Submitting InstitutionGoldsmiths' College
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Francis Spufford's book Red Plenty has been acclaimed as
an ironic reflection on contemporary problems, despite being apparently
devoted to the deadest of issues: central planning in the former USSR. The
book has helped stimulate debate about alternative economic strategies,
with the title becoming shorthand for non-market forms of organisation,
and has contributed to rising interest in Soviet history. But besides
achieving these topical resonances, it has been saluted for its innovative
fusion of fiction and non-fiction, and its contribution to an ongoing
erosion of literary boundaries. It has been released in eight languages
and in the USA, with in excess of 25,000 copies sold to date; it has been
shortlisted for several major book prizes. Spufford has engaged in
extensive public discussion of the work, both at live events and in the
broadcast media, and this has sparked voluminous on-line commentary from
the wider public.
Spufford was appointed to a Senior Lectureship at Goldsmiths in 2007 and
has been in post continuously since then. From the time of his arrival
until the autumn of 2009 he worked on a creative work that transgresses
the traditional boundary between fiction and non-fiction, Red
Plenty. As its title suggests, it is the story of economic
optimism in the Soviet Union during the Sputnik era, when the
centrally-planned communist economy appeared to be making a plausible
challenge to the market economies of the West. It was published by Faber
& Faber in August 2010.[1a]
Although Red Plenty tells a story, it also depicts with great
accuracy the real historical situation of the USSR from the late 1950s to
the early 1970s. Some characters are fictional (although still based on
anecdotes and contemporary observations), while many are
thoroughly-researched historical figures into whom Spufford breathes life
by endowing them with imagined actions and words. The book has 53 pages of
endnotes and an annotated list of characters which help the reader
navigate the boundary between fiction and fact. It has been praised by
economists, Russianists, computer scientists, and both cultural and
economic historians for its plausibility and its detailed fidelity to the
documented past. Tributes to its accuracy have come from witnesses who
knew and worked with some of its characters.[1b]
As well as relevant secondary literature on economics and Russian
history, Spufford worked his way through translated primary sources, from
Gosplan statistics to reports on the potato-optimising program of the
Moscow Regional Planning Agency and the building plans for the Svetlogorsk
Artificial Fibre Plant. Red Plenty also includes complex discussions of
early computer architecture and of the molecular biology of lung cancer.
This required three journeys to Russia, interviews with hardware
designers, anthropologists and biologists, and the use of the specialised
resources of the Marshall Economics Library in Cambridge, the British
Library, the Cambridge University Library, and the library of the Society
for Co-operation in Research in Soviet and Eastern European Studies.
Although the book is not intended to be a contribution to historical
scholarship, this is used as its material. The original research
represented by the book is practice-based: it lay in the devising of the
book's formal structure, and in the creation by Spufford — following on
from his interest in economies as narratives — of the original perceptual
tools required for a reader to experience intuitively the normally
impalpable functioning of economic networks.
Spufford explained his ambitions for the book in an interview with the
American literary magazine "A Public Space": `I wanted a thick,
immersive experience, in which all thoughts and feelings belonged to
particular people; and I wanted attention to the idea [of central
planning] as well... I wanted to bring to life the drag of a big piece
of twentieth-century thinking as it furrowed and blundered its way
through a big tract of experience...'
References to the research
Evidence of the international calibre of the research is set out below.
1. Spufford, F. (2010) Red Plenty. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN:
The book has been submitted as an output to the REF, and is thus
available in REF 2b.
Attesting to the rigour of the historical research underpinning the book,
Spufford has received numerous emails (available on request from
Goldsmiths Research Office) from academic experts commenting on the
accuracy of the information it presents. These include a USSR specialist
in ethnic relations in Eastern Europe; a Professor of Russian at Oxford
University who has published on Russian literature; a Senior Lecturer in
Comparative Politics at the LSE; a historian of Russia at the University
of Chicago; and an Associate Professor of Political Science and
International Affairs at George Washington University, USA.
It has been critically acclaimed, as evidenced by positive reviews in
(for instance): the Financial
Times (16/0810); The Economist
(19/0810); The Telegraph
(20/0810); The Independent
(27/08/10); The London
Review of Books (06/01/11); and The Observer
Details of the impact
Red Plenty elicited great interest across the world, including in
former Eastern-bloc countries. In the UK it has sold over 10,000 hardback
and around 10,000 paperback copies; it has had a print-run of 5,500 in the
USA and is now on its second print run in the Netherlands.
Translations and editions have also been published in the USA, Russia,
Poland, Estonia, Spain, Turkey, and Germany. It has attracted favourable
reviews and online commentary in America and Europe, including a feature
in Russian on the international radio station Radio Liberty/Radio Free
Europe (09/04/10), and has received particularly widespread coverage in
the Netherlands, including a review by the leading left- centre Dutch
newspaper, De Volkskrant. It has also been the subject of
commentary on the Russian blog Ruconomics.
Its literary impact is evidenced through its shortlisting for the British
Science Fiction Association's non-fiction award, and
the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize for books communicating
`the spirit of place'. It was also long-listed for
the Orwell Prize, Britain's most prestigious prize for political writing.
It has received numerous positive reviews. For
example, Policy Review, the journal of the public policy Hoover
Institution of Stanford University, said "Whether you are interested
in the history of the Soviet Union or not, I am certain you will enjoy
this marvelous book. It reminded me of Orwell at his best. But if you
are interested in Soviet history, as I am, the book will have special
significance." The Financial Times has described it
as `eccentric in construction, audacious in conception' and `one
of the strangest books ever written on the Soviet Union...an eccentric
delight'; there have been similar comments in The Independent,
The Observer, and the London Review of Books. Following its
release in the USA in February 2012, it was reviewed in The Dallas
News and twice in the New York Times, which described it as
`a genre-bender — part novel, part history... the result is a marvel.'
The publication of Red Plenty in the aftermath of the 2007-9
financial crisis played into a public conversation in the national media
and online about alternative economic models. In a context of scepticism
about economic institutions, it was read by many as containing lessons for
Spufford spoke on BBC Radio 4's `Start the Week' and `Today' programmes
in August 2010. Subsequently, Radio 4 commissioned
Spufford to write and present Lenin in Letchworth, an ironic look
at the contacts between the Russian Bolsheviks and the British garden city
movement. A programme on the arts station Resonance FM was devoted to the
Beyond the UK, he was interviewed twice by Radio Liberty/Radio Free
Europe in connection with the Russian translation of the book, the second
time speaking alongside Abel Aganbegyan, principal economic adviser to
Mikhail Gorbachev and the original for one of the book's characters. He
was also the subject of a programme on the English language service of
Voice of Russia. In the Netherlands, he has been interviewed for both
radio and television.
Spufford has appeared in live discussion events in cities across the UK.
As part of the Russia-themed 2011 London Book Fair he joined a South Bank
Centre discussion on `The Soviet Dream' with Orlando Figes.
At the 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival he spoke alongside the Soviet
historian Rachel Polonsky, and on the Edinburgh Fringe debated with Paul
Cockshott, a computer scientist and advocate of cybernetic socialist
planning. This later sparked a technical discussion
among computer scientists about the underlying computational viability of
Soviet-style `optimal planning', given the information technology of the
present rather than of the 1960s. Cockshott eventually published his
review of Red Plenty in his 2012 book, Arguments for Socialism.
However, the book's many-sided irony and its careful concealment of the
author's own politics meant it was praised across almost the entire
political spectrum, by libertarians, conservatives, neo-liberals and
liberals as well as socialists and Marxists. In the United States, for
example, it was applauded simultaneously in the New Left Review and in the
journals of the centre-right Brookings Institution and of the libertarian
Cato Institute. More recently, Spufford's title has passed into the
language, floating free from the book and instead signifying any
non-market form of prosperity. Thus a soup kitchen organized by
leftwingers in Philadelphia operates under the name `Red Plenty',
whilst an essay in the cultural studies journal Culture Machine
examines `the computing platforms that would be necessary for a
contemporary "red plenty"'.
His insights have stimulated a lively public reaction, as evidenced in
several political and literary blogs and online commentaries including Crooked
Timber, the Yorkshire Ranter, The Enlightened Economist,
Tonsk79, Open Letters Monthly, and economist Brad DeLong's
Grasping Reality. His publication of a piece,
`Lessons from the Soviet Dream', on The Guardian's Comment is
Free website in 2010 elicited a 125-comment public discussion
Sources to corroborate the impact
Hard or electronic copies of all the sources listed below can be provided
by Goldsmiths Research Office, on request.
Red Plenty: Publishers' sales figures are available to the
Panel, confidentially, on request from Goldsmiths Research Office.
- Ruconomics blog
(7 November 2011)
- Shortlist for the British Science Fiction Association's non-fiction
- Shortlist for the 2011
- Longlist for the 2011
- Reviews of Red Plenty: A compilation is available on request from
Goldsmiths Research Office.
- BBC Radio 4 `Start
the Week' (29 November 2010); and `Today'
(27 August 2010).
- Resonance FM interview
on `Little Atoms' show (14 Jan 2011). Airwave listenership is around
120,000 monthly; online and on itunes its shows gain
considerably more than that.
- International media: A compilation of information relating to the
programmes described here is available on request from Goldsmiths
- Russia-themed London Book Fair event
and South Bank discussion.
- Edinburgh Festival Book Fringe: Discussions with Cockshott
(25 August 2010) and Polonsky
(26 August 2010)
- "Red Plenty" soup
- Dyer-Witheford, N. (2013). Red
Plenty Platforms. Culture Machine, 14(0).
- Blogs: Copies can be provided by Goldsmiths Research Office on
from the Soviet Dream' in The Guardian's online Comment is
Free site, 7 Aug 2010.