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Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut book cover
Slaughterhouse-Five, or, The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969) is Kurt Vonnegut’s cult-classic war novel that deals with the Dresden bombings of World War II and the absurdity of war generally. In truly post-modern style, the first chapter is devoted to the novel’s narrator as he agonises over the writing of the story, and ponders the difficulty and futility of anti-war books, before starting on his protagonist’s tale. Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, is a child soldier – too green for war but sent to Germany to assist in the effort. Captured, he is put to work in Dresden as a Prisoner of War, and sees the allied bombing of 1945 (as Vonnegut himself did), which destroyed 15 square miles of the city and killed 25,000 people (less than a fifth of the number estimated in Slaughterhouse-Five, according to current figures). Billy has seen the arbitrary cruelty of humanity, and struggles to reconcile this knowledge with the normal life he is expected to lead when he returns home from war. His solution is to lose himself in science-fiction, literally. His chosen place of refuge is Tralfamadore, a planet many miles from Earth where Billy is kept in a Tralfamadorian zoo and forced to mate with Montana Wildhack, a fellow detainee, for the alien public. In the real world, Billy is an optometrist and lives a quiet suburban life, but his story drifts – he is “unstuck in time” – and, like the Tralfamadorians, Billy doesn’t view life as a linear series of events but rather sees all events of a life at once.

The reality of Dresden is sobering and highlights the confused moral standards during war. That Vonnegut was a PoW in Dresden at the time of the bombing in 1945, and worked at Slaughterhouse-Five only roots the novel more firmly in reality, no matter where Billy’s mind may take him. Indeed, Billy’s mind twists furiously as it tries to escape the guilt he feels not only for his survival of the massacre but for his complicity with the Allied bombers who wreaked the devastation upon Dresden. While Billy’s descent into delusion might appear a descent into madness it is, perhaps, a rational response to what he has witnessed, and it is the world around him, which reconciles the horrors that so traumatise Billy, which is the mad one. Either way, Billy’s travels through time and space are certainly a coping mechanism brought on as a consequence of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Slaughterhouse-Five it is the innocent who suffer; Billy and his companions are wrecks of men, the war ravaging their bodies through illness, lack of food, and poor hygiene. The soldiers are treated as (killing) machines by their country, sent out beyond their will to act as pawns in a game they have no control over. In war, violence is arbitrary and human life is devalued almost to the point of worthlessness. While the Dresden issue is undoubtedly complex, Slaughterhouse-Five represents the worst (/reality) of war; there is nothing heroic about Billy and his companions, and those characters that glorify war are those most sneered at.

Like Billy and the narrator, America itself suppresses the memory of Dresden (information on the bombings is still denied the narrator when he requests it). As with a PTSD patient who cannot look the root of their illness squarely in the eye, the narrator dances around the memory of Dresden, never engaging with, and relaying it fully. For Billy, returning to innocence and freeing himself of responsibility is hugely important. A particularly famous scene, in which Billy views bomber planes in reverse, scooping up their destructive discharge and returning home, emphasises Billy’s hopeless desire to return to a state of innocence. On Tralfamadore he is the only human male – special, unique – he embraces his body and the attention he receives from the Tralfamadorians and his fellow-detainee and sexual partner, Montana. She is his Eve, and the zoo itself is strongly reminiscent of Eden – another indication that Billy wishes to retreat back to a time before Knowledge. While interned in the zoo, Billy is expected to perform for the public who are in his thrall. Thus, as well as representing a safe cocoon away from responsibility for Billy, the zoo is also a comment on how humans treat ‘lesser’ creatures.

Following on from his war experience, Billy receives little to no support back in the USA. Vonnegut attacks the psychiatric profession by showing psychiatrists misdiagnosing the root of Billy’s mania and failing to look after him post-war, and it is clear that Billy desperately needs the support of someone who can help him cope with his PTSD. But Billy is alone – no one depends on him, and he depends on no one. Alone in time and space, he is unstuck not just from time but from humanity too. Indeed, many of Billy’s fantasies revolve around being accepted as part of a group, loved and cared for; they are desperate, internal cries for help. Billy is closed, emotionally, to the world. He lives a numbed existence where he does not react to things that happen around him. Instead he sees them off with the passive, emotionless mantra, “so it goes,” which marks every death in the book.

In the real world, he tries to find companionship and escape in marriage but Valencia, Billy’s wife, is distinctly unappealing despite being rich. She is a gluttonous consumer and Billy marries her in no small part to access her family wealth and the connections the match brings. But money is no solution to his problems; it is merely a temporary anaesthetic. A big part of the development and / or recovery from PTSD is the society which supports the sufferer. Billy’s descent is as much a comment on the community he returns to after the war as the city in Germany where the bombs fell. Many of the characters share Billy’s isolation, and Vonnegut here forces the reader to reflect on the fractured state of community, individuals caring too little for the collective. Interestingly, modern technologies and scientific advances are treated as barriers to humanity within Slaughterhouse-Five, whether it be the lack of real help the newly developing field of psychiatry can offer Billy, or the technology that allows for the great destruction of Dresden in the first place.

Tralfamadorian beliefs – that death, free will, and time do not exist as they are understood by humans – help Billy. Morality is a concept alien to the Tralfamadorians – without free will, there is no right or wrong to be aspired to, only the continual trudge through existence. Tralfamadorian philosophy essentially focuses on the good in the world and ignores the bad, deeming it impossible to change. It’s a comfortable escapism that suits Billy down to the ground. If, as with the Tralfamadorians non-linear view of time, all events have been decided then free will is an illusion – even though our perception is limited to the present, nothing we can do will alter our future. It’s a thought that simultaneously absolves Billy of all responsibility for himself and provides a suffocating structure under which to live.

The narrative perspective and tense shift at different points in the novel. Nevertheless, Billy’s future is in fact an interpretation of his past. As he flashes through time, the different stages of Billy’s life are placed beside one another, intermingling, and perhaps suggesting that there is less difference between his war experience and his experience of society than one might imagine on first thought. The timescale is as fragmented as Billy’s own personality. However, literature itself follows, almost by definition, a temporal order, if not in terms of plot then at least in terms of the reader’s consumption of the plot. Slaughterhouse-Five, though, creates more of a circular structure which wraps back on itself without reaching conclusions. This circularity reflects the theme of regeneration that runs throughout Slaughterhouse-Five.

Vonnegut’s style is dry, both in humour and in prose. While more restrained than in many of his other works, here Vonnegut’s humour is at its blackest, and the sharp prose, too, which remains unadorned by expansive adjectives, highlights the simplicity and matter-of-factness of the state of things.

Vonnegut is not the disengaged narrator; he sits above, pondering a species who can look on death and repeat atrocities again and again. The writing of Slaughterhouse-Five was in itself a cathartic process for Vonnegut, and sets him apart from his main character, in that he chose to face the facts of Dresden and engage with the reality of its consequences. Slaughterhouse-Five does not suggest that escapism is the best way to cope with the horror of existence, but to engage and empathise with the world (indeed, nearly all the problems in Billy’s life are caused by quietism and an inability to empathise on someone’s part). This is how future atrocities, big or small, might be prevented.

Really enjoyed this - an interesting way of dealing with the effects of war on the individual, and more than that even.


Useful Links
Reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five on Amazon (US)

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell book cover
Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) by Malcolm Gladwell is a quirky look at what makes people successful. Why are the vast majority of ice hockey stars born between January and March? What propelled Bill Gates to stupendous success? Why are so many corporate lawyers Jewish? Where did the Beatles musical talent come from? Gladwell attempts to answer all of these questions and more in his exploration of what makes an outlier (a person who enjoys exceptional success, by Gladwell’s definition). His aim is to counter the American success story paradigm, which lauds exceptional individuals whose tenacity and talent forces them to the top of their field: the ideal of the perfect meritocracy. Gladwell, instead of propagating this myth, sets out to explain how vitally important each outliers’ personal circumstances and opportunities are. His method for doing this is to recount a number of stories – scientific investigations of anomalies made personal by Gladwell – and tie these together to support his thesis. Through this chatty style of inductive reasoning, Gladwell lays out some interesting ideas and provides a starting point for the reader who wants to investigate further some of the ideas we hold about success.

Gladwell’s positioning of the outstandingly successful as ‘outliers’ is a brilliant piece of marketing, which encapsulates his great talent for taking relatively mundane or well-known information and spinning it into something far more tantalising. Gladwell’s definition of outliers ties in with the scientific definition of the word; that is to say, those anomalies so far off the chart as not to be worth mapping with the regular data. But, while Gladwell might start by discussing the truly exceptional – the one in a billion, where it is quite clear that a large number of variables need to align to facilitate success – for the most part he is actually considering those who are successful in a more everyday sense; those at the top of the chart, rather than off it altogether. Naturally, this makes the stories far more relatable for the reader, even if it somewhat muddles the theme of the book.

In essence, Gladwell argues for the Matthew effect, that success is "grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances". For him "no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone". Gladwell’s contention is pretty simple: hard work + opportunity = success (as opposed to innate talent = success). Of course, there is more to it than that, as he discusses (tenacity and social skills are particularly important), but this construction is fundamentally what Outliers sets out to prove.

After positing this (albeit unexceptional) idea Gladwell goes over a series of examples drawn from theories and research already published, and uses these to illustrate the point in one way or another. While most of these are spun into interesting, personal stories, too much time is spent on some. To offer an example of one of the early chapters, Gladwell starts off in interesting territory by demonstrating that Canadian ice hockey players are more likely to be born in the first quarter of the year than at any other time. The reason? Most youth teams are split by age, determined by the year a child is born, i.e. if a child is born in January he will be playing with other children who are up to twelve months younger and less developed than himself. This being the case, he is more likely to appear a superior player and thus have resources poured into his development, only accentuating the difference.

The style of recounting stories and tying them to empirical research is engaging. It is, however, important to acknowledge that Gladwell digs into his examples in a superficial way – as one would expect in a book like Outliers – and that the conclusions he draws must be viewed in this light. For any of the examples he uses to demonstrate his point, there are more nuanced readings available and a broader range of opinion not covered by Gladwell. This is inevitable, but it is worth bearing in mind when assessing the validity of some of the conclusions drawn here. So, while there is no real data or statistical analysis provided to support Gladwell’s line of thinking (which is not always fully explicated), there are interesting snatches of information, some of which may be new to the reader.

One significant problem with Gladwell’s method is that, on the whole, he examines those who have succeeded in isolation, rather than comparing them to others who were presented with comparable opportunities and put the work in. Equally, taking a success story and then looking back to identify the events of greatest significance to that success is problematic – after all, this can be done from any starting point, but no firm conclusion can ever be drawn. Humans love to draw patterns from information, but Gladwell never truly considers the randomness of success, and this feels like a missed step.

Gladwell has honed his remarkably clear writing style at both the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and is today one of the most readable pop. sociology / economics journalists. That style is evident here, as he relays each new piece of scientific knowledge in an easy and relatable manner. Certainly, a lot is over-simplified because of this approach and the readability-reliability balance may be slightly off, but this is a difficult balancing act, and Gladwell pulls it off fairly well. That said, when one sits down at the end of reading the book and evaluates what has been learnt, the new information can be covered in a handful of bullet points (see most reviews / synopses of the book). While reading Outliers, it might feel interesting, but ultimately there is little of true originality and it doesn’t expand one’s mind greatly. It would be a worryingly disengaged mind that finds any of Gladwell’s conclusions here paradigm-shifting, but he lays out his argument relatively well and succeeds in drawing together and dressing up different examples, which should engage the reader.

Gladwell closes with the vague conclusion that society ought to be better shaped to support and nurture all people and not explain away success by the myth of innate talent. It’s a message that’s hard to disagree with, although it’s ambiguous enough that each reader can take what they want from it (somehow, one suspects the underlying socialist slant of this conclusion is not one neoliberal America is likely to leap to embrace in its purest form).

One should be very cautious when a book / author takes a position that either (a) means it’s possible for anyone to succeed if they follow certain steps, or (b) explains away their lack of success by something other than lack of talent or effort on their part. Outliers does both (firstly by suggesting innate talent is less important than putting in a significant amount of practice, i.e. 10,000 hours, on a particular skill (as found by Anders Ericsson in 1990), and secondly, by making clear that to succeed one also has to been presented with prime opportunities over which one has no control), and so one must be careful when dealing with its findings. Through this slant it’s not difficult to see why Outliers has been one of the most popular pop. science books of the last few years, but it certainly has its limitations. If Gladwell’s aim is to explain why some people are successful and some aren’t, he fails. If his aim is to expound a theory to which he subscribes, then he does so relatively engagingly.

Engaging enough while it lasts, but not particularly satisfying.


Useful Links
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Outliers on Amazon (US)

Reading Plan: September 2014

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut book cover
Summer is trudging off into the distance, Autumn (Fall, for my lovely American pals) is limbering up, and the new academic year is almost here. I hope sincerely that August has been good to you wherever you’ve enjoyed it, and that you’re looking forward to cosy autumnal nights curled up with a good book. A little premature? Possibly. We still have the dying embers of Summer to enjoy after all. I can’t make up my mind if the thought of the new academic year beginning and my life becoming twice as busy as a consequence is an exciting thing or not – lazy summers rather suit me, but there’s something special about stepping into a new term: no one yet being annoyed about how little work you’re prepared to do, exams a million miles off, and your brain all empty and comfortable from a summer’s neglect… no, just me?

But to the books, you say? I suppose that is what we’re here for after all (if it’s not what you’re here for, you might want to make your excuses and step away now, because there’s naught but disappointment coming your way otherwise). Before I get onto this month’s reads, a bit of shameless plugging: I hope you all got a chance to read my interview with Noah B. E. Church last month – he’s got some interesting things to say on our consumption of pornography and I think the things he talks about are going to grow into bigger areas of debate than they already are. If you haven’t read it yet, do. Now. (Well, ok, finish reading this post first. But then, get to it.)

With less than a month until I have coursework, etc. to contend with once more, I shall attempt to make the most of the time we have together before I am somewhat distracted (I realise my posts last year rather dwindled). So, how about Slaughterhouse-5 as my read of the month? A good cult classic to bring in the new year, what could be better? War and PTSD, incomparably good fun.

I’d wanted to run a few posts on Jane Eyre and books relating to that in some way but time is rather ticking down on that at the moment. I’m also dragging myself through Martin Amis’s new novel, The Zone of Interest – Amis does the holocaust mkII – which has yet to capture my imagination (I know, shock horror!). I’m seeing a talk Amis is giving in October so I’ll be willing myself to finish (and enjoy) the book by then!

I also want to write something about Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – every so often I dip my toes into popular science/sociology/economics, etc. and I’m never quite sure it’s for me. I read this a few weeks ago when I wasn’t really in the mood for fiction, and I’m a little unsure what I made of it (not much is increasingly the feeling). I’d be interested to know if anyone else is a fan of Gladwell, or what you have made of his writing.

So there are a handful of things for me to chew over in the last few days of our British summer – pack the Pimms up everyone, the party’s over…

Notable Posts from July
Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Review: Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church
Interview: Noah B. E. Church
Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Homage to Catlonia by George Orwell book cover
Homage to Catalonia (1938) is George Orwell’s account of his time in Spain fighting alongside the Republicans in 1936/37. Fought in the years leading up to World War II, the Spanish Civil War was in many senses an international war, with pro- and anti-Fascists from across Europe travelling to join the fight. It was while Orwell was putting the finishing touches to The Road to Wigan Pier in December 1936 that he decided to join the fighting. Until that point he had not written significantly on Spain, but felt an increasingly restless need to fight fascism in a practical sense and so, with a naïve idealism about revolution and valour in battle yet to be thrown off, Orwell set out for Barcelona. On arriving, he fell into allegiance with the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista), a revolutionary Marxist group that was part of the Republican effort. He would fight beside its members for months on the Aragonese front, and would later be targeted, as part of the POUM, by fellow Republicans as in-fighting erupted in Barcelona. Homage to Catalonia is split between Orwell’s personal recounting of his time spent in Spain, and an analysis of the political situation, in particular the propaganda and tangle of factions nominally on the left.

Orwell’s account of the war is personal and covers only a small part of the fighting – he acknowledges as much himself. It is an account of warfare that is far from modern, from his poorly trained comrades and the lack of weaponry or food, to the boredom and inaction of the trenches. Regardless of political purpose, Orwell’s time in the trenches is a dirty miserable experience that appears largely futile, and Orwell returns with little to show save for a fresh bullet wound to his throat (which is played down in the book) and an admiration of the Spanish. It wasn’t until Orwell later reflected on his experiences in Spain that he came to see it as an important point in his development as a political writer; a coming-of-age.

The politics of the war were far more complicated than many, including Orwell when he set out, appreciated. Far from a simplistic case of the workers and communist / liberal supporters versus the fascists, things were an awful lot more complex. Indeed, Orwell’s scathing assessment of communism’s involvement in Spain would later cause much of the left to dissociate itself from the book on its publication and Orwell’s stance, the thrust of which is typified by the following quote:

"In reality it was the Communists above all others who prevented revolution in Spain. Later, when the Right-wing forces were in full control, the Communists showed themselves willing to go a great deal further than the Liberals in hunting down the revolutionary leaders."

The blend of bourgeois communism, socialism, centrism, and various other ideologies practiced in the Republican-controlled part of Spain where Orwell stayed frequently appear farcical, fracturing one side of the war along lines, at times, of almost non-existent difference in doctrine and crippling the effort. As Orwell describes the Stalinist police fighting the anarchists who attempt to retain the chaotic liberation the war has won for them, the politics of the situation can become more than a little confusing. Eventually, the POUM (the small political group that Orwell has been fighting alongside) act as scapegoats for the outbursts of violence and Orwell is hounded. Tellingly, it is in his protectiveness when writing of the POUM that one most feels Orwell’s in-group bias towards his comrades (whether his opinion be right or not).

Homage to Catalonia is not just a recounting of the war, however. It is also written to reveal truths about politics as Orwell saw them from his conflicted position (he being both anti-Franco and critical of the Loyalists, strongly Socialist and anti-Communist). Many of Orwell’s views of the war are controversial, or at least, disputable. Perhaps most pertinent is the idealism with which he still writes here, which causes him to believe that without the Communist intervention against the POUM, the small group might have achieved the social revolution it sought. In truth, although an important period in Orwell’s life and the development of his political thinking, it would take some time for him to work through the problems he encountered in Spain and to shift his opinions on man and society to the more cynical position his later writing took.

One of the key things that Orwell experiences about war is the falsity of propaganda, not just in Spain but as a principal in general. He identifies the remoteness from the frontline of the spinners of lines (“All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting”) and much of the shifting of perspectives brought on by propaganda is reminiscent of 1984, where Eurasia and Eastasia are seen almost as interchangeable allies / enemies; so too the many factions in the Spanish civil war.

As Orwell himself warns, it is important to be vigilant to the author’s own biases. Homage to Catalonia covers only a very slim part of the conflict and Orwell was aware of this. But for all Orwell’s view is subjective, it is his own truth – straight and honest as he sees it. His honesty about his own fallibility and the less than glamourous state of things persuades the reader of the author’s reliability. As Orwell writes of the propaganda of the communists one is very aware that his own writing is part of the propaganda battle in its way, and yet, as is one of the qualities that has allowed Orwell’s writing to resonate, his own voice feels less sure and more honest than many of those he writes against. As an empiricist, Orwell’s insistence on experiencing the things he wrote about first hand is rarely more important than here. While it is possible to throw oneself into poverty in the knowledge that a warm bed is waiting somewhere should one need it, to plunge oneself into the middle of a chaotic war is something quite different. Though wild and naïve, the decision to do this is what makes Orwell’s account so readable – his honesty in the face of horrific conditions brings human experience to the political discussions he later indulges in.

Orwell’s clear, straight descriptions impress upon the reader the conditions of the trenches without glamourising the act of warfare. For a public school boy brought up on the type of colonial fiction that celebrated the valour of battle, Spain was undoubtedly an experience that helped Orwell to throw off some of the misinformation poured into him during his upbringing, the remnants of which are still visible in Homage to Catalonia. His wry humour and sincere writing, which lacks affect for the most part, carry the reader with the author as he espouses his views on the war.

Orwell’s writing was counter to the persuasive ideologies many were getting caught up with at the time – he demonstrated that, regardless of stance, any ideology could result in disaster if its proponents didn’t heed the necessity for truth and fairness. Later Homage to Catalonia might have been appropriated as a means of condemning Communist policy by the American side of the Cold War, but Orwell’s comments are far broader than that. It is a pity that the book did not sell in any significant number at all until its publication in America and the new editions that were subsequently printed as it is a book that might have had a profound impact on many bourgeois commentators back in Britain, who in 1938 had not yet experienced the horrors of World War II. On his return to England at the end of the book, Orwell finds it "sleeping the deep deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs." As with many things, it seems Orwell was ahead of the pack.

The homage of the title is quite interesting: Orwell romanticises the Spanish and the revolutionary spirit, and homage somehow feels like too emotive a word for strange subjective-objective stance Orwell manages to find in his writing generally. An important book for trying to understand Orwell and all his contradictions (or at least those things that are painted as contradictions).


Useful Links
Reviews of Homage to Catalonia on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Homage to Catalonia on Amazon (US)

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Interview: Noah B. E. Church

Noah B. E. Church, author of Wack
Noah B. E. Church is a wildland firefighter, EMT, tutor, entrepreneur, speaker, and author. At 24 years old, he’s also a recovering porn addict. Having first encountered internet pornography at the age of nine, it wasn’t until very recently that he realised how badly his porn habit had affected his sexual and emotional well-being.

Following his recovery, Church wrote down his own story as a form of catharsis, but this soon grew in a short non-fiction title, Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn, which he released earlier this year. The book is an attempt to look at current research into porn addiction, and to help others realise the negative effect it could be having on their lives, and escape the addiction.

You can read my review here: Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church

One of things you mention in your introduction is that fact that the scientific community has yet to catch up to the problem of porn addiction. Do you think there’s a lack of acknowledgement of the severity of the problem, or is this lag just a function of the peer-reviewing system, which takes its time?

Science always takes time (and rightly so), but studying the effects of consistent porn use is even more difficult. Ideally, to do so we would gather a large group of young people who have never been exposed to porn, divide them into two groups, give one group unlimited access to Internet porn while keeping the other group away from it entirely, then measure the results over years. But aside from being logistically very difficult, we'd run into quite a few ethical roadblocks trying to set up that experiment! Additionally, people very seldom speak about their sex lives and / or porn use, and porn users most often hide their habit even (or especially) from those closest to them. What we end up with are a bunch of people who don't use porn and don't know that it's a problem and a bunch of people who do use porn but are enjoying themselves too much to face the possibility that it's a problem and / or are too ashamed to talk about it and ask for help.

Despite the difficulties, we are seeing mounting evidence that Internet porn is a super-stimulus that can cause long term changes in the brain leading to emotional and sexual dysfunctions. Because the Internet offers an unlimited supply of free, varied, and easily accessed material, Internet porn is like the refined, concentrated version of the smut we once had to buy in specialty shops (as cocaine is a refined form of coca leaves). Check out this study out of Cambridge showing the differences in brain reactivity to porn between compulsive users and controls: Voon et al. (2014)

Porn use seems to be pretty close to ubiquitous now, across young men at least. Wack focuses on those that are addicted. Using the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for substance abuse that you adapt to refer to porn addiction, do you think there are many porn viewers who could be classified as non-addicts?

I'm reluctant to guess how many users would fall into the "addict" category vs. the "non-addict" category. Addiction is a slippery and loaded term, and it doesn't necessarily mean what most people think it means. I never would have thought of myself as a porn addict, but I scored a 9 out of 11 on my own addiction test (6 or more indicates a severe addiction). Regardless of what labels we use, however, what's really important is just to recognize whether porn use is causing problems in our lives, and the best way to find that out is to stop using it for at least a few months and to be mindful of how our lives change without it.

If there are a significant amount of people who can enjoy porn without it becoming an addiction, do you think it still has a deep psychological and societal impact?

For some people, a beer is an enjoyable but entirely dispensable beverage, while others would have a hard time going a week without one, having become dependent on alcohol to the point at which some fermented plants have become more important to them than family, health, and personal improvement. We all know alcoholics who have gotten lost in the bottle, but not all addictive temptations are substances, and unfortunately the hook rate for Internet porn is actually much higher than for alcohol. Because we are fundamentally wired to seek sex, many more people who view Internet porn become porn addicts than people who drink beer become alcoholics.

Speaking from my own experience, compulsive porn use warped my sexuality, my emotionality, my priorities, and my ability to form healthy relationships. In researching my book I found that these effects and more are far from rare among Internet porn users, and many, many people use porn. On the other hand, since quitting I have rediscovered my motivation, my sexuality, my self-respect, and the ability to love and be loved. Trust me, the kind of person I am without porn is a much better asset to society.

On your notes to recovery, you don’t draw the line for abstinence at just overtly pornographic material but include much lower-level stimulating material, like provocative movies, unhealthy Facebook browsing, etc. In light of this, would it be fair to say that we live in an increasingly pornographic world that, at the lower levels, begins to condition people to the stimulus-response that leads to porn?

Most people tend to see a far greater quantity of sexually stimulating content through media like television, advertising, and the Internet than they do in real life, and this can definitely start to condition us to think of sex as something that we witness rather than something that we do, especially for young people who see all of this before experiencing romance and sex for themselves. I don't suggest that everyone hide their eyes when a lingerie commercial comes on, but for porn addicts such a sight can start us down a slippery slope that leads to relapse, especially in the beginning stages of recovery.

Having started using porn around age 9, I had so thoroughly conditioned my sexuality for porn that I couldn't achieve or maintain an erection for real sex when the opportunity came along. In order to overwrite long years of wiring my libido to a computer screen, I had to teach myself to only expect sexual pleasure when I was with a partner. This meant avoiding getting aroused by any false stimuli, even those that wouldn't qualify as "porn" per se. I recommend the same to other recovering addicts who want to recover as quickly as possible without relapsing.

The number of testimonials you share in the book gives the sense of a really strong mutually supportive community. How important do you think this is in helping people not only to heal, but to reassure them that they’re not alone or horribly abnormal?

I thought it was important enough to dedicate a significant portion of my book to testimonials! Reading the stories of others who had struggled and recovered was vital to my success—as you said, it let me know that I was far from alone, what to expect, and how to go about recovering. In Wack, I put together as wide a variety of perspectives as possible by including statements from the young and the old, men and women, porn addicts and partners of porn addicts, casual users and hard cases, etc. No matter my readers' unique history and relationship with porn, I wanted to provide stories that would resonate with them.

What was the most surprising / shocking statistic or piece of research you found when researching for the book?

Great question! I was definitely shocked to realize how much consistent use of Internet porn can physically alter the structure and function of our brains. Not only do porn addicts show stronger brain reaction to porn stimuli than non-addicts, but it also appears that this addiction can weaken parts of the brain meant to govern self-control, rational decision-making, motivation, and more. See this study recently published in Germany: Kühn and Gallinat (2014)

How important is an open dialogue about porn use in helping to deal with the problem, and also building up accurate self-report for research purposes?

Learning how to open up to the people in my life was essential to understanding and overcoming my own dependence on pornography. By talking about my weaknesses, I came to accept myself as I was and without shame. Only then did I have the power to move forward and develop into a better man. This was not easy, but it was most definitely worth it. Secrets are like weights that get heavier the longer you carry them. If anyone out there is struggling with any addiction that you think is a problem for you, tell someone. Start anonymously on an online support community or with a therapist if you have to, but don't stop there. The more people you discuss your problems with, the lighter your burden seems, and the stronger and more empowered you become. And along the way, you may just find that you have inspired and helped others struggling with their own secrets.

Do you think porn use can ever be healthy?

For some people, light porn use may not be detrimental to their health, but pornography provides nothing that promotes health or happiness. Our libidos exist to drive us to connect with other people, and a healthy sexual relationship provides satisfaction on many levels that last long after a climax. Porn, on the other hand, tricks our sexual response systems into pursuing something that isn't really there. After orgasm when the feelings of physical pleasure fade away, we are often left only empty and alone, because those are not really women in your computer. Those images are only light and shadow, and more and more people are rightly choosing not to waste themselves on the pursuit of phantoms.

As a recovered addict, do you find the pleasure you now get from sex is equivalent to what you used to get from porn? Is it better, different, and how?

There are so many differences that it is hard to put them all into words. When I was using porn, I was always hungry for more—more sites, more variety, more extreme content—but no matter how deep I delved, it never made me happy. I was so desensitized from this pursuit of pleasure that real sex was awkward, unexciting, and disappointing. After more than half of a year without porn, a mere glance or a smile from an attractive woman sends a charge of energy through me, and real sex is a sublime, incomparable experience. Before, I could only feel pleasure and reach orgasm when using my own hand, but now my physical sensitivity has skyrocketed, and the emotional satisfaction of connecting to a real woman through great sex is wholly lacking in porn use. One night with a woman I desire is worth more than a thousand sessions alone with my computer and a box of tissues.

What would you like to see next in the area of porn addiction?

I don't support banning porn production or distribution, but there are three very important changes that we need to make happen. First, people need to know that Internet porn use can be more than just a harmless pastime—it can become an addiction that causes severe sexual and emotional dysfunction. I wrote Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn so that people wouldn't have to go years not knowing what was wrong with them or how to fix it (as I did).

Second, we need to make it much more difficult for minors to access or stumble upon Internet pornography. I support a system in which service providers would be required to block access to porn sites unless the holder of the account calls and requests that the block be lifted. Those who want to opt in can do so, while those who don't won't have to worry so much about it.

Third, parents need to educate themselves about the porn problem, get comfortable discussing sex, and then educate their children about the modern dangers they are going to encounter. So much of this problem exists only because we are uncomfortable confronting and discussing topics of sex, especially among family members. If we don't teach and guide our children, however, the Internet will.

How difficult was it to set your own personal story down?

At first, very difficult. But the more I learned and realized how big of a problem this is in our society, the more I knew that I had to share my story because it had great potential to help others. Several of my friends have since quit using porn and experienced fantastic improvements in their lives and relationships, and many other people I have never met have thanked me for sharing this information, so I know that I made the right choice.

What difference did going porn-free make to your life?

Whew, I'll just bullet-point the main differences, because there are a lot:

  • I now achieve and maintain a strong erection during sex without having to constantly imagine porn scenes, and the sensations I feel are much, much improved. For quite awhile after regaining my erections I still had severe porn-induced delayed ejaculation, but now that has subsided as well, and I am able to orgasm during vaginal sex with a condom. 
  • My emotions are richer and have more depth. For about 12 years I didn't cry a single time, and I realize that that period of my life started about the time when I started watching porn. Now, it's like I am truly awake and able to experience the full range of human emotion, from tragic sadness to sublime wonderment and awe. I love it.
  • I have no shame. Before this journey I had learned to talk about porn with friends and knew it was a common activity, but I was never proud of it. Now, for the first time in my life, I am completely honest with the people I love and even with strangers. I have told many people about my past history with porn addiction and how it harmed me. Some judge me harshly for it, but that slides right off of me. I am completely secure in myself. 
  • My appreciation (both sexual and emotional) for the real women I meet has skyrocketed. 
  • I fell in love, which is something that never happened for me when I used porn. I met her seven months ago. I was completely honest with her about where I was in my life, which I think is a big part of why she loved me. The relationship is over now, but it was a great experience for both of us. • I have more mental and physical energy and certainly more time. 
  • My motivation and willpower are leagues ahead of where they were. I still sometimes surrender to procrastination, but in the last seven months I have written a 60,000-word book, started a business, negotiated a promotion at work, pursued and fell in love with a beautiful woman, adopted a consistent workout and meditation regimen, and made a dramatic diet change that has me feeling healthier and stronger than ever. I realize now that porn—along with overuse of video games and TV / movies—was a tranquilizer that served only to hold me back from pursuing my dreams.

Noah B. E. Church's Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn is available now at both Amazon (US / UK) and Smashwords. He's also putting together videos on the same topic in in a series called SpanglerTV, which can be found here: Bvrning Qvestions on You Tube

Useful Links
Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn on Amazon (UK)
Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn on Amazon (US)

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Review: Wack Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church
Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn (2014) is a guide to current research into porn addiction, and a manual for those seeking to cut down their own habit. Noah B. E. Church goes beyond scientific research, and brings in his own story – painfully honest ... [Read More]

Review: Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church

Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn by Noah B. E. Church book cover
Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn (2014) is a guide to current research into porn addiction, and a manual for those seeking to cut down their own habit. Noah B. E. Church goes beyond scientific research, and brings in his own story – painfully honest – of sexual dysfunction as well as testimonials of others whose lives have been affected by porn addiction, and how the recovery process has worked for them. He also offers an opinion on how the addict might heal themselves. In a world where porn use is near ubiquitous amongst a generation who have grown up with the internet (and hence, freely available access to porn), an open discussion of how this is affecting the lives of people is much needed.

After offering a definition of porn addiction using an adapted set of diagnostic criteria for substance addiction (which, worryingly, might rank a very high proportion of the population as addicts), Church discusses various pieces of research and how a porn addict’s life is affected by their habit. Most come down to a similar theme: that the regular porn viewer conditions their brain to overstimulation and the dopamine release that follows the porn-masturbation-orgasm routine. This tricks the brain into believing that there is a vast supply of partners with which the porn addict is mating, and, following evolutionary programming, rewards the addict for pursuing as many partners (or in this case, porn material) as possible (mistakenly equating many ‘partners’ to increased chance of having one’s genes replicated). For the addict, this artificial warping of sexual behaviour makes regular, monogamous relationships very difficult, and many will suffer erectile dysfunction or desensitisation to physical stimuli, their real-world partners unable to compete with the ready supply of on-demand ‘partners’ online.

As the addict becomes more conditioned to pornography as a means of sexual release, the neurochemical reward pathways in the brain can alter, creating a separate pathway to sexual release, which responds to porn rather than physical intimacy in the real world. Interestingly, the effects of watching porn can have consequences beyond the addict’s sexual life. The more porn the addict watches, the lower the dopamine pay-off they receive. As with other addictions, this causes them to seek increasingly extreme or varied forms of stimulation. The higher the level of stimulation needed to produce the dopamine kick the addict craves, the more problematic their behaviour can become. As Church notes, many addicts watch porn as a way of coping with real world anxieties, stresses, and emotions but, by satisfying their need for dopamine via porn, addicts might be conditioning their bodies to produce less dopamine naturally, making them less able to cope in the real world (low dopamine levels have been shown to increase the likelihood of social anxiety, and poor mental and physical health). Where this happens, addicts are apt to fall into a negative feedback loop, where, feeling worse about themselves, they continue in behaviours that limit their dopamine release, which in turn affects their social interactions, personal achievements, health, and so on.

At times, Church’s writing focuses on the extreme end of the effects of porn addiction, but it is important to understand that porn affects all of its users, addicts or not. Not everyone who uses porn will encounter sexual dysfunction of a severe nature, but every user will have their sexual habits and their social lives shaped by pornography. It is inevitable. Church’s solution to this is complete abstinence – as with substance abuse, for addicts, cutting out the stimulus completely is the only way to heal and offers the best chance of avoiding relapse. And Church is clear that there is the potential for healing – the neuroplasticity of the brain makes this possible, as well as the re-conditioning of social aspects of the addiction. The numerous testimonies included in the book – from men and women, old and young – attest to the potential for change and the huge benefits abstention can have.

Perhaps most involving of the testimonies is Church’s own: as a 24-year-old man, his formative years were filled with pornography – it became his sexual education, and shaped his behaviour – and as a consequence his adult life consisted of a string of sexual failures, distress, and internal recriminations. Coupled with the numerous testimonies of others, Church’s honest recounting of his own struggles and recovery will offer both reassurance and hope to any readers who find themselves questioning their own habits. For those who wish to address any issues they themselves might have, Church offers a 13-step plan for recovery. His honesty about the pitfalls and challenges ensures that the reader is armed with the knowledge to change their own lives. There is information for parents too, and general encouragement towards a more open dialogue about sex between parents and children, couples, and friends.

Church is at pains to point out that the medical professions, despite an increasing number of papers on the topic being published, have yet to fully catch up to the crisis that porn addiction amounts to. Therefore, while meticulously referenced throughout, a large bulk of the information in the book is anecdotal or drawn from studies which have yet to stand the rigorous scrutiny of the scientific community. Some conclusions have the ring of truth, others less so, but until a body of data and research has been built and peer-reviewed, one must treat even the scientific findings with a healthy degree of scepticism.

To his credit, Church treats the issue with a scientific approach, and there is little condemnation of porn here – rather Church treats it like any other addictive substance, as a stimulus rather than an intrinsically bad or evil thing. Though not backed up by significant empirical data yet, Wack is such an easy-to-read and competently composed book that it will doubtless prove an incredibly valuable resource to anyone that picks it up. While many of the ideas discussed here are written about online, it’s rare to find information so accessible and well organised. There is a lot of scientific work to be done before the impact of porn on our society is truly understood, just as there are some serious social shifts needed to be able to address the problems before and after they arise. Wack is by no means comprehensive, but it is a clear-eyed snapshot of where we are today. It doesn’t dance around the issue, or wrap it up in overly elaborate recovery plans. It is a simple, straight, and useful resource for anyone outside of the scientific community who wants to engage with this issue now.

This is a really well written introduction to an increasingly important area of psychology. It makes research findings accessible, without over simplifying.


Useful Links
Reviews of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn on Amazon (US)

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Interview: Noah B. E. Church
Noah B. E. Church is a wildland firefighter, EMT, tutor, entrepreneur, speaker, and author. At 24 years old, he’s also a recovering porn addict. Having first encountered internet pornography at the age of nine, it wasn’t until very recently that ... [Read More]

Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding book cover
Lord of the Flies (1954) is a dystopian novel by William Golding. Amidst a nuclear war, an aeroplane crash lands on a small, remote island. The only survivors are a group of English school boys who are forced to subsist with no help from adults, and scant resources. Ralph, a calm boy, is immediately voted leader by the rest, and establishes a democratic, egalitarian system, where each boy is expected to support the group, and decisions are made in large meetings, during which all are given a chance to voice their opinion (provided they hold the ‘conch’ – an impressive shell found on the beach). It seems the perfect system if the boys are to survive the island, but there are dissenting voices. Most notable amongst these is Jack, former leader of the choirboys. He cares less about the group, and more about the thrill of hunting and living independently, but with physically weaker members of the group, like the intelligent if sickly ‘Piggy’ and many younger boys, who would fail under this more brutal system, Jack lacks support early on. However, as fear rises on the island, the boys begin to talk of a beast who hunts them, and dull jobs like fire-building, and provisioning shelters, are not properly done by the majority. Eventually, the group splinters into two between the ideologies of Jack and Ralph, with each group going their own way. Deadly savagery descends, and as the novel develops it becomes clear that little of the civility the boys once knew will survive on the island.

World War II had a major impact on Golding. It revealed to him what he believed to be humanity’s true nature; that evil is innate and, while generally kept in check by social and civilising forces, has the potential to burst into extremes of violence such as the atrocities World War II involved. For Golding, the key was not to ignore this human propensity to violence, but to acknowledge it and begin to understand it. Only then could great crises like Auschwitz or Hiroshima be avoided in the future. Lord of the Flies is a parable then (any attempt to read it purely as realism is problematic), which considers the root of societal ills by tracing them back to this flaw (the innate propensity to destruction) in human nature. While the boys try many political systems on the island, all fail, and it appears clear that no structure of society can contain human nature, it is simply down to each individual to develop a self-awareness and moderate their own primal urges.

Having witnessed first-hand the horrors war can drive all men to, and lived through the dying days of the Empire, Golding shunned the idea of nationalism, and in Lord of the Flies he satirises colonial fiction, which raised the English above other races, and imbued them with special qualities. When the school boys are first marooned on the island, Jack is quick to buy into this simple-minded nationalism: "We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything." By the novel’s close, there will be little superiority left in either Jack or the English. By choosing a group of public school boys, Golding identifies the group perhaps most thought of as embodying the English qualities of rationality, sportsmanship, respectability, good breeding, nationalism, and innate good character, not to mention the innocence associated with childhood. In showing that these boys are no different to anyone else, he punctures any ideas of superiority, and establishes a truth about human nature that runs across all of society.

But the boys are not simply ‘bad’. Each has good qualities, which are, at times, utilised on the island: Ralph is calm and able to listen to others’ opinions, Piggy has plenty of knowledge and is more rational than most, and Simon – a superstitious boy – is the one most aware of the evil in the group but also the most willing to work for the group’s benefit. The fear that grips the boys – originating with the younger children – about a beast on the island shows how easily irrationality is accepted and allowed to shape a society. However, as much as this irrational fear is divisive, rationality fares little better in helping the group form a society. Indeed, there is a constant theme of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of life conflicting with one another. This struggle is not only between the boys (and the positions they represent) but also an internal struggle within each of them. That said, while there is a dichotomy of good and evil in each boy, it seems clear that when emotion rules rationality, acts of evil are committed.

In choosing to paint their faces late in the novel, Jack’s tribe cloak their individuality, and become part of a savage group, devoid of personal responsibility for their actions. It is not until the novel’s end that Golding refocuses the reader’s perspective, and allows one to see the boys not as savages but as boys once more, grubby from their “fun and games”. It’s a sobering reflection on the propensity of all humanity for cruelty, and its ability not to see it. Interestingly, though he takes the position that the line of good and evil runs through each individual, Golding chooses to narrate the novel from the third person, allowing no access to the internal machinations of any of the characters. Rather, one is left to piece together the abundant symbolism and clinically described plot, to arrive at the same conclusions about humanity as Golding does.

The island is the perfect setting to allow the boys to both attempt to reach a politicised system of self-governance, and, ultimately, give in to their own savagery. The setting, and much of the novel’s structure, refers back to R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure story, The Coral Island, in which a group of boys are marooned on an island. But where The Coral Island is a superficial story of fun and excitement, Lord of the Flies is something much darker, and this darker side of the story perhaps shares a closer literary link with The Bacchae. But Lord of the Flies is a parody of colonial tales like The Coral Island. The central characters are all named similarly to those in Ballantyne’s adventure, but here they are caricatures. In both cases, government structures are needed to quell the threat of savagery. But whereas in the nineteenth century, this savagery came from the colonised, in the twentieth it comes from within. The island and its climate, like the boys, has two faces – one which is far harsher, and another more full of promise and hope. Where colonial fiction like The Coral Island celebrated the proud face of a not always deserving Empire, Lord of the Flies stands for truth over illusion, for grim reality faced down rather than eschewed. Crucially, the boys in this adventure, unlike their forebears, tip into adolescence; a place of knowledge.

Amongst the central characters are used symbolically to place (seemingly) antithetical worldviews in opposition on the micro level. Piggy is the voice of scientific rationality, and Simon of spiritual intuition. Ralph represents democracy, Jack authoritarianism. Golding uses these symbols, playing them off against one another, to explore the root of evil and the failure of society. Ultimately, in one way or another, all fall to the Lord of the Flies, itself the ultimate symbol of evil on the island (Lord of the Flies being another name for Beezlebub, or Satan). While Jack’s authoritarianism leads to violence and discrimination, Ralph’s mistake – and the mistake of democracy generally – is to disregard the need to engage with the ‘dark side’ of our natures. Neither find a workable solution. Piggy’s rationality cannot overcome the savagery of the boys who give into their primal natures, and Simon is alone in recognising the Lord of the Flies for what it is, but too late, his intuition unable to save him.

Ralph’s attempts to organise a society where everyone is supported stands no chance in the face of the selfishness embodied by Jack’s tribe. The latter’s pervasive, exciting idea of reality is by far the more seductive of the two modes of living, and there is rarely any question that the boys will eventually side with the definiteness of absolute truth and savagery offered by Jack. Mid-way through a century of ‘Big Ideas’ the almost irresistible appeal of a powerful and singular idea couldn’t be more prescient. But there is a question of scale when it comes to evil too. Not every society ends in Auschwitz, so might it be too broad to say human nature is infinitely evil if not controlled? The boys come from a world where people are conditioned to violence and fear, protectionism, and the rest – what human nature amounts to in an unconditioned state is impossible to tell, but Golding had seen enough of human nature in our world to know that it was a good deal blacker than many would admit to at the time.

I must be honest and say I struggled to get too excited about this. I can't quite say why - sometimes you just don't click with a book, I guess. It's clever and honest, and important, but somehow I can't quite rave about it.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (US)

Reading Plan: August 2014

Wack by Noah B. E. Church book cover
Wow, I seem to have packed a heck of a lot into my literary life recently – I can’t believe it’s only been a month since last we spoke (ok, since last I rambled on and you humoured me). Having submitted the manuscript of my first novel to a few agents a while back, I got my first ever rejection a few days ago. It was a surprisingly pleasant experience (not least because the agent wrote me a really engaged and positive e-mail to let me know about his decision, something I am very grateful for) but also because rejection letters seem to be almost a badge of honour for aspiring writers. Truth be told, I’ve been very seriously considering whether traditional publishing is the route for me anyway, being somewhat contrary and having pretty clear (/problematic) views about how I want my writerly life and works to take shape. On that basis, I’d be interested to hear anyone’s experience of publishing, either independent or traditional.

But, to my reading life, and thank you very much to everyone who suggested nineteenth century reads for me to pick up, not only here but across the big old nettyweb. I’m slowly working my way through Jane Eyre just now – I seem to be in the mood to savour novels at the moment – while my list of Victorian literature to read over summer grows ever longer and more daunting. Thanks to you all I’ve been discovering new (old) books too, which is really great, so if you have more wisdom to impart, I’m all ears.

You might also have noticed that I added to my online shrine to dear Marty Amis last month in the form of an Author Guide (which you can find here: Martin Amis, author guide), my latest idea for Bibliofreak.net. It’s something I’ve wanted to try for a while and seems like a good way to share information about authors I’m particularly interested in. There are more I’d like to do, but I’d be interested to know what you guys think of Author Guides as an idea – like it? Impressed by my ability to find a ceaseless number of ways to fawn over Mart? (Incidentally, I should be receiving a review copy of Amis's new novel, The Zone of Interest any day now, and am working myself up into a ridiculous ball of fanboying anticipation. What have I become?)

For this next coming month, I’m going to bring you a review of Wack: Addicted to Internet Porn, and also an interview with its author, Noah B. E. Church (I know, proper biblical name, right?). I’ve already read the book, which gives an interesting overview of current research into porn addiction as well as notes on how it affects the personal life of those addicted. It’s a really interesting topic (although I’m biased because my own novel covers this sort of area a bit), and so I am really looking forward to reading what Noah has to say in the interview – I hope I can persuade at least a few of you that it’s an area interesting enough for you to check out the review / interview too.

I’ve also got a few part-completed reviews floating around for the likes of The Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five, which seem to have been sitting around forever. I’ll do my best to get some of these up this month, as well as any I put together for all these nineteenth century reads I’m discovering (and supposedly reading). I’m also starting work on a couple of new books (fingers crossed) so I should well and truly have my plate full this August. Especially if I plan to enjoy the actual summer that appears to be happening right outside my window just now…

Notable Posts from July
Author Guide: Martin Amis
Review: Cybersexism by Laurie Penny
Review: The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate

Review: The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate

The New Atheist Novel by Arthur Bradley book cover
The New Atheist Novel: Fiction, Philosophy and Polemic After 9/11 (2010) by Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate is an attempt to consider the emerging genre of New Atheist fiction, which the authors suggest has grown out of the New Atheism movement driven by Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens (occasionally described as the Four Horsemen) from around 2004. The authors acknowledge the difficulty of defining the New Atheist novel, but choose here to focus on four novelists: Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, to spark “an increasingly urgent debate about the quality of our public intellectual discourse on religion”. While they admit that The New Atheist Novel is “not always a neutral or dispassionate discussion that subscribes to the normal codes of academic politesse” - when they label specific members of the New Atheist movement "cronies", one is apt to agree - the authors do suggest that their positions (one an atheist, one a Christian) will have helped provide some form of balance.

It quickly becomes clear that Bradley and Tate are far from fans of New Atheism or its exponents, suggesting that “they seem to know comparatively little about the Enlightenment tradition they claim to uphold”. This intellectual impoverishment leads Bradley and Tate to conclude that New Atheism’s appeal is based not on its substance, but on its position as a counterpoint to the more extreme religious viewpoints that have been increasingly aired during the twenty-first century. They suggest that New Atheism seeks to replace religions with “a Neo-Lucretian reverence for nature, a Comtean scientific positivism, a Hegelian historical teleology, a Protestant-Capitalist work ethic and, finally, an entirely Judeo-Christian belief in the exceptional place of the human race at the centre of all these schemas”. It is in the aestheticising of this vision that Bradley and Tate begin to draw in the New Atheists’ influence on literature, claiming that New Atheist fiction not only reflects this aestheticising of science and nature, but also sets literature up as a symbol of secular achievement and freedom of thought.

Before discussing the book itself, it is worth considering for a few moments its organising principle, which is more than a little muddled. The title would suggest the project’s aim is to consider fiction influenced by the New Atheist movement, while the subtitle seems to place the focus more on the rhetoric that followed, and which was related to, 9/11. While Bradley and Tate suggest that it is the 9/11 attacks that enabled the popularisation of New Atheism (“the single defining political context for the New Atheism was the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks”), the broader scope suggested by the subtitle is beyond The New Atheist Novel. Ignoring the title, the best attempt at explaining the book’s rationale comes in the authors’ introduction: “[T]he New Atheist novel exhibits many of the strengths of its philosophical equivalent, however, we will argue that it demonstrates many of the latter’s well-documented intellectual, political and theological blind spots. In what follows, we will argue that (for all its claims to champion freedom of thought, action and expression) what defines the New Atheist novel is really a disturbing aesthetico-political dogmatism – about science, about reason, about religion and, in many cases, about Islam.”

It seems then, that the aim is to discuss novels influenced by the New Atheist movement as represented by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris. However, a look at the four main texts covered shows that one (Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) was written before 2004 when Bradley and Tate date the New Atheist period to have begun with the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (a significant chunk of work considered in the McEwan chapter also predates this), and one (Amis’s The Second Plane) is not a novel but a collection of essays. The last, Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence, appears to be the only one that fully meets the criteria, and this section is distracted with positioning 1988’s The Satanic Verses as the first real New Atheist novel, confusing matters even more.

One might also note that none of the novelists’ religious positions changed significantly following 9/11 or the New Atheist movement, which makes book-ending a period with either slightly unnecessary (and one might suggest that using both as themes for this book was down as much to promotional value as intellectual necessity). In the section on McEwan’s literature, it is specifically noted that his world view pre- and post- 9/11 is consistent, and that it is only his imagery and way of elucidating his position that alters. In fact, the only one of the four authors discussed whose stated position changed after 9/11, was Martin Amis, who shifted from atheism to agnosticism. Hardly a startling leap.

In truth, the authors discussed here feel like they have been chosen not for their literary or intellectual links to New Atheism but for their personal links to the key members of the New Atheist movement. The result is a badly conceived vehicle which seems to have been contrived to attack perceived Islamophobia and pick apart – at times, judiciously – alleged problems with four prominent novelists who have taken on religion, and perhaps specifically, Islam(ism).

One of Bradley and Tate’s contentions is that the veneration of science, reason, and literature, is no more rational than religious faith and no less dangerous. That the authors they discuss, as well as New Atheism’s key members, seem to promote and cultivate a sense of wonder at the natural world, and the written word, places them as polar opposites of religious extremists but in an equally problematic position according to this logic. One is tempted to suggest that idolising something that exists is better than idolising something that doesn’t, but this is a matter of opinion, one must concede. A more interesting route for investigation might have been to question the surety of the New Atheists’ various positions. Bradley and Tate touch on this when they accuse them of being self-referential within their texts, and forming a type of in-group whose claims border on tautological. This begins to get at the more prescient point: that an absolute position is problematic, no matter how strongly one agrees with the general notion. A fuller consideration of whether the novelists took up such an absolute position following 9/11 would have enriched The New Atheist Novel considerably.

Bradley and Tate also skirt around the interesting topic of setting literature against religious extremism – surely what the book should have been about. Using Briony Tallis of McEwan’s Atonement as a model of someone who refuses to acknowledge the inner life of others, Bradley and Tate start on a good if underdeveloped examination of the way in which the New Atheist novelists other religious fanatics, depriving them of fully-formed personalities, and relegating them to dull-headed theocrats. There is room to go on and discuss further. For example, worth noting is a contradiction within Amis’s writing, which at times claims that terrorists, lacking imagination, are infecting the world with dull-headed boredom, but in other passages appreciates the orchestration of the 9/11 attacks as a symbol, an image, more potent than anything that literature could muster in response. This is one of the points on which Bradley and Tate’s political-literary analysis is strongest, and one could have stood a good deal more on the representation of religious characters in atheist novels.

The section on Philip Pullman is devoted largely to discussing the ways in which Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is borne out of the Judeo-Christian literary tradition, and typically religious concepts like grace, redemption, and sacrifice are used within the story in much the same way as they are in biblical tales. While moderately interesting, it’s hard to know what Bradley and Tate are attempting here as their points appear to be self-evident to anyone familiar with Pullman’s work, and, indeed, a conscious aping of religious style on his part.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the more complex moral position Salman Rushdie often reaches for in his fiction, as well as his personal brushes with extremism by virtue of the infamous fatwa placed upon him in 1989, Rushdie is the most sympathetically treated of the novelists discussed. There is a slight sense that The Satanic Verses and the fallout from its publication are what Bradley and Tate would most like to be discussing, but in keeping with the credo of The New Atheist Novel, they offer instead a rather flaccid discussion of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.

The conclusion, which imagines what post-Atheist fiction (note the dropping of ‘New’ here) will offer, is largely a glib liberal drone on the importance of understanding and balance, pointing to authors that do this more successfully than McEwan, Pullman, Amis, or Rushdie, while crediting the endeavour of the New Atheists in exposing religious behaviours that lead to undesirable discrimination, etc. Compassion for others is vital, as all four of the novelists discussed would likely agree, but quite why taking a position equates to lacking compassion for others, is not quite clear. Certainly, those around the New Atheist movement have nearly all been guilty of slips and short-sightedness at times, as any fallible human has, but there is an underlying assumption in The New Atheist Novel, which seems to suggest opposing religious belief is in itself problematic, as though potentially causing offence to people who disagree is a reason not voice a deeply held opinion at all. In The Second Plane, Amis asserts that the opposite of religious belief is not atheism but freedom of thought, a position that Bradley and Tate seem to take issue with. However, their own position is too vague and this leads to a lot of the problems in their analyses. One could easily have stood for less on the problems of New Atheism being reiterated and more on authors who Bradley and Tate suggest tackle the infinitely tricky issues of religion, god, and secularism in the modern world most judiciously, offering the reader a real insight into how these problems can be sensitively addressed.

Atheism in fiction is an interesting topic for discussion, particularly in relation to the increasingly polarised positions that seem to be treated as representative of both Atheist and Religious views by the media. New Atheism, too, is an area that could well do with a serious critique. Sadly, The New Atheist Novel offers only sporadically an engaging literary examination of the novelists discussed, and too often the book becomes bogged down in critiquing or sniping at New Atheism, and this detracts and distracts from the more interesting literary analyses, which should form the book’s core. One of the key problems here is the woolly definition of the New Atheist novel, and the confusing interweaving of the response to 9/11, which, while associated, seems to be an issue beyond the reasonable scope of a short work like this. Added to this the self-evident bias within the text, which leads to numerous misinterpretations or partial reportings of the position of the authors discussed, and the almost incomprehensible organising principle, and one is left having to extract what is of value and disregard the rest. Ultimately, the book lacks the deeper, more refined reasoning that its authors admire in Rushdie’s novels, seeming to fall into just about all the problems they cite with the novelists discussed.

There was some good stuff in here, but the problems and distractions ended up spoiling it for me.


Useful Links
Reviews of The New Atheist Novel on Amazon (UK)
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