Wolf bites back

X.Trapnel on the latest literary feuds and fancies

Literary Review

A veritable blizzard of tweets from American academic Naomi Wolf, still fresh from the controversy that greeted her book Outrages, the publication of which was cancelled in the US after errors had been discovered in its UK edition. At the centre of that dispute had been the BBC presenter and historian Matthew Sweet, who had argued that Wolf had misunderstood and consequently misrepresented the deaths of gay men in custody in the nineteenth century. Their exchanges revealed them to be at odds, but largely respectful to one another. 

The most recent row, however, is rather more fractious and was sparked when Australian energy minister Angus Taylor claimed to have coincided with Wolf during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in 1991. His chief memory was that Wolf and others — described as “shrill, elitist voices” — had demanded that the college common room should go without a Christmas tree lest it offend those not celebrating the festival. 

In Taylor’s account, sense prevailed after a pitched battle in which he, naturally, played a vital part. Sadly, as Wolf’s strikingly detailed rebuttal argues, she was nowhere near Oxford that year and, besides absolutely loves Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa; and, sadly for Taylor, she seems to have amassed, and indeed shared on social media, a great deal of documentary evidence in her support. All of which toil and trouble, it strikes Trapnel, is distinctly unseasonal.

More conspiracy theories as a new book argues that the car accident that killed Albert Camus, French Nobel laureate and pub quizzers’ favourite (yes: he was also an accomplished goalkeeper) might have been the work of — you guessed it — the Russians. The evidence trail seems somewhat attenuated: as reported in the Guardian, the author of The Death of Camus, Giovanni Catelli, points to the diaries of a Czech poet who recorded that someone “knowledgeable and well-connected” had told him that the KGB had fixed the tyres; all in revenge, apparently, for Camus’s opposition to the Soviet invasion of Hungary three years earlier. 

So far so abstruse, but support has come from an unexpected quarter: the American novelist Paul Auster, who has written the foreword to the book and reveals that, now that he has contemplated the evidence, Camus’s death should be reclassified as a political assassination. Others are more sceptical, but how refreshing it would be should other novelists decide to weigh in on the murky events of the past. Jilly Cooper, perhaps, might investigate the fate of Shergar, or Martin Amis the disappearance of Lord Lucan. After all, those long hours dreaming up far-fetched plots are the perfect training for assessing what may be real and what imaginary.

In the age of Fully Automated Luxury Prize-Sharing™, let us not allow one plaudit to slip beneath the radar as the Booker and the Turner grab all the headlines. The Literary Review’s long-standing Bad Sex Award also split the honours, in this case between a French writer, Didier Decoin, who likened a penis to a small monkey, and a Cambridge don, John Harvey. One suspects a degree of mischief, as the prize’s administrators paid tribute to the impossible task that had faced the judges and the roiling struggles with heart and mind it entailed. 

Indeed, so far has the tide swung against This Sort of Thing — not aided by the BBC’s description of the Booker having been won by Margaret Atwood and “another author”, provoking outrage — that one can assume next year’s juries will find themselves surprisingly decisive.

The year’s most eagerly brandished intellectual badge of honour must surely be the love of Lee Child. Barely a fancy-pants novelist or editor of a learned journal has failed to declare their devotion to Jack Reacher, with the esteemed thriller writer taking to the pages of the relaunched Times Literary Supplement to muse on the history of hallucinogenic drugs. Some of the affection for Child resides in his being a home-grown hero, a Coventry lad who has wowed Hollywood. But now he is to take advantage of his birthright as the son of a Belfast father to apply for an Irish passport and join the ranks of Joyce, McGahern and O’Brien. Jack O’Reacher can surely not be far behind.

Most surprising literary-political lookalike of the festive season? Comedian and novelist Jenni Eclair, who recently took to a literary festival stage and, somewhat surprisingly, bared her knees for the audience’s delectation. They were, she explained ruefully, somewhat solid joints if compared to the more delicate specimens of a supermodel. In fact, she continued, if you put her in a pair of running shoes and she took off her glasses, she did a very passable impression of Boris Johnson.

Always good for writers to have a back-up source of income.

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