Monday, September 01, 2008

literary valium

There's a blog meme been going round recently, listing the all-time top 100 books from some fucking poll or other, and you put whether you've read them or not.

Over at The Quiet Road, Jim's response to the meme kicked off a good lively exchange about what constitutes worthwhile literature, and it ties in with something I'd been thinking about for a while.

When you’re ill and have to take some time off, people think it must be great because they imagine what they would do with some time off. Ooh, you could plough through that big pile of unread books and CDs.

This perspective fails to take into account the fact that, being ill, you’re dimmed and deflated. You can’t concentrate enough on the depths of great music, can’t handle the challenge of great literature.

So when I was ill recently I read Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle (preceded by re-reading the book it’s a sequel to, The Rotters' Club), and Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good. There was something very similar about them, not so much in their styles or subjects, but in what they’re about, their essential purpose.

There is certainly a place for Nick Hornby novels. Physically, that place is police cell. An engaging enough story humanely told, but not too deep or difficult, an unthreatening affirmation of an intelligent tender heart.

It’s more than being a device for the suppression of time, mind. With most of Hornby and Jonathan Coe, they write warmly, their books don't often have much stylistic flair but they are an honest window into an articulate and genuinely good person. There’s a bolstering sense of kinship, a sort of solidarity of the humane, that comes from reading them. Which is just what you need in adversity, be it the sick bed or the police cell.

It serves a good and necessary function, it's just nobody should confuse it with great writing. And that’s the danger, that it lowers the standards of its readers.

William Burroughs once said that good books tend to make bad movies, and vice versa. So with Nick Hornby you get OK books making OK movies.

Hugh Grant plays the lead in the movie of Hornby’s About A Boy, and it’s so fitting. His novels are the print equivalent of a Hugh Grant movie. And whilst they’re alright if you surf into them when you can’t sleep, nobody should be thinking Hugh Grant movies are great, or ever buying copies of them.

If it’s the job of the artist to get to great truth, then by far the best of Hornby’s writing I know of is in 31 Songs. Like Louis de Bernières it's clear that for all he loves writing, music is Hornby's greater love.

In 31 Songs he’s not chewing his pencil trying to come up with a story but articulating what makes music work. His focus seems less about the writing and more about the music - a medium he freely admits to not just loving but being in awe of - so there’s no hint of clever-cleverness. Anyone who loves popular music should read it. By a very big margin, it’s the best music writing I’ve ever read.

For Coe, the great truth I've found in his work is from something even more humiliating than a non-fiction piece, it’s something he wrote about someone else’s book. In his Sunday Times review of The Acid House by Irvine Welsh he said

The Acid House reminded me, among other things, that what we often put down to brilliance in the work of some writers is, in fact, nothing more than the pleasant shock of our own recognition. It’s only when a book foregoes that easy option, choosing instead to stake out a territory that most of its readers will find alien and unwelcoming, that it really puts itself to the test: and this is where Welsh emerges triumphant.

I can’t help seeing some self-criticism in that. He can certainly write good stuff - the masterful gnashing satire of What A Carve Up! is just magnificent - but when Coe's outside of the whodunnit or political bits of his books he feels laboured and forced. He so transparently writes about his own life in Rotters' Club and Closed Circle, and really overreaches himself in trying to blend his personal history with a good story and political rant.

Not that he shouldn’t include these things – you’ve got to draw on what you know, he writes a very clever whodunnit, and I especially love the real passion you can feel underlying his political elements that bursts through at the slightest opportunity. (One time when How To Get Ahead In Advertising was on TV a listings mag gave it a two-star review saying it was ‘a relentless political rant against advertising dressed up as a fictional plot’. I’d give it four stars for precisely the same reason).

There’s certainly a need to retain our political memory, in these globalisation times it’s crucial to remember that we’re not alone in our certainty that the freemarket regime makes the majority suffer and takes us in the wrong direction, and that it really wasn’t like this until recently. His evocative setting of the late 70s does good work, and as more people read novels than non-fiction, there’s a need to do the work there to weave these things into the fabric of the cultural memory.

But fuck me, there’s no need to take two long books about it. You can feel his desperation, that he’s bitten off massively more than is chewable and doesn’t know where to go, when all but admits it in the text. He has the main character complain that his 20 year magnum opus to redefine the novel by combining the personal and the political is stalled and won't work.

He - as he surely knows - is basically just creating something that will give the modern compassionate person that sense of recognition that he slighted in his review of The Acid House. As with Hornby, his writing feels comforting by virtue of what is familiar in it, it's a sort of literary equivalent of Noel Gallagher's songwriting.

I mentioned all this to someone who worked in a big bookshop and she said

I think Coe is vastly superior to Hornby, but yes I agree. It used to irritate the fuck out of me how well Hornby sold. I used to want to baa at each slackjawed idiot that came up to the desk with one of his books. Literary valium. I can’t understand why people don’t want books to take them to the stars. Lazy and complacent and unforgivable in the long term. Oops, am I being a bit militant?

I don’t think she is, no. For me to say 'a sense of kinship in troubled times' or her to say 'literary valium' is pretty much a you-say-potato thing. (By the way, nobody does actually say pot-ar-to, do they?).

Mark Knopfler once said that if Brothers In Arms had sold 50,000 copies then we’d think of it as an intelligent and thoughtful guitar album, but instead it sold squillions and became like cornflakes, something you see everywhere but are not emotionally provoked by.

He’s right, but more than that is the fact that because of those megasales Dire Straits came to symbolise something, a smugness of mind of people listening to safe music thinking it was deep, and/or people having a then newly invented CD player as a status symbol. Our rightful opprobrium was reflected back on to Dire Straits themselves and their work.

Similar things happened with U2. The advent of their overhype – Rattle and Hum carrier bags, people – made people want to underhype in response.

Don McLean's American Pie is a wry and beautiful album, but its ubiquity has made it have some other meaning, and no matter what a ubiquitous artist intends we will tend to regard their work as something akin to McDonalds.

Plus, in pop music above all other art forms, we're overwhelmed by hyped unworthies, and this makes us think anything that ever makes a big splash is just another Bros.

The balance is different with literature. Hype can readily sell bad music and movies whereas word of mouth is by far the strongest seller of books. This isn't a monetary consideration on the part of the punters - CDs often cost more than books, after all - it's a time thing. If you're going to spend so long reading a book you want to be confident it'll be worth the effort. Thus the 'hyped' writers are more likely to be something genuinely popular and so more likely to be of some genuine worth.

So I think there's a little popularity backlash in my bookseller rating Hornby so far below Coe, and that if the two authors reversed their sales figures they would, in the process, reverse her prejudices, as she conceded.

There’s definitely truth in the Dire Straits theory. I’m exasperated by what Hornby represents to me, more than by his writing. But honest to god, if you’d spent the best part of ten years trying to champion cool and amazing books and instead having people stare past you to the bestseller bay so they can read what everyone else is reading, well…

There's something that makes me more forgiving with Hornby novelists than Gallagher songwriters or equivalent movie makers, though.

It's easier to do something more challenging (and thereby come up with something mind expanding and that takes people to the stars) in music or movies. Therefore there's less of an excuse for an artist not doing so.

Messing with the formula is easier to swallow in music or a movie, primarily because reading a book takes so long. You're ready to be challenged by art for a few minutes or even a couple of hours. But not only does it take many hours to read a book, you do it over a period of days or weeks; so you're in its mental space from when you start reading the book when you've finished it. To be fully engaged and profoundly open for so long is a lot to ask of people.

And being radically challenged in many common reading environments - on a train or in bed as you're winding down - is going to be unsettling in all the wrong ways. Of course we reach for the literary valium in circumstances where many would reach for the real pharmaceutical thing.

I remember reading James Joyce's A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man and being utterly astonished at how he used adult vocabulary to articulate the thought processes of a child's mind and make it feel like it was the child speaking. Utterly magical, real genius. But still, a bit of a slog as a book. And that's one of his 'earlier funnier' books. As for Ulysses, it must be the only book above Catch 22 in the 'people start it but don't finish it' list.

But being taken to the stars doesn't necessarily have to be challenging in the wincing, arduous, wading through treacle sense. Kurt Vonnegut could do big grand ideas, peculiar structures and a window on a humane spirit, yet with such readability that a fairly intelligent 12 year old could dig it.

Jonathan Coe is conscious of a duty to say something socially meaningful, and that's all to the good. Also, he has a consistently elegant style. Opening The Rotters' Club at random right now, try this for use of language - 'she was referring to Mr Fletcher's crushingly lacklustre production of The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson, which had reduced successive audiences of doting parents to a state of glassy-eyed catatonia for three nights in a row shortly before Christmas'.

Plus, he can push the boat out with a stylistic trick or two (the last 45 pages are a single sentence, and it works).

But still, there's something not here - something that burns, something that overpowers and immerses. At the end of the day, despite the benevolence the recognition factor makes me feel for them as people, what he and Hornby do still somehow shortchanges us. Again, think Noel Gallagher.

What they might put a drop of on your tongue, Jon McGregor firehoses you to the wall with. Jeanette Winterson gives you gills and drops you into an endless ocean of it.

We all need a valium or a nightcap every now and again, but they shouldn't be staple foods. Once in a while we all find ourselves in a cell or a sickbed and want comfort, but you can't live your whole life there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Merrick,

Thanks for this thoughtful piece. We live in a world where the arts are so full of safe gentle reaffirmation, but I think that this is connected to real fear of the real world out there. Uncertainties, too many choices, darkness in so many places. I write and play folk music which is deliberately escapist. I am seeking to reassure myself, to provide comfort to me and others. The world of the arts now considers those who really challenge perceptions as utterly dangerous, and the difference between now and the Thatcher years is that conformity and the valium of culture have won. There is no wised up generation spitting in the face of it. Sad isn't it?

I was thinking about this recently when watching a thing about the work of Ken Russell, particularly The Devils. Appalling, or brilliant? Challenging, or tasteless? I personally find it hard to stomach. It's easy to shock, harder to tease out the truth, which isn't always so revolutionary.

Anyway, what I was getting round to, as far as books are concerned, is wondering if you've read any Russell Hoban? To me he is the epitome of what you're talking about - extraordinary ideas relayed in a stupidly easy to read style. If you haven't, try anything before The Bat Tatoo, as he gets worse after that. Try Riddley Walker if you haven't already. Truly challenging.

Dave Todd