August 5, 2021

Author biographies go in fashions, like anything else. As a literary editor, I am the grateful recipient of any number of press releases about new books, so I get to see how they change.

For a long time, anyone who’d written a business or self-help book based on their Ted Talk was described by their publicists as a “thought leader”. Briefly, “influencer” was the thing to be if you’d written a book of lifestyle tips: essentially a way of indicating to booksellers that this pustular teenager had a gazillion followers on Instagram so probably merited the front table treatment even if — being the wrong side of 25 — you’d never heard of them. 

Now, though, we live in a more caring and politically conscious age. Hashtags are no longer for selling #swag, but for organising progressive political movements; which can, in turn, be used to sell swag. The way this manifests is in what I am coming to think of as the activist tricolon. 

On Monday one publicist wanted to alert me to a “poet, writer and activist”. Last Thursday it was a “veteran, [comma sic] politician and activist“. The day before it was an “Olympic boxer, model and activist”. I’ve had, just in recent weeks, “award-winning actress, model and activist”, “activist, researcher and policy maker”, “bestselling author and women’s empowerment activist”, “former publisher, community advocate, and activist”.

But what is an “activist”? It’s a pretty broad term these days. So broad, I worry, that it is starting to verge on the meaningless. For instance, a recent Guardian headline quoted “Composer-pianist Max Richter” to the effect that “Creativity is activism”, which seems to set the bar pretty low. I was reminded a bit of the wacky social theorist Michel de Certeau, who maintained that having illegible handwriting or walking down the street in a wonky zig-zag path constituted resistance to the ineffable structures of power.

Once, it was clear what “activist” meant. It meant: “smelly hippy” (or, if you preferred, “dedicated leafleter, marcher and supergluer of self to solid objects in inconvenient places”). You knew where you were with an activist. Depending on your temperament and geographical location, you either arrested them and dropped them out of a helicopter, or you bailed them out of prison, circulated their samizdat writings and cheered in support of their brave direct action. 

The one thing that you tended not to do, whichever side of the divide you were on, was buy their books in any great numbers. In the second half of the last century, stalwarts like Jonathon Porritt would issue earnest books about the politics of ecology, and they would slide out of print. Polemical texts on feminism, Marxism and race consciousness sold in specialist outlets and to politics departments, but with the odd exception — Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch being a notable one — did not trouble the bestseller lists.  

Now, they are a positive publishing trend. Movements came with reading lists, and civilians read them. Black Lives Matter was accompanied by a slew of hugely successful books from the likes of Ibrahim X Kendi, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Ta-Nehisi Coates (while a new generation rediscovered bell hooks and James Baldwin).

Similarly, #MeToo and an associated revival of interest in feminism helped propel any number of books to bestsellerdom — Caroline Criado-Perez, Roxane Gay, Ronan Farrow, Rebecca Solnit, Laura Bates… Not since turtlenecked café-dwellers in the 50s flaunted their Camus and Sartre have dead-tree books been such a conspicuous badge of a particular sort of identity.  

But that does, it seems to me, two things; one good, one less good. The good thing is that books are being sold, and presumably read — which gives a sort of intellectual ballast to progressive movements.

The less good thing is that — capitalism being the brilliant monster that it is — resistance to capitalism has become just another way of selling things. This is what used to be called “co-optation”. Here is, perhaps, the publishing industry’s equivalent of (though I don’t like the phrase) what sometimes gets called “woke-washing” — where Nike or Coca-Cola surf the social justice movement of the week with a fusillade of glossy Instagram posts. An athlete’s memoir or a model’s cookbook looks just that bit more saleable if you can also call them an activist because they’ve been saying right-on things on social media.   

“Activist” is a label so freely applied that it has become a brand rather than an activity, a general-purpose kicker to any other two things you can boast of in your career. That’s why it always comes as the final term in a tricolon: it’s a side-gig as part of a portfolio of self-fashioning, a lapel-pin more than a protest flag. I am not suggesting that many of the individuals so described are not doers of good works. Perhaps alongside their busy careers as authors, pop stars, writers, athletes, actors and so on, they spend their leisure hours organising demonstrations and petitioning for judicial reviews. But these days, what it takes to qualify as an “activist” is a bit more hashtag than black flag. As Danny the drug dealer ruefully remarks in Withnail & I: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.” 

One old friend who works as a literary agent rightly reproached me for claiming that three in four authors are now billed as an activist. I copped to the hyperbole, but said I bet she had the odd “X, Y and activist” on her own list — and she conceded that, yes, there was the odd one. Which, I think, slightly bore out my point. She’s a jolly good literary agent and if she’s signing up activists you can bet that they sell books. 

Perhaps the distinctly pre-#metoo saying that if you need to say you’re a lady, you aren’t one applies here. After all, if you call yourself a “troublemaker”, “dissident”, “maverick”, “cynic”, “disruptor”, “rebel” or “speaker-of-truth-to-power” in your social media bio, almost everyone who reads it will think you are a colossal wally. “Activist” isn’t quite there yet — but it’s on the way. And the ones who really put in the hard yards — you couldn’t accuse Marcus Rashford of being a lifestyle clicktivist, for instance — aren’t done any favours by sharing the label with lifestyle clicktivists who glibly chirrup, as it were, “me too!”