Monday, September 27, 2004

The novel and false teeth

Let's get one thing clear before we start the week.

I am getting just the tiniest bit weary of seeing novelists praised to the skies in the newspapers as if they were quite exceptional human beings on the Churchill/Mandela scale. Tain't so.

A novel is not a big deal. It's just something you buy to read on the plane or the beach, or before you go to sleep at night. With a bit of luck it might turn out to be something that you can recommend to a friend. With a bit more luck, you might read, every once in a while, a novel that you will remember all your life -- much as you might remember a special meal, or a visit to a museum.

Neither do I subscribe to the view that a 'good' novel can only be written by a full-time writer. Ian Fleming, P.D. James, and James Patterson all managed to write successful books while holding down senior positions in journalism, the civil service, and advertising respectively.

And, if you want to consider authors in less commercial genres, I have to say that there is nothing in Ulysses (a novel which I admire) that could not have been written by a well-read and thoughtful man making good use of his spare time. Furthermore, if James Joyce had had a proper job to do, instead of bumming round Europe on other people's money, he might have given us a follow-up which was a bit more rewarding than Finnegans Wake.

True, writing a novel requires a good deal of skill and experience. But so does fitting a set of dentures. And on the whole, I venture to suggest, a satisfactory set of false teeth are a great deal more use to you than the best novel ever written.

A competent dentist, therefore, is worth more to society at large than any number of D.H. Lawrences. In fact, in the particular case of Lawrence, the ratio is about 1 to 112.

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