Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Need a hero, need a book, need some sleep

Normally I don’t write about books, but I had a very bad night of insomnia and when I took a bunch of sleeping pills this morning and lay back down again at 7:30 am, they started doing drilling outside my window. So, I have had hours to think about books and I’m cranky.

My conclusion is that a) I LIKE people who read books and b) Most books which are popular are not great books. You see, for many, many years I believed that somehow, through some sort of collective readers understanding that the best books were the ones which ended up being taught or talked about. The quick disillusionment of this idea started when I was working in a bookstore in the late 80’s and Random House was buying every publisher in sight and slashing the mid-list. See, “back in the day” every publisher would carry writers that were good writers, had a following but weren’t instant successes. These authors would start off selling a few thousand, then as they continued their audience would grow so the investment the publisher put into them would be rewarded. But in the harsh world of this new competitive publishing it was decided to go instead for just bestsellers. The problem is that of virtually every book that ends up on the bestseller list, and every book which is a “cult” phenomenon they are, at best, a moderately written but not particularly significant work of fiction. I can see you recoil in irritation. Okay, raise your hand if you have read Advise and Consent by Allen Durey. No, don’t give me those baffled looks, this is a book which was on the #1 spot for fiction bestseller for over a year (unheard of) and won a Pulitzer prize. Such a significant book, you must have read it in University? No? That’s okay, because what you read in University was largely decided by two people who drew up a list in the 1920’s – a man called Leavis and his wife (who felt that things like “bestsellers” should be burnt for the public good).

Anyway, Advise and Consent was the book for 1960, you just couldn’t live without it. Much as a man who wrote about submarines dominated western world views in the 1980’s and 90’s (remember Clancy?). See, a study over the last 50 years has found that the number one bestseller in fiction is a quickly fleeting thing; that in the sixties, a number one book stayed there for 21 weeks, in the eighties it stayed for 7.2 weeks and this year, less than three weeks. But as you worryingly clutch your Harry Potter or recent best seller, I ask, how many of the following fiction books, all bestsellers, in some cases for decades, have you ever read or even heard of: When it was Dark by Guy Thorne (listed by Montgomery, leader of the WWII British forces as the most influential book in his life), The Garden of Allah by Hichens, The Long Trick by Bartimeus, If Winter Comes by Hutchinson, The Shiek by Hull or The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy.

You see, as eagerly as the next J. K. Rowling book is anticipated today, so were the names Kent Carr, Westerman and G. A. Henty many decades ago (indeed, if you want to read some more Harry Potter books, I recommend Kent Carr, since the plots and characters are almost identical - why not try the interestingly titled "Dixie of Cock House"). Or how about the first book to create all the basic principals of a bestseller, Haggard’s She, which used what we would now call guerrilla marketing with signs and graffiti everywhere in London reading “Who is She?” weeks before the book came out. That was 120 years ago. Ever read it? Not really life changing stuff is it?

The problem, simply put is that there are four different groups: publishers, academics and critics, readers and writers. The first two groups are determined to convince the last two groups that THEY are the ones which know what is and is not a great work. Unfortunately, both those groups have a strong self interest: publishers to make money and academics and critics to perpetuate a certain type of book as “literature” (which is ironic because the man who first used that term to refer to fiction, Arnold Bennett, isn’t really remembered or read by anyone anymore). For instance, the Booker Prize is supposed to a short list of the best of all books published in a year, from self published to small press to big press. Yet not once has a single science fiction or fantasy book been included on the short list. Indeed, what is known as “genre fiction” never makes it into the big prizes. And if you follow the Booker Prize, you, like me, can probably name at least four the authors whose books will be included in it this year, next year, last year, whichever year.

The problem is that historically, what people love to read and treasure do not often match the books which are held up as “literature”, nor ones which a generation cannot live without (bye, bye Dan Brown!). Indeed, there is one book, which every time Waterstones surveys readers (every three years) to find out which books they treasure most always ends up at number one; yet it won no awards, and if it is taught at universities it is taught as a “fringe” or “out there” course. The book is The Lord of the Rings. Number one book for decades by the choice of readers. And it took them over 50 years to make a film of it.

You see the real problem is....I’m bored. The last time I read a decent book, and I mean a book which actually excited me, grabbed and changed my world view was months ago when I asked blog readers for suggestions. Which I find is pretty much the only way to truly find amazing books...ask another reader. I also tend to dig through a lot of genre fiction. Why? Because if you are a starting writer and you are tortured or out there you usually end up finding that either the only people who will publish you are genre fiction publishers or you end up there anyway (like the way a book about people doing heroin in a high rise is science fiction/fantasty – no, not bitter!). Or kids books; as there are some amazing kids books out there, from Jan Mark’s Ennead to Napoli’s Daughter of Venice to Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. See, sadly, the closer you look, the more you find that publishing only promotes really good books....by accident. Like To Kill a Mocking Bird, which I thought was universally accepted as a great book because…it was a great book. No, not exactly, because the book would likely have never been printed by Harper Collins or touted in Harpers’, Atlantic Monthly or the New York Reviews had Lee not been so closely associated with super literary famous Truman Capote. If To Kill a Mockingbird had been published by Punstwood Books of Illinois would it have won the Pulitzer Prize the following year – not a chance. Even the great “American Classic” Moby Dick was only noticed 60+ years later, after Melville’s death, because someone dug it out and made a movie out of it called “The Sea Beast.”

Okay, I am admittedly more than a little tired, but I am also literarily lonely. I have no interest the books of pretty words and empty souls. You have to understand, after the first 10,000 books, Lovely Bones reads just as relevantly as Ed McBain. I did however like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which most of my students did not. But then, they also disliked The Little Prince, which to me displays some deep deficiency which indicates the person should probably either work for the IRS, an accountant in a bank or an acceptance editor for a major publishing house. I like Sleepwalking by Meg Wolizer, Bringing out the Dead by Joe Connelly and the early works of Van de Wetering. I do not hate Henry James, I loathe him so much I would dig him up to slap him about if that were possible (he actually reedited all his earlier books to match the “tone” of his later works – AHHHHHH!). Alastair Niven, head of the British Council of Literature says the works which will be literature in 100 years.....Sons and Lovers by Lawrence and everything by Dickens (I am clawing at my neck trying to open a vein in despair at this future vision.) And guess what Martyn Goff, the administrator of the Booker Prize says is a book that SHOULDN’T have ever been called a classic: The Catcher in the Rye (message to Martyn, remove head from ass as soon as possible).

Oh someone save me, please, send me the name of a book I must read, a book which changed how you look at everything, a book which gave you a “Zing!” a feeling that you and the universe has somehow just transcended each other (No, I am not asking for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). You know that rare and occasionally amazed feeling you get at the end of a book when you realize you may never have this many feelings and synapses firing all at the same time the rest of your life. You know THAT book (or books as the case may be). I remember the first time I read The Face on the Cutting Room Floor or Dodges' Stone Junction, or the lesbian mystery writer J.M. Redmann. Zowie! How did they do that? Okay, tag, you’re it.


Sober @ Sundown said...

Oh crap. I am no help at all with literature, but I did vote for you..... how is that for support?

GayProf said...

Does it have to be literature? I read many histories...

Publishing is dying. Even academic presses are greatly concerned about "books that sell." With state legislatures cutting the budgets of libraries, things are getting worse and worse. Perhaps the internet will save writing?

kathz said...

Well I have read The Constant Nymph and When It Was Dark from your list, and some Henty and some E.M. Hull (but not The Sheikh). I had glandular fever in my teens and read all sorts of things.

Have you come across D.K. Broster (the D is for Dorothy) a historian whose novels seem to include unstated and unconsummated gay romances? - try The Flight of the Heron or, better still, Mr Rowl with its cross-dressing hero. For a cross-dressing, fencing heroine try Georgette Heyer's The Masqueraders, but the heroine isn't a very good fencer, which is a shame. There are lots of popular novels with gender-confusion written in the 1920s and 1930s. On another note, I admire Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men (although there are bits that worry me) - after all, a novel in which the heroes are four foreigners who travel to England to assassinate the Home Secretary so that he can't deport refugees has to have a lot going for it. You can find an e-text of this.

Books that have changed my life is harder. I can never be quite sure about the impact of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, which breaks all the rules about what novels should be. I've never re-read Marilyn French's The Women's Room because it's probably nowhere near as good as it seemed when I read it in the launderette just after it came out.

Have you come across the contemporary writers Margaret Elphinstone (Hy Brasil and The Sea Road) and Stevie Davies (The Element of Water - Scottish writers who you may know)? I don't know if you've come across the poet Sheenagh Pugh (she has a website) but I like her novels too. The last two are based in Wales so you may well have come across them.

Must go - I'll probably add more later and you'll regret you asked ...

I hope you conquer the insomnia - it has it's moments but the half-hours are pretty bad (adapted from comment someone made about Wagner)

Elizabeth McClung said...

Kathz: I am astounded, you are the first person I have met who has ever heard of much less read the anti-semetic "when it was dark" - Nor could I find a copy outside of the British Library - It seemed one of these amazing books where over 1 million copies were printed and not one saved - do you still have it? It is one book I have not yet read. I have Wallaces Four Just Men along with much of his early pro anarchy fiction - read the ragged trousered philanthropist (a very UK read), along with Notes of a Mad Shephard - I will take a look for D.K. Broster - all I can say about your glanduar fever was that your parents/grandparents must not have thrown away many books - I take it you have read the unbelievably anti-semetic and still cultishly popular "Sapper" books, like The Black Gang.

Anonymous said...

Years ago I read "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn and it turned me around for a while. Does that count?

kathz said...

Yes, I've read Sapper but didn't enjoy his work much. I adored the early Saint books by Leslie Charteris (especially the line "Simon looked lean and muscular in his plus-fours") and also read the Baron, the Toff, Blackshirt (not a fascist but a burglar), Raffles, etc. The books came from a public library and a bizarre school library which included the totally appalling (and fascinating) Angela Brazil, A Patriotic Schoolgirl (sample exchange: schoolgirl: is it ever right to forgive our enemies? headmistress: when they are dead), an amazing Victorian anti-theatre book called A Peep Behind the Scenes, the Australian girls' book Seven Little Australian with long-drawn-out death scene. There were lots of appalling books about empire and how wonderful it was!. I may have read about When It Was Darj in a study of bestsellers - that's certainly why I read Sorrell & Son (don't!). I loved Hugh Walpole's Jeremy books, E. Nesbit's Harding's Luck (the one nobody else likes), Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes and Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, which I also found in the school library (I later discovered that it was seen as a talismanic gay novel but I read lots to do with Ancient Greece.). When It Was Dark is so appalling in every way I can't recommend it. In my late teenage years I discovered Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, which I adored (and have read twice since). I have also read the complete works of Agatha Christie and lots of forgotten crime writers. Other influential books of my teenage years include Borges' Labyrinths and the Penguin volume The Last Days of Socrates (and much else about Socrates - including Xenophon's account - including the Symposium which was also in the school library, although my mum introduced me to Plato and Borges). I read Hesse because everyone else did. And Paradise Lost and most of Milton's prose because I decided he was a revolutionary hero! (no-one else at school could understand why I liked Milton and Pope and not Keats and Hardy)

I've got to go and stab people - so that must do for now.

Possibly I have read far too much.

Unfortunately - or fortunately - I never possessed my own copy of When It Was Dark.

Anonymous said...

I'm not well-read and I know it, so I won't even try to compete with a slurry of obscure titles.

At least I surround myself with people who ARE well-read. I can absorb enough by osmosis to get by.

"The Constant Nympho When It Was Dark" intrigues me. I'll try to mention it sometime soon and look really, really smart. :)

GeekChic said...

I loved "le petit prince"! Was trying to improve my french and found it by accident on amazon. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Elizabeth McClung said...

yeah, I have about 4 copies of le petite prince - one first edition hardcover in french and english and paperback copies in french and english (and then maybe a fifth copy I am actually allowed to read or lend out) - I think Borges had it on his list of "books to read every year"