Bookmarks: The hellion who taught women not to be nice
A fortnightly column on books and writers
As trade descriptions go, “prickly feminist” sells Germaine Greer somewhat short considering her reputation as one of the most important public intellectuals of our lifetime, and her extraordinary ability for courting controversy. For more than 60 years, the incorrigible and unapologetic Greer, far wittier and ruder than any of her contemporaries, has been a thorn in the side of the establishment with her gleeful stirring up of Western culture.
In the process she has deeply offended even the most devoted of her followers. Consider, for the example, the angry row that followed the publication a few months ago of her last polemic, On Rape (Bloomsbury), in which she declared that rape was often not a “spectacularly violent crime” but more often than not merely “lazy, careless and insensitive”. Her views, in which she distinguished between violent rape, which caused injury, and “everyday, banal rape”, which often did not, were deemed offensive and outdated and she herself was dismissed as demented and irrelevant.
Not that she minded. As she aged, Greer grew increasingly insistent that she cared little for what the establishment thought of her opinions. She has however remained fiercely opposed to being written about. In 1999, when journalist Christine Wallace had a stab at a biography, Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew, Greer went on to label the author an “amoeba”, a “dung-beetle” and a “brain-dead hack”.
Now, to coincide with Greer’s 80th birthday next year, an Australian academic, Elizabeth Kleinhenz, has bravely attempted another biography, Germaine: The Life of Germaine Greer (Scribe). We don’t yet know what Greer thinks of it, but the advance notices have been very good. In The Times of London, Melanie Reid described the book as being “richly human and intellectually lucid, uncontaminated by cheap psychology”.
Kleinhenz, Reid writes, “lays bare Greer’s personal flaws, cruelties and venomous tongue, but her quiet triumph is to balance them with the majestic achievements”. Greer, according to Kleinhenz, “is a genius: unique, prescient, with an extraordinary intellect and energy. And if she’s a bit mad, well, that too is a hallmark of genius. Best of all … she showed women how to escape the curse of being nice.”
Greer’s breakthrough achievement was the publication in 1970 of The Female Eunuch, her landmark study which deeply upset a conservative establishment with its assertion that sexual liberation was the key to women’s liberation. In it, Greer, a committed libertarian, saw women as blighted by the constraints of marriage, family, religion and state. Above all, her treatise wasn’t fuelled by sisterly love. “I had made it in a man’s world and reaped the fruits of the rarity,” she declared. “I enjoyed other people’s husbands without risk to my freedom, and was repaid by their infatuation.”
Indeed. With The Female Eunuch’s publication, which made her rich and famous, Greer set out to court notoriety in any manner possible. She was a “reckless” feature in the London counterculture, drinking, taking drugs and sleeping with whom she pleased. As a celebrity writer, she wrote about group sex with rock stars (in a piece entitled The Universal Tonguebath) and penned a satirical gossip column for Suck magazine, in which she detailed her friends’ love lives.
Greer, Kleinhenz suggests, was a person of several identities: a brilliant Shakespeare scholar, a wit, the provocative academic, the bully, and the “starfucker” and sexual adventurer whose lovers included Martin Amis, Warren Beatty and John Peel (who gave her the clap). She was even married, once, for just three unhappy weeks, after which she came up with her most famous line: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”
ROCK & ROLL
It is ironic that Eric Clapton, whose biggest solo hit was a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff, should have single-handedly kick-started the Rock Against Racism movement with a drunken rant during a 1976 concert on how Britain was becoming a black colony and that Enoch “Rivers of Blood” Powell was just the sort of man to sort out the place.
But then there is a lot that is depressing about Slowhand: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton (Weidenfeld) by Philip Norman, a biographer who has written several terrific books on the Beatles and Rolling Stones. One review suggests the book reads “like a textbook account of all the pathologies of the rock-star life: promiscuity, infidelity, heroin addiction, alcoholism”. For all this, Slowhand is set to be one of the big rock bio stocking stuffers this Christmas. It’s a book that will undoubtedly please his many millions of fans, although hardly likely to encourage newcomers to seek out Clapton’s music.
There’s more rock ’n roll bad behaviour in Mark Blake’s Bring It On Home: Peter Grant, Led Zeppelin, and Beyond – The Story of Rock’s Greatest Manager (Da Capo). Led Zeppelin, of course, were no strangers to excess themselves, and Grant, often described as the fifth member of the band, has featured in various group biographies – 2012’s Trampled Under Foot: The Power and Excess of Led Zeppelin (Faber & Faber) by Barney Hoskyns easily one of the best – but now the gargantuan manager gets a tome of his own.
Apart from Zep, Grant had a hand in the careers of Chuck Berry, Rod Stewart, Bad Company, Queen, the Rolling Stones, The Who and Guns N’ Roses, among others. Among Bring It On Home’s more extraordinary revelations is a plot by Jamaican gangsters to kidnap band members’ children, and death threats from American Satanists. Failing which, the usual profligate promiscuity and substance abuse apply.
Digital technology’s effect on the traditional book grows apace. Meet then the dwarsligger or “flipback” format, a relatively new innovation that publishers claim makes reading a book as easy as swiping a screen and will hopefully entice young readers away from their smartphones.
The term is derived from dwars, meaning “crossways” in Dutch, and liggen, to “lie” but also “a person or object that stands out”. The format was created by Royal Jongbloed, a Dutch printing company that uses ultra-thin, durable paper from a Finnish mill. Basically, the books are a third of the size of a traditional book, are printed in small type, and are turned on their side, with the spine on top, and read like a reporter’s notebook.
Dutton Books, a US imprint of Penguin Random House, has set up a partnership with Royal Jongbloed and has reissued four of the award-winning young adult novelist John Green’s novels in the format: The Fault in our Stars, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines. Green has told the Washington Post that younger readers were the “perfect test ground” for the dwarsligger. “They probably aren’t as set in their ways in how they interact with books,” he said. “And in some ways these books are more similar to a phone-shaped experience.”
“The tiny editions are the size of a cellphone,” the New York Times reported, “and no thicker than your thumb, with paper as thin as onion skin. They can be read with one hand – the text flows horizontally, and you can flip the pages upward, like swiping a smartphone … It’s a bold experiment that, if successful, could reshape the publishing landscape and perhaps even change the way people read.”
(subs/production types: if you want to lift some images, there are some PR pics from PRH here: http://mentalfloss.com/article/562522/dutton-young-adult-books-smartphone-size-john-green)
CRIME, MISDEMEANOURS, ETC
It’s been more than five years since Elmore Leonard passed away, and we’ve yet to come across anyone remotely near as good a crime writer. Still, they try. I was recently informed about Timothy Hallinan’s comic mystery series featuring antihero burglar Junior Bende.
The seventh in the series, Nighttown (Soho Press), is shortly to be published, and I’ve gone back to the first Bender novel, Crashed, to see if I can make a habit of Hallinan. So far, so good, if a bit Lawrence Block-ish: not as forcedly funny as Carl Hiaasen (a good thing), but nowhere near as laconic as Leonard.
For crime fans there’s more holiday binge-reading with Lee Child’s Past Tense (Bantam Press), the 23rd in the Jack Reacher franchise, and Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night (Orion), in which long-standing serial character, retired cop Harry Bosch, teams up with a newcomer, detective Renee Ballard, to investigate the unsolved murder of a 15-year-old runaway.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“People seldom achieve great things without being willing to ride roughshod over the opposition. [Entrepreneurs] are seldom the easiest of heroes, nor the nicest. They will sacrifice anything, from their own peace of mind to the lives of those around them, to build a business empire and then protect that business empire from destruction.” – Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Woolridge (Penguin).