Red Plenty Seminar

by Henry on May 7, 2012

All going well, our seminar on Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty will be ready in the next few weeks. However, there’s still time to read it if you want to be able to participate fully in the discussion. If you want to read a review before deciding whether to buy, this New York Times review is a good one. The book itself is available from Powells, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon as well as local booksellers.

{ 84 comments }

1

Jim Livesey 05.07.12 at 8:36 pm

Spufford mentions lots of work by 50′s soviet economists, is there anywhere a non-Russian reader can read some of it? Did anyone ever translate it? Progress publishers where are you when we need you?

2

Colin Danby 05.07.12 at 8:41 pm

If anyone in Seattle wants a free copy, I somehow ended up with two. danby at u dot washington dot edu.

3

shah8 05.07.12 at 10:29 pm

I can’t wait!

4

Matt 05.07.12 at 10:56 pm

Everything Spufford read you can read too; he relied entirely on English translations.

5

Scott Martens 05.08.12 at 6:35 am

That gives me a reason to finish reading it. It’d be nice if he wrote a sequel about Stafford Beer and Allende.

6

Data Tutashkhia 05.08.12 at 7:28 am

I couldn’t finish it. Fine, it’s a fantasy, but to my taste, at least, it collides too much with the real background. I have the impression that during the Khrushchev’s thaw cynicism was so wide spread already, that almost no one had any illusions whatsoever. Granted, Khrushchev himself was, most likely, idealistic; people on top often are deluded. But I believe (based on anecdotal evidence) it was clear that the bureaucratic apparatus has solidified, pursued its own interests, and that was not going to change.

7

J. Otto Pohl 05.08.12 at 10:47 am

Data is partially right. I think belief in socialism died during the Khrushchev regime and was replaced with concerns over material standards of living and social status. On an individual level the regime owed its legitimacy to an increasing standard of living. Given the poor state of affairs in the immediate post-war period this was pretty easy. But, the 1950s and 1960s did see some impressive growth, and despite much of it going to the military, living standards across the board did rise. Collectively Soviet patriotism relied upon the victory of WWII and things like Gagarin’s launch into space. But, socialist ideology basically no longer existed in content, but only form by this time. By 1963 nobody realistically believed they were going to reach utopia and very few people even in the government cared about world revolution. They did think that as individuals that they and their children would continue to have a better life than their parents. On an individual level the system worked under Khrushchev basically as an authoritarian welfare state with near full employment. If you were a natsman with a national territory you also benefited from a variety of affirmative action measures provided you actually lived in your assigned territory. This is one reason why there is a lot of opposition to Soviet policies by nationalities without national territories such as Jews, Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Meskhetian Turks and almost none from larger Asian groups such as the Uzbeks.

8

Katherine 05.08.12 at 11:53 am

Would somebody who has read the book be able to tell me the following?

Of the “more than a dozen characters”, what is the proportion of women to men?

Could it be said to pass the bare minimum Bechdel Test?

Thanks in advance. When you have as many books on your reading list as I have (and I’m sure that’s not an uncommon problem), any information to help with the initial filtration process can be useful.

9

Zamfir 05.08.12 at 12:43 pm

@Katherine, its format is a series of more-or-less fictional stories that try to be close to events that actually happened or could have happened, interleaved with short non-fiction chapters on aspects of soviet history.

Some of the stories have female protagonists, most have female characters, though male protagonists and characters are the clear majority. That’s especially true for the almost-not-fiction stories, where most of the characters are historical or based-on-historical male soviet bureaucrats.

10

Zamfir 05.08.12 at 12:47 pm

If you go to Amazon and do “Look inside”, you can even see a good-old Russian list of characters, sorted by the chapter where they frist appear.

11

Henry Farrell 05.08.12 at 1:14 pm

Katherine – it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, and while the women characters are interested in their relationships with men, these relationships are rather less important than the day-to-day question of surviving in the Soviet system. The two academic enclave chapters are particularly good on what it’s like to be a woman academic in the system.

12

ajay 05.08.12 at 1:25 pm

8: However, all the main characters except one are white, and all of them are from Euro-American cultures. Best you avoid it altogether.

13

Katherine 05.08.12 at 1:56 pm

Thanks for the information folks.

And ajay, there’s really no need for the snark. I did say information for the purposes of filtration. I certainly didn’t say that I wouldn’t read it if it didn’t come up to certain standards because I am not, in fact, an idiot.

But is it so shockingly preposterous that a book that, say, purports to be semi-fictional history of a certain peroid of the USSR should give due notice to 50% of the population? It would be horribly incomplete if it didn’t, surely?

14

J. Otto Pohl 05.08.12 at 2:53 pm

Katherine:

Most books on the USSR and Russian Empire only deal with the ethnic Russian population and thereby exclude the almost 50% of the population on the basis of ethnicity.

15

Katherine 05.08.12 at 2:58 pm

Okay, thanks, noted also.

16

aretino 05.08.12 at 4:53 pm

But is it so shockingly preposterous that a book that, say, purports to be semi-fictional history of a certain peroid of the USSR should give due notice to 50% of the population? It would be horribly incomplete if it didn’t, surely?

Women comprised significantly more than half of the Soviet population in the post-war years, a difference that was particularly marked in younger age cohorts. This fact had fairly profound social consequences, not least of which was opening up many new professional opportunities for women. You would hope that a great deal of that would be reflected in the book.

17

merian 05.09.12 at 5:49 am

On a side note, I bought it as an eBook from my local neighborhood bookseller’s site, which sells Google eBooks, which I can import into my Nook reader via the Adobe Digital Editions software (or read via reader software that hooks into Google Books). This makes me feel less guilty about buying an eBook.

18

Alex 05.09.12 at 8:23 am

Most books on the USSR and Russian Empire only deal with the ethnic Russian population and thereby exclude the almost 50% of the population on the basis of ethnicity.

One of the protagonists, you’ll be delighted to know, is a Muslim (specifically, someone of Kazan Tatar origins). And there is a whole chapter about giving birth in the 1960s USSR.

19

ajay 05.09.12 at 8:58 am

I did say information for the purposes of filtration. I certainly didn’t say that I wouldn’t read it if it didn’t come up to certain standards because I am not, in fact, an idiot.

“Filtration” does imply a process of selecting out undesirable stuff, though. That’s what filters do.

And if your first question about a book is not “is it interesting? Well written? Does it explore new ground? Is it well researched? Is it about a topic I find interesting? What’s the author’s other stuff like? What have other people, especially people whose opinions I respect, said about it?” but “unless it passes my box-ticking exercise it will get filtered out” then that’s a fairly unfortunate view to take.

Threadjack over.

20

Data Tutashkhia 05.09.12 at 9:39 am

I thought the scene with the black male presenter and white female activist at an American exhibition was quite good, actually. That one rang true. Unlike Shukshin-style kooky engineers obsessed with optimizing industrial production.

21

Henry 05.09.12 at 12:52 pm

Ajay – I’m with Katherine here, not least because my anecdata suggests that passing the Bechdel test is strongly associated with much higher quality in genre, semi-genre and quasi-genre fiction written by men ( _Red Plenty_ is more or less explicitly a kind of science fiction about the recent past). There are a lot of guy writers out there, who aren’t very interested in writing about women (except as glorified plot coupons). They by and large tend to be not particularly interested in people either. To put it the other way around – failing the Bechdel test is _prima facie_ evidence of a vast and likely deliberately cultivated incuriosity about a half of the human race whom the writer comes into contact with on a daily basis (unless he’s a shut-in, lives on that Greek island monastery where women aren’t allowed, or something else highly implausible).

22

ajay 05.09.12 at 1:15 pm

“I’m with Katherine here, not least because my anecdata suggests that passing the Bechdel test is strongly associated with much higher quality…”

BTW, if you’re arguing in favour of ignoring books that don’t come up to the Bechdel standard, then you aren’t actually with Katherine here. In fact, I think she thinks you’re an idiot. See comment 13.

23

Henry 05.09.12 at 1:44 pm

But I’m not arguing that, am I? Instead, like Katherine, I’m saying that given that number of books I might possibly want to read > books I will ever have time to read, I’m going to use a variety of filters (none of which is fully dispositive). By and large it’s a good idea to respond to what people say, rather than what you might find it argumentatively convenient for them to have said.

24

Emily 05.09.12 at 4:53 pm

Ajay & Henry,
If there’s a China historian willing to participate it might be interesting to have a post exploring similarities and differences with China’s opening up.

From what I’ve read there’s still – some – support for primitive socialism (the current constitution, the last 5 year plan, academics working on positive post-modernism); but I think there is a lot of disquiet with regard to selfish bureucratism and other forms of corruption. The gender imbalance is interesting there, as is the Taiwanese practice of marriage to mainland brides.

Just a thought…

25

ragweed 05.09.12 at 5:27 pm

Ajay,

I would guess that Katherine is assuming, as I would, that a book that is recommended in a post on Crooked Timber would probably pass several filters about being interesting, well written, well researched, etc. (and the author of the post is likely to be included in what do “people I respect” think of it). Having passed those filters, it is pretty reasonable to ask if it passes the “female characters are people” filter.

26

Katherine 05.09.12 at 7:30 pm

Yes quite. Exactly that.

27

Katherine 05.09.12 at 7:32 pm

And thanks also Henry, you have described my intent/approach perfectly.

28

Katherine 05.09.12 at 7:35 pm

And, ajay, I in fact already find the subject interesting, I read the NYT review linked to, read the comments here etc etc, so really, shut up trying to read my mind already.

29

engels 05.09.12 at 8:31 pm

Genuine question: if the effect of a Bechtel test fail is not ejection from the in-box, what is it? Care to operationalise?

30

engels 05.09.12 at 8:36 pm

And is it for literature or just genre fiction? If so, how do things play out for Waiting for Godot, Nostromo or Tristram Shandy (to pick a few at random)?

31

Henry 05.09.12 at 8:47 pm

Engels – for me, it gets docked some points – makes me less likely to read it, but I’m the kind of person who reads cornflake packages if nothing better is at hand, so it’s by no means impossible that I’ll read it anyway if I can’t find anything better. As I said above, for me the point is one about genre fiction (and, more precisely, fiction in genres that are usually or frequently oriented towards male readers), rather than other modes of writing. Anyway, it’s one of several filters – if there is substantial external evidence that the book is still, anyway, about real human beings, or that its singular focus is a necessary part of a more general and well considered artistic project, or that it has other substantial merits, it’s quite likely to make it through my personal filters.

32

dsquared 05.09.12 at 9:19 pm

I am currently wondering how to shoehorn a couple of token female characters into my novel about a Nazi life assurance company.

33

dsquared 05.09.12 at 9:20 pm

btw, Spufford’s “Backroom Boys” didn’t have any female characters at all did it? So it’s only by the purest chance that this one has passed the test.

34

Barry 05.09.12 at 9:39 pm

engels 05.09.12 at 8:31 pm

” Genuine question: if the effect of a Bechtel test fail is not ejection from the in-box, what is it? Care to operationalise?”

Prioritization would be the obvious answer.

35

Barry 05.09.12 at 9:41 pm

dsquared 05.09.12 at 9:19 pm

” I am currently wondering how to shoehorn a couple of token female characters into my novel about a Nazi life assurance company.”

Obviously you’re not well read in the appropriate literature :)

How hard can it be to insert a hot blond Nazi Sex Kitten in a tight leather uniform?

36

Torquil Macneil 05.10.12 at 8:41 am

“I am currently wondering how to shoehorn a couple of token female characters into my novel about a Nazi life assurance company.”

Here’s an outlandish idea: perhaps some of the men who work for the company have wives or girlfriends? Having met some of the men who work in financial institutions, I do realise that this may stretch the suspension of disbelief a fraction too far, though.

37

Henry 05.10.12 at 10:55 am

I should probably flag in advance point that there are far fewer women participating in the seminar than I would like. This was not because of any lack of efforts to recruit them.

38

Data Tutashkhia 05.10.12 at 12:23 pm

As Special Agent Dale Cooper said: In the grand design, women were definitely drawn from a different set of blueprints.

39

Barry Freed 05.10.12 at 1:54 pm

I am currently wondering how to shoehorn a couple of token female characters into my novel about a Nazi life assurance company.

Ilsa, She Actuary of Allianz Versicherungs-Gesellschaft.

40

Hogan 05.10.12 at 2:08 pm

a Bechtel test

It’s the Bechdel test. A Bechtel test would be something else entirely.

41

bianca steele 05.10.12 at 2:12 pm

It’s pedantic, but the American State of Play, I thought, was a spectacular example of failing the Bechdel test because it actually did have enough women in the cast, in appropriate roles, to be able to pass it, and still failed. Red Badge of Courage doesn’t have any women in it, okay. An episode of Sex and the City fails the Bechdel test, that’s really an accomplishment.

42

bert 05.10.12 at 3:23 pm

“An episode of Sex and the City fails the Bechdel test …”

… because it’s about four gay men.
I accidentally watched an episode of 2 Broke Girls recently. Only myself to blame.

43

Bloix 05.10.12 at 4:09 pm

#35, 36, 39-
On the assumption that the novel about a Nazi life assurance company is a serious project (and a pretty interesting one, I would think – see, e.g., Allianz’s website,
https://www.allianz.com/static-resources/en/about_allianz/history/sp/en/themen/index.html

and this from an insurance industry site:

http://insurancenewsnet.com/article.aspx?id=335014&type=lifehealth

I don’t know why it’s difficult to create important female characters. Every office in that era had women secretaries, file clerks, typists. In that era of dictation and filing, secretaries in particular knew pretty much everything that their bosses were up to. Here’s a photo of a woman office worker from 1936:
http://www.ipernity.com/doc/57114/6511606/in/album/146759
http://www.ipernity.com/doc/57114/6511606/in/album/146759

44

bianca steele 05.10.12 at 4:11 pm

Next time the writers will know to fail the Bechdel test more consistently, I guess.

45

Emily 05.10.12 at 4:43 pm

I haven’t heard of the Bechdel test before – will look it up now. How would a Soviet book like The Master and Margarita go, or the movies Mirror or Burnt by the Sun?

46

tomslee 05.10.12 at 5:01 pm

The lovely thing about the Bechdel test is that it’s such a low hurdle for a work to jump over, so while it is fair to answer “Care to operationalise?” with “Prioritization” or “it gets docked some points” I’d say Bechdel-failing books are more like a genre. Some people like science fiction, some people like crime, some people like books without women characters who talk to each other about things other than men. If they were shelved separately I’d wander over sometimes to see what’s new, but only occasionally.

47

bianca steele 05.10.12 at 7:59 pm

To be fair, State of Play isn’t about politics, the real world, or working in journalism, so much as it’s about the emotional journey of Russell Crowe.

48

Tim Wilkinson 05.10.12 at 8:07 pm

Why not incorporate the entire National Socialist Womens’ Organisation, by having the Allianz-alike organisation awarded a contract to insure all its members en bloc. This would have the additional merit of conforming to historical precedent.

49

Salient 05.10.12 at 8:10 pm

Most books on the USSR and Russian Empire only deal with the ethnic Russian population and thereby exclude the almost 50% of the population on the basis of ethnicity.

I wonder if this sort of problem could be swept up into some kind of Achebe rule or Achebe test? From a commentary on Heart of Darkness:

Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

Can’t think of a way to make it pithy, though.

50

novakant 05.10.12 at 8:14 pm

Hmmm, if you prioritize film viewing according to the Bechdel test, you’re going to miss out on a lot of good stuff (actually half of film history I would wager):

from the top of my head: obvious (“Das Boot”, “Paths of Glory”) and not so obvious (“Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf”, “My Dinner with André”, “Glengarry Glen Ross”, “Badlands”, “Before Sunrise”…)

51

Tim Wilkinson 05.10.12 at 8:16 pm

For this seminar, a serious suggestion – make the concluding round-up post open to comments, since if the Graeber one is anything to go by, there will be overlaps and interrelations between the main threads, and people will probably want to comment on those, or on the whole lot taken together, or on general topics relevant to the book but not covered elsewhere.

52

LizardBreath 05.10.12 at 9:30 pm

50: Actually, I think that so few movies pass the Bechdel test that you could use it to prioritize your viewing, watch everything you were interested in that passed the test, and still have plenty of movie time left for the remainder of cinema history.

53

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.11.12 at 12:20 am

I was hoping you might have got Jo Walton.

54

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.11.12 at 12:21 am

Something went wrong there, meant to quote Henry at 37.

55

geo 05.11.12 at 2:25 am

Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

I confess I can’t. This has always seemed to me possibly the dumbest thing one great novelist ever said about another.

56

subdoxastic 05.11.12 at 2:32 am

Agree with Geo. Loved Achebe’s novels, but was never too taken with his criticism of Conrad’s HOD.

57

bianca steele 05.11.12 at 2:38 am

Many of Lars von Trier’s films pass the Bechdel test.

58

geo 05.11.12 at 2:39 am

Perhaps not the very dumbest. Here is Nabokov on Dostoevsky:

“A good [many readers] do not know the difference between real literature and pseudo-literature, and to such readers Dostoevsky may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called From Here to Eternity and such like balderdash.”

59

Data Tutashkhia 05.11.12 at 5:47 am

Also many John Waters movies.

60

Barry Freed 05.11.12 at 12:48 pm

Data, for his early films I think that depends on what gender you consider Divine.

61

Andreas Moser 05.11.12 at 2:51 pm

It’s on my wishlist: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/books-my-wishlist/ – I hope someone will send me a copy. Thanks!

62

Katherine 05.11.12 at 6:45 pm

If I only watched films that passed the Bechdel Test, I’d hardly ever go the cinema. And if you add the Bechdel Plus Test, then it gets worse. Which is a depressing thought indeed, since, as someone said above, it’s such a low hurdle to get over.

I consider it a piece of information, to consider along with others. I quite like the idea that an author might have considered that women are fully formed people capable of being characters in their own right. Since I am a women, I think I’m justified in wishing there were more authors out there who consider me fully human.

63

Barry Freed 05.11.12 at 6:46 pm

What’s the Bechdel Plus Test?

64

Katherine 05.11.12 at 6:48 pm

Take the Bechdel Test and add “and shopping”.

65

Barry Freed 05.11.12 at 6:50 pm

Ah, of course. Thanks.

66

Emily 05.11.12 at 6:55 pm

Katherine, I think you might like My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (a woman) not sure if it passes the test but the female protagonist is fully human. It’s a novel and an Aussie movie. Very little shopping involved.

67

Emily 05.11.12 at 7:24 pm

From Spufford’s earlier work The Child That Books Built, this quote might be pertinent and relates to the earlier girl child’s reading thread:

“Here you still see, as you do in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the aboriginal American civility and idealism that belonged to Jefferson’s republic of farmers and merchants.
It shows in public rituals: when the cast of the pageant sing ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ on the darkening prairie, the audience spontaneously, unselfconsciously join in.” p 111

68

Emily 05.11.12 at 7:25 pm

Sorry, “Here” is De Smet

69

novakant 05.12.12 at 9:10 pm

I quite like the idea that an author might have considered that women are fully formed people capable of being characters in their own right.

Me too, and the general situation in this regard is indeed lamentable. But the Bechdel Test is such a crude tool that it even disqualifies a lot of films in which women are fully formed people.

70

tomslee 05.12.12 at 10:12 pm

The Bechdel Test is such a crude tool that it even disqualifies a lot of films in which women are fully formed people.

Right. And that’s why it’s so easy to come up with a list of three films, no matter how bad and including ones in which men are fully formed people, that fail a reverse-Bechdel test. Let me see. I have heard that “Whip It” does, and then there’s…

71

ogmb 05.12.12 at 10:22 pm


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Mädchen in Uniform

72

bianca steele 05.12.12 at 10:26 pm

The Turning Point

73

ogmb 05.12.12 at 10:27 pm

Picnic at Hanging Rock might be another one. Even though there are conversations between male protagonists in the movie, they are surely about the females, no?

74

ogmb 05.12.12 at 10:27 pm

Picnic at Hanging Rock might be another one. Even though there are conversations between male protagonists in the movie, they are surely about the females, no?

75

bianca steele 05.13.12 at 12:01 am

I’m not sure Scott Pilgrim Versus the World passes in either direction if you define the terms fairly broadly. It isn’t clear what that proves.

76

Data Tutashkhia 05.13.12 at 8:27 am

Moonstruck.

77

novakant 05.13.12 at 10:26 am

#70

If you want to bring home the point that the film industry is very much a male dominant one, you might want to use the Bechdel Test as a rhetorical tool. If you want to judge individual films on how they deal with male/female perspective and portray women characters, it’s pretty useless.

78

Data Tutashkhia 05.13.12 at 1:59 pm

I don’t think the point is that “the film industry is very much a male dominant one”. It could be dominated by martians of the fifth gender and still keep producing the same films, if that’s the most profitable strategy. I suppose it could serve as a commentary on culture. But not the whole culture, because some demographics consume more than others.

79

Emily 05.13.12 at 2:07 pm

There’s a movie/doco by Nikita Mikhalkov – director of Burnt by the Sun, Unfinished Piece for a Mechanical Piano, and Urga – about himself, Russia, and his daughter Anna which I remember fondly (tho as a girl I felt for Anna).

At one point she wore a scrunchie in her hair, which was the first time I realised fashions the world over were so similar.

There’s a scene, I remember, that resonated with me, when the young Anna cries over the death of a leader (not sure what the proper word is) – maybe Kruschev or Brehznev? – and her father becomes infuriated with her mourning for the passed away leader.

80

Katherine 05.14.12 at 12:45 pm

People, I did repeatedly say it was a piece of information, not a deterministic checklist by which I decide which things to read/watch and which not to.

81

Bloix 05.14.12 at 12:59 pm

Spufford has Khruschev marveling at the traffic on the “washington beltway.”. Khruschev Isited the US I. 1959; the first stretch of the beltway to be opened to traffic was completed in 1961. It may be a trivial error but it’s the sort of thing that makes you doubt the depth of knowledge o. Bigger things.

82

Bloix 05.14.12 at 1:25 pm

And two pages later, he has Khrushchev disembarking from a train into Pennsylvania Station in New York, which, he thinks, is “nothing special.” The original Penn Station — demolished in 1963 — was one of the largest and grandest public spaces in the world, with many references to great European public buildings – the entryway, for example, was modeled after the Brandenburg Gate, something Khrushchev couldn’t have failed to notice. But Spufford appears to have him entering New York through the modern subteranean station. Again, a minor error but in a historical novel verisimilitude counts for a great deal.

83

Francis Spufford 05.14.12 at 2:18 pm

Bloix – yes. And thank you. The helicopter ride over Washington and Khrushchev marvelling at the traffic are both attested, but the anachronistic appearance of the Beltway is just the result of my ignorance, as is my walking K through the wrong Penn Station. (He might well have defensively denigrated even the old station in all its Beaux-Arts magnificence, but that’s not the point.) In the same spirit, while we’re at it, I’ve got the date wrong for the introduction of the Moskvitch as the crappy Soviet small car of choice, and somehow turned the existing 3-ruble note into a phantasmal 2-ruble note, probably because of a cultural bias against the idea that odd-numbered denominations are allowed. I leave the question of whether I am likely to be able to get the book re-typeset to correct these ignorances as an exercise for the reader.

84

Matt 05.14.12 at 10:51 pm

Many Soviet train stations were pretty cool (the main one I used was Kazanski vokzal, which was not the best by far, but still pretty neat in it’s own way:

http://www.i-love-moscow.com/pictures-of-russia.html )
So I can imagine Krushchev not being impressed by American train stations, even the old Penn Station. (30th St. Station in Philadelphia is one of the nicer ones in the US, and I like it a lot, but it doesn’t compare in many ways to the nicer Russian ones even now.) Of course, no US subway station comes close to comparing to central Moscow metro stations

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