The day I meet Laurie Penny is the day after the atrocious terrorist attack in Manchester. It’s a strange day to be travelling into London, and I’m oddly apprehensive. Nervous, as much about the interview as I am about the mood of the country. I needn’t have worried on the first count. As I’m heading into London I get a message from Penny to confirm where we’re meeting and checking that I am ok, after the “awful news today”. For someone who is, in her own words, “difficult” and “obstreperous”, she seems remarkably kind and caring via email. This is a trait that becomes even more evident in person.
The eldest of three sisters, Laurie Penny is a political feminist writer, thinker, and activist, who is known for her perceived fierceness on feminist and leftist issues (although, as she points out “in person I’m quite shy, and I think, quite fluffy”). She is an alumna of Wadham College, Oxford, and was the youngest ever person to be shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing. Penny writes for (amongst other publications), the Guardian; she is a columnist and Contributing Editor at the New Statesman; and Editor at Large at the cult New York Literary project The New Inquiry. Oh, and she’s written six books. She’s outspoken and loud, “a bit too much” if you listen to some of her critics, but over the last decade in her career as a journalist, Penny’s voice has been instrumental in ensuring that women’s and minorities rights have stayed on the agenda, and that the conversation over equality continues to evolve.
I’m meeting Penny to discuss, at least in part, her forthcoming book Bitch Doctrine:
Essays for Dissenting Adults—a collection of essays taken from Penny’s writings over the
past few years. It’s a dizzyingly clever, warm, and witty compilation of essays covering
topics which range from the 2016 US presidential election, to writing which explores
the notion of gender—it looks at the nature of relationships and examines the current culture we find ourselves in. I ask Penny how the collection came about.
“I just realised I had so much material and that I wanted to get some of it out there in a more permanent form… I wanted to reach the same people as Unspeakable Things” [Penny’s first book]. “Most of these pieces have been online and I picked the ones that had the most impact, that were most popular… And there’s stuff that I’ve done that I would like to be accessible by people who aren’t linked in to those communities online in the same way”. As Penny herself writes in the introduction to the collection, all she’s “ever wanted to achieve with writing is to move the world in small ways with words”. She tells me as we chat that “if you read a book it’s a chance to be with some ideas in a less immediate way”.
One of the ideas present in the book, and one which Penny talks about when we meet, is the notion of reclaiming words, and owning what and who you are. “It’s about owning the provocative. My whole life people have told me that I’m a bit too much, and yell a little bit too loud about stuff. And I never really worked out why… but I may as well own it”.
One of the things about the collection that jumped out to me, when reading it, is that it seems calmer and more considered, less raw than her first book. I mention this to Penny and she agrees that that’s the case. Although she does note that her first book was finished after the sudden death of her father. “So that whole process of finishing it was all mired up in a very emotional time, and you know, very raw time.”
Of Bitch Doctrine, she says that she’s “a bit more grown up. I’m still cross about stuff… but yeah, I’ve definitely become more self-assured and happy in myself… and I’m just, I just give a lot fewer fucks”. She’s quick to point out that she’s aware that contentment can result in a situation where “you stop being quite so angry at the world. But I’ve got people who check me for that, and fortunately I have the internet who let me know if I’m ever lax on anything! Thanks guys”. It’s worth noting that this is all said unironically. She seems genuinely happy that there are people out there who will pick up her up on mistakes or errors. “I’m quite happy to own up when I’ve fucked up, in fact, more than happy.”
Ah, the internet. Penny has an active Twitter presence with over 160,000 followers, and it was for work on her blog ‘Penny Red’ that she was shortlisted for the aforementioned Orwell Prize. For all of this online success though, she has endured more than her fair share of vitriol and abuse via the internet. “So early this year… it was really bad. I was wiped out for a few weeks just being like ‘I can’t deal with this’”. And yet, Penny is optimistic about the internet. “I mean, I’ve not met one person who has been the target of any of this stuff, who would say ‘oh the internet is evil, I wish I’d never gone on it’. What I hear more, is regret that they can’t engage more and that they can’t be more, be more present in those spaces, and have to watch what they say more.” We chat about how things would have been different, if the Internet had been the place it is now, when Penny was younger: “I can’t imagine if 15-year-old me had had access to the Internet. It might have been brilliant, but it might also have been terrible. Yeah, there’s a lot, there seems to be a lot at stake in every conversation. I feel like there are more consequences now, for young people, for everything. I don’t envy that at all. There’s both more and less freedom.”
When you get Penny talking about something she cares about, she is passionate, interesting, and thoughtful. The words seem to tumble out of her mouth almost quicker
than her brain can process the thoughts. But it’s clear, when we discuss feminism and the
outlook for the future in light of Brexit and Donald Trump, that these are issues she has
thought long and hard about. The tumbling over her words is simply because she has so
much to say, and we have so little time to discuss everything.
It feels as though Penny has moved on slightly from the shock and anger which followed the US election results in November last year. She tells me that the introduction to the collection had to be rewritten in the wake of Trump’s surprise victory. In fact, her plans for the whole year had to change. “The plan for this year was to spend the year, holed up writing this novel, with maybe the occasional column about how Hillary Clinton wasn’t going far enough in her women’s rights agenda.
“That got tabled, and I’m very cross about that. It’s not the worst thing Donald Trump has done, but it makes it personal.” Her description of the current President of the United States in her book’s introduction, as “a craven billionaire real-estate mogul and reality television shyster” who was “elected to the presidency of the United States, swept to power by a wave of racist rage and violent populism”, is both amusing and terrifying. When we talk about Trump (neither of us are able to bring ourselves to refer to him with his proper title), Penny’s position seems to have mellowed slightly.
“There’s a sense that there’s been a dark shadow passing over and I feel like, not that it’s lifting, things are still really terrible, but I feel like the possibility is now creeping in that things might not be as terrible as we thought they were going to be.
“There’s this air, from last June onwards of, ‘oh my God, everything is terrible, the world is going to end’. And it’s not. It’s very important to be cautious, to be angry, but actually, you know, if you look at the turnarounds that have happened in Europe… the pushback is still happening in the US.
“And now in the UK… May might not get that majority… it sort of feels like there’s more, stuff is unwritten. The future is very unwritten. And I think that’s not necessarily the horror that it was, even a few months ago.”
For somebody who is so often labelled as angry, somebody who’s writing is often held up as a war cry against those who seek to oppress the weak, Penny is surprisingly optimistic about what’s to come. “Terrible, terrible things are always going to happen but I feel like, I don’t know, I feel like resignation and rage are not the only possible options.”
Perhaps there can be a little hope for the future after all. And what of the future for the
formidable but “fluffy” Laurie Penny?
“Fiction… fiction is what I’d love to do”.
Laurie Penny’s forthcoming essay collection, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults
is published by Bloomsbury and will be available from August. It can be pre-ordered now
from Amazon UK and all good book stores.