Tom’s ghostly debut

X.Trapnel on the latest publishing politics

Literary Review

Every time a door closes, another opens — or, in the former deputy leader of the Labour Party Tom Watson’s case, two. For not only has the one-time heavyweight — in both senses of the word — documented his eight-stone weight loss and transformation into contemporary politics’ Mr Motivator, he has also announced his new thriller. It is to be called The House, and it is, unsurprisingly, set in Westminster. There are to be cut-throat battles for power, and secrets, and rivalries.

No wonder, though, that Watson doesn’t have time to write it all by himself — two books in a year would cause most authors to take the next decade off. Instead, he’ll be enlisting the help of novelist Imogen Robertson, author of such appropriately ghoulish-sounding books as Instrument of Darkness, Island of Bones and Theft of Life. All good luck with the literary life to Mr Watson, who follows in the footsteps, of course, of Jeffrey Archer, Chris Mullin and the strikingly litigious Rupert Allason, aka spy novelist Nigel West.

Meanwhile, those with a long enough memory will recall that last year’s Parliamentary Book Awards, due to take place in December, were scuppered by the small matter of the election. But now they’re back, and Labour MP Jess Phillips can find consolation for her failed leadership bid in a shortlisting for the snappily named Best Non-Biographical Book by a Parliamentarian category. Her rather more directly named Truth to Power: 7 Ways to Call Time on B.S. competes with Rachel Reeves’s Women of Westminster and, more poetically, Melvyn Bragg’s fictional recreation of the story of Heloise and Abelard, Love Without End.

Elsewhere, in the biographical category, former prime minister David Cameron is nominated for his account of his time in power, For the Record. About which there is very little to say other that, if the judges did their jobs properly, at least someone’s read it.

The awards will be handed out by political journalist Isabel Hardman this month — in other words, after the country’s been non-bonged out of Europe. Expect next year’s shortlists, then, to reflect fully the strength of feeling on offer, and don’t hold out your hopes for the more healing vibe promised by One Nation Toryism.

Scanning the forthcoming books in publishers’ catalogues, for example, we discover Fintan O’Toole’s Three Years in Hell, a chronicle of the Brexit era. Editors, as is well-known, are always chasing the wave, and this time it might well be in the middle of the Irish Sea.

Just as the bookselling community was purring at the news that orders had flooded into Petersfield Bookshop after it had announced online that it had passed an entire day without a single sale, with its plight being publicised by bestselling author Neil Gaiman, came a less rosy dispatch. Rents and rate hikes mean that the Chelsea branch of Daunt Books on Fulham Road will close this month; a particularly egregious blow to old-timers like Trapnel, who remember the site as the Pan Bookshop, scene of many a publishing knees-up in the old days. Meanwhile, the Daunt empire is edging further westward, opening up a new shop in Summertown in Oxford this spring. Swings and roundabouts or shifting priorities?

When prozac nation, whose enfant terrible author Elizabeth Wurtzel died recently, was published in 1994, the excesses of social media were yet beyond the wildest dreams of Silicon Valley billionaires. Indeed, Mark Zuckerberg was only ten, and it would be another dozen years before Twitter would arrive on the scene like a malice machine. In the interim, the revelatory personal essay of which Wurtzel was a pioneer — complete with lengthy dissection of one’s flaws and failings — has not relinquished its hold on the popular culture.

One such addition to the genre came with New Yorker journalist Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, a collection of musings on the difficulties of being a brainy woman caught up in the lures of late-stage capitalist society.

Tolentino’s is not a style of writing that found favour with critic Lauren Oyler, whose review for the London Review of Books prompted its subject to tweet her apparent delight at having received such a wholeheartedly negative review. It was, she wrote, “a cleansing, illuminating experience to be read with such open disgust”.

To be certain, it was not a kind notice, dwelling not merely on Tolentino’s limitations as an interpreter of the contemporary world, but on a hinterland of “hysterical critics” who lap up this kind of thing.

But the LRB, which is famously resistant to criticism of the scarcity of female reviewers in its pages, might want to think again about what its readers are after; so popular did Oyler’s review prove that the website crashed, which surely doesn’t happen that often for Tariq Ali.

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