The Field of Excellence

I am late with the latest autogenerated Booker controversy. You may remember there was a lot of fuss and divers alarums from broadsheet and online critics last year when the Booker judges explicitly promoted books that people might enjoy reading. This year there should be no such problems. The main judge is Peter Stothard, he edits the TLS, he has shortlisted numerous worthy titles including some from independent publishers. He even has a knighthood. What could go wrong?

And then Sir Peter had to attack the book bloggers. Online criticism, he says, is to ‘the detriment of literature’:

It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off. There are some important issues here.

Considering the mediocre state of broadsheet literary criticism, this is hard to take. Prolific book blogger John Self hit back:

I wonder, then, if Stothard can have read This Space by Steve Mitchelmore (Britain’s first book blogger), or Mark Thwaite’s ReadySteadyBook (which carried the best critical response to Enrique Vila-Matas’s novel Dublinesque that I saw, online or off), or Max Cairnduff’s Pechorin’s Journal, or Kevin from Canada, or dozens of others that I visit regularly. Here are skilled reviewers offering thoughtful, informed criticism of a wider range of books than any traditional literary publication. What blogs can give readers is a sense of trust that, in professional circles, only the biggest lit-crit names – such as James Wood or Michiko Kakutani – can attain: a ‘criticism with personality’. They are expressing opinions about books in particular, and literature in general, based on a particular life of reading, written in a critical but non-technical language. What they can also give, crucially, is attention to books other than the newly published.

Self is right in general – online reviewing is a compliment to literature, not a threat. But the examples he cites don’t justify the great claims made for the form. Most of Self’s favourite bloggers have a very narrow range of focus, discuss exclusively a handful of obscure writers and offer a limited and censorious vision of literature and reading.

Perhaps Stothard is closer to the online attitude that he realises. Cut the first two lines, and you could be reading RSB or This Space:

The novel is more than a story. Storytelling is a great art and not to be knocked. Yet, if the English novel does nothing to renew the English language, then it really doesn’t do anything. The great works of art have to renew the language in which they’re written. They have to offer a degree of resistance.

Norman Geras pretty much ends this argument for me.

Storytelling a great art, but unless the novel does something to renew the English language, unless it offers ‘a degree of resistance’, it does nothing. Oh, please! What about the aforesaid art of storytelling? What if a given novel merely tells a good story well and without offering resistance? So, then, it may not be at the cutting edge or a ‘great work of art’, but it could still be an excellent novel. If it tells a story, if it makes you think, if it shows you something about the world, about people; it might do these things in a fresh way or in a traditional way, exploring new forms or sticking with old and recognized ones; if it’s part of the great continent of fiction and wins readers and holds them, that is good enough and plenty. Sir Peter Stothard’s requirements are narrow and stultifying.

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9 Responses to “The Field of Excellence”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    What were you thinking of with the limited and censorious vision? Are you talking about the primacy of narrative and naturalism as forms and the exclusion of the avant garde (not something by the way I’d accuse John Self himself of)?

    I hate using the term avant garde, because it’s so profoundly misleading. The avant garde is not before us, pushing forward, it’s ever with us as a perpetual spur. Tristram Shandy remains avant garde.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      No, my point is the opposite, I mean the primacy of a handful of joyless, impenetrable writers (Beckett, Handke, Josipovici and others) over variation, storytelling and people who can actually write.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Ah, I’d defend Beckett and Josipovici (haven’t read Handke) both of whom I think can definitely write. Storytelling is important, but it’s far from the only literary virtue and definitely not a necessary one. It’s one tool in the bag.

    • maxdunbar Says:

      I don’t think they have many other tools either to be honest.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Beckett is very funny. The Josipovici I read was very well written. Proust pretty much throws storytelling out of the window (unless you count going to a bunch of parties and walks in the country as story) and yet I’m presently on the third volume of In Search of Lost Time and it is genuinely the best thing I’ve ever read. Extraordinarily well written, tremendously funny, incredible psychological insight.

        Great storytelling is impossible without great technique. The best storytellers hone their language to the task of telling the story, they don’t just plop the story down on the page. Bernard Cornwell for example tells solid stories, but not great stories because ultimately his narratives just sit there. The language does nothing of itself (or at worst can even jar). The same is true for a lot of genre fiction, good storytelling but not great because ultimately the language doesn’t add depth to the story.

        Geras is arguing for the importance of a good story well told, and I sympathise with that because that is important too (and I’ve reviewed plenty of books at mine that fit precisely that description including some personal favourites). Story though ultimately is a lie, because the world is without narrative, and that creates a problem if one wishes to use literature to describe the world as it is. The world as it is has no narrative.

        Writers like Beckett and Josipovici are in part struggling with that problem, a problem that cannot in fact be solved. That doesn’t mean one should join them in that struggle, but nor does it mean the struggle is invalid.

        I’d note incidentally that Stothard gave the award to a book that in no way challenged the primacy of story. Mantel is by all accounts an excellent writer, but she’s definitely telling a story. She’s precisely an example of a writer using technique as a tool to lift a book beyond just storytelling into something more.

      • maxdunbar Says:

        Now I had no idea that writers also had to use strong language. Patronising tool.

        While clearly, life doesn’t work in the way of conventional, Bernard Forsyth style narrative, the world is not simply a formless void. Life is composed of millions of stories. They make not make sense, we may not realise they are stories at first instance but they are still stories. The Beckett approach is just a smug and nihilistic copout to excuse a lack of talent, one emulated by the pathetic Leavisite clique you surround yourself with.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I wasn’t being patronising. That’s an interpretation you placed on what I was saying. I was engaging with your argument (and on the specific point of story being linked to language to your Geras quote), because I thought it interesting and because generally when one puts stuff on a blog it’s with a view to talking about it.

    As for Leavisite clique, I had to google Leavis to work out what you were talking about. Based on a quick scan of wikipedia he seems to emphasis the inseparability of the aesthetic and the moral, which if correct I firmly disagree with. I may of course have misunderstood his position though, not having actually heard of him before today.

    Anyway, since you’re simply resorting to insults when I was genuinely trying to have a chat about the ideas in your blog, I won’t bother you again. For what it’s worth, the way my blog works is that I review every book I read and I choose books because I think I’ll enjoy them. It really is that simple – there’s no clique, no agenda, nobody is being excluded, plenty of the books have story as their key strength – just not all of them. You call others censorious, but you’re the one saying certain kinds of books aren’t worth considering, not me.

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