Monday, November 28, 2011

Too simple for words?

Interesting juxtaposition in today's Guardian.

First, there's a very interesting four-page interview with Umberto Eco by Stephen Moss. The great semiotician opines that ' "you [ie the author] are not responsible for perverse readings of your book" ' which might seem like poststructuralist orthodoxy - a text is what the reader/cultural context makes of it, etc - but it's obvious that he thinks his books are misunderstood by what he calls "weak readers". He feels that books are best judged 10 years after publication after reading and re-reading [my italics], an interesting comment in the light of our current quick-fix literary culture, and the way that books drop right out of the public consciousness if they don't have an instant hit. He isn't precious about the film of The Name of the Rose; he is tickled by the fact that a girl went into a bookshop and saw it and said "Oh, they have already made a book out of it [ie the film]." He has a iPad for travelling, but he doesn't think that printed books will die, and puts it nicely: "Not just Peter Pan but my Peter Pan". Above all, he explains the huge success of the erudite The Name of the Rose, which just goes on and on selling, by the fact that "It's only publishers and journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged."

Then there's a piece by Laura Barnett on the fact that this year the Christmas literary market is awash with 'women's fiction' about Christmas. As Barnett points out, Dickens wrote Christmas books, but one has to doubt that these books will still be being read, like A Christmas Carol, 170 years after publication (leave alone in Eco's 10-year time frame), since the quote from Hodder and Stoughton editor Isobel Akenhead makes pretty clear that the thematic push is intended as ephemeral, and the books are being sold as ephemeral commodities: "It makes sense to publish for Christmas – that's the one time of year that doesn't seem to have been affected by the general drop-off in sales of women's fiction. In supermarkets, these books cost little more than a Paperchase Christmas card; people often seem to buy two of them, one for themselves and one for their mother, sister or friend. That doesn't happen at any other time of year." So they're bought like Christmas cards, for the rituals of Christmas (which we all know can be a chore, but hey, we've got to do it), and like Christmas cards, they are a cause of brief delight before being thrown away.

Of course, there's nothing wrong whatsoever with reading purely for entertainment. But it's interesting that Isobel Akenhead says that sales of 'women's fiction' have dropped off generally. Are we simply talking comparative numbers in a market that is nevertheless a major source of income for publishers, or can Eco be right about people wanting other kinds of literature, too?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The critic, the artist and the ego

I love the Guardian extract, concerning critics and prizes, from Stephen Sondheim's forthcoming book, Look I Made a Hat. He's pretty much on about the artists's ego, which might seem self-centred,  but it's a serious point that artists and writers need buoyant egos to go on working. Here are the bits I really like:

On critics:
A good critic is someone who recognises and acknowledges the artist's intentions and the work's aspirations, and judges the work by them, not by what his own objectives would have been.
On prizes:
What sours my grapes is the principle of reducing artists to contestants. Competitive awards boost the egos of the winners (until they lose) and damage the egos of the losers (until they win), while feeding the egos of the voters (all the time). Just as there are people who claim to be immune to public criticism, so there are those who claim to be unaffected by being passed over for an award from their supposed peers. But, as in the case of the critic-immune, I've not met any who have convinced me. It isn't so much that you want to be deemed the best; it's more that you don't want to be deemed second best. No matter who the voters are, and whether you accept them as worthy of judging you, winning means they like you more than your competitors.
In conclusion:
...the only meaningful recognition is recognition by your peers or, more accurately, people you consider your peers, and peer recognition is a very personal matter. An artist's peers are other artists, not necessarily in the same field – ie, musicians for musicians, painters for painters – but people who understand what you're trying to do simply because they're trying to do a similar thing.
On the first point, I'd add that a favourable review that nevertheless entirely misses the point of your work can be almost as bad as an unfavourable review - or, well, pretty dismaying. On the second, I'd add that the pernicious thing about prizes is that the also-rans become second-best in the eyes of the public as well as the judges.
On the last, I'd heartily agree, as far as an artist's ego goes, but then we have the matter, don't we, of sales...?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The uselessness of novels?

It looks like a Guardian conspiracy to stir up a controversy. Here's the ever-clever Zoe Williams commissioned to write an article claiming to have given up reading novels because it's irresponsible (or that's the impression given by the sub-editors of the print and online versions respectively) when the political and economic facts of the world need our attention and understanding. And there's Viv Groskop on Twitter disagreeing and claiming that it's in fiction you find the truth. Still, if it focuses attention on the issues, so much the better.

'When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand,' Williams says, ' feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.'

Hm. Well, that reference to patriotism makes me think from the outset she ain't so serious or committed to her argument. There is indeed an urgent truth in her declaration that we need to engage more, through reading, with the political issues of our day. She quotes from John Lanchester's Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, the nonfiction book he wrote as a result of research for his forthcoming novel, Capital. He sums up the way we have become politically-intellectually disenfranchised : 'We'd all rather be in the back seat of the car, with our parents in the front, driving. But now we've woken up doing 90.'

But it turns out that Williams' argument concerning novels is subtler than would at first seem. She appears in the end not to be talking about the novel per se but chiefly to be complaining that contemporary novels, rather than engaging with the issues of the day, are backward looking, 're-sit[ing] your large themes in the past, where they are more attractive and less political.' This needs unpacking. Is it a bad thing to make an issue more attractive to contemplate? Or is she right in her implication that the veneer of the past stops us seeing or caring about the modern parallels, so that any novel doing this lacks political dynamism?  But as Faber editorial director Hannah Griffiths, whom she quotes, says: 'You'd have to write a very ambitious contemporary novel, because they take so long to come out'. It's not only that, though: as we've discussed on this blog before, the time is in the digesting of issues: as we've noted before, most nineteenth-century novels that we now think of as addressing the hot issues of the day were written restrospectively.

Of course, though, Williams is using this as fuel for her argument that novels are beside the point in our urgent search for an understanding of our contemporary world, and in any case she quotes Damien Barr, who runs the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, as accusing contemporary novels of failing to engage with big/political issues in any form whatever: 'There is this false idea that fiction has no particular stance because it is made up, as a result of which it doesn't have to be informed, and it doesn't have to inform. I think we desperately need to be informed about our times, and our history, and our human condition, and at the moment, the novel is really only good for the latter.'

But who ever said that because a novel is 'made up', it shouldn't have a particular stance? And when did a good novel never inform us, provide a searing insight? Ah, but what are we talking about here, of course, are things like the understanding of economics, the things about which we've become intellectually disenfranchised. And novels just aren't cutting it in that regard, they are - tut tut - only telling us about the human condition! There is something, though, I'd say, in what Williams quotes  Lanchester as saying: 'In general, the literary novel has turned slightly too far away from the things that press on people. It is an utterly bizarre place to have ended up, but if the subject of a novel is too interesting, that's not literary enough.'

It is at the end of the article that Williams' true attitude to fiction emerges, an appreciation of its power:
 A novel that does take on big contemporary questions, even if it then hinges on an understanding of complex warfare, or politics, or industry, or finance, if it can do that and not be boring, not be full of what science fiction calls the "tell me, Professor" moments, that will be more use to you, probably, than any amount of explication delivered in factual, readable, lay terms. "If I've learnt anything real," Griffiths concludes, "I've learnt it through fiction."
Assuring us that Lanchester's novel does just this, Williams tells us: 'That's when you fully comprehend something, when you can see its face.'

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Loglines and fiction

This week Robert McCrum is onto something that, as regular readers here will know, has been causing me to gnash my teeth for a while. He quotes a prominent US literary agent: 'A new novel should be summarised in a single sentence, and should stop dinner conversation for at least 10 minutes', and goes on to point out that his own favourite novels, Heart of Darkness and Portrait of a Lady, wouldn't stand that test.

Of course not: the province of the novel is complexity and subtlety, which can never be represented in a single sentence or 'log-line' as it's known in the film industry. The province of the novel is the human psyche and the human heart, yet the second part of this agent's stricture - the ability to stop dinner-party conversations - leads one away from the subtleties of that to mere sensation, the single, striking, if possible unusual but readily graspable (and if possible sensational) idea, the marketer's 'High Concept' which in artistic or philosophical terms is anything but conceptually high.

I don't quite agree with McCrum's apparent implication that any novel that is summed up in this way is necessarily shallow - 'flatpack fiction' as he calls it: it's quite possible of course to concentrate in marketing on the more sensational aspects of a novel and gloss over the more subtle characteristics - a kind of misrepresentation of expedience that the cultural recession must be forcing marketers into. Of the non-winning Booker shortlistees, whose books he characterises as 'flatpack', the one that I've read, Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb, is billed chiefly as science fiction about biological terrorism, but also, and more importantly, it's a study of the power relations between parents and teenage children. [Edited in: whoops, sorry, that's my mistake: The Testament of J L was not shortlisted, but longlisted.]

However, it must also be true that this marketing philosophy is affecting the kinds of books that get published, that novels will be chosen for publication on 'concept' rather than content, and sold that way. So in turn people are sold, and buy, a ready-made idea rather than a text with which to engage on an exploratory and interactive level. And if you don't expect the book to yield more than the idea you've bought - if the physical (or digital) book is merely its symbol, why bother to actually read it, or at any rate to read it with any critical intelligence? It's the ultimate commodification.

I see it everywhere: it filters down to the non-commercial areas of literature. There's always, in my view, been a problem with short-story competitions: it's bound to be easier to catch the eye of a judge trawling through hundreds of stories with a striking, rather than the most artistically apt, first sentence. But the problem seems to be getting worse: now that short-story competitions have proliferated, and have become a chief way to get noticed in the short-story world, zombies and spooks and quirky Murakami-style aberrations abound, often without much thematic meaning that I can see beyond those sensationalist 'concepts'.

And the effect goes deeper - into the psyches of writers, and this feeds back into our culture. McCrum sees this as 'the desperate conditions in which the contemporary writer must operate'. I thank him for that insight, and can vouch for its accuracy: now when I conceive a short story or a novel I find myself immediately thinking: but would it stand any chance in this cultural situation? Could I give it a good log-line? And if I feel that I can't - that it's too subtle and complex -  I wonder whether I should write it at all.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Guardian First Book Award shortlist

The Guardian's move to open up their First Book Award this year to readers' suggestions, in order to catch books not entered, has come up trumps: a book nominated by Guardian readers has now been chosen by judges as one of the final five contenders for the £10,000 prize: Juan Pablo Villalobos's Down the Rabbit Hole from enterprising new independent publisher And Other Stories.

You can read my article  about my own search for missed books, along with my own nominations here on the Guardian books blog.

Four novels and an oncologist's biography of cancer make up the shortlist:

Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman (Bloomsbury)
The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee (Fourth Estate)
Down The Rabbit Hole, Juan Pablo Villalobos (And Other Stories)
The Collaborator, Mirza Waheed (Viking)
The Submission, Amy Waldman (William Heinemann)

Friday, November 04, 2011

What do we read when we read?

I'm re-reading David Copperfield. I've read it more than once before, but I don't think I've read it since I was a child, and I first read it when I was eight years old. I'm reading the copy my parents gave me for Christmas that year (which is the only copy I've ever had) - we weren't well off, and it's one of those cheap red hardback Regency Classics you used to get from Woolworth's. Even though it was so cheap, it's stood up well - the spine's only a little frayed at the top right-hand corner, and I'm having to get used again to the fact that I don't need to put it face down in order to keep my place, or be careful not to press too hard while it's open in case the pages come apart, and remembering that I never did have to, even when the book was new, since the pages are properly sewn.

It's a strange experience. Firstly, although I'm appreciating the ironic authorial stance towards the child David in a way I couldn't have done as a child myself, or at least don't remember doing, it's all so very familiar, although I read it so long ago, far more familiar to me than many books I first read much more recently and re-read after far fewer years. A good part of the reason for this must be the ubiquitous nature of the story in our culture - all those film versions - but I do wonder too if it's testimony to Dickens' genius, or maybe the power of books over a young impressionable mind. More importantly, though, it's not just the book I'm reading. There's a palimpsest - more than one: as I follow David through the death of his mother and the marriage of Peggotty, there are images in my head too of the bedroom in our rented flat in an old Victorian building where I woke to find the book in my stocking that Christmas morning, and of the blazing coal fire beside which I sat reading it in the winter evenings following. I had my own feelings of loss and longing at that time with which the book chimed, and reading it now, they are brought back to me. Even then, the first time, when I read of David's visit to Yarmouth and the inside of the boathouse, my grandparents' cottage by the sea rose up before me with similar feelings of refuge, and so it does again now, along with that memory of its doing so before. As narrator Copperfield muses that while he recalls his childhood the early image of his mother's face overlays all later memories of her, I am struck by how far the youthful image of my mother's face at the time of that first reading has been with me as I read now. As well as the book, I am reading my own childhood, and not just that: I am reading my own first reading of that book.

I wonder how much of this is invested in the physicality of the book, the fact that I am reading the very same physical copy with its associations of that time and place, and how much is down to the actual text? How much of my own feelings and sensations of that time long ago are permanently imbued for me in the text, so that I can never again come to it 'clean'?

Whenever people have asked me if I've read David Copperfield I've always said yes, but never felt easy about doing so: it feels like part of my psyche - especially my writing psyche - but it's so long since I read it, and I was only a child, surely it can hardly count; surely if I read it again I'd find it a completely different experience from the one I remember?

Not so. But I do also wonder: how different an experience would this book be if I were reading it now for the first time ever - on a Kindle, to boot?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011