Ta-Nehisi Coates v Cornel West: black academics and activists give their verdict

One of the foremost black intellectuals in the US has deleted his Twitter account after a public row. Commentators Melvin Rogers, Patrisse Cullors, Carol Anderson and Shailja Patel discuss the impact on the debate and struggle for racial equality

In a blistering Guardian article last Sunday, Harvard scholar Cornel West labelled award-winning African American author Ta-Nehisi Coates the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle. A furious debate raged all week among black academics and activists.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear, said West. Any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates worldview.

Coates hit back on Twitter, listing the articles he has written criticising US foreign policy, before quitting the social media site and deleting his account of 1.25 million followers.

So did this row between two of the best-known African American thinkers set back, or advance the struggle for black equality? We asked black academics and activists for their verdict.

Melvin Rogers: Criticisms of our allies are valid, but must be properly pitched


The disagreement between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates takes place against the backdrop of a long and rich tradition of struggle and internal conflict among African American intellectuals and activists regarding the quality and form that resistance to white supremacy should take. And there is much value in this. As WEB Du Bois noted in 1903: The hushing of the criticism of honest opponents is a dangerous thing Honest and earnest criticism this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern democracy.

Rather than treating the West-Coates disagreement as a feud, we would do better to ask what might we learn from it and how might it provide direction. First, the criticisms we direct to those who are rightly viewed as our allies must be properly pitched. Those of us who are committed to racial justice achieve nothing by alienating those who otherwise are standing with us. In the face of our criticisms, we mean for them to lean in and learn from, rather than pull back and opt out of, intellectual debate.

Second, once we inhabit the space of the social critic and, in truth, there is a little bit of a social critic in all of us we cannot simply abandon debate when it has become intense. Nor should we allow others, seeking to foment division for their own ends, co-opt the conversation.

Melvin Rogers is associate professor of political science at Brown University

Patrisse Cullors: The spotlight is on two men whose debates are not definitive of our communities


Revolutionary Unity

gained only thru struggle

long sought for

must be fought for

`Revolutionary Unity

So wrote Amiri Baraka in 1979. The exchange between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates is evidence that black political debate in the US is at a historic low. I was trained within a black radical tradition that encouraged struggle within our own movements because it sharpens collective analysis bringing us closer to the tools we need to achieve liberation.

Freedom for black people (and by extension, everyone) looks like a world without policing and incarceration, a world where black people live to raise their children, where our country doesnt rely on corporations, and where our nation is primarily concerned with the livelihood and dignity of our communities. Freedom means the US government not being the main threat to countries around the world.

Wherever there are communities fighting for freedom and liberation, there are serious tensions. Lets quote Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr and Ella Baker without romanticising them, but rather acknowledging that they had legitimate arguments about tactics and strategy.

Another key element missing from the West-Coates conversation is the role, analysis and wisdom of black women and black queer folks. Again, our narratives and analyses are erased. The countrys spotlight is on two black cis-gendered men whose debates are not definitive of our communities or movements.

The culture we have created today is one where debates fall into call-out tropes; where we silo our conversations to social media. While this is an incredible tool, can we facilitate healthy debate off social media? Do we have the interest, ability, patience and compassion to have face-to-face conversations? Social media is not the only space we should rely on.

And finally, when we are calling for black political debate, I ask, is it fundamentally changing the material conditions for black people? Here, I dont see it; and black life is at stake.

Patrisse Cullors is an African American advocate for criminal justice reform and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement

Carol Anderson: The real radical is the man who hits power in high places


It was the 1920s. A morally and sexually compromised president had come to power promising a regime fundamentally different to his predecessors. The new administration was packed with conmen, hucksters, and unqualified shills raiding the public treasury and selling public lands to Big Oil. There were also those in the cabinet with an agenda that would place inordinate, unbridled power in the hands of corporations while millions of poor Americans took the brunt of a Great Depression that hit before anyone knew what to call it.

Greed fever ran like an epidemic in the financial sector giving the illusion of prosperity and wealth when, just underneath, the economy had major fissures and faultlines that threatened to topple the American behemoth. Meanwhile, black people were being terrorised in Tulsa, the Ku Klux Klan was gaining political power in key states in the north, voting rights were under attack, and a new racist immigration law effectively shut the door on anyone not Anglo-Saxon.

The international scene was just as vexing. The rise of fascist regimes in Europe and Japan ran headlong into an American retreat from the League of Nations, and by the 1930s there was a growing internal fifth column, marketing itself as America First, that undermined any effective response to regimes that threatened US national security.

In the midst of the maelstrom, an intellectual brawl broke out among African Americans. Unbelievably, the real issue was not the political and economic horror that confronted the nation and black people, who were dealing with massive disparities in access to constitutional rights and wealth. Instead, one African American intellectual openly and mercilessly challenged another over what was essentially ephemera. Du Bois looked on at the row within Fisk University, Tennessee, and shook his head. This peacock display was merely the effervescence of faux bravery. The real radical, he noted, is the man, who hits power in high places, white power, power backed by unlimited wealth; hits it and hits it openly and between the eyes.

Its 2017. A morally and sexually compromised man has assumed the presidency of the United States. His regime is attacking black and brown people with reckless abandon while, under the guise of America first, shielding Nazis and other white supremacists, and providing no defence against a government that threatens US national security. He and his minions have also unleashed wanton corporate greed, reduced public lands, attacked voting rights, and imposed or threatened immigration restrictions to warm the cockles of any eugenicist.

In the midst of this maelstrom

Carol Anderson is Charles Howard Candler professor and chair, African American studies, at Emory University

Shailja Patel: An unrealistic and ahistorical code has been invoked to silence debate


Imperial privilege is reducing a vital assessment of Barack Obamas devastating harm to black and brown peoples outside the US to a personal beef between two African American men.

Its painful to us, in the global south, to see that American writers that we read assiduously, and take seriously, are not reading us. They are not listening when we say: Please ask your president to stop killing us. They appear to simply not see black and brown bodies beyond US borders.

Obamas bombs took tens of thousands of civilian lives. His military intervention in Libya destroyed the country with the highest standard of living in Africa. To resist a public discussion of these crimes, for fear that our political differences will be deployed against us by racists, exemplifies what writer Mmatshilo Motsei calls colonial hangover. Arent we full, complex, thinking, sovereign human beings? Didnt we fight liberation battles, mount civil rights struggles, for the right to engage in public life? Dare we not, still, claim equal space in the forum?

An unrealistic and ahistorical code has been invoked, of global solidarity among people of colour, to silence debate on the actual mass slaughter of black and brown bodies by the first black head of Empire. Gabeba Baderoon, South African professor of gender and African studies at Penn State University, calls this the imperialism the US engenders, even in its citizens of colour.

Why should it concern us if Nazis retweet us? White supremacy, imperialism, patriarchy, neoliberalism, are inherently parasitic. We will never be human within these systems. Were not here to perform for their gaze. Were here to be fully human to ourselves, fully accountable to each other.

Shailja Patel is a Kenyan writer currently based in Johannesburg. She is the author of Migritude

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/22/-ta-nehisi-coates-cornel-west-black-academic-activists-debate-equality

‘We’re told to be grateful we even have readers’: pirated ebooks threaten the future of book series

With 4m or 17% of all online ebooks being pirated, novelists including Maggie Stiefvater and Samantha Shannon say theft by fans puts their books at risk

The bestselling American fantasy novelist Maggie Stiefvater is leading a chorus of writers warning readers that if they download pirated ebooks, then authors will not be able to continue writing because they will be unable to make a living.

Stiefvater, author of the Shiver and Raven Cycle series, raised the issue after she was contacted on Twitter by a reader who told her: I never bought ur books I read them online pirated. On her website, Stiefvater later explained that, when ebook sales for the third book in the Raven Cycle Blue Lily, Lily Blue dropped precipitously, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors.

This is also where people usually step in and say, but thats not piracys fault. You just said series naturally declined, and you just were a victim of bad marketing or bad covers or readers just actually dont like you that much, wrote Stiefvater, who had seen fans sharing pdfs online and was intent on proving that piracy had affected the Raven Cycle. So she and her brother created a pdf of The Raven King, which consisted of just the first four chapters, repeated, and a message explaining how piracy affected books.

But pirating book one means that publishing cancels book two Maggie Stiefvater. Photograph: Johnny Louis/Getty Images

The effects were instant. The forums and sites exploded with bewildered activity. Fans asked if anyone had managed to find a link to a legit pdf. Dozens of posts appeared saying that since they hadnt been able to find a pdf, theyd been forced to hit up Amazon and buy the book. And we sold out of the first printing in two days.

Stiefvater revealed that she is now writing three more books set in the Raven Cycle world, but that the new trilogy nearly didnt exist because of piracy. And already I can see in the tags how Tumblr users are talking about how they intend to pirate book one of the new trilogy for any number of reasons, because I am terrible or because they would rather die than pay for a book, she wrote. As an author, I cant stop that. But pirating book one means that publishing cancels book two. This aint 2004 anymore. A pirated copy isnt good advertising or great word of mouth or not really a lost sale.

According to the Intellectual Property Offices latest study of online copyright infringement, 17% of ebooks read online are pirated around 4m books.

Ebook piracy is a very significant issue and of great concern to publishers, said Stephen Lotinga of the Publishers Association, which works to take down and block pirated ebooks links and sites. As an industry weve not had the situation that the music and film industries have gone through, Lotinga said. But that obviously is 4m ebooks that authors and publishers arent getting paid for, and should be getting paid for, and its a particular worry for publishers at a time when ebook sales are slightly in decline.

Last week, a poll on piracy from Hank Green, the brother of the bestselling novelist John Green, was responded to by more than 35,000 people. Just over a quarter (26%) said they had pirated books in the past, while 5% said they currently pirate books.

Samantha Shannon, author of the Bone Season series, said that attempting to stay on top of pirated editions of her books was a Sisyphean task. I think all authors experience it to some degree, unfortunately. Its a reality of modern publishing, she said. I dont often look for pirated copies of my books, as I find it too dispiriting, but I do batch-send links to my publisher now and again in the hope that they can remove some of them.

Shannon wrote on Twitter that the thing thats really exhausting about piracy is that authors are often not allowed to be upset by theft of their work. If we ask people not to do it, no matter how courteously, were told we should have more compassion or be grateful we even have readers. Outside the creative industry, people broadly dislike theft. Within the creative industry, it becomes a grey area where people arent sure.

Authors who ask you not to pirate are not attacking people who are too poor to afford books, or people who genuinely cant access libraries, wrote Shannon but Lotinga at the Publishers Association said that those people were not often the perpetrators. Ebook pirates tend to be from better-off socio-economic groups, and to be aged between 31 and 50-something. Its not the people who cant afford books, he said. Its not teenagers in their rooms.

Novelist Laura Lam wrote on Twitter: Im personally not bothered by the small percentage of readers who pirate because they have no access to books any other way. But of readers, I think thats a small percentage. Im more heartbroken by those who can easily afford books but pirate anyway. Any sales lost via those readers will have a very real impact on my career.

According to a survey carried out by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, the median income of a professional author in 2013 was 11,000, a drop of 29% on 2005.

Lam said that she had a trilogy cancelled through her first publisher three weeks after book two came out. Thats an instance where if even a couple hundred had pirated instead of buying, it had repercussions. Long-term, that publisher went bankrupt and I re-sold it to my new publisher, but it was still a challenge at the time. Not everyone gets a second chance.

Fantasy novelist Tom Pollock said that readers needed to be aware of the consequences of pirating In an economy based on market signals, the signal being sent if people pirate rather than buy or borrow is: Nobody wants this.

He added: Theres an argument that you sometimes see that a download is not equal to a lost sale, because that person wouldnt have bought it anyway, and theres varying evidence on that, but its very much a static analysis of a dynamic problem, because if you normalise the practice of pirating books, you erode incentive for people to pay for them, so eventually, people who would have bought them stop doing so.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/06/pirated-ebooks-threaten-future-of-serial-novels-warn-authors-maggie-stiefvater

Online top ranking: what does Amazon Charts mean for the book industry?

Amazons new rating system for the book market is seeking to challenge the decades-long dominance of the New York Times bestseller status

For nine decades, the New York Times bestseller lists have been the industry gold standard when it comes to obtaining a seal of approval that will make readers sit up and pay attention. But like most things in the book industry, its something Amazon has in its sights.

Last week the online retailer launched Amazon Charts, which complements the sites usual hourly updates of bestselling books. The new list combines whats being ordered from them with data obtained from Kindle and Audible users to find out what books are actually being read and listened to.

Its an interesting algorithm, and one that has been utilised before, but never formally by Amazon in this way. In 2014, the mathematician Jordan Ellenberg created an index of the most abandoned books, based on Kindle data. So while every man and his dog might have bought a copy of Stephen Hawkings A Brief History of Time and Thomas Pinkettys Capital in the Twenty-First Century, not everyone actually read them.

Amazon Charts might open up a whole new set of bestsellers based on books actually read rather than books bought as coffee-table status symbols. But will this carry more weight with the publishing industry and readers than the venerable New York Times bestseller tag, which has been the go-to example of bragging rights since 1931?

On the face of it, Amazon Charts might democratise and re-evaluate the bestseller concept, but on the other like Coca Cola, KFC and Big Mac special sauce nobody really knows what actually goes into the New York Times bestseller list.

It certainly isnt just a roundup of physical books bought over the counter at bricks-and-mortar stores. A request for an explanation and a breakdown of audience figures for the various NYT bestseller lists which are posted online was greeted with a firm: We dont share traffic data at the section level.

The New York Times has a reasonably detailed explanation of its methodology online, without actually giving away the actual 11 herbs and spices that give it its market-leading flavour. To summarise: Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering a wide range of general interest titles The panel of reporting retailers is comprehensive and reflects sales in stores of all sizes and demographics across the United States.

Methods of data collection notwithstanding, can Amazon oust the New York Times for that all-important blurb on a books cover that denotes something being so popular that you just cant afford to not read it? Does the New York Times bestseller tag actually help to shift more units anyway?

I do believe the tag helps sell more books, says Liz Stein, senior editor with HarperCollins imprint Park Row Books. Theres prestige associated with being a New York Times bestseller, and industry influencers and booksellers take notice of it. I believe consumers are looking for an affirmation that a book performed well/is popular when making their decision.

Amazon Charts are based on real-time orders and whats being read on Kindle and listened to on Audible Photograph: Hannah Mckay/Reuters

One advantage Amazon has is that it subdivides literary categories almost to an atomic level, which has both pros and cons. On the one hand, it gives a leg up to authors working in a genre that might not have its own New York Times bestseller category, and who might never trouble the upper reaches of the general fiction sales charts.

In general, I do not think the Amazon bestseller tag will carry as much weight for literary works, Stein says. Though for genre books, for which a New York Times tag is not possible due to their evaluation system, it might serve the purpose in the same way as a validation that this book stood out above the others.

Two authors who are going all out for an Amazon bestseller tag are Canada-based life coach Mark Desvaux and Mark Stay, who works in publishing in London. They are attempting to write a book that will hit the top of Amazons chart listings in any category and charting their efforts in a weekly podcast called The Bestseller Experiment in which they interview other authors aiming for the same dream.

Stay reckons Amazon bestseller rankings can allow authors who dont usually trouble the traditional bestseller lists to come into their own. Weve interviewed indie authors who regularly outsell the kind of household-name authors you see on the New York and London Times bestsellers, he says.

It feels like this chart signifies that the indie author sector has come of age. When we speak to these authors its clear that they take the business side of things very seriously, and are passionate about their craft, and its great to see them get some recognition.

But what means more, the New York Times or Amazon? British author Sarah Pinboroughs psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes hit the New York Times bestseller list when it was published in the US by Flatiron Books earlier this year, with attendant stellar Amazon sales. Does she have a preference for which is going to sell more copies for her?

I think both are good to be honest, says Pinborough, diplomatically. But there is something so fabulous when you get that New York Times bestseller tag on your book that it will take a while before it has the same effect on the ego of the author at the very least.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the New York Times dominance of the bestseller market is the fact that, according to publishing consultant Rob Eagar, not enough publishers capitalise on it. Writing for Book Business magazine earlier last month, he said that although the status of having a New York Times bestseller remains undiminished, its a lost opportunity if customers dont know about it.

Today, people make most of their purchasing decisions on smartphones, tablets, and computer screens, wrote Eagar. When browsing books online, all they get to see is a small cover image and a few sentences of marketing copy. There isnt much screen space or much time to connect with a consumers limited attention span. If the language and imagery isnt obvious, people can miss the fact that a book is a bestseller.

Which, given that latest estimates suggest 69% of all book sales are done online rather than in physical stores, is an omission you can bet Amazon will not make when it comes to shouting about its own bestseller lists.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/22/amazon-charts-books-new-york-times-bestseller-lists

The Hardest Thing About Writing A Book

All my life I wanted to write a book. At first I wrote four books that agents and publishers all rejected.

I thought the hard part was getting a book accepted. Having someone like me.

But this wasnt the hard part at all. Anyone who is persistent will get that part done.

These were the hard parts. So hard its probably cost me years of my life and definitely much happiness.

But I survived. And you can also. Awareness is the key.


Writing is boring. Its unnatural. Its basically sitting and staring at a screen and typing into a keyboard.

Three activities that our ancient ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years never did. We did not evolve in order to write books.

We evolved to notice very quickly a rustling in the bushes, the smell of prey or predator, the smile and body language of a potential mate. We evolved to move and to adapt to unusual conditions and to learn and to do all of the things necessary for survival.

We even evolved (at least homo sapiens did) to play music. Because rhythm and melody became the first way we communicated over long distances.

But we didnt evolve to write. Only in the past 2,000 years (and really only the past 200) our of 2,000,000 for hominids, has writing become something we do.


Because of the above, I always had to create an environment of zero distractions.

For my very first book, my family went to stay with my in-laws and I spent two weeks locked in my house and did nothing but write.

I turned off Internet, no TV, nothing. Just wrote. This was very hard. Im too used to being distracted. Its natural to be distracted.

For one of my recent books I rented a place in the mountains, had a ton of food delivered, no Internet access, and wrote non-stop for two weeks.

For another book, I went on a silent retreat. No talking at all. I had a tiny dorm room and a bed and a shared bathroom. Nobody in the facility could speak. I spent a week there and even had one day where I wrote over 30,000 words.


Everything has a story.

Fiction, non-fiction, self-help, even a good tweet.

A story is a reluctant hero who gets inspired. Obstacles along the way until the FINAL CONFLICT. And then the journey home. A hero.

Theres many variations on that. Just like theres variations on how to make a good cake. But the basic rules are followed.

Else it wont read well. It will be like an academic science paper.


This is a post about books and not writing in general so there are other book-specific items that a writer cant ignore.

A book is not just the 4080,000 words in the middle.

A book is a cover. A back-cover. Two flaps. And an interior.

All of these parts require a professional designer. At least two (one for cover, one for interior). People judge a book by the cover and the readability. Else they wont buy it.

A book requires an editor. Its hard to be both writer and editor. An edit gives ideas on how to improve structure, how to improve coherence, and then probably a separate editor for line-by-line grammar and spelling.

A book requires an audiobook. Audiobooks sell. Dont ignore them. This requires a studio, a producer for when you are in studio, and an audio engineer to clean it up. Then it requires Audible.

A book requires marketing. This might mean agent / editor / publisher or it might mean you do it yourself. Doing the marketing yourself (or with a publisher) requires you build a social media platform, share lots of content for free, come up with ideas for promotions, etc.

Book marketing doesnt end in the first month, or the second month. If you have a good book, you never stop marketing it. I am still marketing Choose Yourself, which I wrote four years ago.

Many books require a foreign rights agent. And a speaking agent to create the most opportunities for your book.


Finishing the book, delivering the book, watching the book come out, dealing with both good and bad reviews, requires some self-awareness.

Its not enough to have self-love. You might get overconfident. You have to have self-awareness of the good points and bad points of your book. And you have to be able to deal with the inevitable highs and lows.

Not every good book get successful. Not every bad book dies a quick death. You finished the book and the outcome is only about 20% in your control.

Dealing with that psychology is painful.


The hardest part of finishing a book is starting the next book. This is often the most important way to market the first book. How many authors didnt achieve success until their second or third books?


When I finished my first book I said to myself, This was brutal. I am never going to do it again. But then a few months later I started the second.

When I just finished and released my 18th book, Reinvent Yourself, I said to myself (and this was just a month ago), Im about done with books now for awhile.

Ive since outlined my 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd books.

Im really doomed.

But I love it more than anything. I love it.

Read more: http://thoughtcatalog.com/james-altucher/2017/04/the-hardest-thing-about-writing-a-book/

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘Can people please stop telling me feminism is hot?’

The novelist has been accused of making equality mainstream: isnt that the point? Plus an extract from her new Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was in Lagos last summer, teaching a writing workshop as part of an annual schedule that sees her time divided between Nigeria and the US. For much of the year, Adichie lives in a town 30 minutes west of Baltimore, where her Nigerian-American husband works as a medic and the 39-year-old writes in the quiet of a suburban home. When Adichie is in Nigeria, where her parents and extended family still live, she has a house in the vast city she regards with the complicated love and condescension of the part-time expat.

Its an ambivalence with which many Nigerians regard her, too; last year, the workshop ended in a question-and-answer session, during which a young man rose to ask the famous novelist a question. I used to love you, she recalls him saying. Ive read all your books. But since you started this whole feminism thing, and since you started to talk about this gay thing, Im just not sure about you any more. How do you intend to keep the love of people like me?

Adichie and I are in a coffee shop near her home in the Baltimore suburbs. We have met before, a few years ago, when her third novel Americanah was published, a book that examines what it is to be a Nigerian woman living in the US, and that went on to win a National Book Critics Circle award. A lot has happened since then. Half Of A Yellow Sun, Adichies second and most famous novel, about the Biafran war, has been made into a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton. Her essay, We Should All Be Feminists, adapted from her 2013 TEDx talk, has remained on the bestseller lists, particularly in Sweden, where in 2015 it was distributed to every 16-year-old high-school student in the land. The talk was sampled by Beyonc in her song Flawless. Adichie has become the face of Boots No7 makeup. And she has had a baby, a daughter, now 15 months old.

Adichie is still somewhat in the blast zone, not entirely caught up on sleep, but has published a short book, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, an extended version of a letter to a friend who, after having her own baby girl, asked Adichies advice on how to raise her to be feminist. I have had twin girls myself since our last meeting, so I am curious about her approach, not least because one of my two-year-olds currently identifies as Bob the Builder and the other as Penelope Pitstop. I would like to equip them to be themselves, while resisting whatever projections might be foisted upon them. We show each other baby photos and smile. Welcome to the world of anxiety, Adichie says.

The success of We Should All Be Feminists has made Adichie as prominent for her feminism as for her novels, to the extent that now I get invited to every damned feminist thing in the whole world. She has always been an agony aunt of sorts, the unpaid therapist for my family and friends, but having the feminist label attached has changed things, and not just among her intimates. I was opened to a certain level of hostility that I hadnt experienced before as a writer and public figure.

This is partly why she has written the new book, to reclaim the word feminism from its abusers and misusers, a category within which she would include certain other progressives, and to lay down in plain, elegant English her beliefs about child-raising.

Dear Ijeawele is, in some ways, a very basic set of appeals; to be careful with language (never say because you are a girl), avoid gendered toys, encourage reading, dont treat marriage as an achievement, reject likability. Her job is not to make herself likable, her job is to be her full self, she writes in reference to her friends daughter, a choice Adichie has come to elevate almost above any other.

That day in Lagos last summer, her friends were furious at the cheek of the young mans question, but she rather liked his bravery and honesty in asking it. She replied in the same spirit. Keep your love, Adichie said. Because, sadly, while I love to be loved, I will not accept your love if it comes with these conditions.

Having a baby has made Adichie think differently about her own parents, particularly her mother. Grace Adichie, who had six children and worked her way up from being a university administrator to the registrar, taught her daughter to love fashion as well as books, and was a very cool mum whom she idolised as a child. Nonetheless, and in the manner of most snotty young adults, young Chimamanda went through a phase of being very superior to her mother. Now, the novelist looks at her daughter and gulps.

Adichie recently came across her own kindergarten reports. My father keeps them all. You know what the teacher wrote? She is brilliant, but she refuses to do any work when shes annoyed. I was five years old. She laughs. I couldnt believe it. My husband couldnt believe it. I must have been an annoying child.

Its not as if she comes from a family of radicals. My parents are not like that. Theyre conventional, reasonable, responsible, good, kind people. Im the crazy. But their love and support made that crazy thrive.

Unlike Adichie, who was raised exclusively in Nigeria, her daughter will be raised in two cultures and subject to slightly diverging social expectations. Already, Adichie says with a laugh, friends and relatives from home are concerned that her mothering is insufficiently stern.

A friend was just visiting and she said to me, Your parenting is not very Nigerian. In Nigeria and, I think, in many cultures you control children. And I feel like, my daughter is 15 months, she doesnt have a sense of consequences. And I enjoy watching her. So she tears a page of a book? Whatever. She throws my shoes down. So? Its fun. I love that shes quite strong-willed. The joke between Adichie and her husband whom, to her intense annoyance, their daughter looks much more like is that her character cleaves to the maternal side. He says to me, Well, at least we know where she got her personality from. Shes quite fierce.

In the new book, Adichies advice is not only to provide children with alternatives to empower boys and girls to understand there is no single way to be but also to understand that the only universal in this world is difference. In terms of the evolution of feminism, these are not new lessons, but that is rather Adichies point. She is not writing for other feminist writers, and shows some frustration at what she sees as the solipsism of much feminist debate.

That morning, on the way to see her, I had read a review of a new book by Jessa Crispin, entitled Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, a critique of everything that is wrong with feminism today. If one can get over the eye-rolling aspect of books by feminists decrying the feminism of other feminists for degrading the word feminist by being insufficiently feminist, the book does raise questions about where one should be focusing ones efforts.

Fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni wears Adichies Dior T-shirt during Paris fashion week, January 2017. Photograph: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

The proposition is that feminism has become so mainstream as to be an empty marketing tool, a mere slogan on a bag or a T-shirt. Without being named, Adichie is implicated in this critique, given that last year she collaborated with Christian Dior on a T-shirt bearing the line We Should All Be Feminists; depending on ones view, this is either a perfect example of pointless sloganeering or a brilliant piece of preaching to the unconverted.

Im already irritated, Adichie says. This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism. Because, dont we want it to be mainstream? For me, feminism is a movement for which the end goal is to make itself no longer needed. I think academic feminism is interesting in that it can give a language to things, but Im not terribly interested in debating terms. I want peoples marriages to change for the better. I want women to walk into job interviews and be treated the same way as somebody who has a penis.

Still, one can see a theoretical obscenity about the Dior collaboration: the words of a movement that should be concerned with helping low-income women, used to promote and make money for a wealthy company. On the other hand: what is the damage?

Yes: whats the damage? Adichie says. I would even argue about the theoretically obscene. Theres a kind of self-righteousness to the ultra-left that is hard for me to stomach. Its approach to poverty can sometimes border on condescension. I often think that people who write a lot about poverty need to go and spend more time with poor people. I think about Nigerian women who can hardly afford anything but who love fashion. They have no money, but they work it.

Adichie mentions a TV soap opera that used to run in Nigeria called The Rich Also Cry, a terrible drama series, she says, that was very popular. But sometimes I think about that title. So, the creative director of Christian Dior is obviously a woman of some privilege. But does it then mean that she doesnt have gender-based problems in her life? Because she does. Does it mean she doesnt have this magnificent rage about gender injustice? Because she does. Wanting to use that slogan was it going to make the world a better place? No. But I think theres a level of consciousness-raising and a level of subversion that I like.

She doesnt believe it was a cynical marketing ploy? No. Sorry. Feminism is not that hot. I can tell you I would sell more books in Nigeria if I stopped and said Im no longer a feminist. I would have a stronger following, I would make more money. So when people say, Oh, feminisms a marketing ploy, it makes me laugh.

The bigger issue here is one of range. Adichies irritation with aspects of what she thinks of as professional feminism is that it runs counter to her ideas as a writer: that people contain multitudes. She is a brilliant novelist and a serious thinker, and she is also someone who makes no apology for her own trivial interests. Life doesnt always follow ideology, she says. You might believe in certain things and life gets in and things just become messy. You know? I think thats the space that fiction, and having a bit more of an imaginative approach, makes. And that the feminist speaking circuit doesnt really make room for.

There is much in the new book about double standards, including those governing the images of motherhood and fatherhood. I think we need to stop giving men cookies for doing what they should do, she says, and goes on to explain that her husband, who needs less sleep than her, tends to get up in the night to tend to the baby. On the one hand, I realise that my husband is unusual; on the other, I feel resentful when hes overpraised by my family and friends. Hes like Jesus.

He probably senses shes about to go off the deep end, I suggest, and Adichie smiles to acknowledge how impossible she is. I did all the physical work to produce her! Theres something fundamentally wrong with the way weve constructed what it means to be female in the world.

Photograph: Stephen Voss for the Guardian

This is something she writes about in a lovely passage of the new book about hair. As a child, Adichie and her sisters and every other girl she knew were routinely tortured with a metal comb to subdue their hair, something her brothers were spared. Im glad I wrote that, Adichie says. We had just come back from Lagos and my sister, God bless her, had already had a talk with me about my daughters hair. She said, You need to do something about it. With my family, theres an eye-roll and a here-we-go-again with her, and she said to me, Do you want me to send you a set of combs? And I was like, No, thank you. And I know its going to keep happening. But, no, Im not going to conform in that way. Im not going to have my child go through pain because society expects a certain neatness. It happened to me, its not going to happen to her. And Im ready to have all the battles I need to have.

The original letter on which Dear Ijeawele is based has been shared on Facebook, and while Adichie was in Lagos, a woman whod read it approached her in a shop and said, Heres my daughter, look at her hair. She had very loose cornrows that were not neat according to Nigerians. And she said, You inspired that. My daughter is happier, Im happier. And do you know, it was the highlight of my month.

This is not just a question of image. It is also about time. Women have less time than men, in almost every arena, because their responsibilities to look or act a certain way are more onerous.

It is one of Adichies bugbears that as someone who loves fashion, she is by default not taken seriously. When Boots approached her to be the face of its No7 makeup range, she said yes, because she thought it might be fun; in the end, she says, it became vaguely alarming. I have no regrets, but you wake up one day and think, what the hell have I done? There were too many of these pictures everywhere. Her point, however, is that its not that Im a feminist and made a strategic choice to speak about makeup and fashion. Its that I was raised by Grace Adichie in a culture in which you care about how you look. Its a part of me I once hid, because I felt that I had to to be serious. Now, Im just being who I am.

Recently, Adichies identity has been tested in new ways. I wonder if she is less affected by President Trump than an American, on the basis that she is less invested in the American story. Quite the opposite, she says. Because theres a part of me that needs a country I can think of as being one that largely works. Which is not a luxury that Nigeria can have. She laughs.

Someone said to me, Now that this is happening in the US, do you think of moving back to Nigeria? And I thought, no, because its not any better there. I admire America. I dont think of myself as American Im not. So its not mine. But I admire it, and so theres a sense that this thing I built in my head, its been destroyed.

There is also, she says, something familiar about it all. American democracy has never been tested. You might have disagreed ideologically with George W Bush, but he still kind of followed the rules. Here, it feels like Nigeria. It really does. Its that feeling of political uncertainty that Im very familiar with, but not a feeling I like. Its ugly. But even worse, because America is so powerful, and so much at the centre of the world, these things have consequences for everyone. Nigeria doesnt have that kind of reach, so our problems remain our problems.

In January, Adichie and her husband joined the Womens March in DC. It was fleeting, and symbolic, she says, but it gave me the smallest slice of hope. There are all of these people who seem to realise that America has changed by electing an unhinged person. On the other hand, theres a part of me thats very sceptical of too much sentimentality. I hope it translates into people organising and going out to vote.

Long before talk about piercing the filter bubble, Adichie instinctively subscribed to rightwing blogs and newsletters. She was an early watcher of Fox News, until it became too unhinged and ridiculous. But she has carried on, because Im interested in ideological concerns and how people differ, and how we should build a society. Whats a welfare state? People who have less, are we responsible for them? I think we are. And I think I can make a selfish case, which is apparently what appeals to people on the right. People on the left say we should do it because we should be kind. And people on the right think, Excuse me? But if you say to them, If these people dont get healthcare, they will go to the ER and your tax dollars will pay for it, suddenly they sit up.

Adichie with her husband, Ivara Esege. Photograph: DDAA/ZOB/Daniel Deme/WENN

As a result of her reading, rightwing ideology is not something I think is evil, she says. Some. A bit. But, in general, I dont. I have friends who are good, kind people who are on the right. But Donald Trump is an exception. Its not an objection to a conservative, because I dont even think hes a conservative. My objection is an objection to chaos. Each time I turn on the news, Im holding my breath.

Trumps erosion of language is one of the most frightening things about him, but even progressives, Adichie says, can be sloppy on this front. In response to her new book, a reporter emailed her the question: Why not humanism? (instead of feminism). To which, she says, I thought, what part of the fucking book did this person not read?

Its like the people who go around saying All Lives Matter, I say, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Right, which I find deeply offensive and very dishonest. Because we have to name something in order to fix it, which is why I insist on the word feminist or feminism.

This, she says, in spite of the fact that many of her friends, particularly black women, resist that word, because the history of feminism has been very white and has assumed women meant white women. Political discussion in this country still does that. Theyll say, Women voted for… and then, Black people voted for… And I think: Im black and a woman, so where do I fit in here?

As a result, Many of my friends who are not white will say, Im an intersectional feminist, or Im a womanist. And I have trouble with that word, because it has undertones of femininity as this mystical goddess-mother thing, which makes me uncomfortable. So we need a word. And my hope is we use feminism often enough that it starts to lose all the stigma and becomes this inclusive, diverse thing.

This is her goal and her defence, although she still doesnt see why she needs one. Her understanding of feminism is intertwined with her understanding that we all want to be more than one thing. And anyway, she repeats, Can people please stop telling me that feminism is hot? Because its not. Adichie looks magnificently annoyed. Honestly.

Beware feminism lite: an extract from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies letter-turned-book, Dear Ijeawele

Be a full person. Motherhood is a glorious gift, but do not define yourself solely by it. You dont even have to love your job; you can merely love the confidence and self-fulfilment that come with doing and earning. Please reject the idea that motherhood and work are mutually exclusive. Our mothers worked full-time while we were growing up, and we turned out well at least you did; the jury is still out on me.

In these coming weeks of early motherhood, be kind to yourself. Ask for help. Expect to be helped. There is no such thing as a Superwoman. Parenting is about practice and love.

Give yourself room to fail. A new mother does not necessarily know how to calm a crying baby. Read books, look things up on the internet, ask older parents, or just use trial and error. But, above all, take time for yourself. Nurture your own needs.

I have no interest in the debate about women doing it all, because it is a debate that assumes that caregiving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea that I strongly reject. Domestic work and caregiving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can do it all, but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.

Photograph: Stephen Voss for the Guardian

Beware the danger of what I call Feminism Lite; the idea of conditional female equality. Being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not. You either believe in the full equality of men and women, or you do not.

Teach your daughter to question language. A friend of mine says she will never call her daughter princess. The word is loaded with assumptions, of a girls delicacy, of the prince who will come to save her. This friend prefers angel and star. So decide the things you will not say to your child. You know that Igbo joke, used to tease girls who are being childish What are you doing? Dont you know you are old enough to find a husband? I used to say that often. But now I choose not to. I say, You are old enough to find a job. Because I do not believe that marriage is something we should teach young girls to aspire to.

Try not to use words like misogyny and patriarchy. We feminists can sometimes be too jargony. Teach her that if you criticise X in women but do not criticise X in men, you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women. For X please insert words like anger, ambition, loudness, stubbornness, coldness, ruthlessness.

Do you remember how we laughed and laughed at an atrociously written piece about me some years ago? The writer had accused me of being angry, as though being angry were something to be ashamed of. Of course I am angry. I am angry about racism. I am angry about sexism. But I recently came to the realisation that I am angrier about sexism than I am about racism. Because in my anger about sexism, I often feel lonely. Because I love, and live among, many people who easily acknowledge race injustice but not gender injustice.

Teach your daughter to question men who can have empathy for women only if they see them as relational rather than as individual equal humans. Men who, when discussing rape, will say something like, If it were my daughter or wife or sister. Yet such men do not need to imagine a male victim of crime as a brother or son in order to feel empathy.

Teach her, too, to question the idea of women as a special species. I once heard an American politician, in his bid to show his support for women, speak of how women should be revered and championed a sentiment that is all too common. Tell her that women dont need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings.

This is a condensed and edited extract from Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published on Tuesday by Fourth Estate at 10. To order a copy for 8.50, go to bookshop.theguardian.com

This article was amended on 4 March 2017. It originally referred to Lagos as Nigerias capital. This has now been corrected.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-stop-telling-me-feminism-hot

JarettKobek: The internet has been enormously detrimental to society

The author of Silicon Valley satire I Hate the Internet on the evils of social media, and how novelists have failed to tackle it

When the novel I Hate the Internet came out in the US earlier this year, it had every likelihood of sinking without trace. It was self-published, it was by a young unknown Jarett Kobek and its main selling point was naked, gleeful contempt for the devices and technology platforms that are an essential part of all our daily lives. Nothing says individuality like 500 million consumer electronics built by slaves, he says at one point. Welcome to hell. Hell, for Kobek, a 38-year-old American of Turkish heritage, became daily life in San Francisco, where the novel is set. Along with many of the citys artists and writers, he found himself driven out by the forces of gentrification, moved to Los Angeles, where hes now based, set up his own small press, and wrote this book a scorching satire of how a few hypercapitalist companies in Silicon Valley have come to dominate everything. I Hate the Internet didnt sink without trace. It found a readership thirsty for its funny, acerbic edge, got a rave review in the New York Times, went to the topof the bestseller charts in Germanyand has now been published here by Serpents Tail.

So, do you actually hate the internet, Jarett?
Not particularly. Theres part of it that I find really contemptible. The title is offered like the sneer of a 15-year-old into Twitter, after theyve just seen a meme of someone having sex with a chicken or something. I hate parts of it. I certainly think its been enormously detrimental to society.

You seem particularly down on Twitter.
Its not Twitter per se. Its the undue amount of importance that very serious people put on Twitter. That,to me, is whats infuriating. Its a social network that makes everyonesound like a 15-year-old and then very serious people take it way too seriously. And thats not how to run a society. Thats not how to effectchange.

You say: One of the curious aspects ofthe 21st century was the great delusion that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were best exercised on technological platformsowned by corporations dedicated to making as much money as possible. And yet youre not exempt from that: your novel is available as an ebook
Ah, yes. Ultimately, we live in a very dark moment where if you want to be part of any extended conversation beyond a handful of people, you do have to sign on to some things that, ultimately, are very unpalatable. Every era has its unanswerable questions, so maybe the thing to do, which is what I did in the book, is to just acknowledge the inherent hypocrisy of all of it. Though maybe thats an easy dodge.

One of the things that comes up time and again is the undercurrents of misogyny and racism that seem to have been enabled or unleashed by technology. Do you think theres something fundamental about that?
I do think it has to be acknowledged that this technology which seems to be really good at enabling misogyny and abuse of women was created in rooms where there were no women. The people who seem to be the recipients of the most abuse online look like the people who were simply not in the room when all of this stuff was being created. If the book does anything, it acknowledges that.

It seems like a particularly interesting moment to think about that in terms of where were at now. Would Trump have been possible without the internet?
Of course not. Look who benefits from all the endless newspaper inchesabout how the oppressed peoples of the world are going to be liberated by technology. Ive just been on book tour to a lot of battleground states where I spent a lot of time 10 years ago. And if you want to look what hypercapitalism looks like, do a before and after of the Midwest, with a 10-year-break in between. Its so devastated. Was it always a wonderful place to live? Probably not, but was it sort of like a road of ruination and emptiness? No. And I think the internet has been really good at aiding that process, certainly in destroying jobs.

Reading your book made me think that we simply havent even had the language to criticise the internet until now. That theres been no outside to the internet. No place to oppose it from
I think the outside is publishing, actually. I mean publishing in the most Platonic sense of the word, rather than the squalid industry that we have. I think that books actually can be anything. Publishings response to the internet has been completely pathetic, but God, if theres going to be an opposition, a response, its not going to come in the form of tweets.

You claim writers have chosen to ignore the dominant story of the 21st century and have instead rolled over and embraced Twitter as a marketing device. Do you think theres just been a complete dereliction of duty?
Not from everyone, but yes, if you see the literary novels that have been coming out even in the last two or three years, very few of them have much of a connection to anything now. How many of the literary novels published by the four major companies in the US have much to do with a world after which Trump wins the presidency? Have they published even a single working-class writer? I cant think of one.

Youre pretty scathing about some of thetechnology companies. You say that the idea that Google and Twitter contributed to the Arab spring is like saying the Russian revolution was sponsored by Ford…
I went to Egypt in 2011, about four weeks after Mubarak fell and no one mentioned Facebook or Twitter. Whatthey were talking about was money, and how they didnt have any. At the same time, I was living in San Francisco, where there were Facebook employees who seemed to believe they were bringing enlightenment and freedom to the oppressed masses of the world, evicting Latino families whod lived in the same place for 60 years. Its just absurdIts absurd to think that a complex, social thing, like a revolution, happening 7,000 or 8,000 miles awaywas being fuelled and generatedby some stuff some nerds put out on a cellphone.

You had to make legal changes to the UK edition, which youve done with the device of writing [JIMLL FIX IT] where youve redacted passages such as those about Googles Larry Page and Amazons Jeff Bezos. How did that come about?
I didnt want to delete the text per se, and Id just read Dan Daviess biography of Jimmy Savile and it really fascinated me, because in the US youre constantly being told everything is a conspiracy and actually nothing ever is. Rich people tell you what theyre going to do and then they do it. Whereas here, there really was a conspiracy. It really did happen.

I Hate the Internet is published by Serpents Tail (12.99). Click here to order a copy for 10.65

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/20/jarett-kobek-internet-enormously-detrimental-i-hate-the-internet-interview

Interview with a Bookstore: Harvard Book Store, Massachusetts’ books maze

Started with a $300 loan in 1932, Harvard Book Store has been independently run ever since. Its booksellers today share their favourite reads and best regulars (including a dog)

Harvard Book Store was founded in 1932 by Mark S. Kramer, a native of Boston. With $300 borrowed from his parents, he opened a small shop selling used and bargain general interest books in Cambridge. Frank Kramer, Mark and Paulines son, entered the business in 1962 and directed the company for over 40 years before selling it to local book lovers Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seamonson.

Harvard Book Store has been locally owned and independently runand, has spelled book store as two wordssince 1932. As Harvard Squares landmark independent bookstore, the store is renowned for its selection (of used, remaindered, and new titles), award-winning events series, and its history of innovation.

What is your favorite section of the store?

Liz (childrens buyer, bookseller): Our bountiful staff recs wall! Its the first thing you see when you walk in.

Mark (store manager): Although I love reading history/biography/politics, at a given moment a particular title/topic on our shelves might not grab me. Essays, though, are the seed catalog of books; I can open almost anything there and find a new idea (or new expression of a familiar one) that makes things look different. Its easily my favorite section. And most of the best writing Ive ever read has been in essays.

Katherine (supervisor, bookseller): My favorite section is our brand new romance section. Its tiny, but it didnt exist for the first 83 years of the store. Theres a lot of great, smart, funny, feminist romance out there that gets overlooked by a large section of the book community. Its been a lot of fun spending this summer reading books to choose some that match our bookstores personality.

Jeff (owner): Academic new arrivals. Im intrigued by the way academics think, simultaneously focusing on both very big questions and what would appear to the rest of the world to be minutiae.

Melissa (supervisor, bookseller): Fiction, because its quiet and in the back and I like eavesdropping on people on first dates.

Serena (marketing coordinator): Always changing, but I have a special place in my heart for science fiction / fantasy and our epic staff recommendations display.

Alex (events and marketing manager): New Paperbacks. Its such an exciting cross section of the entire stores selection, and you never know what you might unexpectedly pick up. Plus theres the opportunity to be extremely judgmental or intrigued by familiar titles that have unveiled a fresh look for the paperback design.

What would you do if you had infinite space in the store?

Carole (general manager): Lots of seats, a wine bar, expanded sections, a special room for kids books.

Melissa: A dance floor. Just kidding, booksellers are the most introverted people in the world.

Alex: I want the bookstore equivalent of the pool that is built into the gym floor in Its a Wonderful Life. What would the Harvard Book Store floor open up to reveal? Perhaps a 200-seat dedicated event space. And/or a huge storage space with meticulous shelf labeling for us to store overstock. And a lounge we could use for visiting authors, instead of the staff break room. And apartments for booksellers. And a staff break room foosball table with literary figures as the little players. Ahab would be a goalie.

Inside Harvard Book Store. Photograph: Literary Hub

What do you do better than any other bookstore?

Liz: Shimmying up wooden ladders holding armfuls of books.

Mark: Put it this way: no bookstore is better than we are at breaking the ice between a customer and an unfamiliar title or even whole genre. At our best and loudest and busiest theres a constant interchange among staff and customersand they feel invited to be full participants.

Jeff: Since I respect and admire our fellow indies, I dont want to compare. Particular strengths of our store are curation, combining a strong mix of academic and popular titles; events; and support for self-published authors with our Espresso Book Machine.

Alex: At Harvard Book Store there are books everywhere. The shelves tower above you, extending to the tall ceilings, with ladders making the overstock areas accessible to staff. Every wall, surface, window, and shelf is packed with books.

Who is your favorite regular?

Serena: Kristin Cashore!

Melissa: Theres a customer who comes in all the time who doesnt give us her last name and I think its because shes a witch and has been alive for 500 years. I want to be a little like her.

Jeff: We have one regular customer who is a professor; he acted in his youth and was killed by Lee Majors in an episode of Big Valley.

Katherine: Favorite regular is Chloe, a black lab with an extreme addiction to treats. The moment she comes in the store she tries to make eye contact with the people behind the desk. The second she catches you, she sits and waits for a treat. One time, she dragged a dogsitter from two blocks away to the store. The dogsitter was laughing that she had no idea why the dog was so desperate to get to the bookstore.

Whats the craziest situation youve encountered?

Alex: I was running a reading in the bookstore for the book Fire and Forget, an anthology of short stories on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were in the middle of the talk when the VERY LOUD building fire alarms went off. It wasnt a drill. My recollection is that one or two people in the room screamed in surprise. Several firetrucks pulled up as we evacuated the store. As it turns out, a tenant in one of the apartments above the store had burned dinner. After 20 minutes, we filed back into the store and picked up where we left off. I had grabbed some pens on the way out so the authors could at least sign copies of their book outside (which they did!), lit by the red flashing lights of the Cambridge Fire Department.

Jeff: A internationally known philosopher came in one night and demanded all of our Perry Mason books.

Employees only… Harvard Book Store Photograph: Literary Hub

If you werent running a bookstore, what would you be doing?

Melissa: Climbing ladders somewhere else.

Jeff: Thinking about working in a bookstore.

Katherine: If I wasnt working at this bookstore, Id work at another one. I dont really function anywhere else.

The staff shelf

What are Harvard Book Stores booksellers reading?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/04/interview-with-a-bookstore-harvard-book-store-massachusetts-books-maze

Jessa Crispin: ‘We’re not allowed to say the Paris Review is boring’

The editor of Bookslut, which shut down last week, talks to the Guardian about the current state of American literature and its attendant frustrations

A couple of weeks ago, Jessa Crispin shut her longstanding book review site, Bookslut, down. Fourteen years after shed founded it, she told me at a Brooklyn coffee shop last week, she was feeling like she could not keep up the administrative duties required. She was personally exhausted, too.

Theres only so long that you can be the crank, before thats just who you are, Crispin said. Where youre wearing eight hats at the same time and three coats, drinking malt and yelling through the window of the Greenlight Bookstore [in Fort Greene, Brooklyn], Youre all a bunch of frauds!

Crispin laughed as she said that, self-aware about her reputation. All that week, shed been getting online aftershocks because shed been interviewed by New York Magazines Vulture website. I just dont find American literature interesting, went one quote. I find MFA culture terrible was another. This ruffled some (American and/or MFA-holding) feathers.

Yet to longtime readers of Crispins site, these criticisms came as no surprise. Crispin has rarely minced words about the publishing industrys priorities. She told me that it was the professional version of literature that bothers her now, versus what literature actually is. She can reel off a list of writers she currently finds exciting Kathryn Davis, Daphne Gottlieb, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore with ease. These days she is more into nonfiction, though its not usually the popular sort of personal essay that currently has her hooked. Its academic stuff, big tomes about William James or other weird topics.

Big publishers have stopped doing intellectually ambitious nonfiction, she explained. And so those writers are now on academic presses.

When Crispin started Bookslut back in May 2002, the internet was still a wide-open space. If you were passionate about something, you simply set up shop as a blogger and went for it. For Crispin, then a Planned Parenthood employee in Texas far from the center of literary publishing in New York, that something was books. She and her friends simply organized themselves and started writing about their obsessions.

Early Bookslut pieces tended to be quite short, and often they were written in the direct vernacular style of writers still finding themselves. James Joyce is seen as being impenetrable, incomprehensible, and just plain obtuse, reads one early piece on How to Throw a Bloomsday party having fallen in love with Ulysses when forced to read it for a James Joyce class, I tend to disagree. But as Bookslut grew and flourished, the opinions and the subjects became more complex alongside the language. The result is a reading diary that tracks not only Crispins own reading and writing but that of a host of contributors she had on the site. In recent years youd more commonly find lesser-known writers like Sallie Tisdale or works in translation under review or interview there.

Booksluts sensibility extended nicely from its beginnings as an outsider. It can be a bit hard to remember now, but as little as 10 years ago, book reviewing was still a province largely restricted to daily newspapers. Amazon reviews had only recently come to the fore. The average reader was rarely heard from. And authors were just beginning to dip their toe into the water of those opinions. Blogs are like reports from a far-flung world, one writer told the New York Times back then, in a remark that already seems quaint.

But within a few years, book blogs became increasingly professional-looking. They were also increasingly well-regarded by writers and newspaper editors alike. Like Bookslut, though, they were still only very occasionally profitable for the people who ran then.

The influence of those blogs is hard to parse, because often they reflected the idiosyncrasies of their creators rather than industry priorities. Book blogs did not respond to the general priorities of American readers, either, who tend to read more potboilers than literary fiction. They were passion projects, done for the love and with little eye to marketing priorities. And while many book bloggers went on to become critics and novelists, it was usually not the case that they scored high-profile or lucrative book deals.

Crispin is an illustrative example. It is only in the last two years that the industry shed written about for so long seemed interested in giving her work. She has published two books in the last 18 months. One was an introduction to tarot, long an interest of Crispins, for Touchtone books, a Simon & Schuster imprint. The other was a more personal project, a memoir for the University of Chicago Press called The Dead Ladies Project. Right now, for the small literary press Melville House, she is writing a book on feminism. Though that may sound like success, none of these book deals have made her rich.

In fact Crispins long run at Bookslut, where she did basically what she wanted, gave her a vision into the world of publishing that made her ill. She would open Bookforum, for example, she said, and find it reviewing only a certain set of books. As things get kind of more chaotic for publications, she said. They get narrower and narrower and more elite and nepotistic. It bothered her that the industry thought of itself as being intellectually honest when it was obsessed with money and celebrity.

She began to think of Bookslut as a kind of alternative to the literary scene. If you could just pretend like the scene didnt exist, she said. Thats how I was combating it. Increasingly Bookslut became a home for writers on more obscure work, and eschewed the usual conversation-grabbers. To get away from it all Crispin moved, for awhile, to Berlin, which she said was a nice cushion from conventional book chatter.

Staying outside of that mainstream, Crispin said, had some professional costs. We didnt generate people that are now writing for the New Yorker, Crispin said. If we had, I would have thought that we were failures anyway. Shes bored by the New Yorker. In fact, of the current crop of literary magazines, she said only the London Review of Books currently interested her, especially articles by Jenny Diski or Terry Castle. Of the New Yorker itself, she said: Its like a dentist magazine.

Crispins general assessment of the current literary situation is fairly widely shared in, of all places, New York. It is simply rarely voiced online. Writers, in an age where an errant tweet can set off an avalanche of op-eds more widely read than the writers actual books, are cautious folk.

And Crispin cant stand the way some of these people have become boosters of the industry just at the moment of what she sees as its decline. I dont know why people are doing this, but people are identifying themselves with the system, Crispin said. So if you attack publishing, they feel that they are personally being attacked. Which is not the case.

Its not that she doesnt understand these writers reasoning. Everything is so precarious, and none of us can get the work and the attention or the time that we need, and so we all have to be in job-interview mode all of the time, just in case somebody wants to hire us, Crispin added. So were not allowed to say, The Paris Review is boring as fuck! Because what if the Paris Review is just about to call us? The freedom from such questions is something Crispin personally cherishes.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/09/jessa-crispin-bookslut-publishing-new-york-literature

I’ll never forgive Mommie: Joan Crawford’s daughter gives first interview in 10 years

In 1978 Christina Crawford exposed her filmstar mother Joan as a cruel, abusive alcoholic in the memoir Mommie Dearest. On the book's reissue, she gives her first interview in a decade to Elizabeth Day

Christina Crawford was 13 when she stopped believing her mother loved her. It was a young age at which to come to such a startling conclusion, to have one’s belief in the benignity of the world so profoundly altered. But it was at this age that she remembers her mother grabbed her by the throat, punched her in the face and slammed her head against the floor.

‘You never forget that,’ Christina says now, 55 years later. ‘It was up close and personal. She came this far from my face, and you could see it in her eyes, you can see if someone is trying to kill you.’

It was a side of her mother that no one else ever saw. To the wider public, Christina’s mother was not the abusive parent, prone to uncontrolled bouts of fury. She was not the alcoholic, given to occasional bursts of sporadic violence. She was not the tyrannical harpy who apparently let rip behind closed doors. To everyone else she was simply Joan Crawford, Hollywood movie star.

At the height of her fame in the 1940s, Crawford had a considerable reputation to uphold. She was one of the original studio ingenues, an actress who overcame an impoverished childhood to become one of the highest-paid women in the business. Over a career spanning five decades, she starred alongside Clark Gable in Possessed, Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and won a 1945 Best Actress Academy Award for the title role in Mildred Pierce. She lived in a sprawling house in Brentwood, Los Angeles and used her wealth to adopt and raise four children, including Christina, an act much lauded in extensive magazine spreads about her happy family life. But to Christina, the public image was a gilded lie.

‘It was the hypocrisy of it that was so difficult,’ she says. ‘People fantasised about who or what I was; that I had this privileged, wealthy, film-star family life. I didn’t have any of that.’

A year after her mother’s death of a heart attack – aged 69, 72 or 73, according to which birth date you believe – Christina’s frustration at the discrepancy between her mother’s private existence and her public reputation bubbled over. In 1978 she published Mommie Dearest, a blistering autobiography that portrayed Joan Crawford as a sadistic perfectionist, an alcoholic prone to unpredictable squalls of maternal fury who would punish the mildest misdemeanours with disproportionate force.

It was the first tell-all celebrity memoir, the first book to talk so openly or with such clarity about a childhood allegedly punctuated by psychological and physical abuse. It caused a sensation, left an indelible imprint on the cultural consciousness and stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 42 weeks. In the years that followed the children of Bette Davis and Bing Crosby wrote similarly excoriating parental memoirs, and the 1981 film adaptation starring Faye Dunaway became a cult hit. Joan Crawford’s reputation took a battering so ferocious that it has never fully recovered.

To this day most people associate her with an infamous scene in both the book and the film in which she launches into a vicious tirade after discovering Christina’s dresses hung on wire clothes hangers. ‘No wire hangers!’ entered the vernacular as shorthand for neurotic maternal instability. On another occasion Christina recalls her mother dragging her from bed in the middle of the night, aged nine, to beat her over the head with a can of scouring powder for leaving soap streaks on a bathroom floor.

Now, 30 years after publishing Mommie Dearest, Christina Crawford is reissuing the book with a new introduction and afterword, supporting testimonies from contemporaries and more than 100 pages and photographs that were cut from the 1978 edition.

She is not without her detractors. Over the years several of Joan Crawford’s peers, including her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and the actress Myrna Loy, have disputed Christina’s recollections, accusing her of embellishments and make-believe. Two of Crawford’s other adopted children, twin sisters Cathy and Cindy, publicly claimed Christina lied, insisting their mother was a loving parent, firm but never abusive. Although three decades have passed, the sibling feud is unresolved. Both Cindy and Crawford’s adopted son, Christopher, died recently but mutual animosity remains deeply entrenched across the generations. Casey LaLonde, Cathy’s 36-year-old son, tells me by phone from his home in Philadelphia that his mother still remembers ‘a very loving household. She [Joan] was a very affectionate, supportive, doting mother, a wonderful person. I have always been very careful not to call Christina a liar but clearly she had a completely different experience from my mother and my Aunt Cindy.’

In March a new biography of Joan Crawford cast Christina in an even less flattering light. Not The Girl Next Door by Charlotte Chandler included interviews with the actress herself in which she railed against her adopted daughter, accusing her of ingratitude. Cathy Crawford was quoted as saying that Christina ‘had her own reality … I don’t know where she got her ideas. Our Mommie was the best mother anyone ever had.’

Until now Christina, 68, has not responded. But when I meet her at her home in Idaho for her first newspaper interview in 10 years she is unrepentant. Although she acknowledges that she could be a stubborn, occasionally obstreperous child, she points out that her version of events was supported by her adopted younger brother, Christopher, with whom she shared a room until she was 10. ‘Cathy has been very vocal about her experience, and that’s her privilege, but there was eight years’ difference between us. She was two when I was sent to boarding school. She couldn’t have known anything about my or Chris’s experience – zip, nothing. She wasn’t there – she wasn’t even born when I was adopted.’

Perhaps, I venture, the twins had more docile personalities and were more capable of submitting to their mother’s controlling nature? She laughs sharply. ‘Maybe. What my mother wanted was fans and puppies, not human beings. She was as close to being a totally manufactured person as I’ve ever met.’

From the beginning Joan Crawford was a fabrication; a myth created by the movie moguls. She was born Lucille LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas, and her father walked out when she was a few months old. The family scraped by but it was a deprived upbringing, and it left Crawford with an abiding hatred of dirt and disorder. Determined to escape her background, she became a Broadway chorus girl and was spotted by studio bosses at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. They offered her a contract and ran a magazine competition to choose a new name after deciding her surname sounded too much like ‘sewer’. Joan Crawford was the winning entry. She cut off ties with her family, clawed her way to the top and reinvented herself as a legend without a past.

Photographs from this time immortalise an extremely striking woman, cheekbones thrown into relief by dramatic lighting, lacquered eyebrows arching over lambent dark eyes. There is also a determination in her jaw-line and the intimation of challenge in her gaze. The pictures are arresting rather than beautiful, strong rather than delicate.

Her forceful personality and strident physical attractiveness meant she was used to getting what she wanted. She married four times and had a string of affairs with both men and women, including a one-night stand with Marilyn Monroe. Unable to have children, she adopted, employing private brokers to ensure that the normal restrictions against single, divorced women did not apply. One of the five children she originally took in was reclaimed by his furious birth mother within days. Christina was successfully adopted in 1939, Christopher in 1943 and the twins four years later in 1947.

It was, from the outside at least, a fairytale family life for four unwanted babies who otherwise would have languished in care homes. But all was not as it seemed. Although Joan told Christina that her biological mother had died in childbirth, she was, in fact, still alive. It was only in the early 1990s, when Christina started researching her own family history, that she discovered the truth. By this time both her parents (a female student who had an affair with a married engineer) were dead.

Christina remembers a childhood shaped by her mother’s violent mood swings – one moment buying her extravagant party dresses, the next spanking her so hard with a hairbrush it broke in two. ‘At first I cried and then I didn’t. The only power I had left was not to show anything.’ At night she says her brother Christopher was strapped into bed with a canvas harness to prevent him from walking to the toilet.

Does she believe Joan Crawford ever loved her? ‘Maybe in the very, very beginning but I think she wasn’t a healthy person. If a lot of what she did had happened today, that woman would be arrested and taken to jail.’

Why did no one intervene? ‘That was the worst thing – that nobody did. Because everyone knew. Our staff, certain neighbours … But she was a celebrity, they had jobs they didn’t want to lose, and by the end there was no hired help any more because she was so difficult to work for. The agency stopped sending people.

‘It was complete and total hypocrisy between the public and the private. She adopted us for the publicity,’ she says. ‘I have tremendous concerns about celebrity adoptions by people like Madonna and Angelina Jolie. From the adoptee’s point of view, it is vitally important to know who they are, where they came from, or it can have profound medical and psychological effects.’

When I ask if she thinks today’s stars are adopting for publicity, she snorts derisively. ‘What do you think? Why are they so keen on getting the maximum newspaper and magazine coverage?’

Joan Crawford’s fits of anger, her drinking and obsession with cleanliness got more pronounced as her career began to unravel. At 37 she was declared ‘box-office poison’ by studio executives and her self-esteem never truly recovered. For a woman whose own sense of worth had been predicated on her work, it was a devastating loss.

All the while, the Crawford family’s celebrity lifestyle was routinely depicted in lavish magazine photographic stories detailing the children’s plentiful birthdays and Christmases. Behind the gloss and the popping flashbulbs, however, the truth was very different, says Christina. Each year the children were allowed to choose one gift while all the others were repackaged and given away to local hospitals or charities. They were then required to write an endless round of thank-you cards for the gifts they had not been allowed to keep, and each card would be checked by their mother, returned to them with annotations and corrections until they eventually met her exacting standards. ‘The process was turned into a forced march,’ says Christina. ‘It was all about power and deprivation. As a child, I was totally without trust. I felt entirely alone.’

She became used to loneliness. At 10 she was sent to boarding school but the bizarre, random outbursts of maternal rage continued through the holidays. After graduation she briefly became an actress before training in communications and working in the marketing department of Getty Petroleum. Since the publication of Mommie Dearest she has written several more books on child abuse and is now an advocate for adoptees’ rights. She has three failed marriages – her second to the film producer David Koontz, with whom she raised a stepson – and made a conscious decision not to have children of her own.

‘I’d never seen a working marriage or relationship so I simply didn’t know how to do it,’ she says. ‘I really didn’t have the skills for parenthood, and for a while I had a ferocious temper. Those two things are not a good combination so I took a logical, reasonable decision not to have children, and it’s one I’ve never regretted.’

For the past 15 years Christina has lived in rural Idaho in a modest clapboard home on a vast Indian Reservation, surrounded by conifers and grassy mountainside. The only other buildings nearby are a church and a dilapidated general store. She does not entirely fit in here. She is dressed in a smart moss-green trouser suit, with a low-cut top and espadrille wedges in the same shade of pink. Her hair is dyed blond and her eyes, a clear, watery blue, are obscured for much of the time behind sepia-tinted wraparound sunglasses. She is extremely polite and hospitable, given to the occasional unexpected fit of guttural laughter.

She is also, I think, very mistrustful. Many of her answers are delivered with a penetrating stare, a wariness in her voice. When I ask if money was a motivating factor for reissuing the book, she looks at me straight on for several seconds. ‘The reason I am reissuing it is because it remains one of the only real, authentic stories of family abuse, and it is important it is continually available.’

Inside her open-plan sitting room, it strikes you immediately that there are no photographs, as if the interior has been stripped bare of anything that might remind her of the past. The walls are hung with anonymous knick-knacks – a framed print of Shakespeare, a clock that chimes with birdsong on the hour. Yet while Christina says she has spent most of her life trying to extricate herself from her mother’s control, it seems the two are locked in a perpetual grim embrace. Despite a short rapprochement in Joan’s later years, both Christina and Christopher were written out of her will, which stated the decision had been taken ‘for reasons which are well known to them’. Although she successfully contested the will, Christina has never been able to shake off the suspicion that the book was revenge for her disinheritance, nor, when I ask her about it, does she entirely disabuse me of this notion. ‘The attorney told me that the language in that will went way back to the Sixties, and every time the will was rewritten that language was carried forward absolutely intact. So none of the later years had had any impact on her emotionally whatsoever. All the efforts I’d made had been for nothing, and I decided that was enough, and I was going to tell the truth as I knew it.’

She tells me she stopped referring to Joan as her mother several years ago and now calls her ‘my adopted parent’. She has clearly never forgiven her. ‘I think she took absolutely no responsibility for changing her behaviour. Forgiveness is a two-person process.’

But it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Christina really wanted to sever the ties that bind her she would not be reissuing the book that links her permanently with the mother she now disowns.

Certainly, Cathy’s side of the family have been left infuriated by her decision to republish. ‘Christina has said what she said, and everybody heard it the first time round,’ says Casey LaLonde. ‘The book was such a juggernaut, and it devastated [Joan’s] personal and professional career. I just remember her as a normal, loving grandmother who would babysit for us and make us lunch and give us gifts. There was never anything strange or mean about her.

‘The worst part was that Joan wasn’t around to defend herself, which was the most horrible thing ever to have done. It wasn’t courageous.’

Neil Maciejewski, a film historian who runs a Joan Crawford tribute website, concedes that the actress ‘was an alcoholic, she was controlling and she probably wasn’t the best mother, but I’ve talked to so many people who knew her, and my feeling is Mommie Dearest was not an honest portrayal. One person I talked to recently is Betty Barker, who was Joan Crawford’s secretary from the 1930s and knew her till she died. She’s an older woman who would have no reason to lie, and she said that Joan had her faults but she absolutely did not abuse her children.’

Still, it is possible that a movie star so obsessed with protecting her own image, who was so rigorously perfectionist in all that she did, would go to great lengths to conceal any abusive behaviour from outsiders. Christina might be many things – disillusioned, sad, a bit defensive – but she does not strike me as either a fantasist or a liar. And she has her supporters too. The late actress Helen Hayes, whose son played with Christopher, wrote in her autobiography that Joan was ‘cruel’ to her children and that her Hollywood contemporaries were ‘worried to death’ about them. ‘It would have been futile for me or anyone else to protest,’ she wrote. ‘Joan would only get angry and probably vent her rage on the kids.’

Perhaps she could, like so many, have intervened and pricked the bubble of silence, but Joan Crawford was a formidable opponent. When, on that long-ago night, Christina claims that her mother tried to throttle her, a secretary eventually pulled them apart and summoned a juvenile officer to the house. According to Christina, the officer said there was nothing he could do; that she would have to sit it out until she was 18 and could leave home of her own accord; if one more call was made to the authorities Christina would end up in a detention centre. ‘That changed my world view,’ she says, dryly. ‘That the victim could be punished while the perpetrator got away scot free. That made me kind of cynical.’

Cynical, but no longer terrified. ‘The most gratifying part of getting well is that I’m not afraid,’ she says. ‘If she walked in the door now I’d tell her she’s not welcome and could she please leave. Because that’s what I couldn’t do as a child.’

Her voice dips and cracks, so that she is talking in an almost-whisper. She holds my gaze for a few seconds then gets up and busies herself in the kitchen. Even now, so many years later, Christina Crawford does not want anyone to see her cry.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/may/25/biography.film