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Hilary Mantel vs Kate 'controversy': No reading required

The maelstrom of outrage sparked by Hilary Mantel's remarks on Britain's most beloved royal is undoubtedly misplaced and gratuitous. I won't bother analysing Mantel's intentions or her observations about the Duchess of Cambridge. Others have done it better, including author Beatrix Campbell who summed up the defence in her tweet: "Hilary Mantel did NOT attack K. Middleton. She offered feminist critique of monarchism."

If you need more elaboration, here is the Guardian editorial weighing in on similar lines:

In fact, and in a manner which will delight semioticians, the response to Ms Mantel's lecture embodies the very point that she is making.  The royal body, she says, exists to be looked at. People stare at royal women, interpret them, derive entertainment from them, create fantasies about them. Sometimes, as Ms Mantel says, curiosity can become cruelty, even a form of sacrifice, certainly in Diana's case, perhaps in that of the duchess. It is sad, as the lecture says, that the royals create such an uncontainable compulsion to comment. But in the light of yesterday's brouhaha it can hardly be denied that they do.

But most of all, I'd encourage you to read the transcript Mantel's speech which is available here.

I personally thought the speech brilliant, incisive and sympathetic, except for one noteworthy quibble. To rework the Guardian's observation: Ms Mantel's lecture also embodies the very point she is making. Kate may offer suitable fodder for a lecture titled, Royal Bodies but in using her body to make an academic point, Mantel is no less guilty of treating her as a royal title as opposed to what she also is: a young, pregnant woman. As anyone who has a child knows, this is a vulnerable time in any woman's life. Mantel could have charitably reeled in her punches without losing the power of her overall point. She preferred instead to open her speech with lines such as these: "It’s rather that I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung. In those days she was a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore."

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British author Hilary Mantel poses after winning the 2012 Man Booker literary prize for her novel "Bring Up The Bodies" in London on October 2012. AFP

As any good novelist, Mantel sought to grab her audience's attention, a task she seems to have succeeded in all too well. Within this distasteful context, it is only fitting that the author's own body has now become grist to the media mill. The Daily Mail, attacking Mantel's comments as "venomous," offered this useful information  about the two-time Booker prize winner (accompanied by many photos of her looking enormous):

Ms Mantel’s comments on the Duchess of Cambridge’s appearance comes shortly after she spoke about having body issues of her own. Ms Mantel went from a size ten to a size 20 in nine months after she was diagnosed with severe endometrosis at the age of 27. The treatment, which included surgery removing her womb leaving her infertile, caused her to gain four stone. The 60-year-old author said she sometimes dream of being thin again.

Setting aside the royals and their bodies — subjects I find dreadfully dull in any other context — the resulting controversy offered far more significant revelations about the act of reading. What we read. How we read. And what the media decide is read-worthy.

We no longer read, either carefully or in entirety. The tsunami of opinions that were instantly rendered in the media, on Twitter and comment boards makes it clear that most of us never got past the first quarter — which contained all the Kate quotes — of Mantel's 5000-word speech. And that includes not just plebeians but also the worthies who threw themselves into the fray.

David Cameron promptly took time out of his trip in India to confirm that he thought Mantel's comments were "completely misguided and completely wrong", proving he, too, couldn't be bothered to read her entire talk before putting in his tuppence, and the result was that "Hilary Mantel" began to trend on Twitter yesterday, which really puts those silly Bookers into perspective, achievement-wise.

In the age of instant updates, we no longer have patience for or interest in complexity and nuance. What matters is easy judgement, preferably short, pithy and tweetable.

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Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge (L) and his wife Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge leave the King Edward VII hospital in central London in this December 2012 photo. AFP

"Not everyone will agree with Ms Mantel’s essay, but it was not written to be agreed with. Controversial, witty and lively, it pushes at seeming obsessions with monarchy and pipe-dreams about greatness," notes the Economist. But disagreement — of the substantial not knee-jerk kind — requires engaging with Mantel's ideas which do not come neatly packaged in bullet-pointed form.

The language is at times opaque, sometimes meandering. She builds her argument, brick by brick, its full breadth not visible until the very last lines. This is not an essay but a speech which requires the audience to listen carefully, as Mantel carries them from beginning to end. There is no helpful "nut paragraph" at the very outset summarising the gist of her position, so readers can skip right ahead to the "juicy bits."

Since Mantel would not oblige us by cutting to the chase, the media were glad to do so on her behalf. The transition of a long keynote lecture delivered to a roomful of select listeners, assembled for that specific purpose, to the insta-opinion world of social media is fraught with misinterpretation. Ashis Nandy's troubles stemmed from a similar journey from litfest panel to the world at large, where statements are quickly stripped of context and inevitably their original meaning.

The midwives of this passage into the public eye are the frantic journalists, editors and TV anchors, eternally in search of the next eyeball-grabbing.  Mantel's speech made headlines many days after it was delivered, and for the most mundane reasons, as The Guardian points out:

The generous explanation is that this is half-term. The rich and powerful are on trade missions to India and ski breaks in the Alps. It is therefore a bit of a slow news week, with the press scraping around for things to write about. In such circumstances, there is a gut logic in tapping into the media's monarchy mother lode, and fanning a controversy about what one of our leading writers has said about one of the most newsworthy royals – even though it was actually said two weeks before it erupted on to the front pages yesterday.

No one could resist the prospect of Hilary-Kate catfight, a gift that kept on giving, as defenders and critics joined battle, ensuring days of headline-generating controversy. Blaring headlines accompanied by cherry-picked quotes were quickly selected for maximum and desired effect. The aim was not to encourage the public to read what Mantel said, but to provoke a powerful reaction to the same — without ever having to consult the original.

On that note, here is the link again to Mantel's speech.

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