Friday, April 14, 2006

Draught fiction

Bel Mooney compares Nick Hornby with Anne Tyler. "But Anne Tyler would never be dismissed as a 'popular' novelist".

Sigh. She is a popular novelist. Nothing wrong with that. It's not a dismissal. It's a literary definition. Why does Mooney feel that the label is a dismissal? Who is being the snob here?

Every so often somebody complains, as Mooney does, that popular authors are shunned by 'literati' solely because they're popular. No evidence is ever offered. Instead, as in this case, extra-literary achievements are thrust to the fore. With Fever Pitch Hornby got "young men wearing Arsenal shirts to pick up a book — and keep picking them up almost as often as they sink a pint". Great, if you assume reading literature is necessarily a good thing. But not only that:
His paperback sales total 6 million, excluding the US and translations. A Long Way Down went straight to No 1 in Italy, Robert De Niro’s production company paid £2 million for the rights to About A Boy. And so on. Hornby books make movies — and money. It is enough to make the average literary hack reach for the poisoned arrows.
The arrows Mooney provides as exhibits seem to have their points disguised, as far as I can see they're nothing other than routine literary critical opinion. She says many reviewers were unconvinced by the scenario of A Long Way Down and claims this is nonsense. The opening to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is, she says, even more unrealistic. But are these writers' modes comparable? One a comic realist, the other a magical realist? And did Rushdie's novel get good reviews? Not as far as I can remember. There's only one reason why The Satanic Verses is so famous. Perhaps Mooney should be directing her ire at the Ayatollahs for shunning her hero?

Yet even if the reviews are indeed inaccurate and unfair, it doesn't prove that the motivation is due to Hornby's popularity.

Mooney goes on to offer a more subtle reason: critics think a great writer cannot be comic and serious (hence perhaps the dismissive reviews received by Muriel Spark and Saul Bellow).
This is fiction transforming pain into the archetypal comic mode — through pity and laughter to purge the emotions. Hornby’s accessibility should be celebrated — offering millions the gripping possibility of redemption.
The gripping possibility of redemption! One can imagine what the pint-sinking young men in Arsenal shirts might say about that.

The literati might appreciate that though, so it seems odd that they're so negative. But who makes up this mythical grouping? Mooney names only one member. It's a helpful reference as Adam Mars-Jones' conclusion that A Long Way Down is "emotional truth processed into convenience food, insight that you boil in the bag" might well be the best explanation as to why Hornby sells so well.


  1. Interesting stuff ... not much to add except that I'm a football addict who has read Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch more than is healthy for any human being

  2. "Popular" denotes something about units shifted, the value of an author's brand identity, and the emotional connection that readers feel for his/her work.

    However, the connotations are far more interesting, especially when we move beyond the potboilers (Grisham, Brown) and into what might be called pop-lit (or maybe lit-lite). Hornby, Parsons, de Bernieres, Iain Banks, le Carre, Arnott. "Might get longlisted for the Booker, but never further" is probably the most accurate. "Will sell film rights before publication" is also good. "Has a chip on his shoulder about authors who sell fewer books, but are perceived to be 'better'" is also pretty close.

  3. I'm amazed that the "is Nick Hornby literature" question has come back. Julie Burchill used to bring it up all the time, and presumably Bel Mooney's similarly defensive. Basically, Hornby's a good, but limited writer, with a sure populist touch, who does what he does very well, but nothing more, and from interviews I've read with him. he, at least, seems perfectly happy with that status. "High Fidelity" is a far better novel about music than Rushdie's "The Ground Beneath her Feet", (and for that matter DeLillo's "Great Jones Street").

  4. Tim Lott made the same point in the Evening Standard when Hornby was nominated for the Whitbread and it baffled me then.

    Hornby is, alongside Zadie Smith, the annointed UK author of the McSweeneys set. If that's not kudos-worthy among the literati then I don't know what is.

    I think all these points about Nick Hornby's lack of perceived esteem among the literati remains woefully ignorant of one salient point. He just isn't any good, laddish bookbuyers notwithstanding.



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