Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dangerous Characters

Mark Rayner, of whom more at the end, drew my attention to a recent article in the New York Times, with the title Dangerous Characters. It was written by one Benjamin Kunkel. (You may have to register to read it.)

Mr Kunkel, I find, having Googled him, is an (rather than the) editor of n+1, which is a newish magazine. It appears to be fearfully highbrow. Issue three, Fall 2005, seems to have the overall title The Intellectual Situation, and n+1 is therefore, pretty much by definition, not a magazine which would interest me. However, it's a big old world, and there's room in it for everybody (at the moment, just about), so I dare say that n+1 will find readers. If only because some people do take life awfully seriously.

Mr Kunkel also gets his picture in the New York Sun, where he is described as one of the 'new' New York intellectuals, and he looks like a presentable sort of chap. The sort of person one could take home to tea, perhaps, without Mother getting too upset and counting the silver. However, being presentable is one thing; being right is quite another. And I don't think he gets things quite right in his article about Dangerous Characters.

Kunkel's thesis is that 9/11 changed the American novel. Well, yes. And then again, no. Events like 9/11 change lots of things, but that really doesn't get us much further forward, does it?

And by the time we get to the third paragraph of Dangerous Characters we are deep into the kind of generalisation which makes me realise that my indifference to all things literary is even more intense (if you can have an intense indifference) than I had guessed.

Kunkel tells us that there were two literary preoccupations in the 1990s. One was the tone called 'irony' and the other was the genre called the social novel.

Now the odd thing is this, see. For most of the 1990s I was running, among other things, an academic publishing company; I was also running what was, in effect, a small printing firm; I was working in a university; I was reading all the standard book-trade magazines and pages of book reviews (I even read the Times Lit. Supp.); and I was certainly reading lots of fiction and beginning to think about writing some more myself, after a gap of several years. And yet despite all that, I had absolutely no idea that the two literary preoccupations of the decade were the tone called irony and the social novel. Not only could you have fooled me, but you did.

However, I am prepared to take Kunkel's word for it that in the literary coffee shops of New York and San Francisco, and in all parts in between, they talked of nothing else.

He goes on to say, however, that between 1989 and 2001, there was another preoccupation which has perhaps gone unnoticed. An extraordinary number of novelists were writing about fictional terrorists. In fact, he says, about as many 'major authors' wrote about terrorists in the 90s as did not. Fifty per cent of them, in other words.

Now, you know, I do try to remain good-natured about the Eng. Lit. lot, but really they do take your breath away. When you read that statement about 'major authors', you know that you are going to get -- you're going to get a list of famous literary names. Because authors who write crime fiction, romantic fiction, science fiction, and so forth, they are not 'major'. At least not in the eyes of those who write for n+1 and the New York Times.

I am beginning to feel like a cracked gramophone record, in that I keep saying this. But no one has yet produced any sound argument, to my knowledge, to demonstrate that those who write literary fiction are in any meaningful way superior to those who write in other genres. Which wouldn't matter if the literary types who speak of 'major authors' always made it clear that they are speaking of one genre only, and not in absolute terms which cover the whole fictional range. But they don't. And therefore Mr Kunkel and I do not get off to a good start.

Even within his own terms, however, I have to ask this: how does Kunkel justify his statement that half the major authors, within the literary genre, have written novels about terrorists in the years 1989-2001? Does he produce any lists? Does he define the term 'major author'? No, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, he does not. So what we have here, I'm sorry to say, is what respectable social scientists (if that is not a contradiction in terms) refer to as 'mere journalism'. Aka sloppy generalisation.

Kunkel then goes on to consider many of the literary novels of the 90s which did feature terrorists among the main characters. Which is tolerably interesting, as far as it goes. But there are certain points at which he loses me.

It occurred to me while I was reading this article that I myself once wrote a novel about a couple of terrorists. Its title was No Holds Barred. True, this book was written some twenty-odd years ago. And true, it didn't make much impression on the world even at the time. It was published in the US only, as a paperback original, by a firm which soon afterwards (coincidentally rather than as a consequence) went bust. Copies are rare indeed. But at least I have some practical experience of the problems of writing such a book.

And one of the points where Kunkel loses me is when he argues that the writer of the terrorist novel mingles 'detestation of the terrorist with a distinct if shameful envy.' And in the next paragraph he speaks of 'the novelist's jealous rivalry with the terrorist', arguing, in effect, that novelists envy the terrorist's ability to get himself into the newspapers.

Well, speak for yourself, Kunkel, is all I can say to that. I can tell you here and now that I felt no shameful envy of my terrorists. I recall that I went to a great deal of trouble to make them real people, with some sort of credible motivation for trying to bump off the US President and the UK Prime Minister in one go. But envy? No sir, not guilty.

Mind you, Kunkel does say that his statements only apply to a certain kind of literary novelist. And since I was definitely writing what he calls 'disposable suspense fiction', I guess I am excluded anyway. And therefore, I suppose, Kunkel may even be right, because there are certainly some kinds of literary novelists who are capable of believing all kinds of silly things. Seven of them , even before breakfast.

But then just when you think you might be able to excuse Kunkel for putting forward this idea, he produces it again. A problem looms into view, he says. 'A serious writer will hate terrorists not only because they threaten him along with everyone else, but because terror is one more thing to usurp his complex public art and shore up the society of the spectacle.' In other words, if I understand him correctly, the 'serious' novelist ( = literary chap in Kunkel's book) will hate terrorists because they take away his publicity.

This is one of those days when I am particularly glad not to be a literary writer.

Terrorist novels, says Kunkel, 'have usually sympathised with the left-wing domestic terrorist's complaint.' Hmm, well, I certainly didn't sympathise with the political agenda of my two. And presumably that's because my own tentatively held political opinions are usually to the right of Tony Blair. And if, by any chance, you are still one of those who think that the words Blair and Socialist belong in the same sentence, let me say that, if you remove Mr Blair's trousers, you will find that he is wearing Mrs Thatcher's cast-off knickers. Navy blue, from Marks and Spencer.

And there is more. It is quite a long article. So long, in fact, that my tip-off man confessed that he hadn't read it all.

Kunkel concludes that novels about terrorists will continue to be written, but that they will not be as sympathetic towards the actual doers of the deeds. Well no, I don't suppose they will. And the reason for that, if I may mention such a sordid material consideration, is that no one would buy them if they were! People are not, generally speaking, very sympathetic to those who go around killing and maiming innocent civilians in the interests of some crackpot creed, whether political or religious.

As far as I am concerned, a much more interesting and useful article than Kunkel's could have made out of an analysis of terrorist novels which have been written by the people who really know how to do the job; i.e. the professional thriller writers of this world, such as Ken Follett and Charles McCarry. But perhaps the NYT will offer us that next week.

Enough of all that. Let me end by saying that the man who drew this article to my attention, and so thoroughly upset my digestion of a perfectly good meal, was Mark Rayner. And he, bless his heart, has not written a novel about terrorists.

No. Instead he has written a novel about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who did not die in 1791 at all, but survived, it seems, at least until 2028, when he decided to have a sex-change operation. And you can read about all this for a mere $16.00 US; a bit more if you're Canadian. In either case, a bargain if ever I saw one.


Bernita said...

If it were not for my secluded upbringing and a fear of sounding like a sucky sychophant, I would be yelling "YES, YES!"
Thank you, and thank you, on a tangent, for reminding me that stereotypes are not the exclusive creation of low fiction, but exist for a reason.

Debra Hamel said...

I do so enjoy your sensible take on things.

As for Mark Rayner, I have a feeling that I mentioned this here once before, but since Blogger's search thing above is currently not just searching your blog, I'll mention it again. I liked Mak Rayner's book, which I reviewed here: .

paulv said...

Dear GOB: Mr. Blair in Mrs. Thatcher's cast-off knickers is an unwholesome image in every possible sense. To think that I found it here...

paulv said...

Me again. Your post has again prompted me to delve into the topic in my own blog, if anyone's interested. Thank you!