Sunday 6 July 2014

Soap box

I've just read Sheena Joughin's online Telegraph review of Greg Baxter's forthcoming novel Munich Airport. You can too, here. She doesn't like it at all, giving it one star. (One of the less attractive aspects to broadsheet reviews these days is a tendency to allocate stars. The Times Literary Supplement doesn't do that, yet.)

As it happens I'm reviewing this same novel for the TLS and, bound as I am by the Critics' Samurai Code, can say nothing here in advance of my piece appearing later this year. The reason for this blog is to share with you Sheena Joaquin's extraordinary opening statement. She writes:

      "Any novel that starts when its story is over is in a sticky predicament; the plot is all in the past."

Really? Any novel? A sticky predicament, then, for Proust and Joyce and Woolf and Dickens and Flaubert and Tolstoy and Stendahl all the other writers who, in their innocence, recounted (with the reliable omniscience we used to expect from authors) stories with a beginning, middle and end, usually from the perspective of a 'now' shared with the reader and all set in the past. "It was the best of times it was the worst of times . . "

I don't much like novels written entirely in the present tense - a wearisome and limiting trope, but all-too-common these days and largely the result of creative writing tutors advocating the approach, presumably because it's immediate and compelling and artless and (for the hapless reader) more like watching the telly. It's as if the novel amounts to an extended pitch for a movie, or the basis for a stand-up routine. What Dickens used sparingly in Bleak House as a signifier for social stagnation and anomie (the Dedlock chapters are all written in the stultifying present) has become the one and only method for too many novelists, not all of them negligible, but most of them indistinguishable.

I tend as a reader mentally to correct such stuff, but since it's hard work and annoying to edit modishly present narratives into professionally acceptable pasts I tend after a dozen pages to give up. I can think of no novel written in the long-established past tense that would be improved by rewriting into the now ubiquitous present.

'Stately, plump Buck Mulligan stands . . .' Nah.

Some recent novels would be hugely improved if rewritten using the past tense in its many forms (and Tom McCarthy's 'C' comes to mind).

But don't take my word for it - read this engaging piece from 2010 by Philip Hensher in (as it happens) the Telegraph. 

Incidentally - why give stars for novels rather than more useful rating information (much as we do with films). Munich Airport strikes me as a book that's less likely to appeal if you're much under forty (the age of its author as it happens). But (and I expect we're heading this way) the time will surely come when novels carry prissy little warnings as CD packaging does: 'Contains mild peril', Contains cartoon violence' and (best of all) 'Contains language'.

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