Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.
People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.
Eric S. Raymond, “SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-07-30.
July 4, 2015
June 30, 2015
Books, I fancy, may be conveniently divided into three classes:
- Books to read, such as Cicero’s Letters, Suetonius, Vasari’s Lives of the Painters, the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Sir John Mandeville, Marco Polo, St Simon’s Memoirs, Mommsen, and (till we get a better one) Grote’s History of Greece.
- Books to re-read, such as Plato and Keats: in the sphere of poetry, the masters not the minstrels; in the sphere of philosophy, the seers not the savants.
- Books not to read at all, such as Thomson’s Seasons, Rogers’s Italy, Paley’s Evidences, all the Fathers except St Augustine, all John Stuart Mill except the Essay on Liberty, all Voltaire’s plays without any exception, Butler’s Analogy, Grant’s Aristotle, Hume’s England, Lewes’s History of Philosophy, all argumentative books and all books that try to prove anything.
The third class is by far the most important. To tell people what to read is, as a rule, either useless or harmful; for the appreciation of literature is a question of temperament not of teaching; to Parnassus there is no primer and nothing that one can learn is ever worth learning. But to tell people what not to read is a very different matter, and I venture to recommend it as a mission to the University Extension Scheme.
Indeed, it is one that is eminently needed in this age of ours, an age that reads so much that it has no time to admire, and writes so much that it has no time to think. Whoever will select out of the chaos of our modern curricula “The Worst Hundred Books,” and publish a list of them, will confer on the rising generation a real and lasting benefit.
Oscar Wilde, “To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette“, 1886-02-08.
June 23, 2015
Wandering a bit off his usual (Byzantine empire) era, Richard Blake looks at how Hollywood has portrayed Rome in film:
My purpose in this article is to describe and compare and judge ten films set in the Roman Empire. I will apply two criteria. The first, and most obvious, is how these films stand as works of art in their own right — narrative structure, acting, general production values and so forth. The second, and for me almost equally important, is how well they show that the Ancients lived in a moral universe fundamentally different from our own.
Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say at once that I have no time for any of the neo-Marxist claims about Antiquity. Karl Polanyi and Moses Finlay were wrong in their belief that the laws of supply and demand have only operated since the eighteenth century. Michel Foucault was more than usually wrong when he denied that the Ancients had any notion of the individual. In all times and places, human nature is the same. All people are motivated by some combination of sex, money, status, power and the fear of death. The laws of Economics apply just as well in Ancient Rome as they do in Modern England.
What I do mean, however, is that these basic motivations showed themselves in often radically different ways. The Ancients were not Christians. They were not universalists. They had no concept of human equality. The establishment of chattel slavery among them normalised attitudes and behaviour that would have been thought outrageous in Ancien Régime Europe, and that every religious denomination would have been mobilised to denounce in the ante bellum American South.
The Ancients lacked technologies and scientific and moral concepts that we have taken for granted for five or six or even eight centuries. A modern secularist has more in common with a twelfth century theologian than with a Greek rationalist. He probably has more in common with a sixth century Bishop than with a pagan philosopher.
One of the main, though seldom noticed, differences between virtually everyone in the past and us is that they lived under the continual shadow of death. I have reached the age of fifty five. I might fall dead tomorrow, but the insurance tables tell me I have a long way yet to go before I need to start thinking hard about the inevitable end of things. I put off begetting children until I was in my forties. I only took up a serious study of the piano last year. Catullus was dead at thirty, Horace and Vergil in their fifties. Constantine the Great was an old and dying man when he was younger than I am now. Shorter time horizons must have an effect on almost every approach to life.
Any fictional recreation must show these differences, and show them without vexing readers or viewers with endless asides. I try to show them in my series of thrillers set in seventh century Byzantium. Without more elaboration, let me see how well they are shown in the ten films I have selected.
May 26, 2015
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie myself, so I can’t say whether Eileen Jones has correctly identified the “feminist messsage” that some men’s rights activists are decrying:
Regardless of where one stands on Ensler’s feminist cred, I couldn’t see any evidence in the film of her consciousness-raising sessions. The first full shot we get of the escaping women shows them standing tall against a gorgeous sun-blasted horizon, wearing white muslin bikinis and other resort-wear, and looking exactly like supermodels posing for a Vogue shoot in the deserts of Namibia. Rose Huntington-Whiteley plays Splendid, the lead figure among the escaping band. The credentials that secured her this role are presumably her career highs as a top model, achieving the rank of a Victoria’s Secret “Angel” and a number one rating on Maxim magazine’s “Hot List” for 2011.
The other women are even less impressive performers. None can act in the least, but in addition to unmemorably pretty features, they have a broad spectrum of hair and skin colors, which is important when setting up a group Vogue shot in this enlightened age of ours.
That no primitive patriarch in his right mind would ever choose these particular women as “breeders” to keep his colony alive is immediately apparent. One of them is so thin and pale as to be almost transparent and looks as if she’ll die in a photogenic way at any second. But she could step onto any catwalk during Fashion Week, no questions asked.
Of course, Charlize Theron as Furiosa benefits from proximity to the supermodels who make her seem, by comparison, ferociously strong and a better actor than Meryl Streep. She’s tall enough to seem physically imposing, and she moves with athleticism. But she also brings with her the legacy of so many Dior perfume ads: the soft, tiny-nosed, blonde prettiness that her crew cut merely accentuates and that John Seale‘s lovely cinematography enshrines in innumerable close-ups. Just compare this example of onscreen feminism to Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979). Weaver was six feet tall, odd, angular, smart and forceful, with highly individual, non-model looks and a remarkably ambitious actor’s resume, shot in unforgiving light and wearing a unisex worker’s uniform. In movies, we haven’t come a long way, baby.
We must also grapple with the supposedly feminist plot elements of Fury Road. The women’s escape from The Citadel is a quest to reach the matriarchal paradise where Furiosa was born. They repeat as a comforting mantra, “We’re going to the Green Place!” It’s the last stand of Mother Nature where, apparently, judging by the natives we eventually meet, no men ever lived.
It’s an extraordinary thing, in this day and age, that we still want to believe in a lot of essentializing Earth Mother nonsense about women. But apparently we do. In praising Fury Road, Eve Ensler says, “All the women in the film maintain their inherent woman-ness.”
Whatever “inherent woman-ness” is, I was afraid to find out. I dreaded getting to the “Green Place.” Would everyone be doing yoga when we got there? And communicating softly and understandingly with each other? Or perhaps tending gardens all day, then doing fertility dances by the light of the moon?
May 14, 2015
Once, after plowing through sixty or seventy volumes of bad verse, I described myself as a poetry-hater. The epithet was and is absurd. The truth is that I enjoy poetry as much as the next man — when the mood is on me. But what mood? The mood, in a few words, of intellectual and spiritual fatigue, the mood of revolt against the insoluble riddle of existence, the mood of disgust and despair. Poetry, then, is a capital medicine. First its sweet music lulls, and then its artful presentation of the beautifully improbable soothes and gives surcease. It is an escape from life, like religion, like enthusiasm, like glimpsing a pretty girl. And to the mere sensuous joy in it, to the mere low delight in getting away from the world for a bit, there is added, if the poetry be good, something vastly better, something reaching out into the realm of the intelligent, to wit, appreciation of good workmanship. A sound sonnet is almost as pleasing an object as a well-written fugue. A pretty lyric, deftly done, has all the technical charm of a fine carving. I think it is craftsmanship that I admire most in the world. Brahms enchants me because he knew his trade perfectly. I like Richard Strauss because he is full of technical ingenuities, because he is a master-workman. Well, who ever heard of a finer craftsman than William Shakespeare? His music was magnificent, he played superbly upon all the common emotions — and he did it magnificently, he did it with an air. No, I am no poetry-hater. But even Shakespeare I most enjoy, not on brisk mornings when I feel fit for any deviltry, but on dreary evenings when my old wounds are troubling me, and some fickle one has just sent back the autographed set of my first editions, and bills are piled up on my desk, and I am too sad to work. Then I mix a stiff dram — and read poetry.
H.L. Mencken, “The Poet and His Art”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
May 9, 2015
Upon the low practical value of so-called constructive criticism I can offer testimony out of my own experience. My books are commonly reviewed at great length, and many critics devote themselves to pointing out what they conceive to be my errors, both of fact and of taste. Well, I cannot recall a case in which any suggestion offered by a constructive critic has helped me in the slightest, or even actively interested me. Every such wet-nurse of letters has sought fatuously to make me write in a way differing from that in which the Lord God Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, impels me to write — that is, to make me write stuff which, coming from me, would ‘be as false as an appearance of decency in a Congressman. All the benefits I have ever got from the critics of my work have come from the destructive variety. A hearty slating always does me good, particularly if it be well written. It begins by enlisting my professional respect; it ends by making me examine my ideas coldly in the privacy of my chamber. Not, of course, that I usually revise them, but I at least examine them. If I decide to hold fast to them, they are all the dearer to me thereafter, and I expound them with a new passion and plausibility. If, on the contrary, I discern holes in them, I shelve them in a pianissimo manner, and set about hatching new ones to take their place. But constructive criticism irritates me. I do not object to being denounced, but I can’t abide being school-mastered, especially by men I regard as imbeciles.
H.L. Mencken, “Footnote on Criticism”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
May 4, 2015
L. Neil Smith isn’t happy with the Pope’s latest anti-capitalist comments:
Just for the record, when private capitalism came into being, it was a revolutionary economic, political, and social system that has since fed, clothed, and housed — not to mention educated and cured — more individual human beings than any other system in history. When it appeared on the world scene in the mid-1700s, a person’s average life expectancy at birth — in London, the most advanced and civilized city on the planet — was about 20 1/2 years. A hundred years later, life expectancy was three times that number, and it is now approaching four times.
If only for those reasons (and there are many others), capitalism has been the target of centuries of relentless, vicious attack by evil parasites who wish to be perceived as humanity’s benefactors without actually benefiting anybody at all, Today, virtually every member of what the great essayist H.L. Mencken called the “booboisie” believe (you can’t really say “think”) that capitalism and capitalists are evil.
Capitalism’s gravest “sin” in this connection is that it has made more widespread and greater individual freedom available than ever before (even though in his abysmal ignorance — or ideological delirium — the Pope accuses it of imposing ” a new tyranny” that is “causing people to die”. That, of course, is why there are seven billion people in the world today, as opposed to a few hundred cold and starving millions when his gang of terrorists was running things.).
That is a critically important key to why capitalism is hated and reviled, and to who hates and reviles it. Watch the various enemies of capitalism on TV; Obama, Reid, Pelosi, Waxman, Feinstein, Bush, Hatch, Cheney. None of them are genuine advocates of freedom. There are political vermin in the world — all over the world, in fact, generally in positions of leadership — who hate, loathe and despise individual freedom, and will do absolutely anything to eradicate it. They achieve their leadership positions because no decent human being really wants anything to do with telling other human beings what to do.
The headline reads “Pope Francis rebukes unfettered capitalism”. When he says “unfettered” you can bet he means it literally; this is the heir of a gang of thugs who used to “change” people’s theological opinions with the rack, the whip, and red-hot pincers. You can also bet they’d be doing it today if they believed they could get away with it.
Petulantly, the man complains that the worship of wealth has become a religion in itself. There is lots I could say about that. I’ll limit myself to the observation that the wealth is really there; it manifests itself. In that respect, it’s hell of a lot better than the Imaginary Playmate he claims to speak for and wants us all to worship.
April 11, 2015
In City Journal, Ryan L. Cole reviews a recent book on one of America’s most famous generals:
America’s Civil War presents a set of forever ponderable “what ifs.” What if a Union soldier hadn’t discovered plans for the Confederate invasion of Maryland in 1862? What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been hit by friendly fire after the Battle of Chancellorsville? What if George Meade had pursued the wounded Army of Northern Virginia in the wake of Gettysburg? The list goes on.
But perhaps the most vexing hypothetical has always been: What if Robert E. Lee had accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer to command Union forces at the outset of the conflict? This would have likely robbed the Confederacy of its greatest military mind. It may have also robbed the South of its fleeting glories, dramatically shortened the war, and made Lee — not Ulysses S. Grant or even Abraham Lincoln — the savior of the Union. It could even have made Lee a second George Washington.
This decision and its ramifications are the basis of The Man Who Would Not Be Washington, Jonathan Horn’s thoughtful new life of the Confederate general. It would be wrong to call this a biography. Though Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, assays Lee’s life from birth to death, the book is built around the premise that Lee was practically destined to become the second coming of Washington. Yet he declined, and the consequences of his refusal altered the course of the nation.
Lee had familial and professional connections to Washington. His father, Henry Lee III, better known as “Light-Horse” Harry Lee, was a dashing cavalry officer in the Continental Army. General Washington was impressed by Lee’s bravery and invited the young Virginian to join his personal staff. When Lee begged off, Washington asked Congress to give him an independent command. Like some other young officers, Lee found a mentor in Washington, who had no biological children of his own. He did, however, adopt and raise Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, as his own son. Custis’s daughter, Mary, wed Robert E. Lee. Their children, by birth and marriage, were direct descendants of America’s original first lady.
The Lees lived in Arlington House, a Potomac mansion overlooking Washington, built by Custis as a shrine to his adoptive father and a repository for his relics. Through marriage, Lee was heir to the tactile remains of Washington’s legacy; even the slaves he inherited from his father-in-law were descendants of those who had toiled at Mount Vernon. In his opening chapters, Horn carefully draws the connections between the two titular subjects and plots Lee’s rise to military distinction in the years leading up to the Civil War. The history is simply fascinating. Horn is a graceful writer, and when the occasion warrants, has a suitable flair for the dramatic. The pages blaze by.
April 1, 2015
March 28, 2015
I didn’t know that Orwell was a former pupil of Aldous Huxley:
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
March 25, 2015
In Spiked, Tom Slater reviews a recent book by Susan Neiman, calling it “the philosophical kick up the arse my generation so desperately needs”:
Why Grow Up?, the latest book by American philosopher and essayist Susan Neiman, begins with a slyly subversive statement: ‘Being grown up is itself an ideal.’ In Britain today, this couldn’t seem further from the truth. Today, we’re told, is the worst time to be reaching adulthood. With economic strife, rising house prices, tuition fees and widespread youth unemployment weighing on Generation Y’s pasty back, coming of age merely means coming to the realisation that debt, destitution and living with mum and dad into your thirties is your inevitable inheritance. And that’s hardly an adulthood worth having.
The question this book seeks to answer is why growing up seems such a grim prospect today. From the off, Neiman dispenses with the sort of neuroscientific apologism that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Within the current, fatalistic climate, adulthood has been defined down. The Science now says that adolescence stretches into your mid-twenties. But, as Neiman observes in her introduction, there’s nothing scientific about growing up. The lines between childhood, adolescence and adulthood are mutable, and have changed over time. Less than a century ago, childhood, as a time of pampered play and dependence, lasted barely a few years for the vast majority of the population. And when most young people were out of school and married by the end of their teens, adolescence – the rebellious grace period between Tonka trucks and 2.4 children – didn’t even exist.
Instead, Neiman presents adulthood as a process of coming to terms with the circumstances you find yourself in and then committing to changing them – reconciling the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. She situates this in the history of Enlightenment thought, in which the doomy realism of Hume clashed with the rugged idealism of Rousseau. ‘It would take Kant’, Neiman writes, ‘to appreciate the fact that we must take both seriously – if we are ever to arrive at an adulthood we need not merely acquiesce in but actively claim as [our] own’.
March 24, 2015
Published on 19 Mar 2015
Growing up as “a gender nonconforming entity” during Eisenhower’s America wasn’t easy for cultural critic and best-selling author Camille Paglia. Her adolescence in small-town, upstate New York was marked by rejection, rebellion, and cross-dressing—all in reaction to the stultifying social norms of the 1950s and early ’60s.
So what does Paglia think of contemporary culture, with its openness to a wide variety of ever-proliferating gender, racial, and sexual identities?
“I do not feel that gender is sufficient to explain all of human life,” Paglia tells Reason TV‘s Nick Gillespie. “This gender myopia, this gender monomania, has become a disease. It’s become a substitute for religion. It is impossible that the feminist agenda can ever be the total explanation of human life.”
Whether the subject is feminism or the fate of Western civilization, Paglia is no Pollyanna. In this wide-ranging discussion, she says higher education is going to hell, the Fourth Estate is an epic FAIL, millennials are myopic, contemporary criticism has croaked, and Hillary Clinton might singlehandedly destroy the universe. Even Madonna, once Paglia’s ideal of sex-positive feminism, seems to have lost her way.
Does the celebrated author of Sexual Personae and Break Blow Burn have any reason to get out of bed in the morning? Does she have any hope for the universe at all? Watch the video to find out.
… I am still bugged by the quality of reviewing generally accorded science fiction. Or let’s call it “speculative fiction” for a moment because one of the things that bugs me the most is that some critics seem strongly indisposed to permit a writer to speculate.
It seems to me that the only excuse for the sort of fiction we write (whatever it is called) is speculation, as far-ranging and imaginative as the author can manage.
But is this permitted? Don’t make me laugh, it hurts. The usual critic drags in his Procrustean bed at the first hint of free-swinging speculation. There has grown up an extremely conservative orthodoxy in science fiction, spineless, boneless, suffocating. It is almost amorphous but I can sketch the vague outlines. It is do-goodish and quasi-socialist — but not Communist; this critic wouldn’t recognize dialectical materialism if it bit him in the face. It is both “democratic” and “civil libertarian” without the slightest understanding that these two powerful and explosive concepts can frequently be in direct conflict, each with the other. It is egalitarian, pacifist, and anti-racist — with no notion that these concepts might ever clash. It believes heartily in “freedom” and “equality” — yet somehow thinks that “older & wiser heads” are fully justified in manipulating the human psyche to achieve these ends — after all, it’s for their own good … [sic] and these new orthodoctrinaires are always quite certain that they know what is good for the human race.
Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Theodore Sturgeon 1962-03-05, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).
March 9, 2015
Post-structuralism is a system of literary and social analysis that flared up and vanished in France in the 1960s but that became anachronistically entrenched in British and American academe from the 1970s on. Based on the outmoded linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and promoted by the idolized Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, it absurdly asserts that we experience or process reality only through language and that, because language is inherently unstable, nothing can be known. By undermining meaning, history and personal will, post-structuralism has done incalculable damage to education and contemporary thought. It is a laborious, circuitously self-referential gimmick that always ends up with the same monotonous result. I spent six months writing a long attack on academic post-structuralism for the classics journal Arion in 1991, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” (reprinted in my first essay collection, Sex, Art, and American Culture). Post-structuralism has destroyed two generations of graduate students, who were forced to mouth its ugly jargon and empty platitudes for their foolish faculty elders. And the end result is that humanities departments everywhere, having abandoned their proper mission of defending and celebrating art, have become humiliatingly marginalized in both reputation and impact.
Camille Paglia, “The Catholic Pagan: 10 Questions for Camille Paglia”, American Magazine, 2015-02-25.
February 19, 2015
Neil Davenport reviews Authenticity is a Con by Peter York:
Everyone and everything today must, it seems, be ‘the real deal’ — they must be walking, talking embodiments of heart-on-your-sleeve authenticity. After all, no one wants to be accused of ‘faking it’, as Kurt Cobain put it in his suicide note. From pop stars to politicians, being real, being oneself, being transparent, is pretty much a pre-requisite for entrance into respectable society.
But social commentator Peter York believes there is something rather phoney in the need to be seen as genuine. In his short polemical book, Authenticity is a Con, York provides several deliciously scathing snapshots of the current tyranny of transparency.
For York, authenticity is the ‘absolute favourite word of shysters and chancers; of motivational speakers and life coaches dealing with “human potential”; of people who think “I’m so worth it”… people with only the vaguest idea of authentication and none at all about the philosophical back story.’ He traces the ‘me generation’ tendencies back to 1960s America. For York, the authenticity peddlers sell the idea that if you’re ‘true to yourself’ then everything else, from a satisfying career to successful relationships, will magically fall into place. York understands that the free-yourself psychobabble has always sounded preposterous. To lampoon it requires very little effort.
York’s sharp eye provides insights aplenty. There’s a hilarious dig at hippy ‘t-shirt and trainers’ companies such as Facebook or Virgin, whose informality disappears when they are challenged on something substantive (‘you get some very formal legal action’, quips York). He points out the irony of early- to mid-twentieth-century black musicians like Lead Belly, who wanted to wear smart suits and play hotel jazz, having to ham up a jailbird persona in order to sate their white audience’s demand for an ‘authentic’ blues performer. York also notes how, in the 1970s, the desire to be inauthentic, to not be ourselves or down to earth, was a mark of boldness and imagination. Think of the sci-fi-based, proto funk of Parliament or Funkadelic, or how working-class bricklayers donned tights and make up during the Glam era. Roxy Music made a career out of not keeping it real. They even prompted the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray to declare them a threat to Britain’s rock culture with, as York says, ‘their posey eclecticism, poncey retrofuturism and their wholly meretricious concern with appearances’. And then there’s David Bowie who elevated artifice, pretension and inauthenticity to the level of an art-form.
Today’s art-school poseurs, though, are as swept up with authenticity as anyone else. York begins Authenticity is a Con by visiting Shoreditch and noticing a product called ‘honest man’s beard oil’. As readers of Sunday supplements will know, east London has the highest beard count in the capital. York has great fun juxtaposing Shoreditch’s quest for reclaimed-floorboard authenticity with its entirely invented (read inauthentic) claim to be an artistic Boho enclave. ‘It’s a thing of surfaces’, writes York, ‘anti-bling surfaces that actually cost much more than the gold and glass and shiny marble of mainstream bling’. Indeed, Shoreditch and Hackney are the kind of places that have specially designed ‘old man pubs’ that don’t actually feature any old men drinking in them. York calls Shoreditch ‘applied authenticity’, which is about as accurate and as real a description of EC1 as you will find.
And yet the authenticity-marketing scam goes far beyond east London. For over a decade now, we’ve experienced what can be called ‘kooky capitalism’, wherein huge companies re-brand themselves as ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses. York supplements the idea of kooky capitalism with his concept of ‘micro-connoisseurship’, which refers to the ‘market for luxury, for superior, smart, snobby, value-added goods – “positional goods” of all kinds. We’ve got millions of micro-connoisseurs agonising about the thread count in sheets, the back-story of a recipe, the provenance of a shop.’