These thoughts were prompted by reading an article by Michael Faber. (Faber was born in Holland, and sometimes appears as Michel Faber.) The article ain't brand new and was sent to me by Viktor Janis. It appeared originally in the Scotsman, but is now available at their web site to subscribers only. For the next few days (I gather), it may be available on a file-sharing service. But in any case, even if you can't find the article or don't want to bother reading it, the content is the same old rubbish.
Mr Faber is undoubtedly a much-honoured writer; see his entry on Fantasticfiction for details. He also mixes in some very high-powered company: in 2006 he was one of the contributors to Not One More Death, getting equal billing with Richard Dawkins, John Le Carre, and Harold Pinter, among others.
The title of Faber's Scotsman article is 'Dumb and Dumber?' In brief, Faber argues that literary fiction is infinitely superior to commercial stuff and is aimed at 'intelligent grown-ups' -- everything else, he implies, is bought and read by teenage morons. The rubbish, he argues, is crowding out the worthwhile stuff.
And so on. As an example of arrogant, snobbish, fuzzy thinking you would be hard pressed to find its equal.
The fact is that every crappy book you see reviewed in a newspaper or stacked on a table at Waterstone’s is there in place of a better one....
Trivial books fail to touch us deeply, leaving us in exactly the same state as before... We need literature that inspires and changes us.
However... My purpose today is not to go through Faber's argument step by step, because I've done that kind of thing before, several times. What is pertinent, however, is to ask the following question: Do you think it is possible -- just conceivably, perhaps, maybe -- that Mr Faber has now changed his tune? His tune being, if Imay paraphrase, to the effect that everything in a prominent place in a bookshop is crap.
In the Scotsman article, Faber tells us that he has just returned from Slovakia, where he was celebrating the publication of a collection of short stories, Raz Urcite Zaprsi -- or Some Rain Must Fall, in the English version. And that book was published in Slovakia in 2001.
But in 2002 Mr Faber had a considerable hit. His novel The Crimson Petal and the White was a New York Times bestseller, and had sales, I understand, of almost a million copies. So -- in the light of that experience, does Faber still, I wonder, take the view that 'the crassest, most aggressively marketed books take up the most shelf space, column inches in the media -- and everything else gets pushed to the peripheries'?
The Crimson Petal and the White can't have been pushed to the peripheries. Its publisher must have paid for it to be displayed up front. So what gives? Did Faber suddenly decide to join the ranks of Jeffrey Archer and Kathy Lette (writers whom in the Scotsman he clearly despised)? Have publishers suddenly seen the light and abandoned crap? Or is Mr Faber's whacking big opus (894 pages) an exception to the rule? I.e. is it a literary masterpiece which somehow was such a work of genius that it contrived to win some newspaper space and some shelf space, despite his claim that 'everything else [my italics] gets pushed to the peripheries'?
The questions are rhetorical. Mr Faber, I suspect, finds himself in the same position as those authors who despise all literary prizes on principle. Until they win one.
And consider the fate of poor Mr Franzen. Nominated as one of Oprah's choices, the poor fellow wriggled and squirmed and wondered what the hell he should do. Could he (a frightf'ly sensitive artist, my dears, a man devoted to literature rather than commerce) accept such a vulgar commendation? Or should he make an excuse and leave? I haven't had such a good laugh for ages.