Hilary Mantel was attacking the paper doll in which newspapers have imprisoned the real Kate Middleton.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
My late grandfather John Junor was a very successful middle-market newspaper editor. He ran the Sunday Express for three decades and he used to be very firm on one subject. “I will not,” he insisted, “have irony in this newspaper.”
This is the problem at the root of poor old Hilary Mantel‘s clobbering yesterday by self-styled defenders of the Duchess of Cambridge including (woe!) our dim-witted balloon-on-a-stick of a prime minister. Mantel’s long lecture about Kate, and the way we look at her, was full of irony.
I don’t mean irony in its vulgar meaning of “sarcasm”, or the still more vulgar meaning of “saying something you don’t really mean”: but in the sense of inhabiting more than one position at once – of being able to observe something, but also to stand back and think about the way you are observing it, about the off-the-peg narratives and received ideas that shape your perceptions.
Tabloid papers – actually, all papers if we’re honest – deal in templates and received ideas: in pretty princesses, snooty highbrow authors, smirking fiends and tragic tots. It’s in the nature of that trade, though, that you can’t write about the templates and received ideas themselves. That is a level of reflexiveness, a level of self-scrutiny, too far.
Mantel was attacking the paper doll in which newspapers have imprisoned the real Kate Middleton. That can’t be acknowledged without admitting the idea that there’s a gap between this paper doll and the real person – that the Kate of your own front page is a brutal and sentimental fiction maintained for ease and profit. The point of Mantel’s piece was necessarily invisible to parsing in a Daily Mail news story. So a story had to be made – because here was a famous writer writing about a subject of intense interest to the paper – by missing the point.
Martin Amis, who has been the mid-market newspapers’ favourite idea of a “famous writer” for as long as any of us can remember, has more experience of this particular spotlight than anyone else. I don’t want to sidetrack into the ancient row about whether he’s “a racist” or not – but it’s worth recalling, because it’s a precise parallel, the pivotal phrase in the notorious piece he wrote about Muslims after 9/11: “What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ “
We can argue about the implications of that piece – but as Amis wrote in his defence, to acknowledge an urge is not necessarily to endorse it. A good writer uses his or her urges and feelings and ideas – first felt, then acknowledged, then examined and appraised – as specimens: a petri dish in which to grow a sample of the culture. And the culture contains some ugly things.
Some years ago almost exactly the same thing happened to Anne Enright as has just happened to Mantel. A day or two after she won the Man Booker prize she found herself sploshed over the front pages: “Booker winner slams McCanns”; “Why I Hate the McCanns – by Booker winner”. Again, the culprit was a long, thoughtful essay in the London Review of Books published weeks previously. Enright had, with self-amused and self-disgusted candour, written in propria persona of how easy it was to get caught up in the tabloid frenzy: making ugly and presumptuous judgments about two people we only thought we knew because they were on our front pages.
She was writing about the madness of our collective responses – that the case “makes harridans of us all” and that “disliking the McCanns is an international sport” and she ended her article by saying: “Then I go to bed and wake up the next day, human again, liking the McCanns.”
It wasn’t just the tabloids who reported all this as an attack on Kate and Gerry McCann. The best benefit of the doubt you could give all those papers then, and the best you can give them now, is that of laziness or dimness. But I suspect then and I suspect now that deliberate mischief, to put it kindly, was the cause of their obtuseness.
Writers, whose business is representation, will from time to time seek to examine the wilful and damaging stupidities of our culture. We should not be surprised if from time to time stupidity fights back with the only weapon it has – which is to say, more stupidity. For the moment, though, the best advice to any writer not wishing to be wilfully misconstrued is starting to look like: don’t win the Man Booker prize, and if you must, then whatever you do, don’t write anything in the LRB.
• Sam Leith’s latest book is You Talkin’ To Me: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (Profile)
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