Saturday, May 28, 2005

Confessions of an obscure and experimental reader

Since Brighton’s new library opened, I’ve been picking up novels on a whim. I hoped I’d discover a new writer or be surprised by an old one. And I have. The surprise came with Paul Auster’s Oracle Night and the discovery with Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante.

But what prompts the whim? With Auster it was a review saying this was perhaps his best novel (which I'm prepared to accept). With Tosches it was the impression from the blurb that it was about more than a gangster caper following the discovery of a handwritten manuscript of the Commedia. It is. Much more. Since then I’ve tried a few more:

David Foster Wallace – Oblivion
Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
Elliot PerlmanSeven Types of Ambiguity
John McGahern – That They May Face the Rising Sun
Enrique Vila-Matas – Bartleby & Co

Yet only the last of these was finished. I found the others unremarkable and uncompelling, putting each aside soon after setting out: in the first case, the form and content was tiresome, in the third, downright embarrassing.

And today, when I saw a pristine copy of Case Histories by Kate Atkinson, I thought: OK, give it a chance. So I settled down to read the first chapter.

What can I say? Rather than repeating what I’ve written so many times before about form and narrative voice, I’ll just say that, from what I read (admittedly very little, but I don't recall reading a favourite novel that wasn't favourite right from the start) Case Histories is a prime example of what I intend to call freeform journalism. If you think this is literature (let alone "a great book"), you’re welcome to it.


  1. Anonymous11:03 pm

    Can we have an extended commentary on that Amazon list of neglected 20th century fiction please. I'm intrigued.

  2. I posted that list years ago! Not sure if I have much to add, though there is an essay on the Roubaud novel on Spike and The Gaping Void.

  3. Anonymous6:57 pm

    You were amazingly prescient. Who would have thought that the subtitle "Never to be chosen by the LBC" would incite 20 Americans to go ahead and prove you right. :-)

  4. I changed the heading on Thursday though I made the list a couple of years back. How did you notice it Sandra?

  5. Anonymous3:12 pm

    I followed the link to the Josipovici essays (in the previous post) and then clicked through on his name on Amazon which brought your list up as the top one in the right hand sidebar. It fitted together so neatly I assumed you'd planned it that way!

  6. Anonymous6:38 pm

    Steve - what do you mean by the term 'freeform journalism?' And does it brush up against Tom Wolfe's 'New Journalism?' Or is it a movment beyond the confines of a first person abc short story form, formed within Wolfe's book on the new journalism?

  7. Good question. What DO I mean?!

    Well, I don't know about Wolfe's definition, but I think his novels probably fit in to my idea. I think it's to do with the narration. The voice that comes across whilst reading is one that knows everything and is offering appropriate snippets of information. As it's fiction, these can be made up. You can read this kind of thing in long articles in the Sunday papers, except they're more governed by fact. Reading many contemporary novels, I rarely get the sense that the author is uncertain and seeking an answer. They're just telling a story. Which is fine, but I prefer not to be in the grip of an ego. I have trouble enough with my own, as you know. :)

  8. Anonymous7:37 pm

    In 1962 Tom Wolfe in Esquire read an article called 'Joe Louis:The King As a Middle Aged Man.'

    I can't repeat the whole essay here just for length reasons. But Wolfe in his essay on The New Journalism writes the following reaction:

    '...with a little reworking the whole article could have read like a short story. The passages in between the scenes, the expository passages, were conventional 1950's-style magazine journalsim, but they could have been easily re-cast. The piece could have been turned in to a non-fiction short story with very little effort...'

    In other words a fictonal form, the short story, a classic realist text, was imposed upon a fact based reportage centred around the writers first person. A writer that had the habit of staying with his subject and studying them.

    Wolfe also writes: '...The obvious relationship between reporting and the major novels - one has only to think of Balzac, Dickens, Gogol,Tolstoy, dostoyevsky, and infact Joyce - something that literary historians deal with only in a biographical sense. It took the New Journalsim to bring this strange matter of reporting in to the fore ground.'

    '...the discovery that it was possible to write accurate non-fiction with techniques usually associated with novels and short stories. It was that - plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device, from the traditional dialogisms of the essay to stream-of- consciousness, and to use many different kinds simultaneously, or within a relatively short space... to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.'

  9. Thanks for that Nick. I think Wolfe's key word is "accurate" in the final paragraph. One has to wonder WHY it is thus "accurate". Is there a truth here that is possible through form, something that novelists know instinctively?

    Incidentally, his list of authors (Balzac, Dickens, Gogol,Tolstoy, dostoyevsky, Joyce) is also remarkably limited. What about the novelists unconcerned with 19th Century forms (which Joyce succumbed to in overall form if not locally)? Cervantes, Sterne to name the most famous?

  10. I just read that Kate Atkinson's Case Histories is going to be featured on the LBC Radio book review show after her publisher paid £20,000 to the radio station to promote it. It doesnt seem to me to be a book that is underground, marginalised or ignored.

  11. Anonymous7:33 pm

    Steve just a few quick points -

    Truth, accurate and form. With this Wolfe, I feel, is pushing forward the idea of melding together the tradtional inverted fact baced pyramid of reporting with a classic realist text. In this any fact, regardless of the techhnique of presention would still have to be supported through two sources, even though the interpretion of those sources may well be under deabate. As to if there is truth here may well depended upon what kind of truth one is looking for. Things can look very much different out in the field for a reporter, then it can for the novelist stuck in the study for most of the year. Then again one could say that the reporter gives a stright gut response based on his sources, while the novelist gives a second deeper level of response, a response that may come years latter, after the dust has settled giving the writer more time to bring out the hidden themes and discourses that are hidden under the quick responce of the reporter. After all truth some times takes many years to reveal it self - thats, of course if it ever does.

    Is Wolfe's list of of authors limited? Well it depends because here Wolfe seems to be useing them as examples any a mirrior in to which he reflects himself. It should be noted here in this list is that all of them - Balzac, Dickens, Gogol,Tolstoy, dostoyevsky, Joyce - were reporters, in fact in Dickens case he never stopped being a reporter. First came the first reponse of the reporter, later came the seconed responce of the novelist looking for 'truth,' or deeper truth.

    Secondly, I've already said that they are Wolfe's mirrior, they have a direct baring on Wolfes fictional work, from Bonfire Of The Vanties onwards. In an essay written in before Bonfire came out he calls for a return to the large novel of the mid-nineteenth century, a return to the classic realist text, only using contempery material. Of which Bonfire Of The Vanties is meant to be an example. Wolfe sees himself as passing from the first reponse of the reporter, to the second response of the novelist - he's looking for a deeper truth.

    Where does all leave Sterne? - seems to be a little of a wide ball question considering this whole thing is about the reporter, the novelist, and the classic realist text. Well one could say that it leaves in the same postion as the french surrealist filmmakers in realtion to the classic cinema sat there on the edge near the closuer of the form reminding us that form does not have to be represented in the classic fashion. Sterne the Court Jester of The English Novel. A time to play with the reader which may be the reporter does have time or the room to be the Court Jester.

  12. Anonymous7:27 pm

    One seems to have lost their crtical edge? Ah Nick you could put these mingers down any day.

  13. The Sharp Side puts it very well about journalistic writing in fiction:

  14. Yet only the last of these was finished. I found the others unremarkable and uncompelling, putting each aside soon after setting out: in the first case, the form and content was tiresome

    Which book was this and why? They all seem like solid books.

  15. Look at the list Felix: the last is the last on the list, the first first and the third third.

    Solid books, yes. Did I say otherwise? I'm sure my reaction now would be different in one or two cases.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.