What I’ve been reading

51qW-MPbgjL._SX338_BO1,204,203,200_John Spurling’s The Ten Thousand Things was rejected by publishers 44 times before being picked up by Duckworth Press and going on to win the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I can see why Spurling’s novel garnered so many rejections – which is not at all to say that it is utterly bad. More truthfully, this tale of the real-life artist Wang Meng, a renowned painter in fourteenth-century China who was considered to be one of the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty, wasn’t my sort of thing. I only made it through a third of the novel, I’m afraid, and while the plot synopses online seem to promise a lot of excitement and intrigue, there was little evidence of this in the meandering tale of Wang’s travels as a minor bureaucrat, meeting fellow artists who also struggle to capture the ‘ten thousand things’ that nature has to offer. This kind of travelogue, with a series of seemingly unconnected incidents linked only by a deliberately simplistic character, is one of my least favourite fictional forms, I have to confess (I disliked Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant for similar reasons). The novel has been praised for recalling the style of the Chinese scroll paintings that Wang admires, but for me, these limitations were part of the problem; it distanced the reader from the reality of fourteenth-century China, falling into stereotypes while failing to engage with the true complexity of the society it describes. I can’t comment on the authenticity of the story, but this made me a little uncomfortable. As for the Walter Scott Prize, in my view there were many worthier contenders – especially Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests, Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, and yes, even Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (which suffers from many of the same issues!)


In contrast, I’ve recently been raving about Samantha Harvey’s Dear Thief, longlisted for the Baileys Prize (but, foolishly, not shortlisted). A women writes a long letter to her estranged friend, Nina, also nicknamed Butterfly, musing on their shared past, her singular future, and the losses incurred by time. In a striking passage which I’ve already shared, she reverses the usual logic; it is not our future that is full of possibility, but our past. Harvey recognises an important psychological truth; despite the fact that the events of our past are technically fixed, we still assign great freedom to our past selves and the much ‘better’ people that they were. Marooned in an eternal present, it is easier to believe that the myriad worlds of our past are still open to us than to rely on our seemingly limited power to alter the future. Dear Thief, however, is absolutely not a novel full of abstract musings. Harvey’s brilliance lies in the way that she marries her beautiful writing with the raw material of her characterisation. Both the narrator and Nina felt absolutely real to me, and although Nina’s portrayal verges on the irritating, or on the unbelievable, at times, she is saved by the obvious veil of fiction that surrounds the composition of the narrator’s letter. We know that she is making stuff up, or making her memories more glamorous, and the larger-than-life figure that Nina cuts on the page is obviously a distorted invention of her former friend.

birdbybirdFinally, I’ve been enjoying Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which, like Dear Thief, has been such good company I’ve been eking it out as slowly as possible. This guide to writing fiction has an inevitably limited audience; you’ll either understand precisely where Lamott is coming from, or you’ll think she’s lost the plot. The grace of her prose is such, however, that I’ll definitely be checking out some of her novels. For a taste, here’s the explanation for the title: ‘Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”‘

So, three books that demand to be read slowly, but in my opinion, only two that reward the slow reader. What has everyone else been reading recently?



Bill Clegg-Did You Ever Have A FamilyThe critical reaction to Bill Clegg’s debut novel, Did You Ever Have A Family – not least, its inclusion on the Booker longlist – led me to one of those rare but uncomfortable moments when I felt I must have been handed the wrong proof copy. British broadsheets from The Independent to The Guardian have been falling over themselves to praise it, with literary heavyweights such as Anne Enright and Michael Cunningham adding accolades on the back cover. For me, Dwight Garner’s New York Times review offered both a welcome note of sanity and a brilliant image of the novel’s emotional failure: ‘It’s like watching someone stir plastic toads in an unlit caldron.’ ‘I fear I am being very rough on Mr. Clegg’s novel, rougher than I would like to be,’ Garner continues. ‘But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.’

For me, it wasn’t that I didn’t have nice things to say about this intermittently engaging book. It was that this was precisely what they were – nice things – when I ought to be expressing much stronger emotions. Did You Ever Have a Family opens with a terrible tragedy. June Reid’s house burns down on the night of her daughter Lolly’s wedding, killing Lolly, her fiancé Will, June’s ex-husband, Adam, and her current partner, Luke. In the wake of this disaster, June flees her small Connecticut town, embarking on a haphazard road trip in a hopeless bid to escape her own grief. (Indeed, one of the most affecting moments in this novel is when June realises she has been carrying Lolly and Will’s honeymoon luggage in the trunk of her car all along.) Lydia Morey, Luke’s mother, chooses to stay put, facing her neighbours’ subtle accusations and insinuations about her son. What really hurts her is not the continuous gossip but June’s silence.

The omission that most surprised me in the professional reviews of this novel was any consideration of how poorly Clegg succeeds at voice. Did You Ever Have A Family is narrated by a cacophony of different people, some, seemingly randomly, in first person, some in third. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to distinguish most of his narrators. Here is Rebecca, a lesbian from Massachusetts who now works at a motel near the Pacific Ocean:

‘Some days she doesn’t come out. Some days you never see so much as a flicker of light behind the curtains. We’ve gotten used to her and it’s convenient that she pays cash for the room. She leaves a forty-dollar tip each week for Cissy, too, which has to be a record here at the Moonstone. Cissy, like us, is in her early fifties, maybe a bit older… Why this woman would want to stay here as long as she has is not our business, but of course I wonder.’

And here is George, a relatively wealthy, elderly black man who works in real estate:

My son Robert got married this year. He and his wife, Joy, called me from their honeymoon in Big Sur, California, to let me know they’d gone to city hall in Oakland to say their vows. Do I wish I’d been there? Of course I do. But it’s how they wanted to go about things and it’s their business. I was glad for the phone call. Joy is a strong woman and I think the two of them make sense together.’

While I think that too much can be made of the need to have every character sounding absolutely distinct – a novel needs some kind of continuous voice as well – the same bland narration from two characters from utterly different backgrounds is jarring. This problem is compounded by Clegg’s dull prose. He falls into numerous repetitive traps. For example, in his opening chapter, which is narrated by Silas, a bong-smoking fifteen-year-old, there are a string of sentences across the first few pages that all begin ‘He’: ‘He opens the window, snaps off the screen, and leans out, exhaling in one full, sloppy breath. He watches the smoke float before him, catch the wind, vanish. He feels the cool air against his face and neck and waits for the pot to work its magic.’ Lazy description – ‘The sky is pink and pale blue, and he traces a long trail of plane exhaust above him’ – and jarring vocabulary – ‘the drug beginning to lozenge his thoughts’ – underlines the staleness of the narration. This tone remains the same throughout the narrative, and contributes to the strangely limited impact of all its pain and grief, as even some of Clegg’s fans have noticed. The language seems muffled, weakened by its own persistent greyness.

Clegg is rather better on plot, although even here, he struggles to rise above the standard set by some fairly average thrillers. There are some interesting, if somewhat soapy, twists in Did You Ever Have a Family, and parts of the novel are genuinely gripping. The mystery at the heart of this book is of course: who burnt down June’s house? Due to some structural choices made by Clegg, the culprit was obvious to me by around the halfway point. I am usually dreadful at predicting plot twists, so this didn’t make me feel as if the plotting was especially complex, though the story rattles along well enough.

The upshot of all this is that I felt like I was reading an enjoyable, easy novel that had been praised far beyond what it deserved – hence the sharpness of some of my criticisms. And while I think this type of comparison has been a little overused of late, I couldn’t help thinking that Did You Ever Have A Family would never have received the acclaim it’s been offered had it been written by a woman. I don’t think it deserves its position on the Booker longlist, and I very much hope it isn’t shortlisted.

I received a free proof copy of this novel via the Amazon Vine Programme. It’s out now in the UK.

‘A shadow tongue’

wake pb copy_illustrationI simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place… To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos; just wrong’. Paul Kingsnorth’s rather dogmatic views on language in historical novels, as expressed in one of the afterwords to The Wake, led him to create what he admits is ‘a tongue which no-one has ever spoken’, a version of Old English accessible to the modern reader, but which he nevertheless claims follows a set of rules; only using words and letters that originated in or existed in Old English being his primary restriction. However, he offered himself a get-out clause: ‘all of the previous rules could be overridden, if necessary, by a meta-rule… do what the novel needs you to do.’ The thicket of caveats that hedge this afterword on language suggested to me – before I’d read a word of the novel – that Kingsnorth’s brave words about modern language being like a Starbucks in the eleventh century might already be falling apart. His decision to rely on his novelist’s instinct was undoubtedly the right one. It is the language he’s created, not his skill as a writer, that lets him down.

As a modern historian, I was in no position to judge the accuracy of The Wake, but a fascinating discussion with medievalist and linguist Kate Wiles on Twitter confirmed much of what I’d suspected about its language. ‘Due to keeping OE words which are recognisable to modern eyes he is restricted to the common set of vocab which doesn’t change’, she commented in her notes on the novel, which she kindly shared with me. ‘This limits his ability to use complex ideas.’ As Kate explained, using constructions such as ‘I seen it’, which Kingsnorth does throughout, implies that eleventh-century people were so ‘simple’ that they couldn’t decline the past tense, which limits a reader’s ability to truly engage with this particular chronological moment. In the case of ‘I seen it’, the Anglo-Saxons ‘had a past tense of “to see” which was the precursor of “saw”‘, so Kingsnorth’s usage is ‘entirely anachronistic.’ Kingsnorth also often breaks even the few rules he’s set for himself. My favourite example from Kate: ‘using “fuccan” when there’s no evidence for “fuck” in OE.’ Reading the second afterword in the novel, on history, indicates that Kingsnorth doesn’t have a huge amount of time for it: ‘Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the “Norman Yoke”. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the Yoke was very real’. These don’t read like the words of an author who – as implied by his earlier statements about language – thinks that historical accuracy is central to the historical novel.

Nor should it have to be. Kingsnorth’s needlessly inflammatory statements in his afterwords mask the fact that he has made some very good creative choices with this novel. As indicated already, the reader should not expect this to be in any way an accurate reflection of the aftermath of the Norman Conquest or of the language of the times. I also think that Kate’s point about the over-simplification of both the medieval language and hence the medieval mindset is very apt, and a strong indication as to why the majority of historical novelists haven’t tried this type of linguistic experiment. Kingsnorth may have a point when he says that ‘our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words’ but this is a truth overshadowed by more pressing concerns for the novelist. Quite simply, it’s more important to portray a properly complex picture of the inner worlds of people who lived in older times. As The Wake’s problems demonstrate, sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do things right.

Why don’t I see The Wake as a complete failure, then? I certainly think that it would be a better novel if Kingsnorth had addressed the points made above. Nevertheless, while reading it, I kept thinking of another quasi-medieval, quasi-fantastical novel that I recently read: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. I love Ishiguro’s work and it pains me to say this, but The Buried Giant didn’t work for me. The Wake succeeds much better on similar ground – with the caveat that it would have been better if Kingsnorth had positioned his work more explicitly as a fantasy, rather than rooting it in the history of the Norman Conquest. The language of the novel is limiting. However, it also slows the reader’s pace in a way that can be quite magical at times. When you start a novel that opens

‘the night was clere though I slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still’

you know you’re in for the long haul. As I’ve discussed before, pace and expectations are crucial to how a reader engages with a novel, and my long journey through The Wake certainly made me feel as if I had to adjust my pace to that of a different mindset. Not to the eleventh-century mindset that Kingsnorth fondly believes he has captured, perhaps, but I still felt that this readjustment was valuable. Similarly, the novel is impressive on some of the details of its medieval fantasy; from the incredibly evocative depictions of the fens to the slow spread of the news of the Battle of Hastings. If read as a folktale rather than as history, The Wake is remarkably successful in pulling the reader into an alternative world without leaving them waiting in impatient boredom for something to happen, unable to adjust to these new rules of storytelling (as I’m afraid I felt for much of The Buried Giant). It’s interesting that Ishiguro has said that he initially played with language as well before discarding his early efforts; as I’ve suggested, the language in The Wake is both a drawback and an advantage, depending on what you want the novel to do for you. Sometimes you have to get things deliberately wrong to do (some) things right…

Kingsnorth’s choices, then, can hinder both him and the reader. But this does not mean that this was an experiment not worth trying. It does raise questions about whether historical novels can still be worthwhile if their history is all wrong; big questions, and important ones, but definitely questions for another day.

September schedule

1931157_586203696300_9753_nMonday September 7th: No post.

Friday September 11th: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Monday September 14th:  Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg

Friday September 18th: Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

Monday September 21st: Trigger warnings: fiction vs. non-fiction

Friday September 25th: Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Monday September 28th: Is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire feminist?

UPDATED 10/9/15: We’ll have to wait until next month to re-read our teenage diaries.

Children’s Benefit or Burden?: A Workshop at KCL, 3rd September 2015


A human ‘becoming’ with a canine ‘becoming’? My sister Polly (13) with Archie (2 months) in 2003.

Are children human ‘beings’ or human ‘becomings’? This issue is frequently discussed in sociological literature on childhood, usually in order to criticise the ‘deficit model’ of human ‘becomings’ (1). These terms are getting at a deceptively simple dichotomy that becomes a bigger problem the more you think about it: should children be viewed and treated primarily as future adults (‘becomings’), or is it more beneficial to value childhood in the present (‘beings’)? Those who support the latter model argue, roughly, that it is not enough to define children by what they cannot do in comparison with adults. It’s better to think about the positive contributions that children and adolescents can make in families, communities and societies. This is obviously sensible. To an extent, it reflects the views of many (although not all) mid twentieth-century British child-centred educationalists, who argued that childhood must not be seen simply as a preparation for adulthood. For example, JE Sadler and AN Gillett wrote in a popular teaching guide of 1962 that ‘The child may be compared with adults, but this may lead to wrong conclusions, since adults frequently make the mistake of assuming that childhood is necessarily unsatisfactory or incomplete, a kind of illness to be cured by schools… Nowadays more people than formerly regard childhood as good in itself.’ (2) Nevertheless, my own work on child-centred education in British schools, which I’ll talk about a little more in a bit, has suggested that an exclusive focus on childhood as ‘complete in itself’ could be problematic as well.

The Children’s Benefit or Burden? workshop, which emerged from the AHRC-funded Agents of Future Promise project, provided a lot of food for thought on how precisely these theoretical issues can contribute to analyses of childhood in the past. The workshop ostensibly focused on how children are used as symbols of the future, both historically and in the here and now, with some fascinating presentations from Matt Ruuska (War Child) and Kerry Smith (Plan International UK) on how charities can respectfully use images of children to advertise their work. However, the tension between children as ‘beings’ and ‘becomings’ was present in many of the papers. Dr Lindsey Dodd’s fascinating paper on children in Vichy France, which you can get a taste of in her blog post here, emphasised how children were used by the regime as both passive symbols of the future – for example, in discussions about increasing the birth rate – but also as active intermediaries, often encouraged to re-educate their own parents. For example, she described how children under 14 were encouraged to earn two francs to contribute to the Vichy government, and how this was seen as a way of influencing the adults around them. This treated children as active ‘beings’, but also manipulated their developing consciousnesses.


Barbies are often criticised for encouraging gender stereotypes. I liked to customise mine. This is Jack.

Jess Day’s fantastic presentation on the Let Toys be Toys campaign, which challenges gender stereotypes in the marketing of toys, also indirectly raised issues about solely valuing childhood as a stage in itself. She questioned why children are encouraged by gendered toys such as male-coded doctors’ kits to occupy a pink-and-blue fantasy. While children may frequently encounter female doctors in reality, these toys often have a more powerful hold over their imaginations, stranding them in a separate childhood world rather than connecting them to the reality of adult occupations. We often think that childhood needs to be happy, protected and safe, but this evidence indicates that by making childhood playtime so at odds with reality, we’re actually damaging children by restricting their plans for the future. If you only think about what children need in the present, you may be distorting their opportunities in adulthood.

Mid-century child-centred educational programmes based along gender and class lines were often justified by the claim that they appealed to children’s natural ‘interests’, and children learn best when their present interests are engaged, rather than by focusing on what will be good for them when they are adults. For example, writing on secondary modern schools in 1958, the prominent educationalist HC Dent commented that the ‘interest in learning’ of a large proportion of these 11+ ‘failures’ ‘can only be evoked and retained when they see before them immediately obvious, readily attainable, and personally relevant goals’.(3). Like much child-centred pedagogy, he therefore agreed with the traditional recommendation that boys do woodwork or metalwork, and girls cookery, but used newer psychological language to justify this divide. Despite the references to the general characteristics of childhood and adolescence, Dent explicitly argued near the end of his text that these recommendations were directed at the secondary modern intake because ‘at some point in the intelligence scale the capacity for systematic and progressive learning becomes so slight as to be almost negligible’.(4) In other words, these working-class pupils would never possess the capacity for logical, theoretical thought that their middle-class, grammar/public school equivalents would eventually gain, and so had to learn through concrete experience. In psychological terms, they would never really leave their early adolescence and participate in a fully adult future. Ironically, therefore, focusing on childhood as ‘good in itself’ could lead to a narrowly vocational curriculum that actually contradicted its central tenet by focusing on the presumed adult roles of these pupils. It also emphasised that these children were incomplete in comparison with (middle-class, male) adults.

Obviously, we are all human ‘beings’ and human ‘becomings’. Adults look forward to a projected future in the same way as children do. It’s possible to value children for what they are now without forgetting that they have the right to plan for their own futures, and to participate as far as is possible in the adult world. One question asked by this workshop was whether or not representing children as images of the future is harmful to the children themselves, and how children engage with, and produce these images. This is a hugely important task, and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the work that emerges from this project.


(1) For example, see James et al, 1998; Qvortup, 1994; Lee, 2001.

(2) A.N. Gillett and J.E. Sadler, Training for Teaching (London, 1962), 85-6

(3) H.C. Dent, Secondary Modern Schools: an interim report (London, 1958), 171

(4) ibid., 197