Sunday, 25 October 2015

Howard Jacobson: "men who read won't rape"

I've never read Howard Jacobson's novels. It's probably not his fault. I try not to read contemporary novelists: I inadvertently (though fortunately) read Wolf Hall and I can imagine myself reading Money this side of Martin Amis dropping dead, but other than that, I prefer to read the works of the deceased. I basically want to read them without the need to know what side they're on, what stance they took on Syria or Iraq or God or even, if I can help it, Vietnam, and this is a lot easier when they're gone and even their trangressions are by and large forgiven. It's true, I read What A Carve-Up! several times and gave copies as gifts to several people, but that was before I came up with this particular self-denying ordinance. I'm a librarian by profession and I read for the peace and quiet, not the noise.

Howard is, unfortunately, also a columnist of sorts. The Independent publishes his piece - weekly, I think, though I'm not interested enough to check, let alone to know, and besides, the battle of the columnists , what Nick says about what Polly said about that piece by someone else,  is part of the noise I'd rather avoid. But I did catch this, last month. It's Howard Jacobson on Cambridge, the civilising effect of improving literature, and women. His thesis, roughly, is that men who read won't rape. Yes, that's precisely what I wrote. He says that men who read won't rape.

It's worth reading in full, although in another way, it's not worth reading at all, but once started, it has to be finished just to see if he's really saying what you think he's saying. It's a meander rather than an argument, since Jacobson, whatever his skills as a novelist, can't really maintain a linear argument for the length of a two-minute column. Nevertheless, that two minutes is long enough for some startling passages to stand out. Here's one:
because my college was for men only – some joke, calling us “men” – there were no women around for us to abuse, supposing we’d been of a mind to do so.
OK. Now in my experience, humour, even offhand humour, about violence against women isn't usually leading to a good place, but Howard's a proper writer and I am not, so let's follow him awhile before we make our judgements. Where are you going with that thought, Howard?
There’s more than one way of being brutal. But we never raised our hands to women. We could no more have date-raped than scored a try at Twickenham.
All right, Howard, that sounds like self-deluding garbage about the past to me, but both of us are middle-aged men and we can be forgiven our lapses of memory, even when they are to our advantage. But why, since you raise the subject, would you and your contemporaries have been so trustworthy with women, compared to young men generally?
In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them.
Now at this point, if columnists are still capable of making you angry rather than glaze over, this might be the point at which the anger rises. He is saying what he is saying. He is really saying that. He is saying that because you read English Literature, you would be much less likely to rape.

Jesus. Somebody actually wrote that in a newspaper. Scarcely anybody noticed, as far as I could see - it was a Friday column and the weekend went by without any particular public outrage - but somebody, a Booker Prize winner at that, wrote in a newspaper that rape is much less likely if you read English Literature at Cambridge.

Where to start with such a column? Where to start with such a claim? With my own personal experience of Oxford students, which - twenty years later than Jacobson - was that the men were just as boorish, just as beery, just as hateful towards women when they wanted to be, as any other set of men I've come across? With my recollection that English Literature at my college was in part represented by a chap who despite his doubtless sensitive and life-enhancing knowledge of the English funeral elegy from Spenser to Milton (though he, in fact, had played at Twickenham) had no particular reputation for keeping his hands to himself?

Here's Clive James, who, in comparison to Jacobson, had some idea of what power relationships on campus might entail.
Almost every university department I have ever heard of is haunted by at least one Lothario who sees nothing wrong with trying to screw the prettier students. The concept of academic freedom usually ensures that such conduct goes unpunished, even though it is patently unfair to the screwed and the unscrewed alike.
At least Clive James could see what actually happened among his university contemporaries. Jacobson has, or claims to have, no idea.
Yes, we called them “totty”, but we would have died from embarrassment had the totty looked in our direction.
Jesus. "Yes, we called them 'totty'". But...but nothing. You were afraid of women? Are you under the impression that being afraid of women means men are less likely to rape? Are you insane, Howard Jacobson? What are you thinking of? And what were they thinking of, whoever nominally edited the column and decided it was fit to publish?

Of course, what would probably have happened if James' "Lothario" had raped a female student, or if a young male student (who perhaps spent the rest of the evening reading Sons and Lovers or Jane Eyre) had raped a local girl, would have been that they would have got away with it - and not especially because of "the concept of academic freedom". They would have been believed and the female student, or the local girl, would not, and why? Because one of the people concerned would have been viewed as "totty" and the other would have been a man. And at that, a "refined" man. one who went to King's, who knew nothing of the "obscenities of the uncouth North", who had read DH Lawrence and Charlotte BrontĂ«.

There's much more that could be said about the piece - try, for instance, getting your head round the claim that follows
I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there
or the immense, self-pitying, could-not-be-further-wrong stupidity of this
is it even possible that we have given up on the idea of being humanised altogether? Is the very word too fancy? We mistrust whatever isn’t egalitarian and look askance at people who appear to us to live in ivory towers
but to deal with it point-by-point might be to do more justice to it than it merits. It is a hymn to education, the text of which is soaked in ignorance. It is a set of falsehoods about rape, culture and education. It is a lie.

As I say, the lie came and went without a great deal of notice being taken. All right, the weekend after was the one Jeremy Corbyn was elected and nobody was much interested in anything else. The day of its publication was 11 September and there were more important things to pay attention to that day than the crass stupidity and snobbery of a two-minute column. And yet Jacobson's columns do get praised, passed on, embedded in tweets which recommend their contents. They get read. They are looked forward to. How could it be that nobody noticed, that particular day, what this particular column had to say?

I don't know. I don't even think I seek to know. But I do know that whatever Howard Jacobson's experience at Cambridge, and whatever mine at Oxford, although the both of us were silly young men who knew nothing about women, neither of us had to go through anything like the experience of being raped, nor beaten, nor that of not being believed afterwards. Jacobson doesn't think it happened, not back then when
we never raised our hands to women.
I think they did, Howard. I think they did. But I think it was "refined" people that did it.


  1. None of the obscenities of the uncouth North offended our hearing as we strolled along the Backs in the morning mist reciting Spenser.

    Where to start? Do they not have obscenities in Cambridgeshire - or does 'fuck' stop being obscene if you say it 'faaak'? And has anyone ever voluntarily recited Spenser?

    As for the proposition that being at a single-sex college meant not having anything to do with women - and a fortiori not being violent - I can hardly believe Jacobson believed it himself for long enough to write it down. Jokes about shagging bedmakers and college servants, and rumours about Homerton girls being up for it, were rife when I was at Cambridge (and I was at a mixed college).

  2. I assumed on first reading that the "uncouth North" passage was a joke at his own expense, and I still think it was. But given the "gangsta rap or business studies" line, it's pretty much a true word spoken in jest.

  3. organic cheeseboard26 October 2015 at 11:22

    I don't have time to rant about this as much as I'd like but re: academics and power relationships - according to Jacobson himself, as soon as he gained a position of academic authority he immediately exploited it to bed a female student, explaining it away because she wasn't that much younger than him anyway:

  4. organic cheeseboard26 October 2015 at 17:23

    Also - and sorry for 2 posts in a row:

    It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them. I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there.

    Firstly, as far as I'm aware nowhere offers an MA in Gangsta Rap. The implication there is snobbish - that nowhere 'serious' would offer something like that, whereas yer ex-polys would - yet it's hard to square that with Jacobson teaching for many years at Wolverhampton for 6 years (something he's seemingly forgotten), and in any case the only person I've ever personally known to write a thesis on rap (albeit of yer 'conscious', non-gangsta type) was at, er, Oxford. But in any case, there's no way that someone writing a thesis on NWA would endorse their views on women, any more than someone writing a thesis on Jane Eyre would think of Rochester as admirable, what with all the locking-up-his-'mad'-wife-and-deliberately-dressing-up-to-deceive-Jane-etc - yet he is, after all, the male love interest, and the 'happy ending' of the novel is that Jane marries him, reader. I can't work out if Jacobson chose this terrible example on purpose or not. Sons and Lovers is also an awful example.

    Jacobson's columns do get praised, passed on, embedded in tweets which recommend their contents. They get read. They are looked forward to. How could it be that nobody noticed, that particular day, what this particular column had to say?

    Yes, I just don't get this. But it's not just this column. The one he wrote about Chomsky and Charlie Hebdo, which I ranted about on the Rodent's blog, was endorsed for reasons entirely opposed to what it was actually suggesting, and it was just plain incorrect on almost every claim it made. The columns on Ed Miliband were some of the most half-baked, thoughtless nonsense I've ever had the misfortune to read. Yet he clearly has fans. Why?

    1. Thing is though, I can understand why his admirers might be embarrassed by this column, but that wouldn't explain why his non-admirers didn't put it about. The only explanation I can think of is, as I say, the conjunction of 9/11 and Corbyn, but I'm not totally convinced myself.