Monday 7 November 2016

Over-rated writers; under-rated writers

Yesterday I shared a stage with fellow "TLS stalwarts" (not my description)  Michael Caines and Alex Clark in a discussion chaired by Toby Lichtig, part of the Times Literary Supplement's annual London Literary Weekend.

The subject for discussion - 'back by popular demand' - was over-rated and under-rated writers.

It's nice to be given a platform, even when the platform is on a run-down branch line, seldom frequented by travellers. The tracks are overgrown and few trains stop here. You can see where I'm going with this. The Beeching Cuts to literary culture have been applied ferociously over the past forty years.

Michael Caines disarmingly nominated Shakespeare as over-rated (and he's a Shakespeare scholar). Alex Clark opted for Lady Chatterley's Lover. My own rather arbitrary choice was a novel published in 2014 and which I reviewed at the time for the TLS - Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. It later won a Pulitzer Prize, the Andrew Carnegie Medal and countless other awards, has spent the past two years on the New York Tines best-seller list and has sold around a million copies - in hardback. It has been widely acclaimed, and I chose it as the over-valued embodiment of everything I most loathe in contemporary fiction. A heavyweight middlebrow 500-pager, it's not so much a novel as an extended pitch for a Hollywood blockbuster, written in a relentless present tense throughout. I shan't bang on about the multiple failings of this hugely popular book, but you might like to read this thoughtful evisceration in The New Republic of a novel that aetheticizes Nazism and 'Turns the Holocaust into a Sentimental Mess'. An ethically cretinous blockbuster.

The under-rated writers were Brigid Brophy (Michael's excellent choice) and A. S. Byatt, who is hardly under-rated but Alex's choice of Still Life ("where everyone always bangs on about Possession instead") was intriguing, and prompts me to follow up her suggestion.

I toyed with the idea of nominating Mark E. Smith as an under-valued writer (and in the year Bob Dylan became a Nobel Laureate that's not so outlandish) but this was the TLS, not the NME,  so I chose Agota Kristof, and more specifically her brilliant and troubling debut novel The Notebook (1986). This is too little known in Britain, although much admired in many other countries. It's been translated into 35 languages and I believe enjoys a huge cult following in Japan. It was written in French by an author born in Hungary who fled with her husband and their baby daughter at the time of the 1956 uprising, first to Austria and then to Switzerland. She had a hard time, working in factories and raising a family, until publishing Le Grand Cahier in 1986 to immediate acclaim. It's harsh, disturbing and speaks to us more clearly today than ever - a novel about borders, war, migration, privation, family, identity and much more. It is entirely unsentimental.

There was discussion of what Toby Lichtig called 'the canonical minefield'. Speaking at the recent Manchester Literary Festival the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri complained that he had to “distort my nature; to become a little Western” in order to study 'the classics', by which I assume he meant the Western canon. But surely we all have to distort our nature when reading fiction - because that's what fiction demands of us, whether we're reading Ben Okri or Jane Austen. I don't want to read novels that reflect my own experience,

Will Eaves, in The Inevitable Gift Shop puts it very well::

The reader who seeks to relate to likeable characters and situations is barely reading at all. Seeking a vindication or endorsement of their own character or liveability - "reading for reassurance". Some such readers are noticeably and personally affronted when they glimpse something nasty or hateful in the books they want to like.

Novels should be windows not mirrors - windows into the hearts and minds of others, into other cultures or periods. I agree with much of what Okri says - not least that some 'canonical'; authors should be quietly left to fade away (although time seems to be the most effective way to ensure that).

Leaving the venue yesterday evening I glumly reflected that, although I'd planned to quote Raymond Chandler: “The dilemma of the critic has always been that if he knows enough to speak with authority, he knows too much to speak with detachment", I didn't. Cheered up by news that the bookstall had entirely sold out of The Notebook. You can buy a copy from the publisher here.

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