Monthly Archives: November 2016

Dear Jim… (#11) Re: Only a Straight White Male Can Call A Straight White Male ‘Privileged’.


“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” – Hume

Dear  Jim,

I sympathise with the many feelings in your previous letter – try some ginger tea, it could be that feeling of heartbreak at President-Elect Trump is just excess gas – but we’ve been doing a lot of political chat lately admittedly with the occasional foray into Thompson and Baldwin, but in the interest of segueing us back towards the writing which this blog pretends to be about, I thought I’d talk a little bit about language.

There are a bunch of phrases things that have been on my mind of late, mostly of which are obliquely do with Politics and the English Language. So this letter is brought to you in five parts, by four words.

Part 1 is brought to you by the word ‘mirrorwall’:

I wanted to share this relevant and interest video:

This video gives a meme – as in Dawkins not as in Grumpy Cat – based explanation of the echochamber.

The video is interesting and informative and goes further and deeper in its analysis than most of the stuff I’ve been hearing about echochambers lately. And without using either term it ties echochambers together with the other trendy word of the moment: post-truth.

I am sick of both of those terms so I’m trying to get the mirrorwall of Facebook and liarworld some traction. Expect hashtags.

Part 2 is brought to you by the words ‘nuance’ and ‘taboo’:

Another thing that happens on the mirrorwall is the gradual erosion of nuance. In an attempt to avoid straw-men I’m going to ignore the badguys here and talk about my own people: bleeding heart lefty liberals.

We’ve talked before about how when Ken Clarke suggested that consensual sex between a 15 and 18 year old is a different sort of rape to say, systematic sexual abuse or forcible sexual assault – admittedly in his usual cack-handed way – he triggered this sort of response, calling for his resignation and branding him a ‘rape-apologist’.

There was a debate to be had with Clarke’s ideas about sentencing (which didn’t seem terribly well researched). None of that was addressed though, because the issue was his phrasing at one minor point. ‘Rape means rape’ said the critics (and they were right, in so far as Brexit means Brexit), and then they suggested only other position was to be a full blown ‘rape-apologist’.

So discussion of a word with colloquial, informal, formal, legal, metaphorical and historical meanings and associations, a word which describes a range of different sorts of acts with varying degrees of severity and consequence, and which affect individuals in drastically different ways, becomes a catch all term to be treated in one way . . . mostly just with disgust and rage at the offender. The issue has fallen into the murky area of psychology and language marked taboo* and serious public discussion has become near impossible.

Nuance does not mean justification, understanding is not forgiveness, mitigation is not erasure. Drawing a distinctions between one type of thing and another, does not mean that both can’t be reprehensible, and saying x is worse than y is not to say y is acceptable.

Nuance, kids, means nuance.

Part 3 is brought to you by the word ‘cultural-appropriation’:

This and the next section contain another pair of problematic words that are just bugbears of mine: cultural-appropriation** and privilege***.

Cultural appropriation is not inherently a bad thing. In fact I would argue it is admirable. For example when Chinua Achebe took the European tradition of the novel and turned it into a part of Nigerian culture, inspiring other writers across post-colonial Africa.

3 i) Humans are cultural beings we learn from each other. We borrow and remake things.

3 ii) Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative or any number of other genuine problems to do with cultural interaction. These are the words are the arguments against any given act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is a classification as a value judgment it is meaningless.

3 iii) The “say no to culture’s borrowing from one another” approach looks at culture in a static, essentialised  and race/nationalistic (lowercase ‘r’, lowercase ‘n’). Cultural appropriation is a way of treating other cultures as quaint and different, when in reality culture is an ongoing, changing, living thing that morphs and rubs off on the cultures around it.

3 iv) Western culture is already whitewashed as is, without making every white artist out there avoid characters, styles, or ideas from different cultures.

3 v) Wouldn’t the reductio for this argument has us taking every Beatles LP and business suit off of every Japanese person, banning Celtic crosses from Christian graveyards, using hammers only with careful respect for our first tool using human ancestors’ hunter-gatherer culture. . .

3 ii) Reprise: Using other cultures is problematic only when it becomes stereotyping or racist or offensive or exploitative. These words are arguments against an act of cultural appropriation, just being cultural appropriation is not.

Part 4 is brought to you by the word ‘privilege’:

My deal with privilege is the same but different. Because unlike cultural-appropriation, privilege as an idea is genuinely useful and describes an actual source of cognitive blockage.

As a straight, white, educated, bourgeois, cis-male who speaks English and has full use of my body a reminder that my world view reflects that privilege is a super useful reminder to me to be empathetic and  can reduce the times I assume that I can generalise from my life to the lives of others. It reminds me to think of Others complexly.

What privilege is not, is an argument against having a view on a subject. Opinions aren’t wrong because they come from a privileged person. They are wrong because of logic, or facts, or faulty assumptions. Shutting down comment from anyone not directly affected by an issue is a cheap ad hominem, that almost always has an unpleasant whiff of the self-righteous about it. It rejects the possibility of solidarity, of empathy, and shuts down debate.

Privilege as an idea is a useful thought-tool for the privileged, and reminding them of it is not a bad move when its clear that their privilege is clouding their judgment. But I rarely see it used to persuade, it’s normally just given as a reason to ignore someone.

Part 5 is brought to you by all words:

Generally, I think we’d all think better if we avoided language that allows us to too easily dismiss other people and their opinions (privilege), buzz-words that obscure clearer ideas (cultural appropriation), that make us treat all differences of opinions as if they were all the vilest (taboo) and most extreme (nuance) opposition to our own view, or debating straw-men versions of the Other with people who already agree with us (mirrorwall).

I apologise for so long a  letter, I left it too close to the deadline. If I’d had more time I might have written it shorter, and made it more nuanced.

Yours extensively,


*Taboo is a generally interesting area that I would recommend anyone with an interesting in language or psychology – like, say, a writer – should look into. The best accounts I’ve read are in Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought and Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.

**Defined by Wikipedia as ‘the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another culture.’

*** Defined by google as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

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Movie Review Monday: The Biggest Game in Town


Instead of a movie, this weeks movie review is a movie review of a book. Read the review here.

“When the Biggest Game in Town came out in 1981, it was probably the biggest game in poker books. Written, implausibly, by an English poet and critic Al Alvarez. It is a sort of rambling state of the game account. Like long magazine journalism.

It doesn’t have the forward motion, or Gonzo journalistic aggrandisement of Big Deal, written by his close friend Antony Holden. Very little of Alvarez’s own poker obsession goes into the book, instead he tells the story of various characters, and generates a completely compelling account of the atmosphere of the game . . .”

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 3: Books on the Writing Life


Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

Part 2 – Books on the Craft of Writing


A page from Linda Barry’s What It Is.

These books have some crossover with the books on craft (the first half of King’s On Writing is memoir rather than guide).

1. Top Pick: A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf

This is my top pick for a number of reasons. It touches on so many aspects of the writing life, detailing Woolf’s concerns and ideas, various manifestos, the thoughts behind her novels. You get to see things grown from a vague idea and take form for her on the page.

But the main reason I would recommend it to anyone who writes is for the violent mood swings. Entries that are days apart can assess her current WIP as being either a worthless self-indulgence that should be burned, or a satisfying piece possibly her best.

It is always good to see someone else come out of that slump time and time again.

2. A Life in Letters by Anton Chekov

Penguin produced this set of letters in which Anton Chekov touches on every part of his life. Somehow both prolific and brilliant, Chekov is someone to worth listening to.

3. Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

Written as a novel, with most of the real life names obscured, though often not very well (Wystan Hugh Auden for example is called Hugh Weston), Lions and Shadows covers Isherwood’s formative years as a writer and the drafting of his first works. It is facinating to get a sense of how his friends influenced him and how he figured out what he wanted his books to do.

Also recommended are Isherwood’s Diaries which come in several volumes.

4. What It Is by Lynda Barry

This is another recommendation from Interior DaseinWhat It Is is part artistic guide, part memoir, part objet d’art. With each page a collage of drawings and handwritten notes.

5. Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers by Various

A book of interviews made up of writers who were asked, “Who would you like to interview about writing?”. These writer to writer conversations are a great source of writerly tidbits.

6. Paris Review Interviews by Various (in many volumes)

Covering decades there are hundreds of these interviews with writers, all focused on how the writers write, what their approaches to literature are, the arcs of their careers. It is probably one of the most interesting and useful resources out there.

The interviews can also be found for free on the Paris Review website.

7. The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot by Lyndall Gordon (reviewed here)

This is both a biography and a biographical reading of Eliot’s work. It is fascinating to see the mirroring of his concerns both in life (where he was a persistently troubled and terrible human) and in his works (where he is brilliant).

A good place to see how not to let one’s artistic concerns rule your actual life.


There were several memoirs which didn’t make it either because they failed to cover writing much (e.g. Martin Amis’ Experience) or because I haven’t read them or been recommended them by friends (e.g. Dante’s La Vita Nuova).

I am sure you’ll be able to find plenty more yourself, and I’d love to hear your recommendations.

Coming soon…

Part 4 – Books on Reading Like a Writer

Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General


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Dear Jon… (#10) Re: And How Do You Feel About That


Last weeks bletter from Jim came through. Click here to read the full thing…

Dear Jon,

Let’s begin with feelings. It is 2013, it’s the London Old Vic theatre. On the stage is Boss Finley, or rather, someone playing Boss Finley. Thomas J. Finley. He’s ranting; he’s depicted on a screen. He believes that the Voice of God has called him from the red clay hills to keep white blood pure. Nevertheless he believes himself the greatest friend to coloured people in the South. The recent castration of a young black gentleman is deplorable (he, of course, had nothing to do with it), but the passion is understandable, to protect that which is held sacred: the purity of white blood. A heckler has come forward, and asks a question about the daughter of Thomas J. Finley, about a trip she made to hospital. The heckler is struck. Thomas J. Finley says he will answer the question. Thomas J. Finley talks of an effigy that had been burned of him at the the great State University that he himself had built. Thomas J. Finley blames the Northern radical Press. The heckler is being beaten downstage. There is the shock of emotion with all the elements together: the demagogue shouting on the screen, his bigotry, the violence in among the tables, the boom of a storm, the acceleration to this unbearable pitch.

I sit in my seat, transfixed. I feel very helpless… [Click here for the rest]

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Movie Monday Double Bill: Ryan Reynolds and Elliott Gould



For Movie Monday this week we have a double bill of rambling gambling movies. Robert Altman’s masterpiece of atmosphere California Split (click here for the full review) and the definitely not a remake Mississippi Grind (click here for the full review).

Both are pretty good and I expect that a little like Infernal Affairs and its just-inspired-by-and-definitely-not-a-beat-for-beat-remake The Departed, which you prefer will probably depend heavily on which you see first.

If you want a sense of what the gambling grind is like, these should be your first stop. If you want a retro-seventies feel go Mississippi if you like your seventies straight-up go California. Either way there’s plenty of poker shenaniganising to enjoy.

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The Best Books For Writers – Part 2: Books on Craft


Previously on… 

Part 1 – Books on Being Writerly

There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers, but it can be tough working out how you work without some sort of scaffold to guide you along. These books detail the various authors personal approaches – for the most part, they all go into generalities in places, but most of them are personal manifestoes.

Dig in read as many as possible and harvest their systems for parts that work for you.

Part 2 – Books on the Craft 

1. Everyone’s top pick: On Writing by Stephen King


Probably Stephen King’s best book in general, and one of the most read books on writing. King advocates for a high-speed writing schedule and, in contrast to Kennedy, a total lack of planning. It works for him, and is the method I would probably recommend to first timers as it gets you into writing quickly and teaches you how to finish.

2. Personal Top Pick: On Writing by A L Kennedy

Collected from her Guardian columns, these essays are an extremely unsystematic look at the writing process at various points. The book does also cover various topics from all five of the arbitray splits, and is well worth a read.

3. Isherwood On Writing by Christopher Isherwood

Based on a lecture series on writing Isherwood gave, this like most of these titles gives you an excellent sense of how he writes. This collection also contain several lectures on film writing for the interested.

4. Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster

One of Jim’s favourite authors, and one of his recommendations. I can’t tell you much about this one. Blame him if it’s rubbish.

5. Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg

This came recommended by Interior Dasein. Ditto re blaming her.

6. Story by Robert McKee

For anyone vaguely interested in screenwriting, this is the go to source for almost every course I’ve seen the reading list for. Whether it is as good as the cult that’s grown up around it suggests is a question I will leave up to you.

7. Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Another course favourite, Christopher Booker breaks down all plots into seven basic ideas, While it sounds super reductive, the book is extremely long and the seven plots serve as jumping off point to look at the variations and structures in detail. Worth having on your desk as a reference.

A few other recommendations which give the authors’ views on how writing works, and which come recommended are: 

8. The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

9. How Plays Work by David Edgars (for playwrights primarily)

and 10. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (especially for short story writers).

There are probably hundreds of others I’ve missed. But these should serve as a jumping off point. Let me know your favourites in the comments.

Coming soon…

Part 3 – Books on the Lives of Writers

Part 4 – Books on Reading Like a Writer

Part 5 – Books on Art and Arting in General


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October Reading


I’ve passed my initial goal of exceeding last year’s eighty-one books read, and am looking to be on track to hit a nice round hundred for 2016 overall.

So instead of Movie Review Monday, here are the twitter length book reviews for my reading in October:

1. The Waves by Virginia Woolf, who is a shaft of light on the waters, a writer working in a window, a beast stamping…

Whether or not it functions as a novel rather than just a load of beautifully crafted sentences I’m not 100% sure. But I think I enjoyed reading it. Would recommend to those who have tried Woolf and already know they like her.

2. Wuthering Height by Emily Brontë, who is the best of the Brontë sisters.

No sanctimoniousness, no moralising, and no expectation that I should like the vicious and insane cast of characters – unlike her sisters. The book is a fabulous mess of great Gothic weirdness. Would recommend.

3. Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein, who thinks corporal punishment should be brought back for, like, everything.

Along with The GodfatherThe Exorcist and Road to PerditionStarship Troopers is one of the cases where the film is much better than the book. It’s far from terrible, but manages to engage with its many interesting ideas with all the elegance of an intoxicated bull elephant in musth. Would recommend to fans of military SF.

4. Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins, who wrote a picture book that got turned into a picture.

See also: Starship Troopers. The art is often great and the story solid. But having seen the film already, I couldn’t help but think that every change they made was for the better. Would recommend watching the the movie instead.

5. On the Road to Perdition: Oasis by Max Allan Collins, who did it again.

An alright follow up to Road to Perdition that is mostly spent recapping the original novel. Probably wouldn’t recommend.

6. Ho Chi Minh: A Life by William J. Duiker, who better to write Ho Chi Minh’s biography than an American.

Written in a fairly narrative style, this is (claims to be) the only academic (as opposed to political) biography of Ho Chi Minh. It is a facinating account of a properly complex and hugely important 20th-Century figure. Would highly recommend.

7. The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee, who is not to be confused with Rod Pounder author of My Jeans: An Intimate Herstory.

Really great science writing. Mukherjee has a knack for telling a story, getting information across clearly and memorably, and for creating a kind of poetic understanding of the subject. Would recommend this, and then also his previous book The Emperor of All Maladies .

8. The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov, who is mad as a box of gigantified frogs.

Extremely silly satirical sci-fi novella from the writer of Master & Margarita. Scientist creates growth ray. Shenanigans ensue. Would recommend, but probably not before Master & Margarita.

9. The Biggest Game in Town by Al Álvarez, who thinks Saul Bellow’s face is a widely recognisable visual reference.

The original exposé of the poker world. Written in frequently poetic and occasionally obscure style. Would recommend to anyone interested in poker.

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