Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Kate Atkinson: Case Histories

I wonder if any of you fancy Kate Atkinson. I speak in a literary sense, of course.

Kate first appeared on the scene in 1995, with her novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, published in the UK by Transworld. This won the Whitbread award for the best first novel of the year. The award meant that the book was then shortlisted for the title of overall Whitbread Book of the Year (compared with biography, et cetera), and it won that award too.

So far so good. A success story. Except that when I read Behind I couldn't see much in it. I now realise, of course, being definitely older and perhaps wiser, that Kate was simply the beneficiary, or possibly the victim, of randomness, aka chance. It so happened that the goddess Fortuna smiled upon her. Kate's book was a perfectly competent piece of work, but it wasn't, in any absolute sense, a 'better' book than 150 others that were published that year. It just happened to be the one that the Whitbread judges liked best. With a different set of judges, some other book would have won, and Kate Atkinson would not have become a superstar; she would have been just another writer, not eligible for the full treatment of big publicity budget, author's tour, press interviews, the whole bag of tricks. In all probability she would have been dumped after two or three books which didn't sell very well.

In publishing, however, remarkable things happen to books that win prizes. A winner-take-all mechanism kicks in, and books which are not, in reality, any 'better' or more 'brilliant' than many others somehow acquire a reputation and a sparkle which colours everyone's view; technically, this is called survivorshp bias. (For more details of the winner-take-all mechanism and survivorship bias you will just have to read my latest extended essay, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile; this was described at nauseating, self-satisfied length in my post of last Friday.)

So in 1995 our Kate became famous. She then went on to write a couple more books, Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (1999), and now she has published Case Histories, which I have just read. First I'll tell you what I thought of it, and then we'll have a look at a few other opinions.

As for me, well I found Case Histories to be hard going. For one thing you have to go 60 pages before you get anything that might reasonably be called a scene (in dramatic terms) in which two or more actors engage in a dialogue. And to my mind that ain't the best way to proceed. So I began to skip. Fast. Which is not, of course, the ideal way to read a novel. You should read every word, but I'm afraid I am very old-fashioned about these things and I expect the writer to give me some help. Reading a novel is suppose to be fun, at least in my estimation; it's supposed to be an enjoyable, interesting, satisfying experience; it's not supposed to be a whole lot of hard, tedious work.

Anyway, I did stick with the book, after a fashion, and after a couple of hundred pages or so I began to see a little more virtue in it. And by the end I could also see, very clearly, that if the material had been organised differently, Case Histories could have been an impressive novel indeed. But it would have been an impressive crime novel. And that, I suspect, is something that Kate Atkinson and her publisher would rather die than admit.

It has long been noted in these columns, and in places like Ansible, that those who choose to write and publish what they consider to be literary fiction would rather be burnt at the stake than admit that they have anything in common with sordid and inferior genres such as science fiction, romance, or crime. But the truth is plain: the average writer in any one of those genres is likely to have a far superior technique to the average writer of literary fiction. Why? Because the genre writer is required, by both publisher and readers, to make the book interesting, exciting, accessible, and rewarding. Literary writers apparently feel themselves under no such obligation, which is why I, for one, don't bother with them much.

So. Seen in the cold light of day, ignoring all the glamour and dazzle which accumulates around prize-winning books, what do we have in Kate Atkinson and Case Histories? What we have is a very promising talent and a somewhat lost opportunity. If someone (Al Zuckerman, for instance) were to sit Kate down and teach her her some of the basics of novel-writing (as Zuckerman did with Ken Follett), then she has certainly got the wit, the wisdom, and the general know-how to produce an absolute stunner. But she ain't done so yet.

(Should you wish to take your own course of instruction from Al Zuckerman, by the way, you can do so by reading his book Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Don't let your lip curl at the catchpenny title -- the book contains much that would be of value to any writer.)

All of that is just my opinion. So now let's take a look at what some other people, professional critics and therefore far superior judges to my modest self, have said about Case Histories.

Kate's publisher offers us two brief 'reviews', which most of us would call puffs, from other writers, and a link to a longer review in the New York Times. Here's a brief quote from one of the short 'reviews': 'Kate Atkinson's funny, furious fourth novel rumbustiously drives a path through the genre of detective fiction, demolishing its careful, forensic summations of human behaviour and replacing them with bloody, believable, vigorous tales of wrongdoing and loss, of personal eccentricity and recognisable fate, and most importantly of people who were very much alive before they were dead.'

You get the general drift of all that, don't you? What this worldly-wise, deeply experienced and generally infallible judge is saying is that detective fiction is all formula-driven crap, and what we have in Case Histories is Literature with a capital L -- or even LITERATURE -- which is clearly seen as a far superior genre altogether. Indeed one is left feeling that to use the word genre in the same sentence as the title of Kate's book is an insult in itself.

All of which you can safely forget, because it is the kind of statement that could only be made by someone with a profound ignorance of what the better writers of crime fiction have to offer.

On the publisher's web page devoted to Case Histories there is one other link to a review, and that is to Janet Maslin's write-up in the New York Times. Presumably this review is the most favourable, in a prestigious journal, that the publisher could find.

'There's nothing fancy,' says Janet, 'about the way Kate Atkinson's new novel unfolds. Ms Atkinson simply starts her story, grabs hold of the reader and doesn't let go.' Yeah, well, she didn't grab me, as I've said.

As with the short puff already quoted, Maslin's attitude is that this book appears to be a piece of crime fiction but is actually so much better than that. 'The ingredients for conventional sleuthing would seem to be in place,' she says, but fortunately the book heads off 'in a different direction.' Kate's style has 'a hint of Henry James', which is good, obviously, but it is 'occasionally too coarsened with pop-cultural references.' God, these literary people are such hideous snobs, aren't they? It's enough to bring up your breakfast.

Maslin's conclusion is that Case Histories 'winds up having more depth and vividness than ordinary thrillers.' No, it doesn't, darling, and that's the whole nature of my objection to it. It's really not as good as it would be if the author just put aside all fancy-pants notions, stopped believing what the critics say about her, and concentrated on doing a good professional job for the reader.

That said, I do have to express some understanding and sympathy with Kate Atkinson's position. Here she is in 1995, aged... well, pretty young, winning a prize for best novel of the year. You and I know, because we no longer believe in Father Christmas, that this award dropped into her lap as the result of pure randomness. But for those who are favoured by Fortuna it is all too easy to believe that it was the result of doing something right. So you go on doing it. Especially when the critics tell you how brilliant you are. It takes quite exceptional powers -- powers which it is unreasonable to expect the young to possess -- to separate yourself from all that adulation and to take a long hard look at your skills and what you are trying to do.

And it has to be remembered that Case Histories is only Kate Atkinson's fourth novel. She is still only a beginner. Thomas H. Uzzell, of revered memory, used to argue that you had to write a million words of fiction before you got the hang of it. And he was dead right. Kate Atkinson still has some way to go.


Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of this. Except I'd go further and point out that "literary fiction" IS a genre - and one of the least interesting ones. For me, "literary" writers get interesting when they utilise and subvert popular forms, science fiction, crime, etc - Jonathan Letham in Motherless Brooklyn, Marc Behn in The Eye of the Beholder. Cormac Macarthy's greatest novel is a western - Blood Meridian. But he got most of his critical acclaim for Cities of the Plains, because it could be pigeon holed as "literary fiction," and smuggled past the critics' consciences.

Constance said...

I wish I shared your enthusiasm with "the writer's how to" books. Unpaid amateurs find as little reward in reading the many "do it this way" guides as they will be rewarded in their writing. (You have written of the limits of writing rewards in previous posts)
Of course, we know our lack of progress is due to our lack of skill. One obstacle being retaining the "how to"s and applying them to what is essentially a hobby. What then? Some unsuspecting reader or publishing agent latches onto our words? Is this not how all novelty writer's are discovered? We gain experience by writing badly. We take the risks and suffer the consequences of misinformation and misinterpretation for the joy of reading words on a page. Words, we can mistakenly call our own.
I haven't read Kate Atkinson's work. I found J.R. Tolkien's, Lord of the Rings tedious, but impossible to criticize. If Kate Atkinson's invested a few million for a film trilogy, is there any doubt her books would become classics?

Anonymous said...

Hi I have to write some discussion otes (4000 words or so) on this book for Book Groups Tasmania along with a dozen or so discussion questions. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

I agree. While I did enjoy reading the book, the ending was dreadful. My sister called it a 'love boat' ending--everybody ended up happy even though the resolutions were bizarre and highly unlikely. Since it was annoying to read all the glowing reviews, I was happy to find this one.

Anonymous said...

I have not read Atkinson. But as a writer, I do believe writing literary fiction is an incredibly demanding task and I even hate to admit I aspire to that because of how pretentious it sounds. I once heard Maya Angelou say something that goes to the heart of what you're saying about praise potentially distracting a young writer. She said when someone praises her, she does not "pick it up" and make it hers, make it a part of what she believes about herself, because this is something she does not want to "carry." And the same with criticism: It can continue to remain someone else's.

maryt/theteach said...

Thanks, Michael, for the insightful commentary on Atkinson's Case Histories. I'm teaching the book in the Fall.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael. Kate is appearing at a free event on 27 April 2008 at the National Museum of Scotland. Find out more on Best wishes, James.