Sunday, June 07, 2009

Writers and Readers

Robert McCrum doesn't appear to agree with me: he says in today's Observer that novelists writing with a greater awareness of the market, as did their Victorian forbears, would only be a Good Thing. His argument seems unclear to me, however. Making a general accusation that contemporary literary novelists 'disdain readers', he names no one specifically, and refers only to a 'literary elite'. One might assume from his reference to a time 'when "story" was not a dirty word' that he has in mind here innovative writing or complex texts. In point of fact I can't disagree with his statement that a writer-reader relationship is essential, and I think it's the challenge, and indeed the duty of the innovative writer to find ways of preserving it. But McCrum seems to be implying that all such contemporary writing, and indeed all contemporary 'literary' or 'non-genre' writing generally fails to keep this contract, with his statement that 'if there is a genre where the old contract between writer and reader is still going strong it must be thrillers.' Inadvertent or not, there seems a real anti-literary sentiment here. And then again, he asks in evidence: 'How often have you come away from a literary festival with a sense of regret at the failure of the big name in the marquee to live up to your expectations?', a question which seems like a non sequiteur, revolving as it surely does around the issue of personality and performance and having little to do with the needs of the reading experience.

In a smaller column on the same page in the printed version of the paper, McCrum develops his theme of reader satisfaction by praising the Orange prize for invariably selecting winners that 'your average reader may actually want to read.' And says that this year the prize 'surpassed itself', and goes on to applaud this year's 'worthy winner', the surely highly literary Home by Marilynne Robinson, whose linked earlier novel Gilead was too literary, highbrow and arcane in its religious reference for many of my very literary friends.

But then one suspects that McCrum's twisted knickers are the result of a journalistic need to drum up controversy as our Sunday broadsheets abandon their serious literary agenda.
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