Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Literary culture

Taking advantage of a day's holiday from work to catch up, I have read an interview with Gabriel Josipovici on Ready Steady Book, link kindly sent to me, with some excerpts, by Dave Lull. I hadn't heard of Mr Josipovici before (I hope that does not make me a Philistine), but he is a French writer who has spent most of his adult life in the UK. This last point is relevant becuase GJ is rather critical of the UK cultural scene; as he lives here, then that's OK;-) Much of the interview on Ready Steady Book is about GJ's writing, old and new. The conversation takes a general turn: "MT: In this country we tend to see literary novels as ‘heavy’ and popular fiction as ‘light’. Yet you have referred to the ‘lightness’ of The Iliad. What is this quality exactly? Are there modern novels that are light in this way?" The first part of the response is one that Michael Allen would endorse: "GJ: There may be two or three different issues here. I find contemporary works that take themselves terribly seriously a pain, as I’ve said. I’d much rather read a good thriller or a good comic novel than one that is bidding to become a Booker prize-winner (and often succeeding)." GJ then goes on to say that (American, he says) thriller writers these days want to show that their work is important, which he calls a "disaster for their work". This is an intriguing view: which thriller writers can he mean, and why a disaster? (He doesn't tell us.) The most famous and successful thriller at the moment remains the Da Vinci Code, and I don't recall the author claiming it as important (though some religious organisations have erroneously taken it seriously, but that's different). In my opinion, among the best current US thriller writers are the likes of Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Karin Slaughter, Philip Margolian, Robert Crais ... I could go on (see Connotea Detective). My point is, I have not known them to take their work "seriously" in what they have written or said about their books. (Karin Slaughter in particular is great copy as an interviewee). GJ's examples of modern authors who write "light" novels are Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke. I am ashamed to say I have not read, or even heard of, many of these. I went through a phase of reading Kundera and enjoyed a few of his, though I found I'd had enough after a while. I read one Malamud ages ago (his most famous one, called "The Fixer") but do not remember much about it. Catch 22 (Heller) I found a bit of a curate's egg (though was only a teenager when I read it, and knew nothing about the culture or events depicted). The rest I have not read. I admit I am not a literary intellectual, so do feel somewhat intimidated by this list of "light" reading. GJ also mentions Spark, Bellow, Nabokov and Thomas Bernhard. I've read a lot of Spark in the past, I read one or two Nabokovs and didn't like them (probably did not "get" them -- he seems a creepy kind of person to me but I know he is much admired), and have not read the others. I guess there is little hope for me, as these days I fear I would not now have the concentration to read these no doubt extremely clever books. Another point GJ makes, as highlighted by Dave Lull, is about the paucity of British (literary) culture: "MT: In the past you’ve said that, from your perspective, British culture appears to be "narrow, provincial and smug". How would you say this manifests itself when it comes to literature?" "GJ: Coming to this culture from the outside I’m amazed at how mean and provincial it is. What do I mean by that? It’s difficult to put into words. It’s like a fog that has covered the British Isles and people go about in it and think that’s how the world is. Look at the bookshops. I lived in Paris for a few months two years ago, in the Montmartre area, not a particularly intellectual quarter, but there were four independent bookshops within five minutes walk of my flat. Their owners had run them for ten to twenty-five years and, while they of course had all the latest works, they also reflected the owners’ tastes. ‘Içi, moi je suis la reine’, one of them said to me one day. Here, every town you go to has the same dreary Waterstones with the same dreary books piled high on the tables, two for the price of one in some instances, supermarket style. I wonder if it is the first time in history that the line between fashion and culture has disappeared. Disappeared in the minds of the reading public, of literary editors, of prizegivers, even of writers themselves." Well. And again, well! Of course GJ is right to observe the sad decline of the independent bookseller (someone has made a similar comment to my chick-lit posting immediately before this one). When I moved to Kingston 15 years ago, for example, there were 7 or 8 different bookshops in the town, now there are three, and yes they are Waterstones, Borders and WHSmith. But I don't think this is symptomatic of any problem for the consumer of books (though of course it is for the independent booksellers). Although GJ sneers at the 3 for 2s (very fashionable to do that), Waterstones and Borders offer a large choice of standard books. And where they don't, there is online. As has so often been said, Amazon offers any book you can think of, in or out of print, 24 hours a day. (Abe books and other online booksellers similar.) I have bought more books in the past 5 years from a huge range of small bookshops and individuals in the UK (and elsewhere) than I ever did before I got hooked on the Internet. The variety is unbelievable. One of my favourite blogs, admittedly not UK, reviews "a book a day", mostly obtained from the public library. Other bloggers do the same. (Doubtless non-bloggers too;-) ) That isn't to say that independent bookshops aren't great -- they are. Whenever I am in a town where there is one -- Keswick, Tenby, Chipping Norton -- and have any time (and they are open), I go in and invariably buy some books that I hadn't previously thought to buy. There are plenty in central London too, but I tend not to go there even though, technically, I live there. It is sad that these shops find it hard to compete. But GJ is wrong, I think, to imply that their absence signifies a literary desert. My theory is that in Paris and in other cities in mainland Europe, independent booksellers have a better time of it because the Internet has not caught on there to the extent that it has in this island nation, and becuase English is not the first language. Online retail in mainland European languages does exist, but on a much smaller scale than English. I think if GJ waits a few years he will see things change. I am not saying this is a good thing, but I think it may happen. (And I think he's probably right that the standard of literary debate in the media is higher in parts of mainland Europe and South America than it is in parts of the USA and UK.) GJ talks about sameness of literary prizes, and so on: I am sure he is right to imply a level of product placement and commercialism, from what one reads. But is he aware of the blog world, and the absolutely first-class standard of literary comments and debate that exists, on books old and new? He fails to acknowledge it. So I think GJ is incorrect to say: "English literary culture, in sharp contrast to the musical and fine arts culture, has retreated into a safe little Englander mentality, imagining that merely by writing ‘about’ great events and deep subjects you are producing great and deep works of literature." I think it is still there, just as it always was. It may not be the literary "club" of London publishers and authors he no doubt is attacking (another fashionable activity). But I wonder if he is aware of how many book groups exist - -I know of several locally, among parents of school-age children. Informal, unnoticed by anyone but themselves, yet there for the love of reading. Is the "Richard and Judy" book club beneath the notice of GJ? (It is modelled on Oprah, I believe.) I don't watch R&J but the books they select are promoted in the dreaded Waterstones et al. I have bought quite a few for my teenage daughter, as she moves into adult reading, and she's enjoyed them, and found that they have raised questions for her to consider. I don't think the R&J selections are "safe choices" from well-known authors, but are quite individualistic, on the whole. There is another aspect to GJ's comments, but which I am not going to discuss now as this post is too long, and I am currently cooking someone's tea, doing a load of washing and have to collect a child from somewhere. Such is the fractured life of the "attempted intelligent" person with domestic responsibilities. Petrona will have to retire for the moment. My message to GJ is: in a culture dominated by instant, digestible media, I am constantly impressed by the variety of reading and thinking done by the people I encounter in daily life. Most of whom are completely unaware of literary prizes and the "scratch my back" nature (we are told) of book publishing. There is hope for us yet! Note: I see that Ready Steady Book does not have a comments facility ;-)