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What is Literary?

March 29, 2010

Well, it’s that time again when, as the Orange Prize for Fiction longlist is released, one of the judges draws the short straw (or the long straw) and gets to rant to the broadsheets about the travails of administering this prize — or of reading the ‘long longlist’ of all 120 books submitted for the prize. This year “author and TV personality” Daisy Goodwin had this to say to the Guardian: “[T]here are an awful lot of books out there which had not a shred of redemption in them… there does need to be some joy, not just misery. […] There comes a point halfway through the process where you think: ‘Is it me or them?’ You just can’t bear it any more. And then you come across this joyful book.”

We’ve been here before: 2007 Orange chair Muriel Gray berating those women writers who mistake “an experience, say as ordinary as being a rural school teacher [for something] so interesting and unique that it’s almost compulsory to chronicle it”. And back in 1999, that year’s chair, Lola Young, claimed that among the British books she’d encountered in the process, there were only two types: they were either “insular and parochial” or “domestic in a piddling kind of way”.

Just in case one hasn’t already started thinking, ‘With friends like these…’, the Guardian’s always hair-raising Comment is Free section beneath the Daisy Goodwin story helpfully became clogged at once with pseudonymous commentary along the lines of ‘Why do women need a prize anyway?’, ‘Women already win lots of prizes’ and the ever-popular ‘This prize is sexist!’ or variations thereof (my favourite is the one that calls the prize ‘indefensible’, as if that will simply shut down debate).

A glance at the Orange Prize website, incidentally, yields last September’s press release announcing the judging panel, in which Ms Goodwin is quoted thus: “I’m very honoured to be chairing a female judging panel. Too often the term ‘women’s fiction’ is used pejoratively as if there was something wrong with the books that women write and read.  As I am addicted to reading I am really looking forward to the next six months and finding some great new books that will appeal to everybody.” The third sentence expresses a pretty forlorn hope; the second is a bit unfortunate, from the perspective of this week’s story.

So: leaving aside the sad inevitability of the fact that it’s easier to get column inches for the prize by saying something negative, consider Goodwin’s statement. Literary fiction, or at least the books that get submitted to a comparatively heavyweight, ie ‘literary’, prize, tends towards the dark or the “grim”. Is this fair? Well: maybe. The popular, reductive equation does seem to go “literary = serious = not fun”, and works in either direction. Thus ‘humourless’ equates to ‘worthwhile’, and the idea of a comic novel with meaningful thematic content causes the category-centric brain to melt, despite the fact there are numerous exemplars: Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, Anne Enright, AL Kennedy and Ali Smith are merely the first five Orange-eligible novelists who spring to mind whose books make the reader laugh and wince in equal measure (Moore’s novel The Gate at the Stairs does appear on the Orange longlist, presumably an exception to Goodwin’s rule).

Where the gloomy=worthy equation fails, it fails badly. Among those books shortlisted for last year’s Orange Prize was Samantha Harvey’s debut novel The Wilderness (Vintage). It’s a book about Jake Jacobson, an architect mourning the death of his wife and the loss of his son to a prison he designed himself, and about the gradually encroaching effects of Alzheimer’s disease. A story lived chiefly in memory, The Wilderness introduces all manner of ambiguity into Jake’s recollections: why is his son in prison? When did his wife die, and how? And what happened to Jake’s daughter? Virtually every recollection is tampered with — Jake misremembers some things, deliberately misinterprets others — making this a slightly wearing read. The best sections are some all-too-brief episodes in which Jake visits his “fox-haired” therapist and we see, as it were, the increasing effects of the Alzheimer’s through the apparently simple tests of memory she sets him (these are truly moving sections).  Yet the rest of the time, the heart of the story is lost, the story muddied and distorted — not just by the elements of ambiguity that crowd almost every episode, but by the language itself, which is ‘literary’ stuff at its worst.

Here, for instance, is Harvey on Jake’s dog Lucky (and let’s not get started on the fact that she thinks it’s okay to name a rescue dog Lucky just because she draws attention to the cliché), on page 156:

In the garden Lucky dozes comfortably on the grass in a triangle of brand-new morning light. The corrugation of her ribs catches the sun in bars. He must feed her, he thinks, before she gets any thinner. Feed her and then walk her, that’s what you do for dogs. He mustn’t forget.

‘Lucky,’ he calls through the open door.

She is still. Dead? He panics.

‘Lucky!’

The sleeper awakes, possessed of an instant wit, and trots inside. She sinks to the floor and rolls over, a flash of white streaking up her belly by way of invitation for him to stroke her, which he does. She closes her eyes. He stops. She half opens her eyes and shoots him a look of betrayal. He strokes her again. Whole days have passed like this, he is sure. Whole lifetimes.

Clearly, this could be improved by cutting half the sentences, or thereabouts, and generally the ‘literary’ ones. The corrugated ribs catching the light are pretty bad (or pretty/bad), while the “flash of white streaking up her belly” is just weird, suggesting some sort of electrified animal, like a jellyfish, rather than a dog. As for “possessed of an instant wit”, this just stops the reader dead. Okay, what is being described here — Lucky wakes up and is immediately alert – may be fairly clear, as most readers will be familiar with the startled way a dog will suddenly sit up on being called; but is this really described or encapsulated by the phrase “possessed of an instant wit”? Do we think, ‘Yes, that’s it exactly?’ In fact the wording serves to obfuscate, so the reader pauses because he’s been tripped up, not because he’s struck by a precise, concise and apposite turn of phrase.

It may seem unfair to pick on one example, but what’s frustrating is that somewhere in The Wilderness there is an extremely good book. Very few novels depict the effects of Alzheimer’s on a character; even fewer — none that I’ve come across — sit on the shoulder of the sufferer and mercilessly lead the reader through the depredations of the illness. What this book should be, which it only fitfully manages to be, is moving; here simplicity and clarity, even as Jake’s memory evaporates and ties him in knots that are anything but clear, would work tremendously. This ‘literary’ stuff — this forced poetry — obfuscates and confuses, and declaws the novel.

Further over-literary stuff is found in The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown), shortlisted for last year’s Booker Prize. The novel shares some similarities with Harvey’s, both being concerned with architectural follies, specifically the modernist building which gives Mawer’s book its title (it brought to my mind the Mies Van der Rohe Pavilion in Barcelona, above, but is in fact an existing building, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno). It’s a historical saga of sorts, set in Czechoslovakia before, during and after the Second World War, and describing the Glass Room’s history as, variously, a family home, a Nazi scientific experimentation centre, and a housemuseum in (more or less) the present day. This is all very well and highly ambitious; the Czech research is worn reasonably lightly (though there are some extremely clunky linguistic notes about the various ways the German word ‘Glasraum’ might be interpreted, the title being only the most literal translation), and the notion of a place which seems to exert a peculiar influence on those people who come into contact with it – as successive groups of characters succumb to the same sorts of interpersonal conflicts and crises, resonating back and forth through their history – is beguiling, if at times a little improbable (sudden-onset bisexuality hits several of the characters, rather implausibly). What’s dispiriting is the inevitability with which Mawer makes the Glass Room, already a fairly obvious metaphor for public and private ways of life, into a broader and far more ungainly component in a metaphor extended pretty much the whole length of the book, and which boils down, dreadfully, to ‘them as lives in glass houses oughtn’t to throw stones’. Really? I mean really? That this is presented as an insight rather than, apparently, a throwaway reference to the homily (for this is both a schlocky book and an almost entirely humourless one) is pretty unforgivable. In order to build up the role of the house as this base for metaphor, Mawer spends an inauspicious time detailing the construction of the house (essentially: descriptions of concrete setting) and in one especially horrid moment, embarks on a description of the architectural centrepiece, an onyx wall, which appears solid and inviolable but which is, of course, when the light hits it correctly, shown to be shot through with a delicate filigree of golden light, etc etc. Mawer repeatedly knocks the reader’s head against this wall (Secret delicacy seamed through the seemingly solid: Do you see? Do you?) and one thinks of Anne Enright’s brilliant suggestion to would-be writers that they imagine they have ten weeks left to live and they’re reading their own book: then cut all the stuff from the manuscript that, as dying-reader, they would skip. Like this reader’s goodwill, Enright’s patient wouldn’t survive The Glass Room.

Meanwhile, I also read some mass-market fiction that seems to come highly recommended, Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand (Sceptre), which is at least not ‘literary’ in this studied, mannered, workshopped way. It is not a very good book. It might not seem so bad if the good recommendations on the back cover and first page of the text did not comprise, respectively, a plea from ‘the publishers’ not to spoil the plot of “this truly special story” when recommending it to friends to upon finishing it, and a cloying introductory  letter from a writer at The Bookseller telling the reader this is “a very special book indeed”. Hackles thus raised, the reader embarks upon a book which is not, of course, anything like as special as all that. The story of Little Bee, a refugee from a murderous coup in Nigeria, is one worth telling, and reading; the story of Sarah and Andrew, who first encounter Little Bee on a Nigerian beach, and whose lives she enters when she managed to flee to the UK, is certainly not worth reading or telling. Chattering class doesn’t cover it: Sarah is a women’s magazine editor who yearns to do something ‘important’ with her life; she is assisted by a woman whose constant one-note harping on ‘naughtiness’ is presumably intended to evoke Samantha from Sex and the City, but who comes across less Kim Cattrall and more Dawn Porter. We also meet a rather unconvincing civil servant, and the hands-down winner of the most vilely awful child in literature, transparently based on Cleave’s own offspring, who is evoked in facechewingly awful ‘cutesy kidspeak’ and repeated detailings of episodes of incontinence that border on the sociopathic. Social services should be called on the lot of them. As with the Harvey, an interesting and worthwhile story is somewhere in here, but buried beneath a lot of middle-class handwringing, a surfeit of improbable plot twists, and some very bad writing that, again, aims for the literary and falls far short. What’s wrong with clarity?

I’m not arguing for a poetry-free, utilitarian or technical language, of course. But there are ways to use a language which is both precise and spare (not “possessed of an instant wit”) yet is not un-poetic. What we get in Omega Point, the new Don DeLillo novel (Picador), is another in his late-phase series of very pared-back, very streamlined, very spare novellas: part parable and part dream, and employing language which does tend towards that unembellished, sparse endpoint. DeLillo has always been good at inhabiting, co-opting and exploding ‘technical’ language, typically drawing attention to and poking fun at the vacuity of same (see especially White Noise, whose “airborne toxic event” has practically passed into everyday demotic, but also Ratner’s Star and The Names). Omega Point inhabits and investigates philosophical and ‘postmodern’ language, the small cast speaking in abstracted, largely non-realistic (or theatrical?) phrasings, sometimes saying things that seem to defy interpretation, certainly paraphrasing. You don’t seem often to get this sort of prolonged, detailed investigation of the work of language in contemporary British literature, certainly not what one might call ‘mainstream literature’, among which the big-hitters seem largely interested in historical reconstructions and a very narrow definition of what constitutes the ‘literary’. Of the twenty books on the longlist, for instance, nine – those by Hilary Mantel, Sadie Jones, Maria McCann, Nadifa Mohamed, Kathryn Stockett, Andrea Levy, Amy Sackville, Clare Clark and Rosie Alison – have a ‘historical’ setting. And only one of them could be considered to be doing anything remotely ‘experimental’.

That exception is Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, an exceptional first novel, playful, intelligent and daring. It’s interested not just in language but in the way fiction itself works. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves.

Of the other longlisted books I’ve read so far, I found A Gate at the Stairs disappointing, going by what Lorrie Moore has achieved in the past; compared to the knockout Collected Stories which preceded it, it’s timid, and clunky. Wolf Hall is likely to be shortlisted, adding another to a long string of awards and nods Hilary Mantel has received for it thus far (fifty pages in at time of writing, I’m intrigued to see whether it lives up to the hype). And I’m about to start reading Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig, which has had cracking reviews.

Maybe next year, though, when revealing the dozen longlisted novels, the judging panel could come out together – not just send their chairman – and make a bold statement about how brilliant the initial selection process was? It would make such a change…



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