Monday, 21 June 2010

The worst sentence in world literature

I recently wrote my first negative review in a national newspaper. It was a for a book that I didn’t exactly hold out much hope for – it concerned the problems of a white, middle-class writer on the verge of turning forty – but I was determined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Within the first fifteen lines, however, the author had used a sentence that to me remains a kind of literary bĂȘte noir; a turn of phrase which without fail causes me to shudder. What upsets me about it is its prevalence, despite its utter redundancy: a sequence of words easily found in airport pulp novels, aspirational literature and everything in between. The book was bad enough, thank you all the same, without this abhorrant sentence, and its close cousins, being repeated several times.

Now I do have some bugbears when it comes to literary fiction. I groan if rivers are brackish, I wince if sunlight slants through a window, and harrumph loudly at salt and pepper hair. These are words and descriptions that exist only in one medium, in much the same way that the words pooch, bonk and fury are only used in tabloid newspapers. But I can forgive these for many authors, but what I can’t accept is the following sentence, and it should be struck from any script ever. Okay. Loud exhalation of breath . . .

“I can remember it just like it was yesterday.”

It makes my arm itch just looking at it.

You see, the problem with it is that one of redundancy. This sentence is normally either appended to the end of a description, or prefixes one. Either way it is unnecessary. In a first-person narrative, one can only narrate what you remember: so what is the point in telling the reader that they remember it like it was yesterday? What is gained by this? Apart from a sense of over-arching importance, obviously. It means nothing, it’s just marking time: authors surely should have a bit more confidence in the reader's ability to work out that the narrator remembers something pretty well, considering they fucking wrote about it.

Perhaps it’s a device to ensure that readers aren’t panicked into thinking half way through that the narrator might just stop and say “Actually, I can’t really remember where I was going with this. A young girl? Picnic, lightening? It rings a bell. Have I told you the one about the university professor?” In sales, they call these dog words; the things you say while you’re working out what to say next to close the deal. In literature it’s the most empty way of feeding the page.

Not only that, it’s misleading. We understand that remembering something as though it was yesterday, is to suggest that it is still livid in the mind. Except, this is complete balls and piss. I can recall things from fifteen years ago with far greater clarity than the events of yesterday (pub? Football? I can’t even remembered who scored). Ask any old giffer what they had for dinner yesterday and the quality of life during rationing and you’ll get chapter and verse on using chipfat for Brylcream and the delights of powdered egg along with a shrug and a guess that they had pie and mash for dinner the night before.

I propose the phrase be outlawed in literature. Is there anything worse? I mean, really?

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Lionel makes a Messy

I suspect only a prize-winning novelist who has sold over a million copies of her novel can really grouse about being awarded another literary prize. Anyone else would see it as an accomplishment, another bauble to place on the bookshelf; perhaps even wonder if there might be some cash attached to the prestige. Not Lionel Shriver – the most shrinking of literary violets – who has protested, or more precisely whinged, about being crowned the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners. To her it’s a “dumb” award – her choice of word interestingly juvenile and sulky – and one that dilutes the Orange prize’s standing.

Her reaction is at once blithely refreshing and stupendously foolhardy. Refreshing because Shriver seems utterly indifferent to the fact that this is a prize voted for by the general public; and foolhardy for precisely the same reason. Criticizing such an award these days is tantamount to punching a stoat live on television: you just don’t do it.

What you say is that the prize means more because the readers voted for it. What you don’t say is, however tangentially, that you preferred it when a collection of writers and journalists (and probably a token celebrity, thrown in so the literary media can get an erection) decided your book was worthy of merit. Shriver, whether intentionally or not, has questioned the orthodoxy of modern Britain: everyone’s opinion, no matter how ill-informed, is equally valid.

Where books are concerned this is something of an issue. As soon as you get the general public involved, you’re narrowing your field. Whereas the Booker judges are expected to wade through well over a hundred novels to get to their considered opinion, your voter for the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners can have read the blurb and decided from there. There is no rigour, no critical faculty necessary: you could even vote based solely on the fact that you like the name Lionel. You’re never asked why you voted for something, neither do you have to provide proof of having read it (If only all books ended like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler!). But your opinion and vote is precisely weighted the same as someone who perhaps has read all 15.

Ever since Belle and Sebastian fans hijacked the Brit Awards by flooding in votes from their internet-enabled bedrooms, the notion of a public voted award has become circumspect. Award givers want to be inclusive, want to have the great unwashed on board, but have yet to find an adequate way to do this without running into either vote loading – as happened in the Not-Booker on the Guardian Blog last year – or over-zealous personality based campaigns.

Which leaves an industry, desperate to be inclusive, clutching at straws. The problem is that reading books takes time, and casual readers will always outnumber those who read widely and are willing to take chances on new authors, ignored writers and those that don’t trouble the bestseller lists. Which means the likes of Ian McEwan, Ishiguro and those other brand name literary institutions will always win by default in any kind of popularity contest. Ultimately, the reason for Shriver’s success in this competition has more to do with the fact that more people have read it than the others than it has because of its literary merit. Perhaps Shriver realises this.

To a greater or lesser extent, prizes are all about consensus – little more than posh bingo, as Julian Barnes had it – but asking people to vote based on having read just ten books in a year seems rather tough on the authors themselves. I think we have to remember that prizes provoke debate, make writers’ names and really give a media presence to an industry that struggles in the wake of television, music, film, and even art for publicity. The Booker, The Orange and The Costas always throw up fascinating curve ball titles, defy the odds by awarding the prize to outside bets and give literary fiction a lifeline. A public vote, even at shortlist stage, would probably never give the underdog its day in the sun. And had that been the case in 2005, there is little chance We Need to Talk About Kevin would have prevailed. Perhaps this is the real reason Shriver is so sceptical about this award – “dumb” or otherwise . . .

Friday, 4 June 2010

A week of reading

With the exception of having the freedom to drink in the mornings, the most exciting part of going on holiday is the joy of having a week in which to do little else but read. It is a perfect indulgence and, for me, a unique literary opportunity: the only time I get to read a book in one sitting, the one chance when a long novel can be experienced in long, immersive sittings. There are no tube stops to interrupt a chapter, no hissing thump from cheap commuter headphones to distract from the prose, no lunch break to disappear quicker than every other hour of the day. It’s just me, my book, and hopefully an ice-cold glass of wine sweating on a table beside a swimming pool.

Selecting my holiday books is a rigorous process, one that conforms to a basic stratagem developed and honed over many years. Firstly, I work on the basis of one book per day. This may seem excessive, but one year I came perilously close to running out of reading, and that experience still gives me a little swell of fear. I’m going away for seven days, so seven books it is. Secondly, the books must sort of complement each other. This is a more nebulous concept and is often utterly irrational. While one can understand the logic of not wishing to read both Updike and Roth on holiday, quite why Updike does not sit comfortably with Ian Rankin I can’t explain. But trust me, he doesn’t.

Finally, I really need a balance between brand new fiction and novels that have sat on my shelf for years without having read. Selecting this lost classic is possibly the most pleasurable part of holiday anticipation: hours spent looking up and down shelves, picking up books at random, reading the blurbs, remembering where and when the book was bought, putting it back making a mental note to consider it later. For the most part these tend to be books that I’m ashamed not to have read – previous holiday rehabilitations have included Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer and Jealousy by Alan Robbe-Grillet – and this year is no exception: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor has made its gimlet eye towards me and flirted its way into my case.

Back in 1991 I bought a copy of Red Dragon to read by the pool in Florida, and that sort of became the benchmark for what a kind of traditional beach read should be. The problem is that very few people have Thomas Harris’s ability to shock, thrill and repulse, while giving you characters to believe in. After reading so many serial killer novels on holiday and being disappointed – especially by Jack Kerley’s Blood Brother, a novel so didactic and poorly written it made me feel like I was being intimidated by some pimple faced youths on a bus – I’ve given the genre a wide-berth. But a holiday without a good crime novel is just not a holiday, so this year’s place goes to Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth – a seamy, dirty, retro slab of London noir.

As for new books, this is perhaps the hardest of all categories – an opportunity to read a great new voice, or to have wasted a day of precious reading time on something really not worth your time. I’ve whittled down my list and am happy – for the moment – with my selection. First up is Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, a book I know little about except its opening line: “In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and consider Joseph Goebbels’ fourty-fourth birthday.” Which is so wonderfully exact yet askance, I couldn’t help but add it to the pile.

Lee Rourke’s The Canal – a tale of boredom set in the hinterlands between Islington and Hackney – is one of the books I’ve most looked forward to this year, and from the opening few pages, I know is going to be a read in one hit novel that sticks around, whistling tunelessly in my head for months later. Despite Ludmilla’s Broken English provoking little more than a yawn, I’m sure that Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre will be a return to form (depending of course where you stand on Vernon God Little – a good book, but an odd Booker winner).

Which leaves me with just two more to go. Nourishment by Gerard Woodward looks like the kind of book that may just break him out of the “respected but modestly selling” category and into a wider, more appreciative audience. I heard him read from it recently and it sounded incredible: intimate yet with a scope and scale that allows his storytelling gifts to fly.

My final choice is the new Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. 4th Estate won’t send me an advance copy – something about wanting coverage nearer the time – but have found someone who can hook me up. It feels like a drug deal or something.

I go on holiday next week. I can’t wait to start reading.