There is nothing that makes me more bored than disingenuous writing, and I’ve found Laurie Penny’s new book Unspeakable Things to be a great cure for insomnia. After 260 pages of what she describes as ‘Sex, Lies and Revolution’, disappointingly I felt nothing more strongly than irritation. This is not a back-handed compliment: Penny plays it far too safe. Unspeakable Things is not, as Penny pointedly states, ‘the book as bombshell’; it is a handbook on how to be ‘right on’.
The comprehensive list Penny provides of who the book is intended for is symptomatic of the current trend in online political writing of my generation. If you aren’t writing for ‘the others, as one of the others’ (‘queers’, ‘transsexuals’ and so on), then you aren’t worth reading because you don’t tick the ‘edgy’ boxes. Penny’s reiteration of her position on the peripherals of ‘normality’ reads like a desperate plea to be cool. This is not to suggest that some of the figures on her list are purely fashionable; ‘queers’, ‘anarchists’ and ‘transsexuals’ have certainly not been waiting for Penny’s voice to lift them into the published world. The problem is Penny’s desire to keep her selected few ‘others’ separate from a discussion about universal equality. In this way, she adheres to the contemporary ‘check your privilege’ demand that anyone who speaks up in public has to declare their background. Penny writes: ‘The fact that I was born white and middle class in an English-speaking country and form relationships mostly although not exclusively with men inevitably affects how I think, how I write and how I live my life.’ In an article for the New Statesman in June, Penny assured us, ‘I’m about as close as you can get to the trans-rights movement without being trans [myself]’. Penny imagines being queer as a clique, into which only she has the secret password for heterosexual entry.