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Response to Review no. 948

I am very flattered that my book should attract the attention of a scholar of such eminence as Professor Melling and receive such a lengthy review. I am grateful too for the positive comments he has made about the book, and in particular the way he describes what I was hoping it would achieve: ‘a polymath survey of attitudes to the naked body across thousands of years … a colourful caravan across the centuries of Asiatic and European history’.

The book was never intended to be an academic text, but a wide-ranging survey that would excite the interest of the intelligent general reader, and would also suggest some ideas and lines of approach for more intensive and scholarly investigation, and within the bulk of the review I see just the sort of exploration and analysis that I was hoping the book would stimulate.

I only take issue with the final paragraph. Endings are notoriously difficult in fiction and non-fiction, and here I feel the reviewer has tripped over himself. The opening sentence immediately alerts us to a problem:

This book comes with claims to being a beautiful text about beautiful people.

While the endorsements on the cover are complimentary about the book, there are no claims within these or within the text that the book is concerned with ‘beautiful people’, and I specifically included illustrations of less-than-traditionally-beautiful people naked: the overweight, the elderly, the handicapped. I would challenge anyone to describe the photograph of Marilyn Manson depicted on page 216, for example, as depicting beauty. The final chapter of the book finishes with my thesis that a sea-change in attitudes to nakedness has occurred as a result of two films that portray ordinary, not ‘beautiful’, people in the nude: The Full Monty and The Calendar Girls. The penultimate paragraph of the book reads:

In ancient Greece nakedness was the badge of heroes – gods and statesmen were depicted in the nude and Olympic athletes competed naked. Their nakedness was, however, also symbolic of an ideal of beauty which came to dominate western culture, and to exert its own peculiar tyranny, particularly on women. Projects like The Calendar Girls, The Credit Crunch Monty and its inspiration The Full Monty, have brought to the world a special gift – demonstrating that each of us can be heroic, regardless of our body shape. The heroes in these initiatives are not heroic because of their physiques, but because of who they are. They are real heroes not fictional or mythological ideals (p. 258).

The next sentence of Professor Melling’s final paragraph, while complimenting me on my ‘accessible and fluent style’, suggests that the endorsements the book received need defending, when I would claim that those who wrote these simply understood the book on its own terms, rather than making a basic category error that reviews a non-academic book as if it is posing as an academic one.

The third sentence of this flawed paragraph that mars an otherwise very interesting review, exposes another problem: the love of a ‘clever’ image that seduces the writer into a false contentment with his writing. This issue is of particular interest to me, because I have observed it at first hand in my own writing for so long, and have reluctantly been forced to take to heart Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice (given in his ‘On the art of writing’ 1916) to ‘murder your darlings’.

Melling falls to commit murder twice: having put aside other academics’ enthusiasm for the book as the result of their being dazzled by my style (I suppose a compliment in itself) he triumphantly exclaims: ‘The frame that holds up the body of the text remains too weak and the folds of description are too flabby’. A clever image that plays with the theme of the human body, but already there is a contradiction. Melling has just complimented me on my ability to convey the subject accessibly and fluently, which hardly marries with ‘flabby’. I believe the three-fold structure of the book that looks at the religious, political and cultural dimensions of the subject provides a strong structure with clear links between each domain articulated at the beginning of each section. If the reviewer wished to critique the structure why not do so with clarity? A ‘darling’ has got in the way of clear thinking.

Darlings can often be detected by their visual content and implicit humour. Melling writes: ‘The author may be himself a victim of the digital age for this is the first book I have reviewed which seems to have been written by a Googler. The references are held together by a racy eye for the good story and we are carried along by the entertaining anecdotes. At the end of the ride we are left with little more than vapour trails from the different search engines and little idea how to interpret the spectacle that has flown past us’.

Rather nicely I am here thrown into the same basket as most of his students: using the internet for my work. How many readers of this review will have arrived here via Google? The Professor surely cannot be that old-fashioned? He has seen the 12 pages of chapter notes that detail the textual source material I consulted in researching the book. He has seen the page of acknowledgements that show I consulted with experts on particular topics. So why has he made the comment? The answer lies in his attachment to the imagery that flows from his reference to Google. I admit I like it too – it’s a nice graphic image: ‘vapour trails of search engines’. But how much more interesting it would have been if Professor Melling had engaged not with his darling, but with the central thesis of the closing chapter of the book which far from avoiding an interpretation of events, offers a very particular view which could surely have been challenged, demolished or applauded.