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Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Review: Unchosen

Publishers will very frequently send review copies of their books to newspapers. Sometimes they review them. Sometimes they don't. Often the books eventually end up being sold as used to staff members. Which is how my journalist wife brought home Julie Burchill's memoir Unchosen

I'm only reviewing the first chapter. Apparently the last chapter is largely about a strange conflict between Burchill and my wife's cousin's rabbi, who officiated at a wedding I went to several months ago; but despite that tenuous personal connection, I'm not going to carry on. Indeed, rather than make an attempt to summarise what I've read so far, I will talk about another book.

This other book is imaginary (or, alas, is probably not imaginary, but I haven't read one like it). Imagine a memoir where a white person goes on and on about how they love "the blacks". There are pages and pages about how great black people are at sports and rhythmic music, including statistics about the races of past Olympic gold medallists and music award winners. The author of this imaginary book sharply denounces racists, who they implicitly define to be people who criticise the political and military behaviour of some African countries - including black people who complain.

Now replace 'the Blacks' with 'the Jews' and 'some African countries' with 'Israel' and switch around the stereotypes appropriately and you've pretty much got the gist. Burchill defines herself as a 'pro-Semite', which is to anti-Semitism what benevolent sexism is to sexism. It doesn't take many pages to get this across, but somehow she manages to pad it out into a chapter. One might feel tempted to see this as a Stephen Colbair- like performance. Is there any self-awareness lurking underneath her fawning bigotry? By the end of the chapter, it seems clear there's not.

To compare her to Ann Coulter would also be unfair to Ms Coulter. Coulter is cynical and espouses what Frankfurt calls 'bullshit.' I can't know her mind, but I'm confident from context that she knows it's bullshit. Burchill, on the other hand, seems to be as painfully sincere as its possible for a British person to be. (And if this is the result, I can see why sincerity is so taboo.)

It is not enough to call this book terrible. I need a word to use to describe the vegan coconut faux-nutella I bought the other day. The same word cannot possibly describe both. I would eat the whole jar of that stuff before read another chapter of the book - maybe another five jars. The word 'terrible' is far too forgiving. To apply it to this book would be to render it incapable of describing a host of banal things that are ill-conceived and best avoided. Or perhaps, this is the platonic form of the ill-considered and avoidable.

How did this book come to be? When I have a terrible creative idea, which does happen to everyone, usually I can rely on a good friend to gently steer me away from it. I can only conclude that Burchill either has no good friends or they're as monumentally tacky and racist as she is. Unfortunately, its too easy to see why a publisher picked it up and why reviewers, including whoever filled this used review copy with pencil notes, wrote about it. There is, however, an implication that many people bought this book at full price and read it. People who were not paid to do so. People who may have even gotten through the whole thing. What I really want to know is: who are those people? How many of them are there? What on earth are they thinking?

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