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.

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.

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


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.





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.


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


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.


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


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.







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.

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.


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

Laing, Olivia.Crudo. Picador, 2019.






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The Multi-Track Muse of the Northern Liminal

Throwing Voices: Linnéa Axelsson, Taqralik Partridge & Kate Young – A Sami-Inuit musical conversation.
The Spiegeltent, Edinburgh International Book Festival.
3.45pm, 13thAugust 2019.

reviewed by Paul Thompson

l to r: Kate Young, Pippa Murphy, Saskia Vogel, and Taqralik Partridge. Photo courtesy of EIBF.

I know this will sound fanciful, but it has occurred to me that if I could make a slow journey, from village to village, from community to community, starting at Greenland and working my way across Canada, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, Siberia, to Northern Scandinavia, maybe onwards to the Gàidhealtachd– all of what seems to us by the way we draw maps as the sparse and ragged fringes of the Northern Hemisphere’s land masses and islands – and absorbing, or being absorbed into, the culture of each place, I would end up with an eclectic mindscape in which the cultural differences would fade and the harmonies emerge. This was in my thoughts as I went into the Spiegeltent and took my seat. What also occurred to me was, in particular regarding the contribution to this event that came from Inuit traditions, about which I knew next to nothing, the question of how dare I ‘review’ something which is exotic to me yet familiar to someone else. Could a review aimed at readers from my own culture, of something imported here and put on a stage, be considered in some way an appropriation?

This event, was billed on the Book Festival’s web site as “Part of our Indigenous Voices series of events.” Taqralik Partridge reminded us, during the final Q&A session, “I don’t think indigenous people should be given voices, I think indigenous people have voices.” Her poems are very pointed on the use of Inuit artefacts as objets by consumers in less marginal, more affluent societies, and the impoverishment of the Inuit’s own societies (“We are the children of starvation…”). But the presentation today was a deliberate coming-together, a mélange of sounds, music, words, and pictures, a voluntary giving-up (their own) and giving-to (each other) and sharing-with (us) by three creative minds. Even before the participants came on the stage, the audience became aware that the subtlety of the performance had already begun. There was birdsong, fragmentary but clear. There was a hut and a summer sky of deep blue scarred by cirrus, projected on a screen behind the stage. The applause for the performers’ arrival was almost an interruption, and in fact applause was rather a problem throughout. As this event was, in effect, a world premier and therefore still at an experimental stage, and as the intention appeared to be to make it almost seamless, we didn’t know when to clap.

There were in fact four participants on stage. Scottish musician Kate Young, poet and exponent of katajjaq (“throat-singing”) Taqralik Partridge, translator Saskia Vogel standing as proxy for Linnéa Axelsson, and sound engineer Pippa Murphy who richly deserved being included in the final bow. As well as emerging from the collaborative soundscape, Kate provided a kind of modal continuo with layers of voice, fiddle, and clarsach – she played the clarsach almost as a percussion instrument, and layering the sounds of the fiddle produced a series of harmonics that seemed at times to mimic a Norwegian Hardingfele. The use of this instantaneous and pre-recorded layering enabled Taqralik to sing along with her own voice. Her kind of vocalisation, with very few words and with the imitation of sounds familiar in an Inuit environment, is usually carried on in intimate closeness with a singing partner, and has the nature of game-playing. A little of this was lost to us, and Taqralik later told me it was a very strange experience accompanying her own voice; but this was all part of the voluntary giving-up and giving-to. When presenting a fusion like this, there always has to be compromise.

Saskia’s delivery of Linnéa Axelsson’s words in Swedish was clear, cool, and beautifully paced, and an English translation was displayed on the screen. Occasionally a line or two of the longer passages were lost behind the participants’ heads, but that was never more than a minor and momentary distraction. I loved it when one of the handful of Swedish words I recognised emerged – my ears pricked up at the mention of “barn” for a child, it is cognate, of course, with the Scots “bairn,” but is pronounced exactly the same as a word in the dialect of North Yorkshire. The fact that I could pick that out at all, in a language I don’t actually speak, is sufficient tribute to the clarity. Linnéa’s words explored the mysteries of the on-screen images – a Sami family enjoying a period of outdoor rest on a long, light, Northern evening, for example.

It’s a reviewer’s business to mention the niggles, and I’ve done that. But the remaining praise will be far from niggardly. I must not forget to express thanks to Sian Bevan who chaired the final discussion. If today’s presentation is any indication of the Indigenous Voices series, which continues at the Festival, then I recommend attending. I certainly recommend keeping an eye open for this combination’s visit to a venue in your locality.

By way of postscript, I happened to meet Saskia, Kate, and Taqralik informally later on. Saskia and I enthused about books as totally objects, things to be experienced phenomenologically, rather than simply containers of text – she was referring mainly to the white space in an eight-hundred-page minimalist epic poem by Linnéa Axelsson. Taqralik offered me a dip into her snack packet. This is the magic of the Book Festival!

Kate, Saskia, and Taqralik, with Sian Bevan. Photo courtesy of EIBF.





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Toni Morrison: flipping racial hierarchies in ‘Beloved’.

The death of Toni Morrison, which robbed the world of a unique and invaluable voice, reminded me of some notes I made a couple of years ago, when reading her remarkable novel Beloved. Rather than try to arrange them into some kind of essay, I would like to post them here more-or-less as they stand, crude and unrefined. The first part of these notes were made from a reading of the text of the novel. The second part consists of further notes on the way we view, or have viewed, ‘race’ and literacy, and they rely on an important article, from 1985 by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. – one that I have referred to a few times before in these posts, and will do again – which I apply to Beloved.

I was looking specifically at racial hierarchies, or hierarchies where race is a component or a context, and how Morrison ‘flips’ many of them. I identify thirteen. I’ll let that sink in – thirteen. I am still amazed by the subtle brilliance that this evidences. That brilliance is the “si monumentum requiris circumspice” of Toni Morrison.

Please assume descending order in each example. For brevity’s sake only, I am using the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ throughout (pace Gates’s very good point about these being ‘pseudoscientific categories’). Some of the observations I am going to make are intra-racial. Page references pertain to the 1988 Picador edition of Beloved.

1] The most basic and obvious hierarchy when considering race in the United States.

      • White
      • Black

The hierarchies and sub-hierarchies mentioned below fit into this, cannot exist outside this, in the context of the novel. But, importantly, see item 11.

Morrison is not blind to the mindset of the white population of the South, and offers the following paragraph in a very matter-of-fact way:

They unhitched from the schoolteacher’s horse the borrowed mule that was to carry the fugitive woman back to where she belonged, and tied it to the fence. Then, with the sun straight up over their heads, they trotted off, leaving the sheriff behind among the damndest bunch of coons they’d ever seen. All testimony to the results of a little so-called freedom imposed on people who needed every care and guidance in the world to keep them from the cannibal life they preferred. (Morrison 151)

2] Gender.

“[…] Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen […]” (3)

      • Black male
      • Black female

If mobility is an indicator of hierarchy, then in the novel there are plenty of instances where men move away and women stay put. Paul D is restless:

He believed he was having house-fits, the glassy anger men sometimes feel when a woman’s house begins to bind them, when they want to yell and break something or at least to run off […] always he associated the house-fit with the woman in it.

Notice how closely the woman and the house are in Paul D’s mind. It is always a “woman’s house” by virtue of “the woman in it.” The gender hierarchy may be flipped and expressed thus:

      • Possessor of the house, governing it – female.
      • Possessed by the house, sojourning in it – male.

Is there a way that a man may flip the hierarchy back? “I want you pregnant, Sethe […] And suddenly it was a solution: a way to hold onto her, document his manhood and beak out of the girl’s spell – all in one.” (118) To possess the possessor of the house.

A further delineation is in emotions expressed as opposed to those held inside: “A man ain’t a goddam ax […] Things get to him. Things he can’t chop down because they’re inside.” (69)

3] Generations.

      • Elder
      • Older
      • Younger

This hierarchy is adjustable. Baby Suggs lies immobile in her bed when Howard and Buglar run away. Her age gives her knowledge, but also inaction (ibid.). Thus the hierarchy can be reversed entirely.

4] Extended race.

      • White
      • Black
      • Red

Morrison uses terms like ‘Redmen’ (24) and ‘whitegirl’ (8); as a side issue, it is interesting that ‘-men’ is privileged when denominating a race as a whole. When ‘Redmen’ are mentioned on page 24, they are dead, unnamed, unknown. Paul D wanders through a “cemetery as old as the sky”, assumed to be of the Miami, who are named but “nudged out of […] eternal rest” by the racial top dogs. This extended racial hierarchy may be expressed another way:

      • Current – White, holding the power of record, of designating importance.
      • Historical – African, but that African-ness is beyond reach in the past, or at best parodied in a carnival when the “Wild African Savage shook his bars and said wa wa.” (48-49)
      • Pre-historical – the record of the people who built the stone structure or of those who lie in the cemetery is lost, their names unknown, their culture unfathomable.

One group of Native Americans whose recent history is known, however, is the Cherokee nation. Dispossessed, not even with a benign master or land designated by the government, landless and lawless by choosing almost, the band of “sick Cherokee” (111) can be seen to be below the fleeing blacks in a hierarchy; they await the end of the world, but by cruel irony they are dying before the end comes. But even by that exercise of desperate choice these positions can be flipped.

Morrison challenges the first two categories, by presenting a historical/current record, designating importance. If they no longer have an African history, they have an American one. Her writing bestows currency.

5] Linguistic.

      • English
      • Not-English – Sixo “stopped speaking English because there was no future in it.” (25). Morrison does not tell us what he started speaking, if he spoke at all. See the epigraph from Bakhtin at the start of Gates’s article.
      • Gibberish – “wa wa” (49)

English is the language of the dominant race, and thus is bound up in the hierarchies.

6] Location.

      • “Negroes in town” (67) with whom Paul D consults.
      • Black people on the land, whether slave or otherwise.

7] Bondage.

      • Slave
      • Bought out
      • Escaped
      • Freed
      • Born free

You can tinker slightly with the order.

8] The hierarchy of names. Again the exact order can be tinkered with, but here’s how I read it:

      • Title and surname, a white privilege to be called “Mr. Garner” as his father was.
      • A name taken – the revenant assumes the name “Beloved”.
      • A name given.
      • A name given because that was all that could be put on a tombstone.
      • A cognomen – Stamp Paid, Baby Suggs – to all intents and purposes de-gendering the named (although some of these names, Baby’s for one, are held dear).
      • A slave-name. such a name may be intelligible, but it is conferred with no direct link to the surname: “Paul D Garner, Paul F Garner, Paul A Garner […]” (11)
      • A slave name that isn’t even the name someone is known by and prefers, e.g. “Jenny Whitlow”, a “bill-of-sale name” (141-142).
      • Nameless, like the ‘Redmen’ who built the stone structure and the Miami in their disturbed graves.

9] A flippable hierarchy of whites and their attitudes to blacks.

Firstly in terms of power:

      • ‘Bad’ slave-owners and their agents, maintaining power, catching runaways, etc.
      • ‘Good’ slave-owners, paternalistic, allowing buy-outs.
      • ‘Good’ whites, aiding freed, bought-out, and escaped slaves.

Then flipped in terms of some kind of superficial morality:

      • Anti-slavery whites
      • ‘Benign’ owners
      • Intractable owners.

The ‘goodness’ or ‘benignity’ is not a matter of  Morrison saying “It’s okay, I know there are some good white people too,” because these characters are what they are in a particular context; their ‘goodness’ or ‘benignity’ actually highlights the context. The ‘Jenny Whitlow’ incident is brimming with good intentions!

10] Physical and supernatural.

      • The living
      • The dead
      • The revenant

Again, this can be re-ordered. While Beloved the revenant is active in the novel, she exerts power, and thus the hierarchy reads:

      • The revenant
      • The living
      • The dead

But the presence of the revenant can be exorcised, and this hierarchy flips again.

11] Relevance and importance.

      • Black
      • White

This is a direct flip of item 1, and it is probably the most obvious thing about the novel. Beloved is not about the white characters, who hardly feature, but about the black characters. They are foregrounded and privileged, it’s their story


All the eleven foregoing could be woven into a set of hierarchies with sub-hierarchies and sub-sub-hierarchies. The resulting complex picture, however, actually helps to break them down, to de-construct them, if you like. They are unstable, however, as all the possible flipping shows, which de-constructs them further.

Observations on Gates.

Can we, however, argue thus: When we discuss race at all, or write about it, or try to say whether it does matter or should matter, or matters in literature, or can be traced in literature, we are as captive in our terms and understandings in this regard as we are about matters of sex and gender. Gates cautions that “our conversations are replete with usages of race which have their sources in the dubious pseudoscience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (Gates 4) Have we broken free – can we break free – of the following?

The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term “race” has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. (5)

Does Morrison, either unconsciously or deliberately, fall victim to the existing matrix of language and ideas too?

“Yet we carelessly use language in such a way as to will this sense of natural difference into our formulations.” (ibid.) Who is this “we”? Is this an assumption that can be made no matter what the background of the writer or the subject-matter of the writing? How do these ideas impact “us”?

Western writers in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and English have tried to mystify these rhetorical figures of race, to make them natural, absolute, essential. In doing so, they have inscribed these differences as fixed and finite categories which they merely report or draw upon for authority. (6)

Does styling writers as ‘Western’ fall into a trap of any kind? I don’t know.

It takes little reflection, however, to recognize that these pseudoscientific categories are themselves figures. Who has seen a black or red person, a white, yellow, or brown? These terms are arbitrary constructs, not reports of reality. (ibid.)

And that is where my use of ‘white’, ‘black’, and ‘red’ – for ‘brevity’ – runs aground, of course!

But language is not only the medium of this often insidious tendency; it is its sign. Current language use signifies the difference between cultures and their possession of power, spelling out the distance between subordinate and superordinate, between bondsman and lord in terms of their “race.” (ibid.)

 I will venture that this is one reason why Morrison uses these simplistic terms of race, the other being of course that they were in the vernacular of the period she is writing about. To do otherwise would seem sententious [note 1]. “Literacy […] is the emblem that links racial alienation with economic alienation” says Gates (ibid). It is important that Morrison does so, because it foregrounds this vernacular, privileges it as being able to express everything necessary in a major novel, does so in an unaffected way; by doing this, Morrison stakes a claim that it is unnecessary to subject her, or her characters, to the examination of Phillis Wheatley (Gates 7-8). Her characters think and speak in (their owned version of) the masters’ language, but they think and speak self-sufficiently. Even those who cannot or will not speak (the dead Miami, Sixo, the Wild African Savage) are shot through with an eloquence of their own.

The above can be expressed as another flippable racial hierarchy (number 12):

      • Literate white.
      • Literate black, subject to the judgment of intelligence-demonstrated-by-literacy (the ‘Phillis Wheatley’ process).
      • Illiterate black.

The above is hegemonic hierarchy. Here is the rationale for flipping it:

      • Oral black – the culture of the people who are privileged in the novel, whose communication is by dialogue, whose unwritten memories are also privileged by the novel.
      • Literate black – the language in which Morrison presents the novel; despite its ease and its unaffected style, it is as bound to carry pre-existing meanings as anyone else’s!
      • Literate white – no longer the criterion of excellence, hardly featured at all in the novel, and when it is, it is the voice of error.

I believe it was Foucault who implied, in his preface to The Order of Things, that when we start out to create a taxonomy it is an exercise in exclusion rather than inclusion; we define something, in effect, in terms of what it is not [note 2]. When I point to a tree and say “Tree,” I am not simply categorising that object but also creating a far larger category of things that are ‘not-tree’. Applying this to reason/unreason, then:

[…] after Rene Descartes, reason was privileged, or valorized, above all other human characteristics. Writing, especially after the printing press became so widespread, was taken to be the visible sign of reason. Blacks were “reasonable,” and hence “men,” if – and only if – they demonstrated mastery of “the arts and sciences,” the eighteenth century’s formula for writing. So, while the Enlightenment is characterized by its foundation on man’s ability to reason, it simultaneously used the absence and presence of reason to delimit and circumscribe the very humanity of the cultures and people of color which Europeans had been “discovering” since the Renaissance. The urge toward the systematization of all human knowledge (by which we characterize the Enlightenment) led directly to the relegation of black people to a lower place in the great chain of being, an ancient construct that arranged all of creation on a vertical scale from plants, insects, and animals through man to the angels and God himself. (Gates 8)

Thus we can add another supposed hierarchy, Number 13:

      • White reason.
      • Black unreason, or childlike, gradual dawning of reason.

It is a petty extension of that ‘reason’ which motivates Mrs. Garner to advise Baby Suggs to use the name ‘Jenny Whitlow’ (Morrison 142). It contends, albeit silently, with Baby Suggs’s own logic – ‘Baby Suggs’ is who she is, how she knows and defines herself and, by extension, defines and excludes everything that is not Baby Suggs, and that includes ‘Jenny Whitlow’! Besides, “[…] how could [her husband] find or hear tell of her if she was calling herself by some bill-of-sale name?” (ibid.) Thus Mrs. Garner’s reason, and by extension the larger hegemonic reason, is shown to be flawed, to be without all the relevant data, and the edifice of that supposed hierarchy of reason can be seen to crumble. The blindness of the top layer to the logic of the bottom layer, and their capability for a different order of sophisticated thinking, subverts and challenges that hierarchy. In fact Baby Suggs’s reason is better, and flips the hierarchy.

      • Black – uncomplicated.
      • White – over-sophisticated.

William Bosman, David Hume, Emmanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel, all continued in some way to this particular taxonomy of exclusion (Gates, 9-11), and three of those are major thinkers in Western ‘Enlightenment’ philosophy.

Ironically, Anglo-African writing arose as a response to allegations of its absence. Black people responded to these profoundly serious allegations about their “nature” as directly as they could: they wrote books, poetry, autobiographical narratives. Political and philosophical discourse were the predominant forms of writing. (11)

In effect they replied to the taxonomy of exclusion by adopting the parameters of that taxonomy. This is the danger warned of by Anthony Appiah (Gates 14-15). They created a literary tradition which Morrison cannot help but follow. It is still an ironical bind – Morrison is a Professor emerita, a winner of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, with books that have entered the ‘canon’ of literature, scaling a hierarchy that puts the ‘popular’ into a lower order. The question now has to be asked, after Enlightenment ideas of literacy appear to have conquered the world, whether this globalisation has been followed by ‘localisation’, whether those who have found themselves colonised by the idea of literacy (privileged ahead of, say, oral tradition) have actually been able to take a kind of ownership of it and have made it their own. Have made it their own rather than have used it to be come somehow ‘acceptable’ to the culture that first devised the taxonomy. Gates goes on to say:

We are justified, however, in wondering aloud if the sort of subjectivity which these writers seek through the act of writing can be realized through a process which is so very ironic from the outset: how can the black subject posit a full and sufficient self in a language in which blackness is a sign of absence? Can writing, with the very difference it makes and marks, mask the blackness of the black face that addresses the text of Western letters, in a voice that speaks English through an idiom which contains the irreducible element of cultural difference that will always separate the white voice from the black? Black people, we know, have not been liberated from racism by our writings. We accepted a false premise by assuming that racism would be destroyed once white racists became convinced that we were human, too. (12)

And “[w]e black people tried to write ourselves out of slavery […]” (ibid.)

On page 13, Gates quotes Derrida, saying that black writers must “master […] the other’s language without renouncing [their] own.” That takes me back to the point I made in example 5, about language, and from there to the point I made about Morrison’s use of the vernacular in an unaffected way.

Gates again:

The Western critical tradition has a canon, as the Western literary tradition does. I once thought it our most important gesture to master the canon of criticism, to imitate and apply it, but I now believe that we must turn to the black tradition itself to develop theories of criticism indigenous to our literatures. (13)

Good luck with that – sincerely – because you’re banjaxed from the start by the hegemonic code of language. If it isn’t one hegemony it’s another – see Gates’s quotation from The Color Purple (Gates 14).

No critical theory – be it Marxist, feminist, post-structuralist, Kwame Nkrumah’s “consciencism,” or whatever – escapes the specificity of value and ideology […] (15)

That is all too certain!



[1] The analogy I would draw is the mannered acting in the first TV serialisation of Roots.

[2] “[the] way in which a culture can determine in a massive general, from the difference that limits it […]” perhaps.


Gates, Henry L. Jr. “Editor’s Introduction: Writing “Race” and

the Difference It Makes.” Critical Enquiry, vol.12 No.1,

1985, pp.1-20.

Foucault, Michel. Preface to The Order of Things.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Pan Picador, 1988.

[Please note that due to the idiosyncrasies of the platform I am unable to purge unwanted hyperlinks!]


Photo credit: Timothy Fadek/Corbis/Getty Images.

On having an article accepted by an academic journal

I’m not an academic. I’m an ordinary person – a very ordinary person – who operates in an academic environment. I never know whether what I’m writing is good, whether it is what other people in the environment expect; I simply write about what I see, and write as best I can.

Over a year ago I wrote something for that environment which I felt was rather good, and, I’m glad to say, so did the people assessing it. So earlier this year I had the notion of cutting it down to half its size and submitting it to an academic journal. Much easier said than done. Luckily I had the goodwill of a member of the academic staff of an English university, with whom I had corresponded, over a few years, about a common interest – the subject of my proposed article – and he was able to give me a great deal of very sound advice. With that advice inwardly digested, I was able to cut down my existing piece of writing, rephrase a lot of it, and tailor it to the style of an article for a handful of target journals.

On the suggestion of my acquaintance in England, I made my first approach, in April of this year, to a particular journal in the USA. Within two weeks of submission my article cleared the first hurdle – the editorial committee of three decided to send it out for ‘peer review’. Yesterday, I heard, to my astonishment, that it had cleared the next hurdle, inasmuch as the reviewers had recommended publication, and that the editors had scheduled the article for publication in 2020.

However, the reviewers had also made their recommendation, and the editors their decision, subject to major revision of the article. Naturally I am delighted that my first ever submission to an academic journal has been given the proverbial green light; this is more success than I could have expected. But I have to confess that the revision is going to be a major headache. I have until the end of the year to do it, and although I will be deep into PhD research by then I can cope with the deadline. My problem is that one of the revisions they most particularly insist on actually cuts right across the innovative (phenomenological) approach I have taken to the subject. I am going to have to deal with this, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy.

I think I shall start the revision process by putting it aside and relaxing over the coming weekend…