Howard Jacobson is the worst living writer

by Sam Kriss

Linger but a while, dear reader, on these words – and forgive me my presumptive apostrophising, but the fact, crude as it may be, yet remains: you are my sadly anonymous reader, and I am the great and lauded novelist Howard Jacobson, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, once the winner, fêted by the literary establishment for my wry and incisive wit, my charming, bittersweet empathy, my deft dabbings of sentiment, my scarf, my beard, and all my other many enlivening qualities. I’ve read Ulysses. By this point you might already feel an exhaustion, or a poison bulge of resentment suppurating in the back of your throat; you may long for me to get to the point. But I beseech you, put this aside. Learn, as King Solomon is said to have learned, that all things must pass. I’ve also read Middlemarch. The point may never arrive, or it may only come in the final sentence. What a life this might be if we could grow beyond humanity’s unfortunate predilection for the pointed! No more blades to cut and wound, nor razor-wire to keep us apart from one another, only soft, sagging flesh, or the generous shade of trees, which I adore, oaks especially. Did I, perchance, mention that I’ve read Ulysses? It is, in many ways, the point (there it is again) of apotheosis of the grand Victorian humanist novel, and might you discern something of Leopold Bloom in my humble self? Reader, perhaps you may. A learned toleration, a mournful libidinality, a gentleness and goodness that so faintly lingers from a time now past. How I yearn for a world of peace and unity! But, malheureusement, that is not the sphere on which we have sprouted. So in the meantime, please allow me to nurture this seedling of a scintilla in your intracranial folds, let it grow and take root: we must shoot the proles and nuke the Gaza Strip.

There’s something uniquely repulsive about Howard Jacobson’s weekly columns in the independent. His books are bad, but they’re bad in the normal way, the way in which basically all recent capital-L Literary novels are bad. Like Donna Tartt, or Jonathan Franzen, or Haruki Murakami, or Karl Ove Knausgård, or that one that you quite like. The way in which any lingering (post-)modernist concern for the questions of what a text is and what its possibilities might be are shunted aside in favour of minute observations about family life and sexual neuroses occasionally jumbled up with flatulent pronouncements on the Human Condition. It’s a little like a return to the traditions of 19th century realism (an era in which, as now, the only actually worthwhile English novels were shoddily produced, amateurishly written, and shamelessly pulpy), but more than that it’s the dying pant of the novel as a dominant literary form. Howard Jacobson’s particular shtick is that all his novels are a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male writing a novel about a middle-class, middle-aged Jewish male; it’s like Philip Roth on benzodiazepines. Shoddy but not unusual. But as a columnist, he’s the absolute worst in Britain, and very possibly the world.

This isn’t something I say lightly. As you’d expect from a class of people who, looking out at a planet full of constant horror, mostly see the chance to have a correct or profitably offensive opinion about it, the professional commentariat is a gallery of monsters and imbeciles. Katie Hopkins, circling the drowning refugees in her speedboat as she cackles through plasticky gums. Jeremy Clarkson’s jeans, which have long sunk into his skin and colonised his organs, so that he’s now just denim all the way through, entertainingly calling for the mass extermination of this week’s despised minority. An army of broadsheet bores, endlessly droning in the imperative mood, telling the public and the government and the opposition what they should and shouldn’t do, as if having a column in a daily newspaper confers some kind of spiritual leadership. Simon Jenkins. Jonathan Jones. Me. But Howard Jacobson isn’t satisfied with the usual conventions of the bad opinion column; he’s a Booker-winning novelist, deigning to bring his subtle art to this most debased of forms – mostly by draping run-of-the-mill reactionary opinions in the kind of sanctimonious waffle that makes you wish for the sleek, punchy polemicism of a Richard Littlejohn or a Melanie Phillips. Howard Jacobson could write two thousand words on how a square has four sides, tack on some class chauvinism or virulent anti-Palestinian rhetoric, and produce something virtually indistinguishable from his usual output. Howard Jacobson is Britain’s worst living writer.

It’s sadly not possible to go through every single one of Howard Jacobson’s terrible columns, but luckily in the last month alone he’s managed to produce some of his stupidest crap to date. I’ll start with the fluff. Exhibit A, a column from the 18th of September, titled ‘I don’t understand this ‘LinkedIn’ and the way it evokes memories of childhood rejection in me.’ This is a late contribution to the genre of Old People Vocally Infuriated By The Internet, and has apparently come to us through a wormhole leading to the year 2006, when it was last acceptable for apparently serious newspapers to print sentiments along the lines of ‘What’s all this Face-Book nonsense? Why don’t you just read an actual book, with your actual face?’ It also bears a strange resemblance to the slogan t-shirts still sold (but to whom?) in Camden Market and souvenir shops, the ones with messages like ‘Forget Google – ask my wife!’ or ‘You looked better on Facebook’ – although these at least have the virtue of brevity. In his essay, Jacobson describes receiving an (almost certainly automated) email from some unknown person inviting him to use the social networking service, and while he refuses, he’s still wracked by guilt, by ‘the idea of someone hanging on, anxiously eyeing the mail every morning, wondering if you received the original request, wondering if you’ve responded yet, wondering if you ever will’ – which is naturally bound to bring a Proustian reminiscence of ‘all the rebuffs and repudiations one’s suffered – in my case a half a century of unrequitedness.’ Jacobson isn’t just confused by what the website does, he can’t even work out its name – but because he’s an award-winning writer, he’s befuddled in a profoundly literary way. ‘Never having heard it spoken, and possessing no instinct for cyber semiotics, I couldn’t make out the word the letters added up to.’ Eventually he decides it’s ‘a Finnish translation of the name of a princess from One Thousand and One Nights […] the Princess Link-a-din.’ A simple two-word phrase is too much for him, which raises the unsettling implication that this lauded men of letters is actually functionally illiterate.

Jacobson’s inevitable prescription is to log off. ‘Only deconnect,’ he says (see what he did there?). ‘Out in the free, uncompromised world of the unlinked no hell-troll can hound the mildest Corbyn sceptic.’ Which is a strange way of framing things, given that earlier in the month Jacobson had written an article neatly slotting the then-leadership candidate into his grand overarching mythos, a kind of fantasy world in which the political Left, and in particular the Palestine solidarity movement, is motivated solely by a foaming hatred of the Jews. (And what about those anti-zionists who, like myself, happen to be Jewish? In his novel The Finkler Question, we’re represented in the title character’s former incarnation as a greedy, egotistical Shylock character, cynically deploying his Jewishness to curry favour with pro-Palestinian Gentiles while in fact pathologically hating his own people. In Kalooki Nights a similar figure, a cartoonist desperate to expunge his unwanted Jewishness onto the page, discovers to his horror that the people commissioning his work are overt antisemites. In other words, we’re just self-haters. In which case, Howard Jacobson is just another cop putting fences up around the borders of Jewish identity.) The point, when he gets round to it, is this: let’s say Corbyn is not himself an antisemite – although of course it’s not ‘possible to guarantee the complexion of another’s soul’ – but why does he spend so much time hanging out with people who are? Why does he want to boycott Israel but not Hamas? It’s a boring and boorish smear, cribbed directly from our more frenzied tabloids; what Jacobson does, in his inimitable style, is add insufferability to stupidity. ‘The offence you take at any imputation of prejudice is the hollow hypocrite’s offence,’ he says to Corbyn, ‘and your protestations of loving peace and justice, no matter who believes them, are as ash.’ A solid effort, but it could be improved by using the full phrase, beloved by teenage poets for decades, ‘as ashes in my mouth.’ The Booker Prize comes with an award of £50,000. There’s no justice.

Jacobson never outrightly states that Palestine solidarity is driven by antisemitism (he’s far too literary for that); he just occasionally wonders, or considers, or innocently questions the motives of this or that person, again and again, in column after column, a lone man in a small cell farting out little insubstantial clouds of suspicion until the accumulating stink fills the room. From his attack on Corbyn: ‘The truism that criticism of Israel does not equate to anti-Semitism is repeated ad nauseam. Nor, necessarily, does it. But those who leave out the “necessarily” ask for a universal immunity. Refuse it and they trammel you in the “How very dare you” trap.’ How very dare you indeed. When footage emerged of a young Queen performing a Nazi salute, Jacobson did all the requisite forelock-tugging – ‘I know she is good for the Jews. How do I know? I just know’ – before, in the last two paragraphs, saying what he really sat down to say: British Jews like Howard and I shouldn’t be worried about the be-swastika’d upper classes, but we should be terrified of Hezbollah, Hamas, and the political Left (where antisemitism ‘goes by another name’). In 2009, immediately after a war that killed nearly 1,500 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis, Jacobson wrote a column with the title ‘Let’s see the ‘criticism’ of Israel for what it really is.’ Within, amid the usual self-inflating pontification, he described comparisons between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto as ‘the latest species of Holocaust denial.’ In 2011, he wrote a kind of open letter to his fellow author Alice Walker, begging her not to join the aid flotilla to Gaza that would shortly be subjected to murderous State piracy in international waters. In particular, he focuses on the fact that the flotilla was carrying ‘letters expressing solidarity and love’ for children in Gaza. This offends his egalitarian instincts. ‘Not, presumably, for Israeli children. Perhaps it is thought that Israeli children are the recipients of enough love already. So what about solidarity?’ What really grates Jacobson about the anti-occupation movement is its certitude, the way they’ve entirely made up their minds – how gauche, how unsophisticated; they should, like him, airily flit between parties, make a big show of holding them up to equal scrutiny, before inevitably fluttering to rest on the side of the nuclear-powered colonialists rather than the people they’re occupying.

Not that Howard Jacobson’s prejudice is limited to the oppressed peoples of the Middle East: he has plenty of scorn for the poor and tactless here at home. Take another piece, also published in the last month, on lad culture at British universities. For Jacobson, the problem with sexual assault on campus isn’t the sexual assault, it’s the fact that it’s happening on campus. The problem is that universities are no longer for the elite, but have been invaded by a tide of oversexed oiks. He looks back fondly on his days as a student at Cambridge, when everyone at university was shy, scrawny, studious, celibate, and not ‘interested in the carnivals of the proletariat.’ In his telling, over-serious middle class boys never rape anyone, only the feral underclasses. Jacobson and his dweeby cohort were, he says with all apparent seriousness, just like Paul Morel in DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers – a strange citation, given that Morel wasn’t exactly a standard-bearer for good sexual ethics. ‘Where have men of this sort gone?’ (They’ve probably all escaped to Link-a-din.) He continues: ‘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. 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.’ Besides his thoughtless class hatred, Jacobson betrays an incredibly impoverished attitude to literature – the idea that it exists to turn us into kinder, milder, gentler people, that great art ought to be a kind of primitive Xanax. (Should someone tell Howard Jacobson what DH Lawrence actually got up to? Maybe instead of Sons and Lovers he should have read Women in Love, which towards the end features another wealthy and bookish young man attempting to strangle his girlfriend to death.) He ends with a defiant insight: ‘Sex is better when it’s mutual and, better still, when the parties to it pause occasionally to read a book together.’ Midway through the act? Maybe he’s freakier than I thought.

Unlike the best tabloid columnists, real masters of their craft, Howard Jacobson never entertainingly rolls around in the muck of his own hatred. Instead, against all the evidence, he insists that he’s a good right-on liberal – a socialist, even. After all, how could anyone be prejudiced when they have such a profound love of words? Even if it’s a love that he expresses in the same way Paul Morel expresses his love for Miriam: by imposing himself on them. But the real question isn’t why Jacobson is so bad; it’s why people still seem to respect him despite his total worthlessness. If this is how our heroes write now, then literature ought to be put out of its misery. In a way, Howard Jacobson really does perform a trenchant and incisive critique of our society – but it’s not in the things that he writes, it’s in the reaction to them.

One last one. Jacobson’s most recent column, published over the weekend, is another ebulliently witty broadside against any and all criticism of Israel. This time, his ire is drawn by a Spanish clowning troupe who protested by stripping naked in front of the apartheid wall near Bethlehem, inadvertently upsetting some local residents. Cue the usual whinging about the fiendish complexity of the situation, and how ‘meddlesome’ it is for anyone other than Howard Jacobson to take a moral stance. But before he gets there, a brief detour on the virtues of staying shtum when you don’t have anything of value to contribute, in this ‘age of immoderate opinion unhampered by knowledge.’ Jacobson quotes Wittgenstein, or, at least, a scrap of Wittgenstein he picked up somewhere else: ‘I don’t grasp what philosophical problem concerning language and reality the sentence “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” addresses – but I am going to employ it, anyway, against those who don’t know their arses from their elbows and ought to shut the fuck up.’ Physician, mate, heal thyself.

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