Monday, 24 October 2011

The debate on readability versus literary merit etc and ad infinitum

I wasn't impressed by the Booker Prize shortlist this year, but the debate it has re-ignited seems to me to be phrased in entirely the wrong terms, as exemplified by two recent articles on the Guardian's Comment is Free; the first by Jeanette Winterson, stating that:

'Novels that last are language-based novels - the language is not simply a means of telling a story, it is the whole creation of the story. If the language has no power - forget it.'

Then Graham Joyce weighed in with a refutation of Winterson's argument:

'She wants books that are more "daunting". That would be the ones that you... just... don't really want to finish, would it?... I'd defend the right of any novelist to experiment with form and language, but if people don't take to it, don't react by making out that they are thick.'

I read both articles, and I couldn't have disagreed more with both of them, despite the fact that they purported to be addressing two sides of a debate - a sign, in my opinion, that it's time for a rethink.

Plot and narrative drive has been opposed to language here, as if these were the only two elements that can make novels good. To be honest, I'm not much interested in either. What do I look for in a novel? Characterisation, first and foremost. I read novels to be able to enter somebody else's world, to understand their dreams, fears and prejudices, and if the writer can't put their people down on the page, then the book is often a non-starter for me. I also look for ideas, which are never issues. Lionel Shriver and Kazuo Ishiguro are two fantastic examples of modern-day novelists who use their novels to ask questions and pose dilemmas without ever descending into the issue-based territory
of Jodi Picoult and her ilk. And - despite declaring confidently recently that I don't care one bit about plots in novels - I've realised that I do look for structure. To return to Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go is not a plot-driven novel, but the ending is a triumph of structure, and masterly in the way he weaves in various elements that he's deployed throughout the novel to achieve the maximum emotional effect for the reader. So while plot is all about structure, structure is not all about plot.

Characterisation, plot and ideas for me then, rather than the typical trio of plot, character and language. How does this help us crack the deadlocked readability debate? Well, for starters, we need to place novels on a continuum, rather than postulating a vast divide between commercial and literary fiction, into which authors occasionally go plummeting when nobody can decide where they belong. A novel takes off, for me, if it deploys the language it requires to fully convey the structure and characterisation necessary to make its world work, and to suggest the ideas that are important for the reader to understand and engage with the story it's trying to tell.

This means we might have to cope with something that, at first glance, seems a rather uncomfortable truth: a genre author writing on top form might make as a big a success of the novel he or she is trying to write than an author who is attempting literary fiction. The example I'm going to use is Marian Keyes's The Other Side of the Story, which is one of the best chick-lit novels I've ever read. It works because Keyes does what she was aiming to do; she gives
us three very distinctive narrators, establishes a genuinely funny and touching narrative voice, and raises questions about infidelity. This is not to say this puts Keyes on a par with good literary authors, because it doesn't - but it makes her novel a good novel, and if we can't accept that, we are never going to bridge the divide. Whereas an author who tries and fails to write literary fiction is just that; a failure. There is nothing inherently more noble in writing a bad literary novel than a good chick-lit (which is very hard to write on its own terms, I've tried and I can't do it).

But having said that: I do think the Booker this year was 'dumbing down', and there has to be a sense in which I can explain why it was dumbing down. The Booker exists to judge literary novels, and what literary novels are trying to do is more than what genre novels are, for the most part. Marian Keyes hits the big three, characterisation, ideas and structure, and so does Kazuo Ishiguro, but with more depth in every way; more realistic, interesting, complex characters, far more difficult questions, and with a command of structure that is simply stunning. It doesn't matter when we're judging Marian Keyes, though, because she isn't trying to write Never Let Me Go, or The Remains of the Day, or An Artist of the Floating World. The key thing to remember, I think, is that we ought to judge a book on what it is trying to be, not on what it isn't.

The problem with the novels on the Booker shortlist this year, however, is that, for the most part, they weren't doing enough for what they claimed to be. Jamrach's Menagerie is a case in point; the characters were functional enough to allow the plot to go forward, but they never came alive, and the book wasn't asking any questions, or raising any ideas. Birch is certainly a talented writer, but for me - and this is where I strongly dissent from Winterson's view - that really isn't
enough. I think that the language should serve the structure and the characters, not the other way round. Language is the medium; it isn't the point. And to write a good literary novel, you have to do more than to write a good genre novel... and as a reader, you perhaps have to give more, although readability is still an open question for me. I see no reason why any good novel shouldn't be readable, although it takes longer with some than others to get used to the voice in which it must be told to serve the story. Umberto Eco puts it beautifully in the foreword to The Name of the Rose when he asks his readers to slow down, to enter the rhythms of medieval life; some books are not worth such a taxing mental adjustment, but many are.

And so ends my rant... please comment, would love to hear what others think about this!

Friday, 14 October 2011

The skull beneath the skin

Giorgio, a dying, isolated Italian artist; a woman, Suze, grieving the loss of her twin brother, Danny; a teenaged girl, Annette, gradually losing her sight; an English artist called Peter trapped in the Cumbrian landscape he has spent a lifetime painting. Sarah Hall's fourth novel could almost be read as four thematically-linked stories, split into segments, rather than as a single entity, and perhaps is better approached that way. Although the publisher's blurb tries to emphasise the concrete links between the narratives - Suze is the daughter of Peter who once wrote letters to Giorgio who once taught Annette - they're so disparate in time, place and style (Suze, for example, narrates in second person, a difficult trick that Hall manages masterfully) that it seems better to look for repeated ideas and motifs rather than trying to force them into an artificial whole.

And there's plenty to look for here. Hall's incredibly accomplished prose creates four very distinctive voices, which nevertheless echo each other in increasingly interesting ways. The title, 'How to paint a dead man', is fully illuminated only at the very end of the novel, with a long quotation from an early modern artist's handbook on the exact way to convey a corpse's skin colour when painting on panels or walls. This recalls the Renaissance attention to anatomical detail and Vesalius's `Fabric of the Human Body,' and is reflected throughout the novel in the ways the various characters mentally dissect their own living bodies. His foot trapped between two rocks on the moor, Peter gruesomely imagines the possible injury; 'Is the foot dangling loose on just a thread or two of skin... the tendon severed and recoiling up the back of the leg' whereas Suze considers the destruction of Danny's body in the lorry accident that killed him. Annette, having gone blind as a child, has no idea what she now looks like, and her mother refuses even to describe the colour of her hair to her - 'It is a vanity to ask such things... and what does it matter if she can't see it?' However, worried about her daughter's developing good looks, Annette's mother also tells her that any gropes or kisses will leave actual physical marks on her body - black blotches that will convey to everyone that she's been up to no good.

Bodily imagery doesn't only keep the novel continuously connected to the physical world, but is a central element in its theme. The sense of the construction of one's actions in muscle and bone is a reminder that we are all just flesh that will one day rot, but an inactive body is a living death. Suze's friend Maggie has been in a coma for years, and when Suze goes to visit her in the hospital she notices that although Maggie is her age, thirty-five, 'she looked like a girl, the muscles of her face blissful and unused.' However, this is only an imitation of life; `The nurse once told you her muscles are so wasted that if she woke she would not be able to use them. Imagine a moth carrying a tractor on its back, she had said to you.' Suze is left feeling half-dead herself after the death of Danny, her `mirror image', but finds a way to reclaim a semblance of life by embarking on an affair, discovering that sex has the power to reconnect her with her own body again. Her descriptions of her encounters with her lover are almost clinical in their attention to detail; 'In these moments you forget about everything else. You are not bereaved... When you are with him you are here, inside yourself, behind the calcium plates in your chest and pelvis, which rise and move against him.'

Therefore, sex and death are continously intertwined; the body may contain 'the skull beneath the skin', but it also contains the potential for new life, as Suze discovers when she becomes pregnant. Another elaboration on this theme concerns the place of art in life - all four of the main characters are artists to one degree or another. Annette's partial blindness lends a certain quality to her art, questioning the role of straightforward sensory experience, whereas Peter never really connects to the landscapes he paints until he spends a night trapped in the rocks as it starts to rain. 'There is an aspirin flavour to the air, an impending fizz... Peter looks up. There is just blackness and water... He can smell minerals being released from the stones all around, the perfume of the mountain.'

Outside thematic analysis, this novel was also, on the whole, compelling, although I found the 'English' half' - the voices and stories of Peter and Suze - far more vivid than the Italian section. Suze in particular becomes the driving force of the book. The slightly surreal atmosphere of Annette's childlike narrative prevented it from fully coming to life for me, although its ending was genuinely horrifying, and I found Giorgio's section difficult to get through at all, as it lacked the narrative drive of the other three and he never really seemed to come to life as a character, rather than as a bunch of ideas. However, I would still highly recommend this novel; having read Hall's three previous novels, I was eager to give this one a try, and it didn't disappoint. Although a slow read at times, it was consistently challenging and thought-provoking, and, I suspect, will reveal depths on a re-read that entirely passed me by the first time.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

What is a 'perfect book'? And does it matter?

First things first. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I felt genuinely tense when the characters’ fates appeared to be hanging in the balance, gripped by the gentle, but well-structured, plot, actually interested (all too rare) when Secrets From the Past were revealed, and sorry when I’d finished it. So why wasn’t it a ‘perfect read’? Why – if I was reviewing it on Amazon – would I give it four stars instead of five? At first, I thought I was just being biased. The Help seemed to lack some notion of ‘literary quality’ that I couldn’t clearly define, and perhaps only existed in my head because of the horrendously trashy cover it’s been lumbered with. But after much thought, I decided that there was something missing here – much as it seems unfair to focus on that after such a brilliant read.

The Help is set in Mississipippi in the 1960s, and is narrated by three women, the older Aibileen and Minny, who are black maidservants, and Miss Skeeter, a younger white woman who is newly home from college and concerned about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. Miss Skeeter, who is interested in pursuing a career in journalism, seizes upon the idea of interviewing black maids about their experiences of working for their white employers, and this secret project forms the major plot-strand of the book, alongside the gradual unraveling of each character’s life and secrets. Kathryn Stockett notes at the back of the book that this novel was partly based on her own experiences of the maid her family had when she was growing up, and how she wishes she had been able to talk to her more frankly before she died. (Also, strangely, she notes that ‘I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississipippi, especially in the 1960s.’ I certainly don’t presume to judge whether she gets it right, although Minny’s and Aibileen’s voices feel authentic – but as a writer, if I wasn’t sure that I could get to some kind of knowledge of ‘what it really felt like’ to be in a situation like this one that is quite alien to my own experience, I wouldn’t write a book about it at all. And I don’t think that what she’s trying to do is impossible.)

So, given that character, plot and style were solid, what was missing for me? I toyed with the idea at first that the supporting cast weren’t as developed at they could be. Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter do occupy stock roles initially – the accepting old woman, the rebellious younger woman, the idealistic educated woman – but they move beyond these to become fully rounded characters, particularly Aibileen, who felt exceptionally vivid. (The death of her grown son, Treelore, is described briefly in a few paragraphs at the beginning of the novel and rarely mentioned thereafter, but his loss somehow permeates her narrative, and the reader is not allowed to forget it.) In contrast, Hilly, the major antagonist of the novel, was rather flat, with no real motivation given for her exceptional hatred and fear. However, when I wanted to criticise Stockett for her portrayal of Hilly, my mind kept being drawn back to her beautifully-nuanced depiction of Minny’s employer, Miss Celia. My feelings towards the rather pathetic and yet curiously resilent Miss Celia swung every which way throughout the course of the novel, from disgust and frustration at her inability to learn to cook or do the slightest thing for herself, to pity as the reasons behind her behaviour were revealed, to admiration as she showed unexpected strength, to sheer annoyance at her ignorance and lack of tact at a formal party, to a final, qualified liking for her, despite her glaring flaws. With depth such as this, it surely wasn’t right to criticise The Help on grounds of poor characterisation.

The next thing I considered was that the book might be too predictable; while the Secrets from the Past were not entirely guessable, neither were they particularly shocking, and the plotline unfolded without any unexpected turns. But this didn’t seem fair either; I’ve never put much weight on plot as a means of judging the worth of a book, and have often felt frustrated when others criticise novels for having simple plots or lacking a twist at the end, when to my mind the way the writer gets there, not the destination, is the most important thing. Perhaps it was the writing, then? There seemed to be some mileage there; occasionally, brands were name-checked and historical events referred to in a rather obvious ‘I’ve done my research’ way, and although the atmosphere of the 1960s was on the whole conveyed with great subtlety, this did jar somewhat. But ultimately, I decided that wasn’t important enough, nor did it occur frequently enough, to mar the book for me.

The conclusion I came to in the end is that the problem for me is a problem that the book shares with very distinguished company; To Kill a Mockingbird is the obvious example. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t quite sure what The Help was supposed to be about, or it was about something that was too easy. It’s easy enough for the vast majority of us today to deplore the segregation and discrimination that took place in the Deep South in the 1960s, so is this really something that needs to be explored in depth? To be fair, I think to an extent it still does, and here’s where The Help actually scores a big advantage over To Kill a Mockingbird; we get to hear the voices of the black maids themselves, their daily experiences of being belittled, marginalised and ignored. The situation they were in has passed away and few would argue that it should return, but their experiences are relevant to a much wider range of experiences of being without power (I was reminded of the position of Victorian servants a number of times). It made me think how I might react were I in their shoes; whether I'd be able to bow my head and take it, like Aibileen, or whether I would find myself, like Minny, having to hit out. And importantly, Stockett makes the white employers, especially Miss Celia, but to an extent Aibileen’s employer, Miss Leefolt, as well, human enough that we can also worry what we might be like were we in their position; whether we might be patronising, thoughtless or cruel as well. The issue hasn’t gone away, even though the context has changed.

But still, it’s emotionally almost too easy to take a subject like this and make it moving, and I suppose this is where my unease with the novel stems from. Ironically, it isn’t even as moving as it might be. Although I cared about Aibileen, Minny and Miss Skeeter, I didn’t feel passionately involved in the book, except at moments of very high tension; the Secrets from the Past didn’t hurt as much as perhaps they should have done, nor were partings and losses as painful as they might have been. And alongside the subject matter being something on which we can all nod our heads and agree… I think this is where the book loses ground for me, and where I can say that I’m glad it didn’t make the Orange shortlist in 2010, although it was rightfully longlisted. Very much recommended as a great read though. It does deserve those four stars.