The Book Festival: Photo-mix 2019

Today is the last day of the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as usual (though not usually on this blog until now) I have put together a collection of some of the snapshots I have taken during the fortnight-plus. I say “snapshots” deliberately. I use a second-hand Nikon D50, which is hardly cutting-edge. The pro photographers at the Festival rather look down on me, I guess. But I have simply been trying to capture some of the Festival atmosphere, starting with the inevitable picture of Prince Albert, who this year has a slightly unusual background while work is in progress on the dome of West Register House.

#CandidShots
You’ll see that tag as a caption to several of my pictures. The Festival Press Office has told me not to take pictures of the writers and performers other than at book-signings or at an organised photo-call. I try, I really do! But as I wander round, I take the equivalent of ‘street scenes’ in Charlotte Square Gardens, which I maintain are fair game, and they provide some welcome variety. Sometimes that means I snap interesting people by chance, sometimes it’s Jason Reynolds being interviewed on camera or Jackie Kay at an informal moment, and these are hard shots to resist. Other people are happily snapping away with their smartphones all the while! As it happens, I’ve included neither of those shots in the following mix, but some others are below simply because they represent the ambience of the Festival, and I make no apology for them.

It has been another wonderful Festival. I am very grateful for the Press Office for giving me a media pass once again, and I look forward to 2020. There is so much going on behind all the events and activities – for one thing there is a tireless contingent of staff assisting the festival-goers, selling books, conducting speakers, handling security, dealing with us pestiferous media folk, handling the technology, and so on. You all do a brilliant job. Congratulations!

Joanne Harris signing books in the Edinburgh Gin Company Tent.
#CandidShots. The main theatre has a new name this year.
Neil Oliver is always a very good subject on a photo-call. He takes the trouble to look straight at each camera lens in turn.
‘Blast Off’ was a session for children of all ages on the jobs that a person can be involved with in the field of space exploration. Astronomer Sheila Kanani was the draw for this event in the Spiegeltent.
#CandidShots. The space inside the main bookshop has widened since it was merged with the children’s bookshop in one single area. There’s still space to sit and enjoy traybakes and coffees.
The staff in sky blue work very hard, preparing venues, staffing information points, hosting customers and checking their tickets, so it’s nice to be able to take a break now and then. What better way to spend it than reading a book!
It doesn’t take the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency to track down Alexander McCall Smith.
One of the political figures visiting the Festival was leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.
Scottish sporting hero Chris Hoy – the Golden Postbox Man himself – was a great draw…
… as were his books!
#CandidShots. This is Festival Director Nick Barley, who stopped for a couple of words with someone queueing for the Spiegeltent.
Veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley…
… keeping the camera squad busy! #CandidShots
One of the reasons I was at the Festival this year was the James Tait Black Prize. I had been one of the postgraduate readers, and it was good to see the shortlisted books on the shelf in the main bookshop.
And the winners were, as previously reported, Lindsey Hilsum (biography) and Olivia Laing (fiction). This photo is reproduced courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and is ©Lesley Martin.
Sometimes it rained, but there was always a silver lining.
The resident photographer at the Festival is Chris Close. His work is hung around the walkways, and is one reason to keep coming back to the Festival during the whole of its run, to check on new hangings. Some of his work from this year is below, in montages I’ve put together.
Melanie Reid, Justin Davies, and Arundhati Roy, ©Chris Close.
Martin Rowson, Kei Miller, ©Chris Close.
Ian Rankin channeling Oor Wullie, complete with bucket, Jack Monroe, and a sinister shot of Dougie Irvine and Osvar Silva. ©Chris Close.
Journalist Peter Hitchens.
#CandidShots. The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!
Juxtaposing two bits of signage stresses that it’s important to be able to read and write!
Exclamation marks signal what you mustn’t do and what you must do!
Val McDermid, Geetha Marcus, and Danny Dorling.
Jamie Susskind, who delved into the possible future of AI.
#CandidShots. A walkway scene.
Stefi Orazi, who was at the Festival promoting her fascinating book on 20c architectural design and contemporary living, ‘Modernist Estates – Europe: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Today’.
#CandidShots. Seizing the opportunity to grab a selfie! (The Festival ‘blueshirt’ with the phone camera is off-shot.)
Nikesh Shukla stands firm in the face of lenses!
#CandidShots. Chilling out!
Sue Perkins is ready to rock!
Reflections in the window of the Spiegeltent – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’?
#CandidShots. I’ll tell you this much – I was out of there before the start of the evening ritual!

The copyright of the photos in this post rests with myself, except where indicated otherwise. Please do not use them elsewhere without first getting permission from me.

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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The Lonely Londoners drop in on Edinburgh

Patrice Lawrence: Workshop
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

Writers’ Retreat, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1pm. 23rdAugust 2019.

This will only be a short report, not a long review, because workshops at Edinburgh Book Festival are unlike chaired events or performances in the larger theatres. They have more in common with informal seminars, and this one was a matter of a couple of dozen of us sitting in a circle, listening to a writer enthusing about one of her favourite books. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, for Patrice Lawrence, was instrumental in helping her discover the Trinidadian side of her own heritage, and she described her delight in first reading it. A second reading revealed the sadness in it, and also a strong current of sexism displayed by the characters – after all, it is often young men who form the first wave of any migrant movement, and finding their feet sexually is as much a part of their experience as is learning their way around, absorbing culture, or getting used to the weather.

Entering the Writers’ Retreat to the sound of Lord Kitchener’s London Calypso, we, the attendees, had various levels of familiarity with The Lonely Londoners. I had studied it both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and in fact I have posted about it before; others had yet to read it. Patrice did manage to coax us to participate a little, but frankly we could have cheerfully floated along on her enthusiasm. The book itself, written in 1956, I can thoroughly recommend. It has an opening that is, or certainly ought to be, as famous as that of A Tale of Two Cities, 1984Pride and Pejudice, or Catcher in the Rye, evocative of an almost Dickensian London. Episodic, though with a common theme, it is arguably a piece of Modernist literature, with its shift of focus and point-of-view (though it is mainly in free indirect style, focalised on the character Moses), its lack of plot resolution, and a wonderful ten-page passage of stream of consciousness. It is full of flawed characters, chancers, overgrown boys out for a good time or simply trying to survive, and one uncompromising woman determined to treat London as if it were Jamaica and to travel in the city as though on a proud Odyssey, but we care about them all – Patrice reminded us of that fact. Above all it has a wonderful sense of time and place.

It was a great pleasure to meet Patrice, and I hope to do so again. As for the workshop experience at the Book Festival, do it if you get the chance.

No info available about this publicity shot of Patrice Lawrence. It was retrieved from an Edinburgh Festival web page.

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What the hell is a literary prize?

Following on from my report on the James Tait Black Prizes event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and in advance of the forthcoming ‘The Politics of Prizes’ event scheduled for the afternoon of 25thAugust, I have decided to put together some more scattered thoughts about the scope – the limitations, in fact – of literary prizegiving.

What the hell is a literary prize, and what should it be doing?
I mentioned in my previous post that we who are involved in picking the books that make it through the various stages of a literary competition are the gatekeepers of what is considered to be literature. This is not a new idea, but nevertheless it seems to be one which we gatekeepers deal with reactively and not proactively. We react to clamour, both public and private, to include more published writing from this or that community or culture. We do not look sufficiently outward, and are therefore our taxonomy is our downfall.

My field of research falls within the general area of what I consider to have been the most important mass literacy event of the 20c, the post-WW2 boom in cheap, pocket-sized paperback books in America. These books proliferated in retail outlets other than bookshops. The books themselves – and I’m talking here mainly about works of fiction commissioned by publishing houses to go straight into print under soft covers – many of which pushed the envelope in niches and sub-genres, were completely under the radar of literary criticism simply because they did not come out in hardback. Thus they also missed out on being considered for literary prizes. They weren’t simply turned away at the gate, they weren’t even considered to have approached it. Yet sometimes they outsold mainstream books.

Now, a lot of these books could be considered ‘trashy’, or at best to have a value that is measured only with respect to their capacity for entertainment. But to ignore them took conscious taxonomy. I forget who it was that first pointed out that taxonomy is not a matter of gathering together like with like, but a process of exclusion (I think it was Michel Foucault, but if anyone knows better, please enlighten me). When we are asked to widen the field of our consideration for prizes, we are not being asked to include something but to stop excluding it.

Although my personal concern is to question the ‘Chinese walls’ that have been erected between the popular and the canonical, I am not making that specific argument here. Rather, I am using it as a lead-in. Because even when we ‘stop excluding’ something we are being reactive, not proactive.

We need to ask ourselves what do we even mean by ‘literature’. At present, certainly when it comes to prizes, we have a view of literature which we think we see clearly in front of us. It is plainly contained in a square. That square holds what we consider to be the published work that deserves our attention. If we see any other types of literature, they are contained in their own squares.

But literature isn’t like that. It isn’t even a spectrum with, say, dead white guys at one end and post-colonial literature at the other. It just isn’t that two-dimensional. Literature is, to appropriate a definition from Doctor Who, a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, literary-witerary… stuff (“Blink”)! The dimensions of this ball are probably growing – though they might be shrinking, who knows! – and the genres within it, which we tend to think of still as contained within their squares or separate little shapes, have boundaries which are both porous and leaky. They absorb influences from others, and in turn influence others. It is less easy to exclude a piece of work from a particular shape than we imagine.

Perhaps the organisers of literary awards should stop waiting to be lobbied before they include something. Perhaps they should actively look outwards now, on their own initiative, without being pestered by anyone to do so. What could they look at? What could they explore? I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive answer, but here are three suggestions.

Self-published ‘print-on-demand’ books.
Probably the biggest explosion in publishing of recent times has come from within the ‘blogosphere’ and from the internet platforms that host self-published fiction and nonfiction books in all niches and genres. Just as the mass of paperbacks of the 1950s were ‘under the radar’, so are these. The right to be an “Author-God” has been democratised, and far from being dead the author is very much alive, pace Roland Barthes (146). As a literary agent I know that somewhat less than two percent of all manuscripts submitted by authors to agents actually get published commercially. The author/agent/publisher process is, let’s face it, yet another gatekeeping system, and many authors have simply stepped round the gate and found a gap in the hedge. A lot of work published in that way may well be mediocre, but one has to admire the self-confidence of the authors who go to the trouble of taking this step.

However, some of these books have been very successful and have gained praise for their quality. They have obviously been crafted by writers who have put maximum thought and creativity into their work. Some will even have employed reading agents or editors to help them polish their work.

There, of course, I introduce another gatekeeping process – the editing stage. But what about books that have not been edited, maybe because the author can’t afford it? Is outlay to be a factor in deciding what is and isn’t literature?

I know a particular author very well. We have had many a conversation about why her work won’t be accepted by a commercial publishing house. It is because of her lack of education, and she acknowledges that. Her spelling, grammar, and punctuation are unorthodox, sometimes confusing; she can even choose the wrong word – “partition” for “petition,” for example. Nevertheless her stories are very imaginative, and sometimes her sales of a particular self-published book will be well into four figures. Should we really be excluding work that has a brilliance of its own but comes from a disadvantaged background, with that background showing through?

When text is not ‘text’; or when ‘text’ is not text.
In that previous example, I believe I have highlighted a problem with the taxonomy applied to literary prizes. We have a mind-set that has only progressed a short way from that of the educated and liberal gentlemen of the late eighteenth century, who examined the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought to America from West Africa, and declared that as she was eminently literate, that proved that people of African heritage possessed the gift of reason (see Gates). To these gentlemen, the standard proof for intellect was literacy. They could not see that Phillis Wheatley would have been just as intelligent had she never learned to read or write; and if she was intelligent, then most likely so were any persons from the culture from which she had been forced away.

Scholars of Linguistics have, for a while, extended the definition of ‘text’ to include the spoken word. In privileging the printed word in our prizes, we have accepted, promoted, and perpetuated a definition of ‘literature’ that is based wholly on the culture of the North West quadrant of the globe, the centres of former worldwide empires and current commercial empires. In expecting text-creators from outside that quadrant, most likely from formerly colonised places, to conform to that definition, we have asked and expected them to maintain their colonised selves. Yet what about the storytellers and history-speakers from some of the cultures in West Africa, maybe from where Phillis Wheatley was uprooted? If the definition of ‘text’ now reaches beyond paper, printing, and of course screen, could we also look beyond the printed word for ‘literature’?

The future, and interactively experienced fiction.
In a presentation last week at the Book Festival, Jamie Susskind introduced us to the coming, and indeed present, world of “increasingly capable systems.” He spoke of the probability that artificial intelligence systems will become so ubiquitous and integrated into our very environment – even our bodies if we so wished – that the distinction between online and offline, between reality and virtuality, would soon no longer exist, and moreover that our children would not understand the distinction (Moore & Susskind).

Imagine someone moving through a ubiquitous ‘smart’ environment, interacting constantly through technology so embedded that they do not distinguish it from any other part of their consciousness. Imagine that in their interaction they are creating, from the affordances of the ‘smart’ environment, an ever-changing fictional account. That account is uploaded, clouded, and shared directly into the consciousness of others, who may consume or even co-create. How will this differ from the creativity of what we currently understand as an author? Will it differ at all?

In that speculative bit of sci-fi, I am merely saying that perhaps we givers of literary prizes should not be waiting to be prodded into expanding our scope, or in discovering what we might have missed, we should be imagining the future and planning to include what it will bring.

What benefit would there be to keeping things as they are?
It’s a valid question. The suggestions I have made above are not necessarily ‘killer arguments’ and they’re not really meant to be. They’re meant to question and to stimulate critical thought about literary prizes.

It can be argued that by focusing on literary fiction, awards such as the James Tait Black give impetus to the continued creation of a particular art form. Widening the scope to include, say, science fiction or graphic novels would, perhaps, mean their having to abandon striving for that particular excellence within a form that is stimulated and currently honoured by its fellow-practitioners in the Hugo and the Eisner Awards. Keeping competitions at arm’s length, for all the problems of taxonomy that would entail, gives the chance for excellence to be seen, to be recognised, and to flourish in discrete fields.

Keeping things more-or-less as they are would of course be an exercise in conservation, and in conservatism, but it would have to persist in the face of criticism of its narrowness, or at best of its piecemeal gradualism.

And what about fields for which there is no national or international recognition? Is there an equivalent of the Man Booker, but for self-published books? If not, who’ll set one up!

Are these ‘political’ questions?
I should imagine that as you have been reading this you have come up with arguments and counter-arguments of your own. That is good. I’m not the formal arbiter of anything that goes on in the world of literary prizes. I say “the world of” deliberately, because what I have been talking about is not something in the theoretical realm, it happens ‘out there’ in the ‘polis’, and as such is definitely ‘political’. I am looking forward greatly to the event on the 25th, where I am sure I am going to hear much that I haven’t even thought of while I’ve been drafting this blog post.

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Details of the Book Festival event follow at the foot of this post. I hope my readers will attend, if they can make it.

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Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. translated by Stephen Heath.

Fontana 1977.

“Blink.”Doctor Who. BBC, 9thJune 2007.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s Second Black

Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic

Civitas Books, 2010.

Moore, Martin, & Jamie Susskind, panellists. “Politics in the

Digital Realm.” Spark Theatre, Edinburgh International

Book Festival, 15thAugust 2019.

Images with this post are either @Paul Thompson or in the public domain.

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The Politics of Prizes
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sun 25 Aug 14:15 – 15:15
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square Gdns, Edinburgh

 RIGHTFUL WINNERS?

This year marks the centenary of the James Tait Black Prizes, Britain’s oldest literary awards. Does the list of winners reflect the greatest novels of the century? Two literary prize organisers discuss what it takes to win, and why some great writers miss out: Ellah Wakatama Allfrey was a 2015 Booker Prize judge and is now chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing and Fiammetta Rocco runs the Man Booker International Prize.

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#JTB100

The James Tait Black Memorial Prizes
The Spiegeltent
Edinburgh International Book Festival
6pm, 17thAugust 2019

reported by Paul Thompson

One of Daphne du Maurier’s characters in her 1944 play The Years Between, when asked who the great writers of the day were, said, “We shan’t know for fifty years” (62). Who can tell whether J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, George R.R. Martin, or E.L. James will be remembered in half a century’s time? The James Tait Black Prizes have, over the past century, been awarded to writers as diverse as D.H. Lawrence and Cormac McCarthy, to writers whose names are well-known and writers whose names are well-known to people who know the names of writers. It’s impossible to guess whether JTB fiction shortlisters Will Eaves, Jessie Greengrass, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and winner Olivia Laing will be literature’s Mozarts or Salieris in 2069.

I was one of the postgraduate readers for the fiction award in the prizes’ centenary year. To be precise, I was co-opted in to help deal with a backlog, and spent all my time over the midwinter holiday reading, and compiling a report to say which book(s) out of my allocated batch I felt deserved a place on the shortlist. One of the shortlisted books was in that batch. This article is not going to be so much about the event in the Spiegeltent itself – there is, after all, only so much one can usefully write about an award ceremony, when the main question being asked is “Who won?” – as my thoughts about the awarding of prizes, and this prize in particular. I’m not going to deal with the biography prize beyond saying that Lindsey Hilsum’s In Extremis, a biography of Marie Colvin, is a brilliant book which at times makes a third-hand account feel like a first-hand experience. Instead this article is more about the process by which, as far as I can tell, one book made it from my batch to the shortlist.

There is a problem with the awarding of literary prizes. We who are involved in picking the books that make it through the various stages are, in effect, the gatekeepers of what is considered to be literature. As a specialist in popular forms of literature, I made it my business to champion a book that used a conventional structure and style, but used it in a surprising way, and presented a fairly conventional story arc. My point was that the James Tait Black Prizes are literary prizes, not prizes exclusively for ‘literary fiction’. In order to have under serious consideration the broadest range of literature, it is perfectly acceptable to find a book outstanding, that is in some way conventional; it is not necessary to privilege experiment, risk taking, and innovation. Of course none of those three things should be discarded. They are, after all, necessary and vital if literature is to flourish and develop. But they are not the sine qua non. It is equally the case that a book’s being built on an established foundation should not be grounds for discarding either.

Was it the book I championed that made it through to the shortlist? I’m not going to say. What I will say is that when I was listening to Dr. Alex Lawrie talking about the book that had made it through, I realised that she had seen things in it that I had not. Nevertheless there had been conversations amongst some of us postgrad readers as to what precisely our role had been, if not to carry out a sift. Did our recommendations actually carry any weight? Would they consider a new system for 2020? If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.

Olivia Laing; photo by Nick Barley.

Perhaps I should get back to this year’s fiction winner, Crudo by Olivia Laing. It is just that, a winner! If I understand correctly, it was written without revision, each stage in the story being affected by what was going on in the world at the time – the doings of President Trump, for example, or the latest stage in the UK’s journey towards Brexit – and this gave it a kind of immediacy. It has one of these opening passages – we heard it read out today – that make a jump from the expected. Yes, this is the champion of the popular and the conventional praising an unusual opening, but to be frank there is something about the way it is crafted that makes a reader want to punch the air, rather in the way J.D. Sallinger’s first readers must have done when coming across his line about “all that David Copperfield crap.” Here it is:

Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York. It was 19:45 on 13 May 2017. She’d been upgraded to business, she was feeling fancy, she bought two bottles of duty-free champagne in orange boxes, that was the kind of person she was going to be from now on. Kathy was met at the airport by the man she was living with, soon to become the man she was going to marry, soon, presumably, to become the man she had married and so on till death. In the car, the man told her he had eaten dinner with the man she, Kathy, was sleeping with, along with a woman they both knew. They had also been drinking champagne, he told her. They laughed a lot. Kathy stopped speaking. This was the point at which her life took an abrupt turn, though in fact the man with whom she was sleeping would not break up with her for another five days, on headed writing paper. He didn’t think two writers should be together. Kathy had written several books – Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, I expect you’ve heard of them. The man with whom she was sleeping had not written any books. Kathy was angry. I mean I. I was angry. And then I got married.
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Clumsy? Yes, it gives that impression, as if maybe “Kathy, by which I mean I” is still tipsy from drinking champagne. There are moments of entanglement when it’s not clear who’s actually sleeping/eating with whom, because of the way clauses appear to be in apposition. Are “orange boxes” boxes that contained oranges or boxes coloured orange? And there is the David Copperfield crap of Great Expectations. What on earth can she mean? But it’s an opening that pulls the reader right into the book to find out about the “abrupt turn” and its consequences.

When Olivia Laing’s name was read out, and she took the microphone, her first words were “I’m blown away… bloody hell!” Amongst her subsequent words was the offer to share the prize money equally with the other three shortlisters. That’s Olivia Laing. That’s a winner.

Despite what I’ve said about the process, I do feel privileged to have been part of the JTB team. It gave me an opportunity, having read some marvelous books, to make a statement about the ethos of literary awards; and of course I got to attend the event, to stand for applause when Sally Magnusson asked us postgrad readers to make ourselves known. In 2020 I shall no longer have a formal connection with the University of Edinburgh, but I am determined to keep following the JTB Prizes with interest.

Winners Lindsey Hilsum and Olivia Laing, with Sally Magnusson (centre) who chaired the event. Image courtesy of the University of Edinburgh / Lesley Martin.

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du Maurier, Daphne. The Years Between. Samuel French Ltd., 1947.

Laing, Olivia.Crudo. Picador, 2019.

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Obesity is a Nazi issue!

Sofie Hagen signing copies of ‘Happy Fat’.

Sofie Hagen: Tackling Figures of Fun
The New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
3.15pm, 17thAugust 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

A few years ago I went to see my GP about some problem I can’t remember now. He did a blood test, and when we discussed the results he told me he was concerned about how my liver was functioning. He asked me to lose two-and-a-half stone within the next two years. I looked down and patted my stomach.

“I thought this was just ‘middle-age spread’,” I said. It hadn’t been something I was too worried about – I didn’t like my waistline, but I didn’t hate it either, I just thought it was something that happened to most people my age.

Then he used a word to shock me. “No, it’s obesity,” he said. I lost that two-and-a-half stone in six months. My liver function is now back to normal*.

If Sofie Hagen had been in the consulting room with me, she would have been livid to hear him use that word. To her it goes beyond a matter of shape-shaming. This insistence on “health”, she declared vehemently, “It’s Nazi – it’s scary!” reminding us that Adolf Hitler insisted that everyone should be healthy, and eliminating those who were not. To her, using the word “obese” is as bad as any instance of racism, homophobia, transphobia**, sexism, or any other position of bigotry. When she states simply that BMI is “not a thing,” she is accusing the medical profession of false science, it’s as simple as that.

In her talk today she spoke about how her publisher had insisted in her leaving out all references to the Nazis in her manuscript, before they would publish the book. Even the title – Happy Fat – is a bit of a compromise. Sofie has a heck of a lot of anger for the way the world reacts to someone’s size and shape, and she told us that the anger comes out in the book. What also came across, as we listened to her, is that she is stitchmakingly funny. From her rapid delivery and her rolling, seamless raconte we could see what makes her such a damn good stand-up act. Her throwaway lines, such as “I can say what I want about thin people because some of my closest friends are thin,” are acute observations, turned on their head, of the kind of things people say. That stand-up delivery meant that whoever was operating the on-screen captions for the benefit of people with hearing difficulties had to put in some fancy footwork to keep up; there was even an occasional dialogue going on between the op and Sofie. At one point, having said she wouldn’t name a former lover, with whom she had had a very romantic sexual interlude but whom she later heard on TV making a derogatory remark about needing to be drunk to have sex with someone fat, she went ahead and named him; however, the op couldn’t spell his name, so…

Sofie’s views are, arguably, extreme. They are certainly uncompromising. I wouldn’t say that they are beyond challenge, because I think some of her statements will be open to challenge. But that’s an inevitable consequence of bringing an issue to the fore. To be able to use humour as a debating weapon, and indeed sometimes turning it on herself, is a very valuable talent. Humour allows, encourages us to explore an extreme position, and it is often that blip on the head from a fools bladder that makes us pay attention, where polemic would make us dig our heels in and refuse to listen. This event was entertaining – if you get the opportunity to see Sofie’s stand-up act, take it – but, more importantly, worthwhile.

And I haven’t even mentioned the irony that the event was promoted by The Skinny. Oh… wait…

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*Yes, I know, equating ‘normality’ with health is a cultural conceit that is probably less than two hundred years old and not necessarily the definitive factor we suppose it to be; but that’s another, bigger issue, and I’ll not go into it here.

**It occurs to me to ask, seeing that the thrust of Sofie’s argument is that we should love our bodies, where someone who wants to transition fits in. Again, a larger debate – another time, maybe.

If only from my GP!

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My post about the James Tait Black Prize award event will be delayed for reasons beyond my control. Apologies for that.

Communities of bias?

Martin Moore & Jamie Susskind: Politics in the Digital Realm
The Spark Theatre, Edinburgh International Book Festival
2pm, 15thAugust 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

The best events at the Book Festival, given that most events aim to sell a book, are the ones that engage with your intellect and make you look down avenues of enquiry you might otherwise have passed by. These events are fascinating almost despite the related publication. Three years ago the Festival hosted Richard Susskind and his son Daniel, who were promoting their book The Future of Professionals, in which they predicted the demise of “experts” and their replacement by internet-based “communities of experience.” They pointed out, for example, that in America more people looked to online forums for answers to medical problems than visited their general practitioner. The instant danger I saw in this was that all that had to happen was that a community formed around the experience of the second- or third-best remedy for a particular condition, for health in general to suffer. The thought of communities forming, ignorant of the fact that, as Alexander Pope said, “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” did not inspire me with confidence in our future.

Another Susskind, Jamie, with his book Future Politics, and Martin Moore with his Democracy Hacked, took this a stage further at the Spark Theatre today, when they spoke about how “increasingly competent systems” – to use Jamie’s term – were not only being used to target us, but almost on their own initiative now seek us out. They asked whether these systems that could be and had been employed to manipulate us, could actually empower us, and change the face of how politics is done.

Martin Moore and Jamie Susskind; photos ©Paul Thompson

As someone who keeps a deliberately diverse set of ‘friends’ on Facebook – the set includes communists and nationalists, evangelical Christians and atheists, believers in and deniers of climate change, pacifists and former soldiers, people gay and straight, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, and so on – I get to see memes and links, I get to see the comment threads, the ‘likes’, and the shares. I get to see communities forming around confirmation biases, and I do not exclude from that process communities that hold the same convictions as I do myself. It’s not just the other guy who suffers from confirmation bias. I would have liked to have questioned Martin and Jamie on this, but as with any Book Festival event of this calibre, there was a healthy surplus of contributors to the Q&A session.

Martin’s lead-in to the whole subject of computer technology, if I may use what must now be thought of as an outdated term, came from his admitted confusion about the “chaotic… volatile” world statecraft of 2015. “I couldn’t really understand what was happening in politics,” he said. Join the club! Where were all the “outsider” candidates emerging from? How come unfamiliar parties formed overnight? As someone with over two decades professional experience looking politics and the media, he was surprised by the use of technology in the fighting of political campaigns. Who, for example, was this small, elusive Canadian business, AggregateIQ, who had provided forty percent of the funding for the UK’s ‘Leave’ campaign at the time of the referendum on EU membership? He declared that “democracy is under sever threat and is many ways dying,” and that the politics of the future is “up for grabs.”

Jamie seemed to take a slightly more sanguine view. He spoke of “a change which could be as transformative as the Agricultural Revolution or the invention of writing,” of artificial intelligence systems becoming so ubiquitous and integrated into our very environment – even our bodies if we so wished – that the distinction between online and offline, between reality and virtuality, would soon no longer exist. Our children would not be able to understand the distinction. “Google,” he said, “has more insight into the human soul than any priest or prophet that came before it.” He asked what effect all this would have on power, democracy, freedom, and justice. And in case you are reading this and finding a more and more dystopian, sci-fi scenario, the positive message that both Jamie and Martin gave was not one of Luddism, but rather of engagement with this future, of seizing hold of it in the name of a more direct democracy, rather than shunning it and leaving it as a realm of fake news, blatant manipulation, and inward-looking groups who feed their own prejudices and have those same prejudices fed back to them.

Event chairman Brian Meechan with Jamie Susskind and Martin Moore; photo ©Natalie Novick via Twitter.

This whole event was a nugget of what can be found when you pan the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Not everyone can get hold of tickets for the big “names” in authorship, entertainment, and politics that come here every August. But a presentation like this shows that it pays to study the Festival’s calendar, and to pick something that might surprise you.

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