Sunday, May 31, 2009

Staple singers

At least five staple articles can be found in the books pages of British newspapers:

- Those that tell of the real life truth behind a work of fiction
- Surveys of which classic novels readers lie about having read
- Demands for genre fiction to be "taken seriously"
- Revelations of our guilty reading pleasures
- Frustrated calls for important novels about today's Britain

Perhaps another staple is interviews with exotic foreign authors who are urged to talk about the political upheavals in their own exotic foreign countries. Are there any others?

The fifth staple has made two recent appearances in The Independent. In April, Amanda Craig was given unprecedented room (over two and a half thousand words!) to call for a turn away from historical fiction towards Victorianism - which is, by happy coincidence, embodied by her new, cliché-entitled novel. And this weekend, Tim Lott makes more or less the same demand in the same newspaper. This is not a concerted campaign: it is the inevitable manifestation of the fundamental polarity between literary and journalistic writing.
Where are the lives of the young working-class mother? Where is the hoodie telling us about life on the estates of the Wirral or Corby? Where is the story of the destitute, so well captured by Orwell in the 1930s? Where is the great satire on celebrity culture, on English MPs, on CCTV, on the threat to our liberties? Where is the voice of an Anglican vicar, a fairground worker, a nurse, a family lawyer ...
Tim Lott, like Amanda Craig, expects fiction to be as dynamic and relevant as a daily newspaper. The British, it seems - with Tom Wolfe as a Colonel Saunders-like poster boy of happy innocence - will never quite appreciate what the abstraction of writing means. Yes, they are right to embrace the commonsensical priority of the real world over books, yet not if this also means to ignore or to deny the violence done by writing. Literary writers are more sensitive to this than those writing opinion pieces or, indeed, blogs. They might wonder, as I do, why they feel that journalism isn't enough to tell us about the lives of the people labelled above.

Whenever I read these staples of literary journalism, particularly those that want novelists to knuckle down to write ambitious novels that capture how we live now, I think of Kafka's A Hunger Artist. Amanda Craig and Tim Lott are the attendants of the circus impresario who wants to replace the fasting showman with the young panther.
Even the most insensitive felt it refreshing to see this wild creature leaping around the cage that had so long been dreary. The panther was all right. The food he liked was brought him without hesitation by the attendants; he seemed not even to miss his freedom; his noble body, furnished almost to the bursting point with all that it needed, seemed to carry freedom around with it too; somewhere in its jaws it seemed to lurk; and the joy of life streamed with such ardent passion from its throat that for the onlookers it was not easy to stand the shock of it. But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not want ever to move away.
And who would deny them their pleasure? Yet where are the newspapers articles demanding the answer to the question: Where are our Hunger Artists?


  1. Well, I've read one of Tim Lott's books so I know his opinion to be of no importance - but who is this Amanda Craig whose Hearts and Minds (worst title of the year, no competition) is so frigging ubiquitous? Sorry to say, but when I hear Amanda Craig's name I think only of a certain literary scandal which I recall accompanied her a few years ago, which I won't even specify by name as I can't find any references to it online and can't be sure I didn't dream it.

    Anyway, these books they seek are everywhere, from the self-conscious Blake Morrison-type epics to the relentless churn of urban demotic teen reports. The reason they don't get noticed is because they're no bloody good.

  2. No, scratch that thought, reverse it - the scandal I remembered really did happen, and is detailed here for those interested (and is so good they print it twice). Actually not as juicy as I misremembered, though particularly interesting in the context of your excellent piece, as it concerns a writer seemingly passing off as literature - or at least fiction - something which was alleged to be closer to journalism or memoir.

  3. The cushioning of the readers from serious assessment of books by purportedly 'serious' interviews is a particularly common strategy in our papers here. And often I've read them already online anyway.

  4. Anonymous8:55 am

    "Tim Lott, like Amanda Craig, expects fiction to be as dynamic and relevant as a daily newspaper."

    Much of it is.

  5. Have you any evidence Stereogram; i.e. that it equals "much"?

  6. Am I being obtuse, or is stereogram saying that newspapers aren't dynamic or relevant either? In which case, carry on.

  7. I assumed he wasn't saying that John. At least, they are dynamic and relevant to what happens at literary parties, I'm sure.

  8. Anonymous8:13 pm

    A study conducted in 1993 by Professor Jean-Pierre Velodrome of the University of Miskatonic concluded that, based on data collected over the period 1984-1995, exactly 84% of contemporary fiction was as dynamic and relevant as a daily newspaper. 13% was more relevant. 7% was less relevant.

  9. The Egyptian stones speak of Mesi, the son of Dhut-Mose, dressed in the panther skin. Rilke's Panther is rather good though I prefer my own translation to the usual. Fat cats and lean panthers. The old old story. ;) wink thingie
    Hell, Schwarzenegger is abolishing school books! Ain't called The Terminator for nothing. It'll save California US$10 a head. Yes, every year.

  10. ...cont
    But, as you highlight it, where are the lean and hungry panthers? Is there a literature beyond the fat cat boardroom? Something beyond the spin of the airport rack? I'm drawn forever back in time it seems to me. For example at the moment I'm reading E E Cummings' Enormous Room.



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