Joan Smith: Memo to Ms Lessing: stop making a fool of yourself

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The Edinburgh Festival is in full swing and the novelist Doris Lessing was billed as a star turn. Sadly, it wasn't her views on literature that grabbed people's attention but some idiotic remarks about men, even though it was clear that the author of The Golden Notebook hadn't a clue what she was on about.

This is partly because her observations appealed to a self-pitying male agenda among newspaper editors who should know better, but it is also a symptom of an unhealthy development in the way we think about writers.

I could use the overworked formula that writing is the new rock'n'roll, with the McEwans and Rushdies of the book world taking their place alongside Mick Jagger and Bryan Ferry. ("Rushdie fails to make Booker long-list! Hold the front page!") It has certainly become a performance art; successful authors' diaries quickly fill up with festivals, where they rub shoulders with stand-up comics, TV presenters and former American presidents. Bill Clinton's appearance at Hay-on-Wye this year is a signal that it is no longer just a literary festival but a hip cultural phenomenon, akin to a rock concert where fans are kept waiting by mega-stars who glad-hand their way through adoring crowds.

It would be nice to think that this reflects the rising status of literature but the opposite is true. Literary festivals all too often replicate the adversarial atmosphere of contemporary broadcasting, where authors are encouraged to get involved in slanging-matches rather than debate. I was recently invited to appear on Radio 5 Live's Nicky Campbell show to talk (or so I thought) about my book Moralities; just in time, Will Self warned me that he and I had both been booked to appear, without my knowledge, with the Sun's ranting right-wing columnist, Richard Littlejohn. Since I couldn't imagine talking sensibly in those circumstances about a book that took two years to research and write, and examines shifts in morality over three centuries, I pulled out. The programme turned into just the sort of noisy altercation I had anticipated.

Authors have become part of celebrity culture, valued not for their ideas or the quality of their writing but for being famous. Martin Amis complains with some justice about journalists' obsession with his dental work, while Salman Rushdie's new novel is a major event, reported well beyond the confines of the literary pages. Fury, published next month, is a cautionary tale about what happens to authors who start believing their own publicity; drawing heavily on recent events in Rushdie's own life, it is notable chiefly for celebrity name-checks and sexual boasting. It is also one of the most execrable pieces of fiction to have been produced by a formerly distinguished author writing in English, and wholly deserving of its exclusion from the Booker long-list. (Don't imagine that this says anything for the judges' critical faculties. Nick Hornby is on the list.)

Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer are among a handful of writers whose features are instantly recognisable in this country – both of them, it has to be said, for the wrong reasons. It is not always so in other cultures, where authors are still valued primarily for their work; one night last year, when I was walking through Taksim Square in Istanbul with the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, we were stopped every few yards by strangers who greeted him by name and asked questions about arcane references in his most famous novel, The Black Book. Orhan's novels are sophisticated and literary – the latest, My Name is Red, is a murder mystery set in the 1590s that addresses the taboo on representation in Islamic art – yet almost everyone seems to have an opinion on them. He goes into Turkish prisons to negotiate with the authorities on behalf of hunger-striking prisoners, quietly fulfilling the role of engagé intellectual so at odds with the chat-show aura that surrounds writers in the UK.

When novelists become celebrated for their love lives or their teeth, we move further away from a culture that values ideas. Anecdotes and sound-bites are the order of the day, and interviewers are affronted when an author confesses to ignorance or tries to discuss historical context. Writers are judged by their ability to provide good copy – no more reliable an indicator of merit than sales – and some of them end up, like Ms Lessing, making complete fools of themselves. I suppose I'd better try to avoid all that when I speak in Edinburgh this evening.


I never imagined I had much in common with Nicole Kidman until I saw the photograph of her leaping in the air to celebrate her divorce. I remember doing something similar in a bus station in Syria, but then I am one of the few people whose divorce came through on the road to Damascus. The hearing took place in Oxford while I was on a British Council tour of Syria, but the fact that I got on a bus married and got off it single was rather exhilarating. It's the only Damascene conversion I am likely to have.

There's still quite a lot of disapproval of divorce, yet it is sometimes a very liberating experience. I don't know about Ms Kidman, but my first day of single life ended with dinner in a Damascus restaurant where the menu included sheep's testicles on a bed of lettuce. I could make the sort of feminist joke that Ms Lessing gets so cross about, but naturally I'm above that sort of thing.

Women don't, as I have pointed out before, get much opportunity to practise polygamy. This makes the Brazilian movie Eu Tu Eles (Me You Them) something of a rarity, as well as being luminously beautiful to look at. The female protagonist, played by the comedian Regina Case, sets up house with her husband, his cousin and a sexy young manual worker. Since the film was completed, the real ménage on which it is based has been disrupted by the departure of the youngest of the three husbands. The wife, apparently, is unfazed. Explaining this development to the movie's director, Andrucha Waddington, she added hopefully: "There is a vacancy."


It's the old dinner-party dilemma for parents: Barbie dolls, should you let your kids have them or refuse on the grounds that they demean women? Now, thanks to a Californian court, the debate has taken a new direction. Tom Forsythe, an artist from Utah, has fought off an action by Mattel Inc, the notoriously humourless corporation that makes the doll. Mattel are none too pleased by some of the ludic uses Mr Forsythe has found for their product: "Missionary Barbie", in which he photographed the doll naked on her back with an electric whisk between her legs, and "Malted Barbie", in which her head peeps from a milkshake machine.

This is not just a wonderful homage to kitsch American culture. Mr Forsythe cites the outcome of the case as – deep breath – "a powerful victory for all feminists who criticise Barbie's stereotype of women and the unquestioning acceptance that allows Mattel to sell these hypersexualised hunks of plastic". So it's cool to have a Barbie, as long as – like the doll in Mr Forsythe's seminal photograph, "Heatwave" – she is skewered in a rotisserie.