry Allen Cooper at the beginning of the novel is admirable (she doesn’t love him and tells him so; he literally informs her that she will eventually; she shakes him off after a few months, but only by falling in love with someone else). But there is so much pressure to bag a man: Jennifer’s mother tells her on the phone, “In five years you’ll be thirty. I was twenty-nine when your father got tired of me.” Even Neely, at seventeen, doesn’t understand why anyone would want anything else. And when Anne falls for Lyon Burke, she demands to know when he’s marrying her… after four days of dating. Intersectionality, meanwhile, is hardly present: Jews and gay men are subject to depressingly off-hand nastiness, while women of colour don’t exist at all in this book’s universe, and working-class women are only ever ashamed of their origins. For me to even raise the issue, of course, is sort of pointless, insofar as Susann wasn’t writing during an age of intersectional feminism. She’s of the Gloria Steinem generation; their breakthrough was to get the world to notice that white, middle-class women cannot be expected to cope with constant domestic and professional misogyny.

The problem now is that we have realized that’s not enough. When you read about the terrible things that happened to women in the early years of film and stage celebrity–the stories of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland spring to mind–you can’t help but be horrified, especially by the way in which contemporary culture fetishizes those same women. A similar phenomenon contributed to the legends, and the early deaths, of Princess Diana and Amy Winehouse. What we expect of public women is awful, and was awful. This is all true. But it’s also true that white, middle-class women have a long history of ignoring and erasing others who should be equal partners in the struggle for rights: women of colour, gay men, gay women, transgender women, poor women, fat women, disabled women. My generation does not venerate Gloria Steinem except for as a reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re looking to poets like Warsan Shire; to writers like Juno Dawson and Roxane Gay; to musicians like Anohni; to commentators like Jack Monroe.

So is Valley of the Dolls valuable? Certainly: as an artifact, a signpost, something historically significant. But if I worked for Virago, I would be a tiny bit concerned–privately, quietly, but nonetheless–about reissuing it. We are not these women anymore, or at least, we don’t have to be. Why are we looking back?