Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Ain't it awful?

Oh, dearie, dearie me. Things is not what they was. Wind back the clock. Tell me it ain't so.

In the Observer (link from booktrade.info) Robert McCrum laments... well, laments something or other. Has the novel lost its way? he asks. Novelists now become celebrities and they get lots of money. But, in the rush to cash in, 'quality control has plummeted and the British novel has suffered.'

Well, bless his old heart, this article is mostly a load of cobblers, and I don't really know why I bothered to read it. But since I did, here are a few comments.

Malcolm Bradbury, McCrum tells us, defined the literary novel as a difficult book that nobody wants to read. I rather like that. Anyway, according to McCrum, round about 1969, when the Booker prize was first established, the (British, literary) novel was more or less dead, being overtaken in prestige and popularity by the New Journalism (as expounded by Tom Wolfe) and the theatre (in the shape of David Hare). Then along came Salman Rushdie and injected new blood into the novel's system.

Following Rushdie, it soon became clear that, if you won the Booker, you could become a famous millionaire. And everyone wanted a piece of that, so they all got busy. Result: rubbish. McCrum quotes Tom Maschler, 'veteran cheerleader for the prize', as acknowledging that 'some of the [shortlisted] novels have been such very strange choices that it is really very difficult to make sense of them.'

McCrum also tosses in a reference to blogging, which, he says, 'has enfranchised a new group of wannabes, creating the sensations of authorship (with none of the pain).' Well, speak for yourself, sunshine. I take a few pains over mine.

And then he lists 20 'all-time great Booker winners', plus ten runners-up. Of these 30 books, I have read one with great enjoyment. That's Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. I don't think Fingersmith is a literary novel at all: I think it got on the Booker list by accident, like Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Fingersmith is a piece of neo-Victorian porno-lesbian melodrama, and bloody good with it.

As for the other books on McCrum's list, I sort of read Possession, by A.S. Byatt, because that's also Victorian, but I found it hard going. And I tried to read Last Orders, by Graham Swift, because he apparently went to the same college as me. But I only stuck it for about ten minutes. After which I decided that it would be more fun to go outside and put my hand in the lawnmower blades before they had quite finished turning. I saw the movie versions of a couple of others, though. Does that count?

As usual with such learned and literary chaps, McCrum twitters on about the state of the novel, totally ignoring the novel as read and loved by ordinary people: the ones who read crime, romance, science fiction, and mainstream books by the likes of Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope.

Now, I have no objection whatever to people writing, publishing, and reading literary novels. If they enjoy them, lucky them. But what really gets up my nose is the sheer bloody arrogance of those who speak of 'the novel' when they really mean just a particularly narrow type of literary fiction. There are other sorts of books, you know, and I have yet to hear an argument that convinces me that literary novels are, in any significant way, superior to any other kind.

Those who, over the past few decades, have celebrated the death of snobbery in England were, I fear, a tad premature. Snobbery of the most objectionable kind is alive and well and living in Bloomsbury.

7 comments:

roger said...

Yes, I spotted that piece too, and had something to say about it on my plog, if anyone's interested (probably not!). There's no pleasing some people, I thought.

I don't really think he 'gets' blogging does he? I mean most blog posts are more akin to opinion pieces, rather than novels. In fact, his Observer piece wouldn't be out of place on a blog, would it? And I don't really think there was that much 'pain' involved in the production of his article. It had the air of something tossed off rather quickly and thoughtlessly to me.

Roger.

Maxine said...

Hear hear!!

Carla said...

Tsk, Roger, such heresy. Imagine comparing the output of a national newspaper columnist to a blog, written for free by someone because they're interested in the subject.

The gist of the piece appears to be that 'literary fiction' includes much unreadable nonsense "trailing the slime of self-promotion". This is news?

lady t said...

Fingersmith was a great book and even tho,it had a "literary" look about it,the pace of the story and the emotional impact the characters had moved along at a fairly good clip.

This whole attitude of assigning books to a particular caste level is very off-putting,like the recent NYT list of "Best American Fiction in the past 25 years"-six novels by Phillip Roth? Come on,the man's good(not my cup of tea)but six? Sounds like a default answer-"I don't know,let's just pick ,uh,Roth!"

ivan said...

Leaving myself wide open, but how many Philistines can you slay with the jawbone of an ass?
John Fowles proved in l962 that the English literary novel was far from dead. In America, Updike leads the field with fine work. In Canada, we have played with the experimenal novel for seventy years and more and have still failed to produce a real literature; all the good work seems to have been done in the Fifties. We did have Mordecai Richler until he died and now we have crud. Barney's Version was high literature by anybody's standards.
What we're looking for and not finding, all over the world, are masterpieces, and all masterpieces, literaty masterpieces, are bestsellers.
Just no talent around.

Jon Jermey said...

Someone on another list challenged me to list fiction from over 100 years ago that is still popular today. When I mentioned The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes he replied "that's more of a children's book". If you can't beat it, patronise it.

Jon.

Susan Hill said...

I think I was first asked in 1959 if the novel was dead. I am asked it every six months or so.. only now there is a variation of the same which runs 'is the novel as book dead because of the novel as e-book' Yawn. More people buy novels, read novels, love novels of every shape and size and type than ever before. The person who said if you can`t beat them patronise them is dead right. What I now get goes 'Why have you started writing crime fiction instead of real/serious/proper/literary novels ?' Meaning, you have sold out/started writing popular stuff because you can`t write literary fiction any more.' It makes me very very cross.