Friday, 28 February 2014

Mr B's Reading Year, Three: Lonely, lonely planet

Sadly, my exceptional reading streak had to come to an end some time. (Not that I blame Mr B's in the slightest for this - I frequently choose books for myself that I hate, so it was inevitable I was going to get at least one I disliked in the Reading Year.) I found Questions of Travel pretentious, pointless and almost unreadable, despite the numerous rave reviews that I've read online. This is the first novel I've tried by Michelle de Kretser, and while I think, to be fair, I ought to give her another shot at some point, I don't think that point will be any time soon. This lengthy narrative is divided equally between two viewpoint characters, Laura and Ravi. Laura, an Australian by birth, is essentially disconnected from the world; having given up on art school, she does a series of uninteresting jobs while indulging her passion for travel, alongside running through a number of dead-end relationships. Considered unattractive, she seems incapable of believing that she'll ever find her niche. In contrast, Ravi, resident in Sri Lanka, marries young and seems to have his life mapped out for him. It's only when violent unrest forces him to leave his home village that he takes to the same kind of peripatetic existence that Laura has adopted by choice.

To be honest, even reading the brief synopsis I've just written reminds me why I disliked this book so much. I simply don't understand why anyone would shape a narrative around making such an obvious point: some people choose to travel while others have to travel, and isn't it ironic that privileged Westerners choose to subject themselves to hardship while others have no option? I'm not arguing with the basic truth of the premise, but it doesn't make for anything very thought-provoking. The continual digs at the 'Lonely Planet' style of tourism are both incredibly cliched and very wearing. Laura stays with a Balinese family whom she fails to keep in touch, despite being 'light-headed with schemes' about what she can do for them; this seems to be presented as a profound comment on travellers, but reads to me as nothing more significant than the usual kind of broken promise. Later, in India, she announces to a waiter, 

"I'm going on to Madurai. And to Kanyakumari after that."
"Then Kovalam and Trivandrum," he supplied. "And backwater boat trip and Alleppey and Cochin."
"But how do you know?" cried Laura. She had spent pleasurable hours putting together her itinerary from guidebooks and maps.
He was equally astonished. "All the tourists are going there, madam."

This incident, again, seems to be trying to say something original about the pretentiousness of tourists who fancy themselves as travellers, but I feel like I've read the same exchange many times before. At least as far back as A Room With A View, tourists have been mocked, and it would surely be more original to read something that defends tourism.

Aside from all this, however, I found Questions Of Travel badly-structured and badly-written. The flip-flop between Ravi and Laura meant that I never really felt engaged with either of the characters, especially as there is very little plot. de Kretser has been praised for her prose, but I found the writing frequently poor and plodding, making statements rather than inviting a response, as in this description of Laura: 'She was leading an improvised, peripatetic, rather hectic life. There was the illusion of flight and the safety of tether. Days passed like a sequence of swiftly dealt cards.' I found the unvarying short sentences made for little movement in the narrative, and the descriptions were overwrought. When Ravi is at an outdoors party, 'A vein of lightning opened, and sky showed bright and thin - it was the skin of a balloon seen from the inside… Early evening drizzle had left a vegetable scent in the air. Ravi had an impression of ripeness and branching.' de Kretser is fond of details, such as an 'orange portable TV on a marquetry escritoire' but I found that these simply cluttered the narrative rather than giving any sense of place or character. Not one for me, unfortunately.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Monday Musings: Shock value

I've been thinking a bit this week about the use of deliberately shocking scenes in novels - whether that's a depiction of murder, rape, torture or something else entirely - and when they become gratuitous. I'm especially interested in whether an author has more of a duty to write a scene like this well than any other scene in the novel - because often books that contain terrible depictions of such events are badly-written across the board. The series that brought these questions to the forefront of my mind was Cassandra Clare's appallingly-written but strangely addictive Mortal Instruments series, especially the most recent instalment, City of Lost Souls. There's been a lot of debate about Clare's depiction of an attempted rape in this volume, so I'm not going to go into detail about that here - instead, I'll link to Clare's own defence of the scene and a rebuttal that I largely agree with (although I'm strongly against the idea that novels should ever come with 'trigger warnings'). In short, the major problem with the scene (and with the earlier death of a child in City of Glass) is that Clare completely fails to deal with the aftermath, so it is like the event never happened. Indeed, she admits in both her defence of City of Lost Souls and a post on City of Glass that the two scenes are only included to show how 'evil' the villain is, despite the fact that said villain's other evil acts are already numerous enough. This indicates that the scenes were absolutely used for shock value, rather than for any other purpose.

While it's obvious that Clare should not have included these two incidents in her novels if she did not have the time, space or skill to deal with them appropriately, it's not obvious to me that her failure as a writer is any worse here than it is throughout the Mortal Instruments series (I haven't yet read book four, City of Fallen Angels, but I'm going to assume that it isn't a beacon of brilliance either). This feeds partly into the debate about 'trigger warnings', which I don't want to go into in detail, but seems to me to turn around the question of why certain isolated incidents are seen as worthy of trigger warnings when many other things presumably are not. The problem with City of Lost Souls isn't only that it includes a horribly-handled depiction of a rape attempt, but its depiction of women, gender roles, and relationships in general. I assume no-one feels we should warn for 'female character depicted as passive and idiotic' but why can't casual sexism, connected to a wider rape culture, be considered as problematic? Clary, the main female character in the Mortal Instruments series, is just awful: attracted to a deeply unpleasant boy, Jace, who is supposed to be empathetic but comes off as callous and selfish, she never really does anything throughout the series that isn't connected to her 'love' for Jace. A love triangle plotline in the first two books doesn't help matters. Clary is supposed to be torn between her quiet, sweet best friend Simon and Jace, but there's obviously no competition. This doesn't stop Jace behaving incredibly badly - under the impression that he is her brother (can't be bothered to explain) he acts as if he has the right to protect Clary, even if that means denying her agency in both the fight against the demons that's the central conflict in these novels and her own love life. (Shades of Edward Cullen...) Annoyingly, Jace is always right, as Clary makes a series of rash and foolish decisions when left to her own devices.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that child murder and rape in City of Glass and City of Lost Souls are not isolated 'bad' scenes, but are very much part of the way the novels are written as a whole, and the numerous problems they present. The solution wouldn't be simply to cut those scenes but to rethink the entire series, which would probably lead to its demise. It's a matter of bad writing, not just of bad thinking, and that's why, despite what Clare says, it is legitimate to ask 'How is Clary going to change as a result of this incident?', because, unlike real life, there ought to be a very good reason for including such a scene in a novel.

Friday, 21 February 2014

'We are meant to be hungry'

Big Brother has received a lot of attention in the press for one of the issues it deals with; the problem of obesity and why overweight people find it so difficult to lose weight. In the novel, the question is made additionally challenging because Edison, the 'big brother' of the narrator, Pandora, is so obviously addicted to eating, using food to avoid dependence on drink and drugs. Pandora, worrying about her brother's health, is caught in a quandary: how far can she and should she intervene in Edison's life, and is this the only way to save him? To make the obvious point that this novel is about a lot more than BMI is not to say that it isn't interesting and provocative on this issue - it's written by Lionel Shriver, after all, so it could hardly not be. One of the most thought-provoking passages, for me, was when Pandora muses on the fact that when she walks down the street, the first thing she clocks about someone is their gender, then their weight, then their race. This intrigued me, so I tried the experiment myself: but my results weren't the same. I found that, while the first thing I notice about a person is gender, age probably comes next, closely followed by race: I don't think I tend to think about people's weights unless they are incredibly fat or worryingly skinny. I'm not suggesting that Pandora's observation is wrong: I think it demonstrates something truthful about how we pick up on the criteria that are most important to us. I spend a lot of time thinking about age (partly because of my PhD research on concepts of childhood and youth) and so that's what I tend to clock. Conversely, weight isn't something that I've ever worried about.

This might make me an unsympathetic reader for this book, which deals so closely with the constant insecurities that its characters feel about their bodies. But I found that there was a lot here that wasn't related to fatness or thinness as well. As with Liz Moore's Heft, weight works as a simple but effective metaphor for emotional baggage. Edison boasts that he's sold all his possessions and is hence free of worldly ties, but Pandora eventually discovers that the reason he had to sell everything was to fund his eating habits. 'I ate my piano,' he admits, mourning the fact he had to sell his most prized possession and went through the proceeds so fast. There's also a lot about siblinghood, with the dynamic between Pandora, Edison, and Pandora's husband, Fletcher, mirroring the relationship between the three siblings in Shriver's earlier novel A Perfectly Good Family. I don't think Pandora's conflict between the two men is drawn as well as the quandary in A Perfectly Good Family, however; Edison is, amazingly, the more likeable of the two, despite being completely selfish, while it's inexplicable why she ever married Fletcher at all. The extreme flaws of both Edison and Fletcher do mar the novel's structure to some extent, but, as Fletcher is portrayed as a thin health nut, perhaps that is the point, although it is unlike Shriver to be so schematic.

The strongest aspect of this imperfect novel has nothing to do with size. It bravely faces up to a question that Shriver has been toying with throughout her career: what do you do if you try your best at something and don't succeed? And what happens if you do get just what you want? She first posed this question in Checker and the Derailleurs, where, as I wrote in my review of the book, she cops out at the last moment. Checker loves making music for the sheer joy of it, and doesn't want to submit his art to outside judgement because he knows it would rob the pleasure from it, whether his work was seen as good or bad. Ultimately, however, a friend passes on a tape to a record company without his knowledge, so he gets the reward without the risk; and in the depiction of his subsequent success, there's no dark note. Her later novel, Double Fault, tells a much bleaker tale. Willy has devoted herself to tennis throughout her life, but has started to realise that her early success has turned to ashes. Forced to attend sessions with a sports psychologist, the psychologist tries to get Willy to imagine what she is without tennis. 'I am tennis,' Willy insists, but when the psychologist echoes her own words back to her, she has to admit that they sound stupid. However, the novel doesn't tell us whether Willy is able to come to terms with being a 'failure.'

 In Big Brother, as in Checker, the subject is once again success; and Shriver provides one answer to Willy's impasse. Pandora, a successful businesswoman, comes to realise that, whether the goal is losing weight or becoming famous, even achieving it never brings the satisfaction that you expect. 'However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse. So here is the thought: we are meant to be hungry.' This, of course, is no real solution at all, because either Edison succeeds with his weight-loss goals, but has nothing else to aim for, or fails and probably dies. As Pandora herself thinks after losing some weight: 'Did anything at all in life deliver a proper payoff?' But it is another answer to set alongside Checker's easy fame or Willy's utter defeat, and certainly something to consider carefully. This sort of thing is why I enjoy Shriver's novels so much, despite the fact that every single one is flawed, and sometimes very flawed; she always provides food for thought.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Monday Musings: Write what you know?

I've just finished Amy Tan's latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, and I didn't like it very much. A more thorough explanation can be found in my Amazon review, but one sticking-point for me with Amy Tan has always been: she writes the same story every time. Superficially, this represents a departure from her normal structure; set in Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century and dealing with the ritualised world of the courtesan house, it's more Memoirs of a Geisha than The Bonesetter's Daughter. However, as the story unfolds, it's clear that Tan's usual themes are all present and correct: the rift between a mother and daughter and the daughter's eventual appreciation of the richness of her mother's life experience (this time, multiplied over three generations for added angst!); the clash between traditional Chinese values and modern Western culture; the horrible treatment of women historically in China. While this set of themes would make one good book, I don't think that it makes more than one. The problem: Tan always writes what she knows. I know little about Tan's life, so I'm not going to make the lazy assumption that this story is a completely autobiographical one, but it doesn't really matter if it is. Because she never moves from this basic plot-line, her writing has little room to develop and grow, or to surprise the reader.

'I have never subscribed to the notion of "writing what you know", at least not for myself,' Ann Patchett writes in 'The Getaway Car', one of the essays in This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage. 'I don't know  enough interesting things. I began to see research as both a means of writing more interesting novels and a way to improve my own education.' As I wrote in my review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, I'm certainly not saying that writers should never write about what they know. I think the important thing to keep in mind is that handling material you know from personal experience should be handled as delicately and with as much care as you would handle research notes. We've all read an over-researched novel, with irrelevant info-dumps and characters' decisions distorted so the author could cram in more vital information (The Valley of Amazement does a bit of this as well) and I think writers run similar risks when they try to make their personal experience fit a character that isn't themselves. Losing important emotional distance, it becomes more difficult to judge what really works and what doesn't. I also think a wonderful advantage of consciously doing research for a novel is that you can deliberately choose to do most of your research after the skeleton of the first draft is in place, ensuring that the key decisions aren't affected by what you find out. This is impossible for somebody working from personal experience, who has to be that much stricter with themselves.

The fact that Tan is clearly working from a particular script isn't necessarily a problem - it's clear in the work of most writers that certain concerns and worries pop up again and again, as I discuss in my review of Lionel Shriver's Big Brother on Friday. The problem is that these themes are never reworked; she is saying the same thing every time, and less well, I think, in The Valley of Amazement than in some of her earlier work. As Patchett indicates, writers who realise what they don't know, and what they are willing to risk, are often the most adventurous; and while you can't guarantee that your life will encompass an inspiring range of experience, you can always ask a research question.

Friday, 14 February 2014

' "Seventeen"... beat any ego out of me'

I feel a little spoilt with my reading recently. Alongside reading the brilliant & Sons by David Gilbert, I was devouring this fantastic collection of essays by Ann Patchett, which I enjoyed even more than I enjoyed her latest and best novel, State of Wonder. I knew from reading her memoir, Truth and Beauty, that Patchett is at least as adept a writer of non-fiction as of fiction, and in one of the earlier essays in this volume ('The Getaway Car'), we find out why. Patchett worked as a freelance writer for magazines like Seventeen for years before her career as a novelist took off, where she was subject to fierce, if judicious editing, and she learnt to deliver the goods; to say what is necessary, rather than what sounds nice, and to be one's own most ruthless critic. Patchett also writes on her beginnings as a novelist; the importance of  starting with short stories (although she rightly admits in a later essay the ridiculousness of assuming that a good novelist can write good short stories and vice versa, as if a sprinter could run a marathon); the importance of planning; the importance of suspending those carefully-developed critical faculties when you are actually writing. It was the parts of Truth and Beauty that dealt with Ann and Lucy's writing careers that I enjoyed most, and this is of course because I am interested in writing myself. It's difficult to judge what someone who is not interested in Patchett's subject-matter would make of this collection, but then it's a pretty safe bet that her readers will be interested in novels.

Her two essays on her old dog, Rose, may be less crowd-pleasing. I thought I was devoted to the dogs I've lived with throughout my life, but that was before I read Patchett's description of life with her dog. To be honest, I loved it, even though I don't think that all relationships with dogs can or should be like it. Patchett's humorous account of trying to explain their bond to the well-meaning but uninitiated in 'This Dog's Life' was a stand-out for me. 'All I had ever wanted was a dog,' she explains. 'Other girls grew up dreaming of houses and children, true love and financial security; I envisioned shepherds and terriers, fields of happy, bounding mutts.' This proves to be confusing when Patchett starts to take Rose everywhere with her. '"Maybe you don't even realise it," strangers said, friends said, my family said. "Clearly, you want a baby."' As Patchett shrewdly observes, 'Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people's concerned analysis. No-one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says, "Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there's a guy who wants to have a son."'

Perhaps the greatest essays in this volume, though, were those that worked not because I loved dogs and books as much as Patchett does - although this isn't the only reason that they worked - but the ones that convey Patchett's sheer humanity as a writer. Her essay on caring for her ageing grandmother, 'Love Sustained', touched upon uncannily similar themes to Lionel Shriver's Big Brother, which I have just finished reading and will review next week; how much do we owe to our relatives and how far can we be expected to go for them? Unlike Shriver, whose novel is a lament for what she could and perhaps should have done for her brother, Patchett put herself forward for the task and the joy of providing the support her grandmother needed, even though she initially envisaged herself as 'one of those people' who 'had planned to live far away from my family and miss them terribly.' She plays down her own sacrifice, but it is difficult not to admire it, even as we see what she gained from having the time to spend together. The titular essay, 'This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage', navigates the more fraught terrain of romantic relationships, as Patchett recalls how she and her husband met and decided to marry; while the most brilliant and offbeat offering, 'The Wall', describes how she put herself through the recruitment process for the Police Academy in Los Angeles to try to understand something of what his life as a police captain had been. These essays reminded me of why I like Patchett's novels so much; and also that the truth is sometimes better than fiction.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Monday Musings: Death of the author/The author rises again

JK Rowling’s recent statement that she should never have written Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger as a couple has sparked dramatic reactions from Harry Potter fans on Twitter. Personally, it’s taken me right back to my mid-teenage years, when I spent many happy hours posting on Harry Potter forums and occasionally discussing my preferred relationships for the characters, although I was never as into ‘shipping’ as many fans were. At any rate, I never liked any of the relationships in the actual books, but neither was I a fan of popular ships such as Harry/Hermione (Harry/Luna and Ginny/Neville were more my cup of tea) so there wasn’t so much for me to get invested in. Nevertheless, I’ve been watching the fallout with some glee.

Ron/Hermione fans have been quick to turn to ‘death of the author’ as a defence, and of course they’re right. Rowling has finished the Harry Potter series, and Ron and Hermione unequivocally appear as a couple in the books themselves, turning up in the infamous epilogue with two children. In general, ‘death of the author’ is a concept that I have a lot of sympathy with. Once the text leaves a writer’s hands, he or she is just another reader – and the problem with an author’s interpretation of the text is that it often ignores all the unconscious things that are written into it. Especially with genre fiction – to generalise horribly, it tends to be less precisely planned and edited, perhaps because of the tight timescale that genre authors have to stick to - the things that get into a novel without the author’s explicit ‘consent’ are often the most interesting. As I wrote last week, discussing Holby City, it’s the gaps and fudges in a text where the real work gets done, and an author can’t plaster over those by issuing her opinion years after the work is published.

And yet. I think the reason I feel quite so gleeful is that there was always an attitude among some Harry Potter fans, including some Ron/Hermione shippers (not all by any means), that their preferred relationships were better because they were gloriously right – proved right not only by the books themselves, but by Rowling’s own statements. These fans were happy to point to interviews as further proof of their rightness, and to shoot down ships such as Neville/Luna because Rowling stated in interview that these two never got together. So it is somewhat ironic to see them grabbing at ‘death of the author’ as a defence now. What I take from Rowling’s statement is not that Ron/Hermione shippers have somehow been ‘proved wrong’, but that the author herself has now suggested an interesting avenue through which to explore the texts, if fans so choose. Personally, I have no investment in Harry and Hermione (or Hermione and whoever) as a couple, but I do think it’s interesting to read texts against the grain, to spot the cracks and the gaps, and for this, it helps to know if the author had conflicting intentions when she was writing, even if you don’t agree with her eventual conclusions. In these awkward links, the author ‘rises again’, because her intentions once again become a guide to the text, although not perhaps in the way that she would have wished. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Ampersand & Sons

No beating around the bush: this is simply one of the best novels I have read in the past few years. David Gilbert draws upon the trend for metafiction (as exemplified in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth and Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending) and the longer tradition of 'great American novel' family sagas (think Jonathan Franzen's Freedom or Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex) to create something that is better than both. AN Dyer is a famous American novelist, nearing the end of his career and no longer writing anything new. His two estranged sons, Richard and Jamie, are also marooned; having striven to see who could crash and burn most spectacularly in their twenties, Richard, a recovered drug addict, is now pitching screenplays, while Jamie, with hundreds of hours of unused radical documentary footage behind him, is still not sure what he wants to film. Ironically, it's seventeen-year-old Andy, Dyer's third son and the result of an affair late in life, who seems to have his goals most sorted: he wants to be closer to his dad and to get laid, not necessarily in that order. As Dyer and his sons gather at the funeral of Dyer's oldest school friend, Charlie Topping, Charlie's son, Philip, an aspiring novelist himself, relates their inner narratives as the next few weeks unfold towards tragedy.

Philip's narration is obviously unreliable, as he pretends that he has access to everything that the Dyers think and feel, and to encounters that he hasn't witnessed; indeed, he scarcely features in the story as a character at all. However, describing him as an 'unreliable narrator' is to say too little. Gilbert's triumph is to rethink the conceit of the narrator who observes but does not really participate (for example, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) and combine it with the unreliability of a narrator recalling his own life, to create something strange and brilliant. Philip is essentially writing a novel about the Dyers, but a novel that he pops in and out of, and it's always a jolt when the narrative suddenly becomes first-person again. In fact, near the end of the novel, Philip seems to become aware of the inconvenience of his presence: 'Where am I? Do you even care? Or am I blocking your view?' 

Philip's style is brilliant, but idiosyncratic; Gilbert tries out kooky metaphor after kooky metaphor, writing in the opening pages, 'Just a week earlier, the temperature sulked in the teens, the windchill dragging the brat into newborn territory. Windows rattled in their sashes, and the sky resembled a headfirst plunge onto cement.' Strictly, I don't think any of this quite works - shouldn't the 'brat' be falling backwards into the single digits, rather than being dragged forward? -  and the cement metaphor is a little strained. But it is this willingness to experiment that also marks the most inspired bits of Gilbert's writing; just a page later, Dyer reflects on the death of his friend. 'Andrew remembered from his more macabre youth the keratin that keeps growing after death, which raised his eyes to that weedy Topping hair and how in the coffin Charlie would miss his monthly trim and turn bohemian, like Beethoven conducting his own decay.' I think the reason Gilbert's experimentation works so well is because it fits with Philip's character; although he has always wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, he never received the appreciation from Dyer that he craved, and I can imagine him trying too hard to be original. This is an incredibly difficult conceit to pull off - as I wrote in my review of Sweet Tooth, it's so easy for it to seem like a lazy way for the author to make excuses for poor writing. But because Philip dances in and out of the narrative, speaking with his own voice as well as summoning the voices of others, somehow Gilbert pulls it off.

The fact that this is an invented narrative about a novelist, of course, adds another layer of complexity. By the end of & Sons, the reader feels completely familiar with the AN Dyer canon, from his angry debut Ampersand, set in a famous US prep school, to later works like Dream Snap. (And in my case, frustrated that I couldn't go out and buy a copy of Ampersand, which sounded amazing. This desire to somehow reach into the novel and grab a copy is one of the reasons & Sons feels so immediate.) Getting a strong sense of Dyer as a novelist is essential, because, despite the fact that Philip is the narrator, I often felt like & Sons was another addition to Dyer's body of work. This impression is strengthened by Dyer's main concern throughout these few weeks. Having been asked to sell his personal papers, he realises that he no longer possesses a draft of Ampersand. He decides, instead, to forge one, typing out his precocious debut and editing the voice of his younger self. Somehow, the clattering of Dyer's typewriter echoes though the pages of this novel that is not only about self-narratives but also about the thrill of writing itself. The best way I can sum up how I felt about & Sons is like this: it was as if the ink was still fresh on its pages, as if each section had been posted under the door of Dyer's study and directly to the reader. As I say: the best novel I've read in a long time.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Monday Musings: Holby City

Eleanor Catton confessed to 'being strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama' in a recent-ish interview with the Guardian, citing The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad as some of her favourite series. This may be a controversial statement, but I would go a step further; I think there are things that novelists can learn from not only good, intelligent TV series like the ones Catton mentions, but from decidedly less thoughtful ones as well. My current guilty pleasure is Holby City. This has only partly to do with my slight obsession with medical drama (I hate Casualty); the other part of the programme that attracts me is the inner workings of the hospital dynamic and the way that characters are used, both to facilitate plot lines and to be affected by incidents that make them change. This is never done well, and the scripting is both heavy-handed and predictable. My favourite tropes, which turn up in virtually every episode, are Comedy Old Patient of the Day! (™), The Patient Who Starts Off as A Nuisance But Has Something Important to Teach Us All (™) and, most importantly for Holby's emotional resonance, The Patient Who Has The Same Problems As One Of Their Doctors (™). (Extra points when all these characters are combined into one.) Occasionally, Holby goes a bit wild and uses flashbacks to demonstrate the incredible parallels between character arcs - this usually happens when an important character is leaving - but, generally, we have to rely on cheesy background music to let us know what's important.

And yet, I love Holby City. I think what I like most about it is the sense of improvisation. Juggling an ever-shifting cast and dealing with characters that leave too abruptly and characters that stay too long, the numerous writers of the series have to think on their feet. Unlike drama series like Downton Abbey that feel confined by the constraints of each season (although Downton engages in much randomer plot twists than Holby would ever consider), Holby has to keep plodding on every week, fifty-two weeks of the year, and I think this is where it becomes better than it really ought to be. It's in the holes between obvious character arcs and predictable plot lines that the most interesting things happen. Holby is also able to make fun of itself, in a particularly endearing way, although it's difficult to give an example if you don't watch the show regularly. 

Most importantly, the writers understand how to use stock characters. The CEO of Holby is a key role in this respect. Back in the day, Anton Meyer ruled the roost, and it's no coincidence that I stopped watching Holby as a teenager after he left. Holby suffered under numerous inappropriate CEOs in the interim before finally striking gold with Henrik Hanssen, who was basically Meyer reincarnated in Swedish form. Hanssen has now sadly left, and the jury is still out on his replacement. What does the good CEO of Holby need? (Note: this is entirely a consideration of producing good drama, not good NHS care.) Essentially, they act as a moral centre for the hospital, but they usually have an uncomfortable past. They're brusque and cold and say as little as possible, but have endearing quirks. If their emotions are ever engaged, nobody must ever know. They're also willing to take risks for the sake of their patients. As I think the writers realised when they created Hanssen, the programme needs a CEO like this at its centre, or else it tends to collapse in on itself. But as we can see from the differences between the characters of Meyer and Hanssen, there's space to play with the trope, to become creative; perhaps more space precisely because of the relentless pressure to carry on creating.

The only other medical drama I currently watch, besides Holby, is House. (If Greg House could manage his morality a little better, he would be an excellent CEO at Holby.) House is clearly a better programme than Holby in every way. It is better-scripted, better-constructed, less predictable, and less melodramatic. And yet, I have to confess, I enjoy Holby more. Why? I think I like the way it tells a continuing story; that there are arcs within episodes but they aren't constrained within a particular episode or a particular season; that, although it is far more predictable in the short term, it is somehow less predictable in the long term. (I never know what's going to happen in House. I have always known how House is going to end up.) Here is where I think writers can learn. I don't think we can learn from shows like Holby because they're brilliant shows. I think we can learn from the glimpse they give us of the nuts and bolts of the imagination; the quick plot contrivance; the hasty tying-up of threads; the sudden invention of a new obstacle. As Philip Pullman says about Neighbours: 'There is no distracting realism, the acting is terrible, and the characterisation is negligible, so all you are left with is the story.'

Saturday, 1 February 2014

February schedule

Friday February 7th: & Sons by David Gilbert

Friday February 14th: Valentine's Day Special: This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

Friday February 21st: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Friday February 28th: Mr B's Reading Year, #3