Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The death of Magical Democracy and the rise of A Card From Angela Carter

The novelist Angela Carter, who died twenty years ago at the age of only fifty-one, was a creative genius, a consummate entertainer, an ambitious artist, a highly sophisticated crafter and a great intellect. [UPDATE, as at 10th Feb 2012: I have just been contacted by BBC radio producer Sara Davies, who has produced a documentary about Carter's plays, which is going out on Radio 4 on Thursday 16th February at 11.30am. She writes:
I hadn’t known about the plays till an academic in Bristol told me about them, and I discovered they were all in the BBC archive. I’ve used excerpts from all five, with interviews with various people who were connected with her back then, including Susannah Clapp, Marina Warner and Carmen Callil, and I’ve tracked down the studio manager who worked on the plays who talks about what fun it was putting them together in studio.

I don’t think many people know this side of Angela’s work, and the plays are such a riot!
Please tune in and enjoy Carter's imagination and genius afresh.]

I have long wanted to write a book of accessible essays, one about each of Angela Carter's major fictions, expressing my fannish enthusiasm, which is effusive and profuse. I'd envisaged it coming out this year, fully embossed, emblazoned and engilded, illustrated and illuminating, a Christmas gift for the literate. I’d call it Magical Democracy, after a phrase used in the Carter obituary written by Lorna Sage, another genius who died too young... and who also edited a wonderful book of essays on Carter, called Flesh and the Mirror, which includes contributions from Ali Smith and Marina Warner. 

For now, Angela Carter’s life has been commemorated in a beautiful looking, precisely written, perfectly constructed yet melancholy-making volume, A Card from Angela Carter, written by the renowned theatre critic and biographer Susannah Clapp. The book is hand-sized and gifty, its chiselled sentences and glinting insights giving us a sharp and immediate portrait of an entire life.

This is achieved despite rather than because of its central conceit. Clapp and Carter were close friends for several decades. Carter sent Clapp a series of postcards, which Clapp describes with a crisp humour that far exceeds the interest of the cards themselves, which are reprinted in a drab monochrome and bear brief, sharp, dashed-off messages. So there’s an image of a pot of Texan chilli beef. It’s like a 1970s tea towel illustration, block-printed and painfully indelicate. This is Clapp’s brilliant description:
The picture shows a black cauldron trying to pass as a saucepan. Bubbling with beans and frighteningly red beef, it was sending off a swirl of blue smoke.
On the back – and how I wish Bloomsbury had just turned the card over in the photocopier and given us a glimpse of Carter’s handwriting – the novelist has written,

Carter’s reply to the critics! Texas chilli, it goes through you like a dose of salts. I would like to forcefeed it to that drivelling wimp…preferably through his back passage.
This – Clapp’s description and Carter’s message, both - is pure Carter fiction territory: vehement, salty, violent yet camp, the image of beef and chilli turned to one of gore and guts, nutritive turned into purgative, a recipe for the rectum, the domestic made demonic. But the brevity and sharpness of the message is typical Carter too. She was as much a honer and an architect as she was an impresario or conjurer of literary circus tricks. The stories may happen in the lurid glare of a carnival tent – but the tent’s held up with iron pegs and metal rigging. There is method to the madness, deftness to the dazzle.

It has always bothered me that Carter’s work is often described in terms of stylistic effect, symbolic resonance and folkloric influence rather than mental effort or thematic craft. She is depicted (as Clapp acknowledges) as a literary aerialist exulting in costume, a dazzler magicking up a false yet apposite paradox-world of masquerade and bewitchment, of things pretending to be other things in an infinite hall of mirrors, references refracting off references. It is as though, if one were to smash the mirrors, there would be nothing behind them but stage lights and severed puppet strings. Carter’s fiction is presented by critics as one of high theatricality and loosely picaresque plotting, wild abandon held together with the strands of an unravelling devorée  shawl and a spot of false eyelash glue. The books and their characters seem to survive on sheer guts and willpower.

This is a false impression, peddled as much by her lovers as her detractors. Angela Carter wrote with an iron fist in a sequined, fringed, marabou-trimmed lamé glove, holding a scalpel quill. She was a consummate artisan as well as an inspired artist, a romantic as well as an intellectual, a sensualist and a stylist. She may have presided over the revels, but she organised them well in advance and made sure the schedule ran to time. That, in life as well as art, is one of the secrets of great creation: one labours meticulously, tightening those symmetries, buffing those commas, to make it look as though one wrote it (and compel readers to consume it) in a single exuberant swoop.

There is a satisfying tension between the baroque fantasy of what happens in Carter’s fiction and the austere precision with which it is planned; between the lavish indulgences of her characters and their speech and the stern control of Carter’s own ideas. Her characters - whether they are the mercurial, curious, stubborn and inquisitive protagonists of her famous collection The Bloody Chamber or the loquacious giant swan-heroine Fevvers in Nights at the Circus - do not merely enact mechanistic reversals of traditional fairytale martyrdom, overturn overdone gender clichés or blather on pointlessly for page after page of earthy ventriloquism. They are fully imagined lovers, fighters, thinkers, adventurers, charismatic beings. They have heart and soul; they are not just strung up in Carter’s sequence of symbolic events. Readers love Carter because Carter is fun to read: a fantasy novelist who writes ripping yarns that make you feel anything is possible.

A Card from Angela Carter restores the idea of Carter as a constructor of tremendous skill as well as a creator of wild genius. The postcards are merely a device to pay tribute, to illuminate, to analyse, to commemorate and to critique. On their few hasty lines, Susannah Clapp has managed (like a Carter character herself) to spin and hang a tight, light and glittering biography, beginning to end, with teaching jaunts, prize-judging and prize-winning, family, career, lifelong love and mortal illness in between. I am not quoting much from the book because I want you to buy it. But I had to put in this wonderful line:

Her card was a photograph of an armadillo, a curved creature picking its way, like an elderly millionairess, through prickly undergrowth.
Days after having read it I am still wondering how Clapp did it. In barely a hundred pages she has performed an origami trick of stunning expertise, folding an entire life into a half-inch width of book, summarising a life and a body of work, conveying a steely awareness of time’s passing, a sense of history and a complex depiction of Carter’s character and contribution. With her icy, smooth humour and beautiful spare prose, Clapp strips out the tinny taint of campness that surrounds Carter. She does away with the standard critical soundbites – of the macabre, the kitsch, the playful, the carnivalesque, of masquerades and harlequins, dolls and hybrids, fairy lives and horror tales – that obscure Angela Carter under a thick white greasepaint of cliché.

There is not one great mind here, there are two, and both have been undersold. Susannah Clapp’s previous book, With Chatwin, is a superlative personal memorography of the travel writer and explorer Bruce Chatwin, whom she was close to. It was praised fulsomely by all the major papers when it came out some years ago. These lines of praise are to be found, rightly, on the back of A Card From Angela Carter. But Clapp has not produced a major full-length work since, despite her tremendous talent and huge fanbase, obvious from her popular theatre reviews for the Observer, her erudite wit as a theatre critic for Night Waves on Radio 3, her pedigree as a co-founder of the London Review of Books (for whom Angela Carter was a longtime writer) and the support and joy which has greeted the publication of  A Card from Angela Carter. It has only been out a week and it’s been covered with great positivity in The Observer (who gave it their Review section cover) and The Guardian, flagged up as a must-buy in ES magazine, reviewed well in The Independent and made a Radio 4 Book of the Week.

I want more from Susannah Clapp. I want a big book. Two thousand word reviews and one hundred page books are too meagre for a magnificent mind and a wide wit. Write a satire about a Biba-chic theatre critic, why don’t you? Just keep a diary and change the names at the end.

A Card From Angela Carter has been created with obvious devotion. Its controlled yet luxurious cream, black, gold and red cover was designed by the brilliant Holly Macdonald and the lovely red-inked endpapers were drawn by Carter’s longtime collaborator Corinna Sargood. There is a twist in the plot to do with these endpapers, which I won’t reveal except to say that it brings tears to the eyes and fully establishes this book as a serious eulogy for a dazzling talent too briefly explored…

…and too thinly praised. Carter was always loved by readers, much admired by other writers and reviewed thoroughly and respectfully. She was a prolific journalist whose great insight turned even casual reviews into weighty and important cultural essays with wide relevance. She was adapted very successfully for film (notably by Neil Jordan for The Company of Wolves) and was an acclaimed dramatist for radio, as well as working speculatively in theatre. However, none of Carter’s novels had ever been Booker nominated. Her last novel, Wise Children, was published with great fanfare but ignored by that year’s Booker jury, leading directly to the establishment of the Orange Prize, now in its 17th year.  Clapp writes, “Her early death sent her reputation soaring.” She adds, however, that

[Carter] was not acclaimed in the way that the number of obituaries might suggest. She was ten years too old and entirely too female to be mentioned routinely alongside Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan as being a young pillar of British fiction. She was twenty years too young to belong to what she considered the ‘alternative pantheon’ of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark in the forties...
Twenty years after Angela Carter’s death, there is still no major biography of her and no major mainstream critical volume about her work. Could I propose here a small reconsideration of a speculative amateur scholar’s enquiry entitled… Magical Democracy?

Until I complete that magnum opus of trenchant literary criticism and squealing sycophantic hagiography, A Card From Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp can be purchased everywhere, published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Cinderella, you shall go to the ball. But you can't speak or sing at it. But you can give the organisers your money and they'll make sure to help some guys' careers so don't worry and calm down.

Updated on Wednesday 22nd February 2012. Current tally: 30 men, 3 women, blindingly white.

Last year I wrote a long report about Amnesty TV, the global human rights charity's online TV project, which aimed to highlight international human rights issues and was launched to coincide with Amnesty International's 50th anniversary. Amnesty TV was produced by 11 white British men from the telly comedy world and 0 women. Of the 11 men, only one had any human rights work experience. It was this man, Chris Atkins, who told me that "positive discrimination harms the very people it seeks to support," blissfully unaware that the boys' club is and always has been one massive act of positive discrimination.

Every few years Amnesty holds an extremely popular fundraising event called the Secret Policeman's Ball. It was started by John Cleese of Monty Python fame in the seventies and combines comedy and music across several hours of entertainment, performed live but also broadcast. This year's Ball is happening in America for the first time, on 4th March at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Organisers can draw from the UK's and the US's great wealth of talent across comedy and music. Here's a secret detail for fact fans: America is a large country with many people of both sexes and all colours. Of the names announced by the Huffington Post in its report today there are three white chaps (Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Russell Brand), 1 non-white man (Reggie Watts, let's hope you have some company soon) and zero women on the comedy side and two all-male all-white bands (Coldplay and Mumford and Sons) and zero women on the music side. Britboy comedians Armstrong and Miller have voiced an animation to promote the event, as reported by a British comedy web site. Total comedian tally: 5 white men, 1 non-white male, 0 women. That sliding scale always makes me laugh. Total musician tally: breaking it down, 8 white men, 0 women. Total gender tally: 13 men, 0 women.

[UPDATED on 22.2.12. According to The Velvet Onion comedy web site, more names have been added, and anyone who gives a damn about women or indeed about anyone 'of colour', will be outraged that this is happening (laughably) in the name of international freedom of speech. Amnesty International are making it extremely clear to global dictators everywhere that...white men are the overwhelming majority of people who deserve the freedom to speak, sing, act, play or perform? They have made damn sure that as few women as humanly possible are speaking. The names added are Noel Fielding, Fred Armisen, Hannibal Buress, David Cross, Micky Flanagan, Bill Hader, Seth Myers, Matt Berry, Chris O'Down, Seth Meyers, Bob Odenkirk, Andy Samberg, Peter Serafinowicz, Jason Sudeikis, Jack Whitehall, Sarah Silverman, actress Rashida Jones and Kristen Wiig. And... Channel 4 have announced that Jimmy Carr will also be joining the lineup. David Walliams has also confirmed that he will be performing. Total gender tally: 30 men, 3 women.]

I have now been contacted by a very high up charity world insider who initially got in touch with me immediately after the writing of my previous piece. They told me that there was tremendous internal concern and opposition not only to Amnesty TV but to the general outsourcing of cultural, fundraising and marketing projects by charities seeking to make alliances with apolitical and ignorant celebrity, fashion and pop-culture agencies/bodies/brands/institutions, which often replicate the misogynistic and racist discrimination the charities are seeking to fight. This person, who I have never met or spoken to and is not a friend, now writes:
The head of brand and events says it’s a line up of the world’s best talent. No women – and I don’t  think anything other than white [Not the case - Reggie Watts wins the Token Prize 2012, that's one prize you'd be relieved to share]. And Russell Brand – after phoning someone’s grandfather to publicly say I Fucked your granddaughter ………
Not the first time – in addition to Amnesty TV, Imran Khan several years ago criticised Amnesty for a disproportionately white western line up of journalists at the media awards. Last secret policeman’s ball [in 2008] was Frank Skinner, Alan Carr, Jonathon Ross, Russell Brand, Mighty Boosh, Ed Byrne, Eddie Izzard. There were some women – Shappi Khorsandi, Sarah Millican and weirdly Germaine Greer but even they recognised their token-ness as part of their routine. They don’t learn from their mistakes – or perhaps they don’t think it was a mistake – they have been known to rely on such sayings as “it’s not about political correctness it’s about quality." It’s a shame but basically Amnesty is not standing up for everyone.
I'm not pursuing this story any more as I know a dead duck when I see one. I have more constructive things to do, like eat broken glass and punch myself in the face. I have said it all before and it made no difference to how much women were ignored. People who don't like women much don't involve them much or help their careers or public profile much. They don't want to promote them or raise them up but they do want to use women as exploitable labour behind the scenes. Bet I can guess the sex of the people who'll be wrangling the stars, booking flights, cabs and hotels, ushering people into their seats on the night, writing the press releases, adminning the event from first to last, milling around making sure everything's okay and coming in to clean the place when everything's over. Meanwhile, I bet around half the audience paying to attend the event will be women, who are the major donors to and the vast majority of volunteers in all charities. Ladies, remember what events like this are saying to you: we don't like you, we'll never help you, but we want your money and your labour. They will take this money (earned by you in glass-ceilinged, pay-gapped jobs of your own) and while some of it will go towards very worthy campaigns, some of it will be used to fund yet more cultural projects in which there are no women.

Oh - according to Amnesty the Secret Policeman's Ball has been set up specifically to celebrate free speech. So far 3 women are speaking and 0 are singing or playing an instrument, but 30 men are participating. Of those 30 men, 1 is non-white... give it up for Reggie Watts! You have a great weight of representation expectation on you, sir.

Incidentally, for anyone who reads Amnesty magazine - a clear and well-designed paper publication whose issue no 171 for January/February 2012 is out now - you can see just how hard the charity are pushing the Secret Policeman's Ball. The cartoon policeman who's the logo of the event is on the cover, with Guess Who's Back as the cover line. The cartoon was initially designed by Colin Wheeler and is given the occasional makeover: by James Jarvis in 2006 and McBess this year. Keeps the jobs for the boys rolling, boys.

Inside the magazine, the bottom two inches of every page from page 4 to page 27 are given over to a running history of the event with the repeated strapline "Amnesty International 50 YEARS FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION", despite the fact that at the Ball freedom of expression has been given to 30 men, of whom only 1 is non-white, and just 3 women. In addition, a double page spread entitled The Power of Mockery is given to David Javerbaum, the head writer of Amnesty's Secret Policeman's Ball. Javerbaum has "spent the biggest part of [his] career on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"  - yup, the chaps all know each other and they all help each other - and he believes that "there is no principle of human freedom more important for a comedian than freedom of expression." In the last paragraph of his piece about the power of laughter he says that comedy "keeps you in a spirit of remembering that we're seven billion people here on Earth, for no particular reason, in a variety of circumstances..." and we should all get along. Unfortunately the oppression of one half of those seven billion is perpetrated by many representatives of the other half, some of whom work for Amnesty International and have booked a very high profile event which virtually ignores anyone who isn't a white man. In doing so, they have made it completely clear whom they consider to be culturally important and whose jokes, songs and scripts are not worth listening to.

Looking through the magazine's 23 pages of Secret Policeman's Ball history I have to congratulate them, through my disgust. As ever, bigotry and bias are obvious - one only needs to count. Yet they have tried desperately to mention as many of the women involved in the event during its history (less than 10%) to try and make it look as if there were, er, more than 10%.  The Ball began when John Cleese, an Amnesty donor, promised to "get a few pals together" for a comedy benefit gig. That, in sum, after many thousands of years of socio-political analysis, is a brisk encapsulation of the boys' club employment methodology. Amnesty magazine writes that the pals "included most of the Monty Python team...Peter Cook and Alan Bennett, Dame Edna Everage (a white man, not a dame called Edna), Neil Innes, Eleanor Bron, the Goodies and more." Pretty sure the "and more" didn't secretly cover 10-odd women.

A small image of the poster advertising the musical performances for the third Secret Policeman's Ball shows just two solo women - Kate Bush and Joan Armatrading - and 10 male solo or all-male group acts (Duran Duran, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel. Mark Knopfler, Erasure, Jackson Browne, Bob Geldof, Nik Kershaw, David Gilmour and Chet Aitkens). The extreme sex and race marginalisation, for an event and a charity purporting to be about global human rights, is shocking. Amnesty are demonstrating with typical conviction and more than 30 years' countable commitment to cultural femicide that when putting together an event in support of global human rights and free speech, you must get as many white men to perform as humanly, globally, rightfully possible.

I have counted up the other namechecks of Policeman's Ball participants on the subsequent magazine pages, making sure there are no duplicate mentions. On the comedy and acting side Amnesty namechecks 31 men: Russell Howard, Jason Manford, Russell Peters, Russell Brand, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Darvid Armand, Peter Ustinov, The Mighty Boosh (2 men), Terry Jones, Al Murray, Rowan Atkinson, Harry Enfield, Stephen Fry, Sean Lock, Nigel Tufnel, Vic Reeves, Alexei Sayle, Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, Phil Cool, Lenny Henry, Emo Philips, Fry and Laurie, Richard E Grant, Jeremy Irons, Tim Minchin, Lou Reed, Richard Branson. They also mention the cast of Goodness Gracious Me but don't name them. It mentions just 8 solo women comedians: Connie Booth, Jennifer Saunders, Shappi Khorsandi, Ruby Wax, Victoria Wood, Sarah Millican, Sarah Silverman and Kristin Schaal.

On the music side, in addition to the 2 women/10 male acts poster I mentioned earlier, the magazine joyfully namechecks 13 all-male or solo male, pretty much all white acts: Bono, Sting, Donovan, Badly Drawn Boy, Stereophonics, Eric Clapton, Peter Gabriel, John Williams, Razorlight, child abuse image downloader Pete Townsend, Bryan Adams, Jeff Beck and the Neville Brothers. It mentions just 2 women: Julie Korvington (from 1977) and Natalie Imbruglia, who was actually part of a skit in which comedian David Armand performed an interpretive dance to Imbruglia's hit single Torn. Yep, why celebrate a woman's success when you can laugh at it?

Even the special tearjerker hero-victim-fighter-survivor mentions are all male, except one. Femi Kuti mentions the persecution of his father, Fela Kuti; and Turkish musician Sanar Yurdatapan is mentioned. The Burmese comedian Zarganar is mentioned for his political activities but the great thing is that even his persecution helps the boys' club: a German comedian called Michael Mittermeier gets the opportunity to have an adventure by travelling to Burma with another guy, director Rex Bloomstein, to make a film about Zarganar. Mittermeier is photographed with the caption: "As a comedian the right to freedom of expression is precious to me, I simply couldn't exist without it."

Well, lucky, lucky you, to be part of such a wonderful and giving society, in which others' suffering is a chance to help your public profile and an event put on by an international human rights charity, in a large and diverse country like America, with a global audience, spanning the worlds of music, acting and comedy talent, will still make damn sure that 90% of its roster gives the biggest career, reputation and publicity props to gents just like yourself.

The token woman hero-victim-fighter-survivor is Aayat Al-Qormozi, who was "detained, tortured, given an unfair trial and sentenced to a year in prison after reading out a poem critical of the Bahraini king at a pro-reform rally."

I wonder how many women were on the roster at that rally in Bahrain. Be funny if it was the same proportion as at Amnesty International's Secret Policeman's Ball.

Related articles:

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Greta and Boris by Sian Norris

A new kids’ book gets a monster miaow of approval. Now agents and publishers must get on board to help make it a hit.

Much is being made of the rise of self-publishing, documented excellently by the Guardian in a series of informative articles here, here, here and here. Its big star is the fantasy novelist Amanda Hocking, whose latest book Switched is out now and brilliant. Bestselling novelist Polly Courtney has opted for self-publishing after hitting the headlines last year when she took a firm stand against her major publishers for giving her highly successful novels - ironically, novels about strong modern women negotiating sexist environments like banking and lads' magazine publishing - a series of objectifying and belittling 'chick-lit' covers. I fully support her stance, which she has made out of principle and at risk to her own thriving career on an issue which many women writers feel extremely strongly about. Given that publishing is itself dominated by countless highly gifted women it is an extremely odd feeling for one's work to be betrayed, belittled and sold out in this way. Courtney's great reputation both as a writer and a seller will ensure that the shift to self-publishing is not too damaging.

I am still generally circumspect about self-publishing, however. Book by book, all other issues excluded, the terms of sales royalties might be more advantageous for self-publishers than those meagre percentages offered in standard contracts by publishing houses. But publishers give an author many other things besides royalty agreements: expertise and experience; advances on proposed books; the support of often massive and longstanding institutions who will strengthen a book’s success through editing, scheduling, advertising, marketing, press tours and the placing of review copies; controlled and supported career longevity through carefully negotiated multiple book deals; promotion and representation in bookshops, the media (from submissions to Radio 4’s Book of the Week to serialisation rights in newspapers) and on Amazon; an international network of established contacts and colleagues including an author’s agent and various foreign and translation rights holders – and much more.

The writers who’ve thrived through self publishing seem numerous until you compare them to the billions of also-rans, chancers, deluded nutballs, embittered failures, self-justifiers, desperados and talentless floggers putting out their unreadable how-to guides, mumbling memoirs, cheesy erotica and seemingly never-ending speculative fiction series for no-one to buy. In self-publishing, as in all gambling, the odds are weighted in favour of the house. There are some blazing successes, but they are massively outnumbered by the countless unsensational failures that we never hear about. You may be able to self-publish your book, but building a stable career which is acknowledged and supported by other professionals, recognised by your peers as authentic and legitimate and that leads to further flourishing is another thing altogether. It requires not just writing talent but strategic skill, financial shrewdness, flexibility, business instincts, tenacity and proficiency at a host of subsidiary tasks from jacket design to typesetting to editing to account-keeping.

However. I have just been sent a short self-published children’s book which I love and want to publicise here. A glowing review follows – so glowing that I should state in advance that I am not personal friends with the book’s author, Sian Norris. I met her once at a speaking event she organised and invited me to in March 2011. When she mentioned that she was starting her own self-publishing company I was interested and asked her to send me something when it launched.

Sian Norris’s book is called Greta and Boris and it’s self-published through Crooked Rib Publishing, an offshoot of Norris’s sharply written blog. Greta and Boris is touching, exciting, cheeky and vivid, with wonderful characters, a strong narrative and sudden delightful details. I believe it deserves an established agent and a major publisher to pick it up and sell it in translation all over the world, lightly edited, boosted by wonderful illustrations all the way through. I would then like them to give Norris a multi-book deal so that her characters can go on further adventures. Later, I would like to see the books converted into gorgeous television cartoons or animations for the world’s kids to watch and love. Given the many below-par books I’ve been sent by publishers over the years, Greta and Boris easily exceeds the general standard of publishability. Now follows some brief industry chat, for prospective editors. Greta and Boris is billed as a children’s novel but is more of a tale or fable – a fast and picaresque vision quest in which a young hero finds her destiny and with it, of course, her inner strength, which she had all along. It’s a standalone work which should boil down to 90 pages when edited. It’s suitable for 7-9 year old readers and is structured in such a way that it can be read or acted out to younger kids too.

Now the fun stuff. Be warned, plot spoilers follow.

Greta has been left alone for the summer and is anticipating a long, lazy season of book reading and toast eating in the company of her pet Russian Blue cat, Boris, under the unscrutinous non-supervision of her absent-minded aunt. Yet on the first day of the holidays, Greta discovers that Boris has disappeared. He’s been kidnapped by the Rat King, a tiny tyrant with a huge ego that’s squealing for attention. Just as Greta’s beginning to panic, she is visited by an elegant cat stranger, Kyrie Mi-ke, who tells her that Boris is more than just an ordinary cat.

No, Boris is not an M&S cat, he’s the crown prince of the Kingdom of Cats and his father, King Marmaduke Nikolai Whiskers Blue, has sent Kyrie to collect Boris’s human to save him. Only Greta – assisted by the famous warrior, Kyrie Mi-ke – can take on such a challenge... but first they must cross a sea made of milk, a war-torn land of racist mice (white against brown, all squeaking in mousy rage), communities of migratory birds living above cloud level, a millpond which shows the observer their true reflection and much more besides.

What follows is an adventure that is both heartstopping and heartmelting, at once sentimental and comfortingly predictable (in the best way: we trust in sleek Kyrie’s guidance and know that Greta will triumph in the end) and pacy and unexpected. The story’s sprinkled with sparkling details, with each location fully realised and a joy to traverse.

The Kingdom of Cats is a lavish Renaissance society, hierarchical and elegant. When the cat nobles wake up “the adult cats started cooking mice or kippers and heating the milk” while in the royal palace breakfast is served by black and white waiter cats bringing “a selection of fried mice and delicately poached salmon...biscuits, bird wings and a number of extra specially ordered items, manufactured cat food being a particular (though disapproved) favourite of the young prince Sweep.” The calm arrogance of cat society confirms what I have long suspected: that “contrary to popular belief, humans don’t own their cats – the cats are assigned to look after the humans.” Boris even has a picture of ‘his’ human, Greta, on the wall in his cat palace bedroom.

Norris has taken every care to differentiate and individuate this society, with the lightest of knowing nods to traditions of cat worship in Egypt, China, Japan and beyond, and to the beauty of different breeds. It turns out that all cats can speak their humans’ languages but choose not to as, Kyrie explains patiently to a boggling Greta, “it would be like you speaking French when you didn’t have to.”

However, again, this is not some twee animal book about plucky talking cats and four-legged anthropomorphs. Greta is the central character and she receives from Kyrie a wondrous education about feline life, which she has overlooked when comfortably ensconced in her trendily ethno-friendly smug existence. She lives in a big, rambling house full of her parents’ work. They are curators and writers, currently in Botswana examining the natives’ wares and helping their own careers. The animal world is a much more dangerous, equal, varied and interesting place by comparison. In a beautiful set piece at the beginning of the adventure, Norris writes,

They had passed towns and villages of mice and voles, the boating communities in the brooks and streams, the bats and birds working the telegraph service, the tunnels that led to the underground cities of what Kyrie referred to darkly as ‘the dogs’ but which Greta understood to mean foxes and badgers. When asked this, Kyrie had just spat and said how all dogs were just one big pain to her.
Quest narratives are a much-loved genre which she tackles with great lightness and ease – and brevity (length being the big tedious dragging millstone of countless duff quest books). Hung with featherweight delicacy around the central adventure are lessons of great human import for Greta. She arbitrates in a squalid fight between the brown and white mice and reveals how she herself has been bullied at school. It requires all Kyrie’s encouragement, at the beginning, to convince Greta that she can indeed save Boris. There are allusions (never leaden, worthy or obstructive) to climate change, bigotry, the balance of ecosystems, humans’ disruption of nature and predatory animal peace pacts. Norris’s world is one in which trouble and discord can always be overcome by mutual respect, friendship and peace. The central relationships – between Greta and Boris, between Kyrie Mi-ke and the royal cat family, between the cats and other animals – have a sweet warmth, depicted with an innocent optimism that is ultimately extremely touching and life-affirming.

In a great, fun passage the warrior cat Kyrie Mi-ke recounts her adventures from sub-continental jungles to African plains to New York and Hollywood via the neon of Tokyo. The final word goes to this finest of felines:

Kyrie smiled and bowed her beautiful head. “Your Highness. A good warrior always knows when to return to her land.”

Agents and publishers: Kyrie’s, Greta’s and Boris’s adventures are far from over. Get involved in Sian Norris’s weird, wild, wonderful world and give her talent the showcase it deserves.

Greta and Boris by Sian Norris is published by Crooked Rib. You can buy it here.

Friday, 20 January 2012

I like some casual sexism with my popcorn and some harassment with my pistachios

I am writing at 7:07pm and have just watched five minutes of Inside Hollywood on Channel 5 USA, where the films Man On A Ledge and The Artist were covered and news of a possible Beetlejuice sequel announced. Then the male presenter said, "Now here's some news that'll have most men running for the hills," announced the Sex and the City prequel and mentioned that it will cover Carrie & co's 1980s coming of age "as they begin to ask questions about sex, relationships, love and family and discover Manhattan." The feature lasted perhaps a minute, but a minute is too long for just one sexist sneer. He ended his announcement with the words, "We can't wait. To go out. When it's on." Here's my take on the men who don't hide their loathing, disdain and hate of SATC - and any film which contains (a) more than one woman, (b) where the women are friends with each other, (c) where the women aren't suffering, oppressed, struggling or in pain.

I have been at home today so have had a break from the endemic sexism of everything. Last night was the launch for The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams, which I attended. Oh...blue-black metallic full-sleeved American Apparel skintight bodycon dress with a high scoop neck, one long kingfisher green satin glove, a full gauntlet of silver cuffs over the top, 100% pure fake diamante stud earrings, black tights with black knee-high socks over the top, patent leather cancan boots and a long silver clutch bag. Yup. Had two glasses of cranberry juice and heard some funny anecdotes about the following:

1. A woman who has a phobia about vomiting. This phobia has destroyed her life. As I commented, "One oughtn't laugh."
2. A novel in which nothing happens except for a woman going down the stairs and almost opening the door. In the climax of the novel she opens the door and goes out. Me: "What's the twist? She's dead. No? Where's her husband? He's dead, she killed him. No? See, this is why I like bodice-busters."
3. An Iranian film in which a little girl goes to buy a goldfish on New Year's Day. The goldfish shop is about to close. The girl drops her money down the grate. Can she fish it out and get her fish? My friend: "At that moment it's like, be still my heart."
4. A series of insider stories, too excruciating to print, about Booker prize judges who've gone up to shortlisted authors on the night itself to tell them they almost won and that it was between them and the ultimate winner. Top agent: "If you almost won you've still lost."

It was an excellent party for an excellent publication, held in a wood-panelled function room in the crypt at St Martins in the Fields.

I left at around 9:10pm (oh... navy blue full length stiff military coat, bespoke, 1950s vintage, emerald green wool scarf, rough burnt-orange suede slouch bag) and was stopped dead by three guys walking towards me on a very crowded St Martin's Lane, just outside Pret. Short guys, between 20 and 23 I'd say, two brown-Hispanic, one black. Portuguese? South American? Singaporean? In expensive, clean, comfortable studenty clothes: baggy jeans, puffy trainers, jackets with plaid shirts underneath and backpacks. Either international students or tourists, travelling to make sure that no women in any part of the globe should remain free of harassment.

"All right, darling. How are you doing?" he asks in good, clipped English, with an openly jeering voice and face.

He's staring hard into my eyes with that classic sneer+leer hate combo which all women know. His two friends are also stopped and staring into my face, cockily posed, grinning, delighted, expectant, watching for my reaction. Oh, they really do love to bait and harass women on the street, don't they? They find it entertaining. This is what my guy got, straight into his face:

Me: What, you want to do a bit on on-street sexual harassment at nine o'clock in the evening?
Him [face falling]: What?
Me: Sexual harassment is against the law.
Him: No.
Me: Sexual harassment is against the law.
Him [Beginning to panic]: No... I didn't.
Me: Sexual harassment is against the law and I'll call the police if you don't shut up.

They hastened away.

That's the way to do it, sisters, B-style.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Penguin Books, I'm going to gift you with some solidarity

Dear Penguin Books UK,

Thank you so much for the New Year package you sent me. It was unexpected and delightful, especially the chocolate Santa, which went down a treat, head first. Over the last year I have supported three great books published by you: The Kid by Sapphire, for which I interviewed the author both in the Guardian and onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; All That I Am by Anna Funder, a major novel which I covered in-depth here for free; and The Pleasures of Men, the first novel by historian Kate Williams, whom I interviewed for The Guardian this week, in glowing terms.

I hope it is obvious from this that I like to stand up for my sisters and am not a handmaiden of the patriarchy. Handmaiden business (I believe "grovelling" is the technical term) is boring, submissive, thankless, degrading - and not reciprocated. The reason I am a women's cultural advocate is because of the marked, obvious and ubiquitous belittlement, marginalisation and under-representation of women in culture and particularly the literary scene, despite women being the vast and overwhelming majority of supporters of all arts both within and without the industry. Some call it the glass ceiling, I call it cultural femicide.

Your surprise package contained five books, of which only one was by a woman: it was Sue Townsend's Diary of Adrian Mole, which I already have, as it's a classic. It was written decades ago. The other books were by Roald Dahl and three current books by Rob Brydon, Lee Evans and J P Davidson. Evans's book is blah. Dahl is a matter of taste - savage, cruelly funny and vivid. I have to admit, I do not respect men who write much-loved children's books but are shit, useless, absent fathers themselves. Brydon's book is gentle, witty, thoughtful and well-written although how much can you do with a person to whom not much has happened?

Davidson's book, Planet Word, accompanies the TV series of the same name, which was presented by Stephen Fry, who wrote the foreword for the book. Planet Word is highly readable, thorough, wideranging, entertaining and impressively complex. In a punchy yet never dumbed-down fashion it covers everything from the origins of language to sign language, dialect development, 'dead' and resurrected languages, swearing and slang, innuendo and euphemism, codes, translation, alphabets, printing, dictionaries, the use of language in advertising and propaganda and much more.

It almost completely ignores women. The final part, The Power and the Glory, has chapters specifically referencing Homer, James Joyce, Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, Yeats, Shakespeare and Bob Dylan and no women. The vast, near-total, more-than-97% majority of the several hundreds of experts, academics, researchers, quoters, endorsers, literary names, interviewees, case studies, editors, critics, writers or anything-at-all mentioned on every page of the book, which I have read in full, for free and on my own time, are white men.

On Planet Word, women barely exist. Davidson's bibliography at the back of the book covers works of poetry, fiction, social science, anthropology, reportage, literary criticism and cultural commentary and spans many decades. It names 63 male authors and only 7 women, of whom 2 have co-authored books with men. 2 of the books are sole authored by women and one is co-written by 2 women. The last is a collection edited by Nancy Mitford. Of the 63 men recommended in the bibliography, the overwhelming majority of whom are sole authors, several (David Crystal, Henry Hitchins, Stephen Pinker and Christopher Ricks) have had at least 3 separate titles mentioned. It is made insultingly clear just which inhabitants of Planet Word are considered worth reading in any genre or field, from any time, with any approach or structure or voice, and which are not.

As ever, bias is made absolutely obvious by people's behaviour, with comical transparency. What's so funny - as if I weren't already laughing so merrily that I can barely type - is what Davidson's acknowledgements reveal about the way male power is supported by countless highly competent, intelligent and efficient women and how it is then used, taken and passed on by the man to help... other men. Virtually all the behind the scenes work is done by women. The editors of the book at Penguin are both women - Laura Herring and Louise Moore. The production team for the TV series are all women - Annie Macnee, Lucy Wallace, Lucy Tate and Clare Bennett - while the sound and editing are all men (nice traditional divisions). The "back-up" team at the production company are all women - Gina Carter, Zoe Rocha, Emily Martin.  The BBC series was commissioned by a woman and a man - Mark Bell and Janice Hadlow.

But, when it comes to the people who are bigged up in lavish terms as on-screen experts, analysts and endorsers, rather than sheer labour, Davidson gives a list of 4 men and just 2 women. "In particular I would like to thank," he continues, then mentions four more men, all writers and commentators, one of whom is the literary editor I mentioned in this column, who turned down a (future prize-winning) novel with the words, "Oh, don't you know I never read women's fiction?"

This is the kind of utterly naturalised, casual, automatic and endemic bullshit that women writers, academics, editors, experts, artists, politicians, producers, directors, medics, journalists, lawyers, scientists, thinkers, activists, students and speakers encounter all day, every day. Meanwhile, dozens of women work diligently behind the scenes, using all their energy and expertise to ensure that a woman-ignoring, woman-exploiting man is a success, in an area of cultural life where (as any publishing person knows) women make up the great majority of readers and literary festival attendees. I do not use up my time helping to sell copies of books that feature 63 men and 7 women writers in their bibliographies, when we all know that (again) the vast and overwhelmingly major majority of purchasers, readers, writers, promoters, agents, editors, PRs, executives and production managers of books are women. For a book about words and language, and in a field where, again-yet-again, the overwhelming majority of language and English teachers, literature academics, literature students, creative writing students, library workers and translators are women, Planet Word delivers us a good hard slap in the face, just so we know who's boss.

Penguin, I have faithfully done my duty. I studied your books, including those by authors who've made it totally obvious that they will not be reading anything at all by any woman (or inviting her to speak on a major TV series) on any topic or genre or category, from any decade, although they will happily use up women's labour to help their own careers and then promote other men. I have now put all the books in my recycling bin and they have been taken away to be made into deluxe Charmin for women to wipe their bottoms on, in the spare moments between doing the lion's share of all domestic labour + childcare + exploited full-time work outside the house, just under the glass ceiling + trying to fight seemingly intractable cultural contempt in which their achievements, words, thoughts and ideas are ignored as if we do not exist as intellectuals, only as workhorses.

I am grateful for one thing, however. The manworshipping package contained a list of fresh, original and exciting new releases for Spring 2012, many of which caught my eye and which I am delighted to preview here. The overwhelming majority of the books on Penguin's list are by women. They are all extremely strong titles in their categories or genres. The list makes it clear that Penguin is obviously a supporter of women's talents, a sharp observer of readers' interests and a champion of smart, exciting books by new and established voices. So, what happened? I do not consider it any kind of New Year's gift to be given the opportunity to worship men who seem unaware that women exist as anything other than plentiful, useable (and usually overworked and underpaid) labour, diligent workers to be thanked briefly in the acknowledgements after 300+ pages, multiple Notes and a full Bibliography from which they have been rigorously, near-totally excluded.

Here are some great-sounding Penguin titles for Spring 2012:
  • The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. A darkly thrilling trawl through murky Victorian London as a young woman becomes obsessed by a notorious serial killer, The Man of Crows. Out now. A link to my Guardian article on this is here.
  • The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend. Townsend brings her classic blend of social satire, sharp observation and broad comedy to the story of a woman who decides to ditch the Fantasy Dream Wife And Mommy identity, tell society to go stuff itself and retire to bed, leaving her ungrateful brats and husband to Deal With It. I cannot wait to read this. It's out on 1st March.
  • The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. Looks like a slick and fast jaunt through 1920s Broadway as New York's lights beguile two women who dive into its roaring 20s flappery delights. I love this kind of aspirational, glam, brittle-edged story. Out 26th April.
  • The biggest 'event' on the list will be Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes, an enormously popular author of genius (and former Orange Prize judge, yo!) whose books have been unjustly belittled as 'mere' 'chick-lit' but who is screamingly funny and has the gift of tackling any topic from alcoholism to domestic abuse in a way that is utterly natural, realistic and often heartbreaking. There is nothing lightweight about this author, she is prolific, fearless, intelligent, frank and enormously gifted. So it has been a real blow to fans to learn of her struggle with depression ...a struggle which she's won, with typical wit, through the Zen of Baking. Keyes starts out as a total kitchen novice who bakes a cake for a friend and realises that her spirits are rising along with her sponges. This book describes how she kneaded, beat, whisked, rolled and cooked her depression away. I even love the cover, a pastel and turquoise spoof of the Dream Mommy Domestic Goddess manuals which seem to be all the retrosexist rage these days. The book's out on 26th February.
There is now a very brief Mumsnet thread on this, in which one comment really stood out:
Bidisha's post ... highlights that the majority of the behind-the-scenes people who make things happen in the book/meedja/culture world are women... but the people in the spotlight are still mostly men.

My first job was at a company which, like Penguin, was owned by Pearson. We were all invited to the Pearson AGM and I vividly remember sitting in the hall amidst fellow employees who were probably 80% female. On stage was a woman - our ceo, Marjorie Scardino - surrounded by several middle-aged men in grey suits. The disparity between the gender balance of the employees and the gender balance of the top management struck me very forcibly...

Monday, 16 January 2012

Join the Writers Bloc

This week sees the launch of Writers Bloc, an admirable and wideranging new international project bringing the greatest minds to the biggest issues. In a series of politicised, topical and necessary essays, the world's leading global writers submit original commentary, reportage and analysis about education internationally. The project has already garnered much-deserved coverage all over the world and includes Petina Gappah, Nick Laird, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Aleksander Hemon, Zadie Smith, Rachel Holmes, Nathalie Handal and Kamila Shamsie as project contributors. Kamila Shamsie has written an excellent essay about Writers Bloc in the Guardian. The writers have covered issues in Palestine, Haiti, Nepal, Bosnia, Bangladesh, India and Zimbabwe, amongst many other places, and are part of a new urgency in global protest, intellectual and ideological ferment, proposed reform and politically-infused arts activism. For quick links to the Writers Bloc essays and news-bites please check their Twitter stream. Or better yet, attend the launch of Writers Bloc at the Free Word Centre in London tomorrow. If you can't make this event, it will be streamed live so you can watch it on your computer.

UPDATE, as at 10.2.12. You can now enjoy:

Being stuck on the Tube really is the (arm)pits

Look out for artist and activist Sarah Maple's posters, up at Angel Tube station over the next few days. I like them. Maple is a highly successful young artist who has exhibited across Europe and was the winner of Channel 4/the Saatchi Gallery's 4 New Sensations art prize, amongst many other achievements. She specialises in poster and photography art, including one I commented on last summer, The Opposite To A Feminist is an Arsehole. She will be showing at the Aubin Gallery in London for a month from 9th February 2012. Kick off the new art year with a look at her fresh, cool, clever, politicised and great-looking work.