Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

Every spring since 1992, a volume called New Writing has been published under the auspices of the British Council. This year the Arts Council has joined in the sponsorship fun, and the anthology has a new publisher, Picador. New Writing 9 came in for some friendly ribbing last March from Private Eye’s ‘Bookworm’ because the not so new writing of a disproportionate number of the featured authors was published by Vintage, the imprint responsible for the collection. This had, according to Bookworm, shady implications. The British Council’s spokesman managed to turn the insinuation deftly on its head at the launch party, announcing in his speech that when you’re satirised in Private Eye you know you’ve really arrived. How true. I’ve no idea how many of the 54 writers in New Writing 10 are otherwise Picador authors, and I can’t see that it matters terribly. An equally shaky criticism of the series might be directed at the number of familiar names on the contents page: Barbara Trapido, Anthony Thwaite, Anne Stevenson, Alan Brownjohn, Helen Simpson, Andrew Motion, Michael Hofmann, Alan Sillitoe, Louis de Bernières and Geoff Dyer are ten of them, and ‘new’ isn’t the first word that springs to mind. But there are plenty of good reasons, too obvious to need repeating, for the inclusion of well-known writers, and it’s not as if the book makes any bones about it – it trumpets itself as ‘a brilliant collection of new writing by established and new authors’. One curious thing about the volume, though, occurs in the copyright information at the back, where Stephen Knight’s contribution, ‘So Early in the Year’, is ©2001. This can only mean that Stephen Knight’s poem ‘So Early in the Year’ (LRB, 1 April 1999), which bears a remarkable resemblance to its namesake in New Writing 10 – the same words appear in the same order in both poems – was some kind of April Fool.

Zadie Smith, who may or may not still count as a new writer (maybe she enjoys the increasingly common distinction of being both new and established simultaneously), hasn’t contributed to New Writing 10; but then she’s been busy editing an anthology of her own. Her introduction to Piece of Flesh (ICA, £4.99) begins: ‘Hello. So here I am editing a book of five pornographic stories. Well, when I say editing, I mean that at the suggestion of the ICA’ – where she is writer in residence – ‘I invited five bright, young writers with a healthy clutch of novels between them, all more or less friends of mine, to write stories of a pornographic nature for which they would receive £250 each.’ Direct, conversational, ‘honest’, and then there’s that studied mention of money which is followed by a hesitant attack on the commodification of sex and the pervasiveness of pornography, a ‘parasitic growth’. But if she has doubts about pornography, you have to wonder what she’s doing packaging these stories. The fact that it wasn’t even her idea but the ICA’s may only make it worse.

I don’t suppose Marshall Mathers III worries much about the spread of pornography; but then he wasn’t in the running for the Guardian First Book Award either, even though HarperCollins published a book of his lyrics back in November. He was, however, claimed as Robert Browning’s equal in a peculiar article by Giles Foden that appeared in the Guardian in February, in which Foden talked, hilariously, about Eminem’s ‘oeuvre’. There have, more recently, been some letters to the Independent debating the rapper’s similarities to Byron, just as in her 1999 biography of Byron, Benita Eisler said the poet sometimes sounds like the first rap artist: he doesn’t. Even the Spectator has had an article in praise of Eminem (no doubt his attitudes – sorry, the attitudes expressed by the personae in his oeuvre – strike a chord somewhere deep within the Spectator’s heart of oak). Private Eye laughed at Fleet Street for giving so much attention to the rapper, and had lots of other jokes about him, too. Eminem, it would appear, makes the chattering classes uneasy. Not so the music industry, which gave him three Grammys in the rap category, a decision that makes sense, because even if you dispense with your anxieties about ‘literature’ – which is, incidentally, what Foden & Co seem incapable of doing, as if considering Eminem in terms of the Great Tradition were the only way to think about him seriously – he doesn’t belong on the same shelf as Byron or Browning, but next to the Beastie Boys.

No April Fool is the opening of the Jill Dando Institute for Crime Science at UCL on 26 April. The Institute’s director-in-waiting, Gloria Laycock, ‘well known for calling a spade a spade’, has said of the discipline that it’s ‘science in the sense of trying to get logical thought and scientific method applied to crime’. Prevention not perpetration, I presume, but no doubt the crims could learn a thing or two, too.