Why Books Matter

Howard Jacobson could only have produced his attack on anti-Zionism in The Finkler Question as a book. I don’t mean that as a novelist he was highly unlikely to write it as anything else, but that the book trade provides the last, best refuge for original and uncomfortable debates in Britain.

   A playwright would not dream of offering the National a drama about how and why Jews ended up endorsing anti-Semitism and going along with fascistic Islamist movements. As Jacobson shows, the present position of British Jews is full of hypocrisy, conflict, folly and pathos, but the National would never have agreed to explore these compelling tensions on stage, because Jacobson is attacking the assumptions of its administrators and actors.

   Nor would the BBC have gone near his critique of liberal thinking if he had offered it as a radio or television play. Leaving aside the fact that Jacobson’s protagonist is an ex-Radio 3 producer who is scathing about its employees – “a woman’s inability to be stylish no matter how hard she tried always moved Julian Treslove. Which meant he was moved by most of the women he worked near in the BBC” – Jacobson’s view of the world is beyond the comprehension of its editors.   (I will be interested to see whether Radio 4 serialises The Finkler Question now it has won the Booker. It ought to, but….)

    For the same reasons, literary journalists downplayed the novel’s vicious political satire to the point where I thought they were misleading readers. I am not suggesting malice, simply that Jacobson’s arguments were so far removed from the arguments of polite society that they did not know how to handle them.

    Take for instant this scene at a meeting of ASHamed Jews in a room at the Groucho Club.

   “The Boycott” was a shorthand term for the Comprehensive Academic Cultural Boycott of Israeli  Universities and Institutions. There were other boycotts on the table but the Comprehensive Academic Cultural Boycott was the talk of the hour, the boycott that trumped all other boycotts, mainly for the reason that its chief sponsors were academics or otherwise cultured persons themselves and could imagine no greater deprivation than being denied access to academic conferences or having your latest paper refused by a learned magazine.

  Or this description of ASHamed Jews’ celebrity members. They have resolved to their satisfaction the tricky question of how they could be ashamed of Israel if they had never been Zionists by deciding that they would be ashamed as Jews. However…

  “The logic that made it impossible for those who had never been Zionists to call themselves ASHamed Zionists did not extend to Jews who had never been Jews. To be an ASHamed Jew did not require that you had been knowingly Jewish all your life. Indeed, one among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he’d had. ‘It could explain where I get my comic genius from,’ he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting ‘We are all Hezbollah’ outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday.”

      The BBC, Channel 4 and the wider arts have made their minds up that all right is on one side of this argument as they have made their minds up on so many other arguments. It is not that they have a debate and allow competing voices to appear,. They regard the argument as so conclusively proved that there is no reason for a debate at all.

   In my Observer column I talk about how stilted British cultural life has become. How ways of thinking and strains of thought have been so comprehensively shut out that the idea that a modern playwright could also be a Tory and write from a Tory sensibility seems astonishing to us, when it would have appeared unremarkable 50 years ago. I am not saying there is a conspiracy. The Controller of Radio 4 does not convene secret meetings in which blacklists of banned writers and indexes of banned thoughts are drawn up. Rather the taboos of cultural life are diffused by a process of osmosis; by raised eyebrows and pursed lips, and faint coughs. To use that old description of the British establishment, the unwritten rules are set by a “committee that never meets”.

  Except in publishing, which does not depend on Arts Council grants and the licence fee, like the theatre and the BBC, and which is not dominated by megalomaniac proprietors, like the press.

   I speak from experience when I say that if you have a controversial proposal for a book, and your publisher does not like it, you just can take it to another publisher with no hard feelings. He or she is more than likely to seize on it for it is precisely the points of view the mainstream does not represent that are most likely to seem fresh to readers. If however, the National rejects a play for political reasons, the Royal Court or Birmingham Rep has little incentive to take it because state funding means it does not have to worry overmuch about finding new audiences. As for aspiring broadcasters, if the BBC rejects a radio play, there is nowhere else to take it. You either conform or give up.

  Luckily for Jacobson, he is a novellist working in a trade which still values the battle of ideas as well as, in his case, brilliant story telling. Lucky for readers as well, many of whom are going to find The Finkler Question a book the like of which they have never read before.

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