Monday, February 28, 2011

Books on TV

I'm reluctant to be negative about any TV promotion of books, and one's initial response to the recent spate of programmes is pleasure and even gratitude, since, taken together, they would seem to convey the idea of books as a significant aspect of culture. But I think a look at some of the more subtle messages they are sending is in order. I've written disparagingly about the first series of Channel 4's TV Book Club (though I haven't watched the second series and it may have improved) and I read recently on Twitter that Anne Robinson started off her new books programme by saying, rather like some of those early TV Book Club panelists, that she didn't actually read (or even like?) books very much. If the idea here is to woo those viewers who don't much like books either, by making them identify, I'd say that at worst it's something of an exercise in shooting oneself in the foot, and at best it's just too apologetic about books altogether.

While Sebastian Faulks has, on the contrary, conducted his series about fiction with great enthusiasm - and indeed the assumption that it's essential to us - I find the format to have been a denial of the real nature of fiction, and a devaluation. He has presented fiction as merely the sum of its characters - episodes have been on Heroes, Heroines, Snobs and Villains - discussing them to the exclusion of all other aspects of novels, thus giving us a singularly reductive (and realist) view of fiction. This has been compounded by a simplistic assessment of some of those characters themselves (he presents Miss Brodie, for instance, as simply a snob) and a clumsily utilitarian approach: essentially, the characters are there to teach us how to live. We 'love' them or 'love to hate' them, he says (because of what they can teach us about life), a relationship between reader and character which must exclude, for instance, those novels, surreal and/or satirical, in which character is not the main focus. He also goes so far as to say that we can feel we know them better than we know those close to us in life. If we do feel we know characters in books better than real-life associates, I'd say it's because when we read a novel we are gaining privileged access into someone else's mind, that is, the author's, and sharing in a creative construct, one aspect of which will be the characters. However, Faulks' words imply a more immature concept of characters as people in their own right, with 'a life of their own'. While I accept that during the actual reading process we do suspend disbelief and relate to characters as 'real', I'd say that it's a very different thing to transfer this suspension of disbelief into the context of discussion of fiction. The filming of this series seems specifically designed to facilitate that. Many people have commented that every single novel Faulks discussed was illustrated by a TV (BBC?) drama adaptation (dramatisations, for a start, often skew novels by foregrounding character in ways they may not be foregrounded in the original novels) and a striking, and to me, shocking feature was the way that these dramatisations were framed. The producers had gone to a great deal of trouble to find locations for Faulks' commentary that matched the locations of the drama clips shown, and not only that, Faulks was shown in these locations in an attitude of watching, and cuts made which turned him into a voyeur within the drama. Thus we had him looking through the window at Emma talking to Mr Knightley, and more hilariously, spying through another with Notes on a Scandal's Barbara on Bathsheba seducing her schoolboy, and more hilariously still, about to trip over Lady Chatterley and Mellors in the wood. Someone on Twitter objected to me that this is exactly what we do in novels, spy on the characters, but I would disagree: what we are invited to do in novels is to join the author in inhabiting the (constructed) minds of the main characters. It's an act of intellectual and emotional empathy. And while, yes, this is one way that novels can indeed expand our intellectual and emotional horizons ('teach us about life') it's a far more complex and dynamic process than that implied by portraying characters as inhabiting the same plane of reality as commentators and readers. And making this the main point of a series about fiction, is to reduce and patronise fiction in the extreme.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tweeted to death

Here's a piece which relates to my recent article about Social Networking and the Writer. It includes reference to a recent speech on the subject by Margaret Atwood:
At the recent TOC Margaret Atwood gave a wonderful keynote speech illustrated with hand drawings. “Authors must now Tweet, Blog, and Facebook… if we’re expected to do all this other work, we should the get more of the pie,” she said...  Atwood showed a dead moose drawing: “Never eliminate your primary source,” she said and explained that one dead animal feeds a broad ecosystem. Then, she showed a drawing of a dead author. “Although dead authors can be lucrative,” she said, “No authors, no books.”
(Thanks to Emma Darwin via Twitter for the link.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Essential difference or different treatment?

Apropos my last post, here's a Guardian article by Gabriel Brownstein which considers the role of marketing in the 'genderization' of fiction.  The article also touches on whether men and women write differently, and there are some interesting comments - one or two of them unwittingly telling in the matter of unconscious bias.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Do the men have it all?

* EDITED IN: This post originally attributed a comment to Observer literary editor William Skidelsky which was in fact made by TLS Peter Stothart (as reported in the linked Guardian article). The post has been altered accordingly, and my sincere apologies to William Skidelsky.

People are much exercised by the shocking statistics in a survey conducted by the American women's literary network Vida, showing male bias in numbers of literary reviewers and of the authors of books reviewed. The Guardian defends itself as being better than most and books editor Claire Armitstead points out that fewer women than men offer themselves as reviewers. Ruth Franklin, books editor of The New Republic confesses to being shocked at her own statistics and sets out to conduct her own survey proving that lit editors are only reflecting the situation created by publishers: publishers publish more books by male authors than by women. Bookslut's Jessica Crispin, who is equally shocked, along with her co-editor Michael Schaub, at their own record, will have no truck with such blame-shifting and the two co-editors are conducting a conversation about the implications for their own biases in choices of books for review and reviewers. Some comments on these posts are enlightening, many pleading that they read more books by men than by women because they simply like them better, discounting the question raised by Ruth Franklin of societally-induced unconscious bias - a concept which it looks as though thinkers of the 80s may as well not have bothered to flog to death. And notwithstanding our healthy and mainly female literary reading-group culture, TLS editor Peter Stothard raises hackles by opining that while women read more than men, they mainly read the kinds of books that are not worthy of review in his publication.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It's how you read it.

An article in today's Guardian Review by Alex Clark sums up recent worries about the role of the editor and ponders the pressures that the books industry is putting on that role, including, interestingly, and I'd say ominously, the possibility of changes in the way we read. In literary criticism, he says:
...there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down
and, with reference to reading generally, concludes:
What we have to be aware of is that the creation of serious literature – whatever the degree of collaboration between author and editor – is the result of enormously concentrated mental and aesthetic effort. If it is reduced to a series of narrative effects slapped on to paper or screen, if it comes to be seen simply as one among many interchangeable ways to ingest a story, it will soon begin to look like a very poor slice of the leisure industry indeed.
Exactly. What's important about a novel is not the 'story' but the way it is told: novels aren't just stories, but constructs of language. 'Story' and mode are never separate entities: it is the mode of telling which creates the meaning and thus the story (which is why I'm not a great fan of drama adaptations of novels). A different word order here, a swapped line there, a cut here, and the whole meaning, and thus the story can change altogether. And this is the essential role of the editor: to help the author achieve the construct through which the intended meaning and story can be realized. (I've written about a significant editing experience of my own in an Author's Note on my current publisher's website here.)

As far as I'm concerned any story can be made interesting (and enlightening, and exciting) with the right way of telling (and of course insight) (and conversely any story, however outlandish and promising, can be made ploddingly dull). But an insistence on story for its own sake is probably, I would say, nurtured by the commercial nature of contemporary publishing: a good 'story' or idea can make a marketing pitch in the way claims about good writing simply can't. The idea becomes the be-and-end-all, and quite frankly I now see far too many ploddingly dull novels praised (on the net, especially) for the quirky 'story' or idea they have in actuality short-changed or even massacred, as if the reviewer were simply blind to the actual language of the novels - indeed, to put it at its most strongly, as if they didn't really, properly read them.

Loathe as I am to knock any return to much-missed coverage of books on TV, I'd say that Sebastian Faulks' BBC2 programme panders to this tendency in spades. In the trailer clip he says that he wants to rectify a recent concentration on the author rather than the book, a laudable enough aim, but his solution is to concentrate on characters, whom he says are 'all that matters', and to talk about them as if they are real rather than merely one element of an author's literary construct (and of course all of his examples are vividly illustrated by BBC dramatisations). Two BBC4 programmes on Monday however were to my mind excellent. The Beauty of Books, interestingly appearing just as we are assailed by predictions of the demise of the physical book, showed us in vivid detail and with brilliant photography the physicality of our earliest manuscripts and explained the sociological forces shaping their physical properties. In The Birth of the British Novel Henry Hitchings gave us an incisive and vivid yet truly literary-sociological account. Both programmes were a return to the mode of thoughtful commentary usefully illustrated, with none of that dramatised re-enactment stuff. The one way that the latter programme pandered to contemporary trends was in plonking in a few 'star' novelists for their comments. These moments were like holes in the middle of Henry Hitchings' beautiful logical account: one really had to laugh at Martis Amis and the usually concise Will Self sitting in the pub and telling the scholarly whizz lit critic how to suck literary eggs and losing the plot in waffle - probably because they were disconcerted by the look on his face...

(Only 2 more days I think to see those 2 programmes on iplayer - I'm a bit late with this.)

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Best not to be beautiful?

I commend to you a post by novelist Amanda Craig, titled 'On being a middle-aged, mid-list novelist'.  Here's how she concludes:
On the whole, good and great fiction is not written by beautiful people who feel successful. It’s written by the person who is most overlooked, all their life, and who understands things about the human condition which is very different from that of the experience of the twenty-five year old part-time model. Every author has a professional deformity – club feet, an uncomfortable religious inheritance, short stature, or incurable alcoholism, take your pick. Writers are always outsiders, and our nearest kindred isn’t someone in Hollywood but the bag-lady who rootles through dustbins muttering to herself
 - a brilliant summation, I think. Read the whole post, though: it's very measured and thoughtful.