Archive for October 2012
Steven Poole is a non-fiction reviewer for the Guardian and author of Unspeak. His latest book, You Aren’t What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, was reviewed by Jonathan Meades in the Guardian at the weekend. Obviously Meades loves it – it is hard to imagine a more sympathetic reviewer since his own rants on the subject of ‘fine dining’ could easily have inspired Poole. I’ve not read the book but I have read the long extract the Guardian published a couple of weeks ago titled ‘Let’s Start The Foodie Backlash’. On that basis, it is wide-ranging, ill-focused and lacking in any central thesis beyond the idea that people are fools to be interested in food. The opening paragraph is nothing but substance-less hipster sneering with dashes of proud ignorance (arancini are hardly obscure) and irrelevant pet hates (oh no, social smokers!) and doesn’t make me want to read the whole book. But I do want to address some specific comments he makes about the language used to describe food later in the article.
The first takes the form of a strange experiment:
For some examples of the modern state of the art in gastrolinguistic engineering, let us consider L’Enclume, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the English Lake District, and its bill of fare as advertised on its website in November 2011. As a literary-gustatory experiment, I’m going simply to read the menu without investigating further, so attempting empathetically to recreate the literary experience of the diner who has just sat down and read the dish descriptions, and is thereby set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering what exactly it is that he might end up eating.
This reference caught my eye because, as it happens, I went to L’Enclume in November 2011 and had one of the best meals of my life there. So I have done for real what Poole is attempting to do “empathetically”. I do wonder if he read the menu with champagne cocktail, exquisite canapés and best beloved close to hand though. I doubt it and context is important. He complains that “there is no clue to how any of this was cooked” on the menu (as if this was of over-whelming importance) but, of course, the waiter will talk you through the detail of the dish as it is served (and later he quotes an example of a waiter doing just this). L’Enclume doesn’t have an a la carte menu, it isn’t there to help you decided between mains; instead, the tasting menu is meant to be a tease, to “set off on a pleasurable trail of wondering” as Poole puts it. But he has approached his task with pre-conceptions and hence pedantically rather than empathetically.
The first dish on the menu is “carrot sacks with brawn and juniper, fried cake and cress”. Poole complains he has no idea what a carrot sack is. Neither did I. I could have asked but I didn’t see any need since I could use my imagination. He continues: “This dish also features “fried cake”, which has me pondering the dubious desirability of frying a chocolate or sponge cake, but that cannot be it. Could it be a fishcake? Who knows?” Um, carrot cake, perhaps? He then describes the mention of brawn as an “example of menu euphemism” as if it wasn’t simply the brilliantly evocative name of the terrine. (Our American cousins, on the other hand, call it ‘head cheese’ – now that is a euphemism.) Presumably if you invited Poole round for dinner he wouldn’t be happy unless sausage and mash was described as pig skin stuffed with minced pork and served with mashed potato. And even then he’d be grumpy that you hadn’t said whether you were going to grill or fry the sausages.
The rest of the section then veers sharply away from his notional target of Michelin pretension. He takes issue with a couple of commonplace words: “resting” and “bed”. These aren’t high-falluting terms; you rest your Sunday roast to make it taste better, a bed is a pleasingly descriptive term whether it is on your plate or down the allotment. He spins a whole paragraph out of another commonplace word – “baby” – but in the end can’t find any reason to criticise this. He pretends not to understand what a “rare breed” is. It is tedious stuff and it is hard to see who – apart from Meades – is the audience for this gastrolinguistic masturbation. Bizarrely, Poole has written a book that exists to simultaneously allow him to indulge himself with the English language whilst censuring anyone else who has the temerity to do anything even slightly similar.
He then moves from swinging and missing at the highbrow to swinging and missing at the middlebrow:
Lest all the artifice of breed descriptions, chemistry-set jargon and ingredient rebranding in the posher kind of restaurant make a certain kind of diner suspicious, a parallel recent trend is the reassuring adjective “proper”. It appears everywhere on gastropub menus (“proper pork pie”, “proper mash”), in one-up-from-McDonald’s burger joints (“proper hamburgers”, promises the London chain Byron), and in the mellifluously matey warbling of Jamie Oliver munching a Vietnamese banh minh in an East End market (“That is a proper, proper sandwich”), and his own dish names: “Proper Bloke’s Sausage Fusilli”, “Roast of Incredible Game Birds with Proper Polenta”. The use of “proper” anticipates and indulges (even implants) a suspicion of fanciness, whether it is owed to dubious foreign practices or modern industrial adulteration.
“Proper” is certainly a cliché but clichés are pretty low hanging fruit, a feeling reinforced by the mention of the ultimate soft target Jamie Oliver. But look at what passes for analysis: modern industrial adulteration is fanciness? This is barking. “Proper” certainly indulges a suspicion of processed food but that is the exact opposite of indulging a fear of fancy foreign muck. His description of Byron is equally eyebrow-raising and I would love Poole’s hierarchy of burgers where they are one rung from the bottom. It is impossible to escape the feeling he simply has no idea what he is talking about, that this is all one sustained blag.
Let me instead quote someone who does know what he is talking about. This is my favourite food blogger on his return to London and the changes he has seen since he has been away (“My impression is that London’s food scene at the moment is without parallel”):
London has always been a pretty desperate place when it came to Americana food but around three to four years ago restaurants like Hawksmoor and Goodman and mini-chains like Byron burgers started to change this. Finally, amazingly, you could get a halfway edible burger.
This is the idea that “proper” seeks to signal – that food can be better than the utter rubbish served up to paying punters in the recent past. Poole has it exactly backwards. A handy comparison can be made at this point to the opening paragraphs Grace Dent’s review of Honest Burger in Brixton:
Until last week, I firmly believed I was bored with the bespoke burger trend. All those hipster patty-purists, gangs of bearded Tarquins in their skinny-fit trousers with their pop-up burger truck/speakeasies, their ‘today’s burger’ Tweet updates, scribbled menus containing a fulsome biography of this week’s unlucky cow, their no reservation policy and their brash names like ‘Spank Slider’ and ‘Burger Bang-Bang’. Enough!
But then I returned to the North for a week and was reminded how spoiled we capital-dwellers are. I had good intentions to seek out fresh, fibrous, flavoursome dinners, but 30 miles past the Watford Gap and I was living on microwaved pub food, Wild Bean Café muffins and those mini-bar hotel chocolates worth £3.60 that wouldn’t keep Wee Jimmy Krankie going. Ordering a burger outside of the M25 will remind you why you crucify yourself rent-wise and sacrifice your sanity to live here.
Dent is exaggerating for effect too – that is, after all, what she is paid for – but this is much more acceptable in a comic columnist than a notionally serious essayist. There is also the question of the review’s length; Poole’s wit is already spread thin across 4,000 words, I can’t imagine what it would be like at over a dozen times that length. Most importantly though, Dent’s piece is lacking an agenda, something which strangles any decent point Poole might have. So although Dent takes a pop at the same targets that he disdains in his introduction, she isn’t ideologically blinded. The result is that her description rings more true than Poole’s; it is easy to sneer at gastropubs but, as I found when I walked the Cumbria Way, it is less easy to get a decent meal in pubs that have escaped such modernisation.
Immediately after mentioning Jamie Oliver talking about a banh minh, Poole shifts gear:
It is also one of the favourite epithets employed by David Cameron: “proper politics”, “proper punishment”, “proper immigration control”. “Proper” here works as a strategy to avoid seeming privileged, while at the same time tuning in cunningly to anti-intellectual prejudice (what is “proper” is not over-thought) – all as Cameron conducts, like some kind of over-moisturised Visigoth, his philistine economic campaign against the BBC, universities (“proper education”), and the National Health Service (“proper healthcare”). Just as one ought to be suspicious of the word “proper” when hoarsely brayed from the glistening lips of Cameron, one ought to be suspicious of it on a menu: is it anything more than a vatic invocation of old-school purity?
I think this passage finally tips his hand and reveals what I suspect is the fundamental problem with the book: that he has tried to apply the formula of Unspeak to an unsuitable subject. Unspeak “represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and so having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view, by laying a claim right at the start to only one way of looking at a problem.” But there is a category error here; the word “proper” is a cliche but it isn’t language abuse, it isn’t harmful or dangerous.
It is absurd that we move directly from political ad hominems to an unsupported direction that we “ought” to be equally as suspicious of the words on pub menus as we are of those that issue from the mouths of our elected representatives. There are a lot of missing steps here. How on Earth has he dragged Visigoths into a discussion of the percentage meat content of a pork pie? I mean, I’m not sure it is even linguistically possible to have a vatic invocation of the past but that is by the by when the old school purity is abundantly clear to the palette.
In his review, Meades describes Poole’s targets thus: “They are nonetheless bound together by their extremism and their hyperbole. There is no place in these milieux for balance, for doubt, for self-questioning – let alone for the self-knowledge that might provide a bulwark against loopy mendacity.” The irony is that this description could equally be applied to Poole himself. It is, after all, entirely possible to want to eat a proper burger or dine from an minimalist tasting menu just because you like good food and not, as he would have it, because you are an insufferable twat.
My review of Osiris by EJ Swift is up now at Strange Horizons.
There is a problem beyond this, though, a problem with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction. What one might call Resource SF could make a vital contribution to literature but the commitment only ever seems to be political rather than artistic. The only novel I can think of that attempts both is Adam Roberts’s By Light Alone (2011). The concerns are similar to Swift’s—the remorseless march of the Gini coefficient bears its inevitable fruit—but it seeks to be not just a science fiction novel but a novel in its own right. No one else seems to be trying.
I wrote this review not long after Paul Kincaid published a review of several year’s best collections in the LA Review of Books. I imagine it shows. Problems with the state of the genre were on Kincaid’s mind too and his diagnosis was as follows:
The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended.
Jonathan McCalmont makes the moral and political failing of this crisis of confidence explicit in a follow up article which glories in the typically restrained title ‘Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future’:
This conceptual blockage was most evident in the immediate aftermath of the subprime mortgage crisis when the housing bubble burst and banks across the world began to collapse. Exposed as nothing more than a vast pyramid scheme, global capitalism lurched and stumbled but never quite fell… Having failed to identify this culture-wide conceptual blockage as any kind of failure or flaw, science fiction never bothered to rout around it.
And yet this is not my problem; Resource SF does not turn its back. In fact, Kincaid expands on his review in a long interview with Nerds Of A Feather where here he draws the distinction between three different forms of crisis facing SF: a crisis of ideas, of identity and of confidence. It is the former – an entirely aesthetic crisis – that I believe Swift succumbs to. On this point, Kincaid says:
Within any art form there are individuals or movements that attempt to push the boundaries in various ways. They are concerned with seeing what new can be done, what more can be done with the form. Often, though not always, they are initially viewed with dismay or disdain by aficionados of the art, though in retrospect they are generally viewed as being the innovators who mark an important developmental stage in the history of the form… What they do may be good or bad (and in science fiction a lot of the so-called innovations of the new wave in the 1960s were, frankly, very bad indeed), but I think they are important for the health of the form.
Alongside this, and by far the majority of the exponents of any art form, there are the traditionalists, concerned to do more of what the form has always done. Some of these can be very good, there can be great artistic achievements that make no effort whatsoever to challenge the nature of the form. What I found, reading the three books, and it bore out something I had been aware of in previous best of the year volumes I’ve read, was that practically everything belonged in the second camp.
Kincaid adds that “I don’t think this perception holds when it comes to the novel” but I’m not at all sure of that. If you pick up a science fiction novel I think there is a pretty good chance that it will read exactly like most other science fiction novels. There are exceptions – Kincaid lists M John Harrison and Christopher Priest in his interview; I mention Adam Roberts in my review – but it is, by and large, homogeneous in a way that literary fiction (regardless of quality) is not.
Helpfully Roberts has given his perspective from someone on the other side of the fence. Well, both sides, really. But what it all made me think was, can you imagine any contemporary Nebula-winner writing Through The Valley Of The Nest Of Spiders?