We commissioned a series of responses to the republication of Kate Clanchy’s memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, as well as the issues revealed by its critical reception and the response of the mainstream media. Here is Stephanie Sy-Quia talking about how the book’s new edition signifies a shallow engagement with literary criticism.
The resurgence of the controversy surrounding Kate Clanchy – following the republication of her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me with Swift Press earlier this year – comes down to a lack of care: Clanchy’s for her students and Picador’s for Clanchy. The latter in particular sets a bizarre and dangerous precedent, and also raises serious questions about what we understand the role and value of criticism to be.
In Clanchy’s own words: ‘Literary criticism has long taught us to trace and name moral systems in texts through the identification of tropes and story, but now it has discovered a more important job in rooting that malignancy out.’ To which this critic responds – yes, and? Did you really expect your prejudiced comments to go unchallenged? ‘You can’t cancel poetry’ is the title of the UnHerd piece quoted above. Of course, that was never the issue at stake, but the misnomer is an example of the pervasive and wilful misframing of an issue which is the culture wars’ stock in trade: misleadingly select the wrong or most reliably inflammatory aspect of an issue and use it to whip up outrage, thereby blocking any real exploration of the problem. Clanchy’s piece continues by responding to Professor Sandeep Parmar’s criticism of England: Poems from a School (an anthology of student poetry edited by Clanchy in 2018). As Parmar writes in ‘Still Not a British Subject: Race and UK Poetry’, her issue is not with the poems or poets themselves (many of whom are from migrant or refugee families), but with the overall framing of the anthology, expressed in Clanchy’s introduction. To read the book, Parmar suggests, is to be ‘beguiled by the benevolence of whiteness’. A similar tinge of self-glorification pervades the cover copy of Some Kids, which lauds Clanchy’s ‘almost missionary-esque zeal to embolden state school children toward greatness’ and invites readers to:
Join her as […] she works in the school ‘Inclusion Unit’, trying to improve the fortunes of kids excluded from regular lessons because of their terrifying power to end learning in an instant. Or as she nurtures her multicultural poetry group, full of migrants and refugees, watches them find their voice and produce work of heartbreaking brilliance.
Such remarks are replete with dog whistle racism and classism: displaying a flagrant disregard for the imperialist, white supremacist role of missionaries; making the students in the Inclusion Unit appear threatening rather than disengaged; depicting migrant and refugee children as stereotypically traumatised foreigners; and invoking the hyperbolic, reductive, paternalistic term ‘heartbreaking’ as well as the self-centering ‘nurture’. Of course, as has been discussed at length, there is much to find objectionable within the book itself, but these peritexts of introduction and blurb are also implicated. To point this out isn’t to nitpick or poke holes in someone’s life’s work, but rather to identify underdeveloped thinking, challenge it to do better, and lay the blame for it where it should rightly lie: at the feet of whole networks of cultural production.
There is also the major, troubling question of which safeguarding procedures were overlooked or ignored. Of course, we can only speculate, but colleagues of mine who run poetry workshops in educational and other settings are shocked by what appears to be a wanton lack of due diligence, on the part of Clanchy, Picador, and/or the schools where she worked.
For me, Picador’s response is the most surprising element of the whole story. Is the work of criticism so devalued that a publisher’s response is to pull a book rather than engage with said criticism and to issue statements over the author’s head? Publishers expect criticism, or at least they should. They issue provocations to public life through the work they do, and it is the work of critics to answer. The fact that detailed, widely supported criticism resulted in Picador’s mess of statements and withdrawals sets a bizarre and concerning precedent. Their decision to take institutional responsibility – rather than the book’s editor raising their head above the parapet – combined with the worrying fact that Clanchy was not consulted for the two statements issued, mean that Clanchy was, to a degree, fed to the wolves. Publishers should do better by their authors.
In the aforementioned UnHerd piece, Clanchy responds to Parmar’s critique by scoffing, completely refusing to grasp Parmar’s point. Instead, we are treated to what is supposed to be a defiant celebration of British multiculturalism – a rhetorical duck-and-dive which smacks of self-congratulatory Blairism, with its placatory euphemisms about race and integration. This paltering is predicated on a naive and denialist belief in British geopolitical benevolence, both historic and ongoing. The fact that Parmar has not been invited to comment on her side of the saga in its second iteration speaks to a baseline media hostility which comes from the same positionality: the good immigrant or Briton of colour is the quiet one, the uncritical one, the grateful one. Of course, this is a widely held position which goes largely unexamined – and to our continued detriment I might add, as evidenced by the fact that Some Kids was so successful: it was reviewed overwhelmingly positively in the mainstream press. Writing in the Guardian, Lara Feigel expressed some misgivings about Clanchy’s thoughts on the hijab being ‘underdeveloped’, but generally lauded her honesty and passion. Additionally, a Guardian editor was on the judging panel that awarded the book the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Writing.
The second wind of the affair began with a piece in Prospect in December 2021, part of a three-part series entitled ‘Ostracised, disinvited, rescinded: what it’s like to get cancelled’, in which Clanchy mentioned her suicidal ideation. The other two pieces were written by Professor Richard Dawkins and Professor Priyamvada Gopal. Dawkins’s piece was barely sensical, the jottings of a rant, while Gopal’s was by far the most cogent of the three: it elegantly eviscerated the whole concept of cancel culture, labelling it a ‘conservative confection’. It is a sad indictment of the present moment that Gopal’s piece has sunk almost without a trace, while Clanchy’s has given her the momentum for an extended tour of the nation’s media. The three pieces were separated by banner copy, giving bitesize overviews of other ‘cancellations’. These included recipe writer Alison Roman and historian David Starkey – individuals whose comments varied significantly and who faced a range of consequences in their professional lives. I do not have the space here to detail the fallacy of the comparing these scenarios, but I would encourage readers to see it for themselves. It constitutes some of the most irresponsibly conflationary journalism I have ever seen.
Finally, the fact that this all began with a Goodreads review speaks to the erosion of our literary press over the years, where honest, stringent criticism has been squeezed out, discouraged, and its decline has been indirectly proportional to the rise of PR. This means that honest criticism must turn to unpaid grassroots forums such as Goodreads, Twitter, or personal blogs. As with other aspects of social media’s rise, this permits us to think of ‘citizen critics’ as an offshoot of citizen journalism. Of course, there are some strands of online discourse that invalidate themselves by their sheer viciousness, and being subjected to an internet pile-on is awful. But once again, there is a great deal of conflation going on between the discursive modes of snarky subtweet and genuine critique. As a result, the former contributes to the wholesale dismissal of the latter, allowing the women of colour and others who responded reasonably and cogently to the book to be depicted as a faceless, baying, POC mob – all of whom have been de facto silenced in this time around, because there has been such disparity in how much they have been invited to comment. Finally, the protestation that Clanchy ever ‘had good intentions’ is also tired and moot, to which this critic would say: engage with the effects of your words and take some responsibility for them. Reflect on your words and actions. You cannot simply say that you are ‘horrified that people found prejudice and cruelty in your book’: find it yourself and excise it.