Friday, September 08, 2006

The despair of popular authors (part 2)

What is it with popular authors? Not content with their novels steepling on 3 for 2 stalls in WH Smith's, with posters advertising each new smash hit at every bus stop (great storytelling is back in fashion!), with adverts covering tube platform walls and billboards in railway stations, not content either with "the Berkshire vicarage, the house in France, the Aston Martin, the Jack Yeats paintings, the well-stocked wine cellar, the rows of stiffies on the chimney piece, the book-lined study with windows looking on to manicured lawns", they feel it necessary to complain at length about the lack of attention and respect given to their bestselling products by "the literati". Poor loves. Why are they denied the one thing missing from their lives?

It's one of the great mysteries of our age.

In part 1 of my investigation into their complaints, I didn't mention the most prominent article in last weekend's edition of Guardian Books (from where the above list of possessions comes): Lynn Barber's interview with Nick Hornby's brother-in-law, Robert Harris, the author of Fatherland, Enigma, Pompeii and now (herald of farty, out of tune trumpets) Imperium.

Harris shares a grudge with his relative. He particularly hates the sort of 'literary' novels that win the Booker Prize Barber reports. Harris says: 'It must be good if it's difficult. Oldest con trick in the world.'

It's not the first time he's had the freedom of the Sunday papers to express his contempt for all things literary. In 1998, and after appearing on the BBC's coverage of the Booker Prize, he raged in the Sunday Times against the pretensions of the literary circus: "It sets out with the noble intention of making 'literary writing' (whatever that is) more accessible and it ends up doing the opposite". He's not wrong. But Harris doesn't see the prize as the problem so much as the one
that has afflicted English literature for 70 or 80 years: the idea that a proper novel is not primarily a means of entertainment but somehow a "higher calling". [...] The idea that there was such a thing as a specifically 'literary novel' would have seemed absurd in the 19th century, and novelists like Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Eliot would have looked with bewilderment at the pretensions of the Booker Prize.
Putting aside the problems of such a narrow historical comparison, that "higher calling" is fascinatingly vague. What does it mean - is it part of the "noble intention" of which he speaks? But what's noble about promoting something he sees as pretentious? Perhaps it harks back to the ambitions of the pre-Victorian Romantics seeking a more spiritually-attuned, more authentic literature in contrast to the periwigged games of the Augustans? I would guess for Harris it means just a writing inspired by concerns other than merely entertaining a potential audience. No wonder there's a contradiction. And Harris is sure of the culprits:
Nobody has ever nailed this schizophrenia more brilliantly than Professor John Carey in 'The Intellectuals and the Masses'. 'The spread of literacy to the masses' he argues, 'impelled intellectuals in the early 20th century to produce a mode of culture (modernism) that the masses could not enjoy.'
So it was literacy programmes that caused To the Lighthouse, Ulysses, The Waste Land, The Trial, The Rainbow and The Golden Bowl! And all this time, I thought ...

Lest we forget: the great works of 20th century art were created solely to exclude plebs like you and me.

(The masses, the masses, how strangely that sounds to me!)

As I reported in part 1, such crowd-displeasing novels didn't feature much in the sample edition of our best serious newspaper even though the Booker shortlist is almost upon us. It rather counters Hornby's contention that the broadsheet press is the last bastion against a return to the halcyon days of Victorian fiction in which everyone skipped merrily together through sunlit groves with a copies of Little Dorrit in their hands, far from the sneers of "intellectuals".

So why do he and his brother-in-law accuse the medium, in which they feature so prominently and so regularly, of being dominated by those promoting "a kind of literary apartheid: [where] there are novels people want to buy and novels they are told to buy, and rarely the twain do meet"?

Perhaps it's because sales and marketing hype does not impress critics who have read the book it is selling as much as it does potential readers who haven't, and the brothers by marriage cannot comprehend the contrast. The TLS reviewer Richard Jenkyns says Imperium is "flat-footed from the start" and "curiously pointless". Perhaps he would have said something different had he been restricted to reading the blurb. People who buy the novel tend to have only that to go on, that and the posters, the adverts, the appearances on Channel 4 News (with Harris' buddy Jon Snow) and innumerable press features (not one of which "tells" the punter to buy anything, of course).

It's odd too that Harris does not name one Booker-winning author who justifies its becoming, as he claims, a byword for "unreadibility and affectation". In an aside about the negative effects of winning, he reckons Penelope Fitzgerald and Salman Rushdie wrote good novels after winning the prize, while (another buddy) Ian McEwan "to his eternal credit" wrote a readable winner with Amsterdam. So it seems there are a lot of exceptions to his rule. In fact, not one inclusion.

However, in a comic moment, Harris claims that John le Carré is the one writer who "bridges the worlds of the literary novel and bestseller". This is hilarious enough in itself but remember only a few lines before he wrote "literary fiction (whatever that is)". If it's defined by unreadibility and affectation, then that would explain why I don't rate le Carré's novels. So I guess Harris is right: he's a bestseller too.

Curiously, Lynn Barber reports that Harris "regards Imperium as his most 'literary' novel when he claims to despise any such thing". So we might want to look more closely at this novel despite what the TLS says. Harris offers this insight into its inspiration:
It may not be as popular as the others - I hope it is, but it may not be - but I feel it is something worth doing, that is making sense of my entire life, of what I've done and seen and known about.
Pretentious, moi?


  1. Dickens, Thackeray, etc may not have understood the Booker thing, but surely they would have regarded their own work as being superior to the lurid penny dreadfuls and other sensationalist literature being produced in their time.

    And Carey is half right; the rise of literacy (especially after the 1870 Education Act) did encourage a two-tier readership, but there's no evidence that 'literary' fiction was invented to keep the chavs out. What happened is that a level of functional literacy was created; people learned to read whether they wanted to or not, and mostly they chose not to. Any literature that was going to tempt them had to be accessible and not too demanding. The people who couldn't read in the 18th century, and read Sweeney Todd in the 19th, are the people who read non-literary books - say, Andy McNab - in the 20th and 21st.

    It wasn't snobbery that created the genre of 'literary fiction' - it was market forces.

  2. A very fair summing up of this popular novelist's "bleating" about yes, the one thing they don't get handed on a plate. I always think, well, write better books then! I felt Harris was right about one thing, that some literary fiction is a "genre" in its own right, but the joke is, it usually doesn't win. Look at a few of the Booker winners over the last few years: Life of Pi, Vernon God Little, True Adventures of the Kelly Gang, Disgrace, Last Orders, the God of Small Things. All very straightforward stories.

  3. I'd say Booker novels constitute a genre, but not literary novels, which tend not to appear on the long- or shortlists. In fact, not many are published in the UK.

    And I do wonder what Hornby and Harris think about the literary worth of penny dreadfuls compared to the big names.

  4. i agree with Steve - there are lots of unreadable, meta-theory novels published as 'literary fiction' but they never win the Booker. I suspect most are written as Masters 'theses' or Ph.Ds - a trend as diisturbing as the silly division of bookshops into 'literary fiction' and ... 'il-literary fiction??'. I defy anyone to call 'True History of the Kelly Gang' or 'Line of Beauty' as anything but great story-telling, possibly in the Dickens tradition. Life of Pi was hardly high-brow or overcomplex either, in fact it was overtly simplistic. Boring as hell too.



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

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.