Saturday, December 08, 2007


When Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award recently, I thought what many others must also have thought: oh God, not another "ambitious" work about the US occupation of Vietnam?! I was as despairing as the customer on Amazon responding to The Name of the World: "Please, can these supposed writers of fiction just stop writing about the faculty of small liberal arts colleges?". Perhaps Johnson can write a post-911 next! In his infamous review of Tree of Smoke BR Myers' claimed that:
Underlying the hype [about the novel] is the silly notion that if a work introduces plenty of characters and traipses after them for enough years and pages, it is ipso facto ambitious.
"The true mark of an ambitious work", he adds, "is its style and depth". I agree, but I would add that now another mark is restraint, if not also outright refusal of established literary procedure.

In relation to this, listen to Is there too much culture?, an enthralling podcast from the director Mike Figgis, as part of the Free Thinking "festival of ideas in Liverpool", in which he diagnoses cultural stagnation. He asks us to imagine the youth of 1957 aping the youth of 1907. But it's unthinkable. Yet the youth of 2007 ape those of 1957; the sound and look of popular music now is basically the same as then. Figgis puts this down to an excess of memory. He says we need to let go, and looks forward to a time when the dam breaks and the stagnation is washed away. In real terms, he wants an end to the archival nature of culture (which would upset the British Library podcasters who ran a panel precisely on the importance of saving an author's entire output!). How this might happen, he doesn't say, but the diagnosis is sound when it comes to "ambitious" novels, and to most current literature too, in which aping the past is endemic. So I wonder, can a writer precipitate the collapse? Ah, now that's an ambition.


  1. "He asks us to imagine the youth of 1957 aping the youth of 1907. But it's unthinkable."


    "The British Teddy boy subculture is typified by young men wearing clothes inspired by the styles of the Edwardian period [1901 - 1910]..."

  2. "Subculture" though? I suppose these things are always flawed, but I also think that it was four years between "Dark Side of the Moon" and "God Save the Queen" at number one.



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