Welcome to the Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics had a difficult birth. Hachette Book Group had originally agreed to publish it, but dropped the deal after its author, Julie Burchill, engaged in a spat on Twitter that it deemed problematic. She then placed it with Stirling Publishing (Edinburgh), but this time she pulled the plug, after it emerged that its director had links to a far-right group. (The book was finally published in November 2021 by Academica, a press based in London and Washington, DC, that specialises in scholarly nonfiction.) These tribulations suggest that Burchill’s topic is a hot one—and it is. Whether you think she’s done it justice will depend on what you’re looking for. You won’t find a reasoned analysis of wokeness, or a description of how it has derailed progressive politics—or a prescription for how to get back on track. But if you want an entertaining, over-the-top, anti-woke rant, full of scorn and spleen and sarcasm, fill your boots.
Burchill sets up her chosen enemies like targets in a shooting gallery and sprays them with machine-gun fire: postmodernist academics, snowflake students, woke comedians, woke Islamophiles, woke antisemites, woke BBC employees, Meghan Markle, Corbynites, Hollywood liberals, supporters of porn and prostitution, and trans activists. Especially trans activists. She was galvanised into writing the book after her friend Suzanne Moore was effectively driven from the staff of the Guardian for expressing gender-critical views. Burchill gives the topic of trans rights its own chapter (“Stunning Kweens Vs. Terrible Terfs—Womanface Goes Woke”), but also takes periodic shots at trans activists throughout the book. At one point she calls the campaign for trans rights “a male supremacy movement, made up of wolves in ewes’ clothing, which rose up nursing its painful and unwanted collective erection alongside the incels, so up to their eyes in it that they can’t see the forest for the wood.”
Amidst the snark, Burchill does make serious points about some of the troubling consequences of allowing—indeed encouraging—trans women to identify as women in every single context. She rightly bemoans the unsafe and unfair incursion of trans athletes into women’s sport. She notes that “in Canada the government has stopped funding rape crisis centres and women’s domestic violence refuges if male-bodied female-identifiers are not allowed in.” But sobering facts like these are far outnumbered by bursts of invective. She calls trans women troons (a portmanteau of trans and goons), mincing mollies and blokes in brassieres. And, disconcertingly, she seems to positively relish cataloguing the medical problems that can result from surgery to create artificial vaginas. More generally, she calls members of the woke crowd crybabies, crybullies, toddlers, seat-sniffers and bedwetters. The latter term occurs with monotous frequency, though sometimes with variations (“buy shares in Pampers!”).
The book is also disorganised, rambling and repetitive. Each of the eight chapters is nominally about the attitude of the woke on a different specific topic, such as pornography, the working class or skin colour. Yet actually, within each chapter, she offers a whole grab bag of topics. For example, in the chapter on the working class, she also discusses advertisements that feature so-called BAME people (black, Asian and minority-ethnic), shares her views on the meaning of diversity at the BBC, and takes digs at Jeremy Corbyn, Lily Allen, Alexei Sayle and (of course!) those she calls troons. In a way, this style is to be expected. Burchill is a columnist; it’s a common practice of columnists to weave disparate themes together, and that’s really what we have here: not a coherent, book-length argument, but a set of loosely connected opinion pieces riffing off marmalade-dropping news stories. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; it just means that it’s best taken in small doses, rather than consumed in a single sitting.
Burchill was precocious as a teenager, becoming a staff writer at the weekly music journal NME when she was only seventeen. But a style that can seem precocious when it’s written by an adolescent can seem—well—rather adolescent when written by a sixty-two-year-old. And Burchill has retained two stylistic habits that are more characteristic of adolescence than of adulthood: sneering (as already mentioned) and bragging. She brags a lot. She boasts about her posh Art Deco apartment “on the smartest avenue in Hove.” She boasts about her philanthropy (she’s given away three Rolexes). Having dubbed Harry and Meghan’s resignation from the royal family and fortune-seeking in America The Grabdication, she admires her own coinage as “a fabulous phrase.” She tells the reader that her book’s title is “gloriously playful and appropriate.” And—in the least humble humble-brag I’ve ever encountered—she informs us that her novel, Ambition, earned “only a few hundred thou.”
On the one hand, that’s Julie Burchill’s style, which some people enjoy; if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be reading this book. On the other hand, all the sneering and bragging arguably distract from Burchill’s overall message: it can seem as if she is more interested in self-aggrandisement than in critiquing wokeness. Her ornate, multiple-clause sentences, with their parenthetical sideswipes and bursts of alliteration do nothing to diminish this sense. Here’s an example, on the topic of the movement to defund the police:
Policeman kills black men and white men declare a state of anarchy—and the already precarious safety of women will be the savage currency squandered on this experiment in dismantling the level of civilisation we’ve fought so hard to reach which the Woke Bros seem so intent upon, for some strange reason of their own, which may have its shady roots in their own squalid, solitary, savage amusements, to be examined in the next chapter.
There are too many sentences of this kind, like over-decorated Christmas trees. Then there is the constant use of capital letters, bolded text, asterisks and tabloid-style puns. This is prose that is screaming for attention.
That said, Burchill occasionally lands some effective zingers. I loved this sentence debunking the wokeist assumption that humans used to live in a pre-capitalist Eden: “Young women of working-class origin … wouldn’t be romping through some sunlit glade without a care in the world—they’d be toothless hags, picking potatoes in the driving rain before dying in childbirth.”
She occasionally hits a target right in the bull’s eye. On the woke myth (and mantra) that words are literally violence, she writes, “This is, of course, the logic of the lunatic asylum; words are the opposite of violence and can often delay or negate violence altogether.” She skewers the refusal of the woke to debate questions on which they’ve made up their minds: “If grown adults want to stick their fingers in their ears and sing “La la la” that’s their look-out. What’s not an option is for them to put muzzles on the rest of us.” And she neatly makes the point that so-called diversity at the BBC seems to mean a collection of people with different skin tones who all think exactly the same way about everything.
I would have liked the book to offer many more such home truths, and much more analysis (what is wokeness?). By chance, just before I read Welcome to the Woke Trials, I read Kathleen Stock’s Material Girls (which Burchill cites approvingly). The contrast between the two books could not be greater. Stock’s writing is clear, cool and considerate to the reader. She marshals arguments and evidence in support of her case. She doesn’t demonise or belittle her opponents but instead tries to understand and answer them. In consequence, Stock’s book is persuasive; whereas Burchill simply preaches to the anti-woke choir.
But again: Julie Burchill is Julie Burchill. Complaining about her writing style is as pointless as complaining about the fact that Tom Waits always sings in a growly voice. That’s simply what they do. Welcome to the Woke Trials is an entertaining polemic, and one can enjoy it without endorsing everything in it. It’s a defiant up yours to what are now polite orthodoxies in certain circles. It’s also a warning about some of those orthodoxies’ unintended consequences. And nobody but Julie Burchill could have written it.