Readersforum's Blog

October 28, 2011

In praise of easy reads

Nice and easy … Patrick McGrath at home in Ibiza. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

It might not be the right way to judge the Booker, but readability is something we all crave from time to time, and the books don’t need to be bad.

By John Self

To be zinged by the literary establishment twice in one week is a special kind of privilege. I didn’t see Stella Rimington’s now-legendary Man Booker prize speech – in my defence, I was trying in vain to rock a two-week-old baby to sleep – but someone mentioned later that she had attacked unnamed critics for “writing lists of books you would have chosen if you had been the sole judge”. Goodness, I wondered: could she mean me? Then, a few days ago, Jamie Byng, publisher at Canongate and founder of World Book Night, issued a blunter response to my comment that the list of next year’s World Book Night books was tilted heavily in favour of authors who already have very large readerships.

Byng was right to criticise me, I think: World Book Night is about readers, not authors. (And presumably big sellers are more likely to be in a position to waive their royalties.) It is aimed at getting books into the hands of people who wouldn’t pick them up otherwise, and those who are selected to distribute books are told explicitly that their books are to be given to “non or light readers” – though tips for identifying them are not provided. So the fame or otherwise of the author is not important, but the type of book is. And this of course fits in neatly with The Booker Kerfuffle (to name it in the style of a Robert Ludlum novel).

The common thread is that much-maligned (by me, among others) word: “readability”. If we accept what the Booker judges didn’t, quite, and say that it essentially means “not too hard going”, then it’s not much of a measure for a literary prize, but it’s more or less essential if you’re aiming to give books to people who don’t normally read. There are very good books on the World Book Night list, from Iain M Banks’s The Player of Games – my own favourite of his novels – to Andrea Levy’s sublime Small Island, which marry quality with approachability.

But you don’t have to be a reluctant reader to be attracted sometimes to something that slips down effortlessly. “I have never been able to finish a novel by Kafka,” said Martin Amis. “But then, neither could Kafka.

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July 20, 2011

Famous for the wrong book

Filed under: Books — Tags: , — Bookblurb @ 5:53 am

There’s a big difference between an author’s best-known work, and their best.

By John Self

Click to buy

Why is it that the book for which an author is best known is rarely their best? If history is the final judge of literary achievement, why has a title like Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin risen to the top, overshadowing his much better earlier novels such as Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord? It’s not, I hope, the simple snobbery of insisting that the most popular can’t be the finest. (After all, who would dispute that Middlemarch is George Eliot’s peak? … You would? Great, there’s a space for you in the comments below.)

If someone reads Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, and doesn’t like it, I’ll want to shout to them, “But it’s rubbish! Cat’s Cradle is much better! That’s the one you want to read!” It’s not just me, I’m sure. Geoff Dyer takes the view that it is John Cheever’s journals, not his stories, which represent his “greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival”. Gabriel Josipovici says that it is not Kafka’s The Trial or “Metamorphosis” – not any of his novels or stories – which “form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art”, but his aphorisms.

So here I am going to list a few instances of a writer being famous for the wrong book, and my suggestions for where their greatest achievement really lies. Below, you can make your own suggestions (someone, please tell me I’ve just been reading the wrong Peter Carey or Emily Brontë), or let me know just how misguided I am.

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July 6, 2011

Peter Owen: Sixty years of innovation

Filed under: Publishers — Tags: , , — Bookblurb @ 11:13 am

Kicking off a new series celebrating small publishers, a tribute to a publisher who has backed his own tastes for more than half a century

by John Self

Literary acumen and a business mind' ... Peter Owen covers

Last month, Peter Owen celebrated 60 years running his eponymous publishing house, which has become a byword for a sense of literary adventure and experimentation. Most publishing founders – Jonathan Cape, Martin Secker, Andrew Chatto – are long gone, their names living on only as labels for imprints of large conglomerates. Is it only small houses that can retain their independence, and maintain their identity, today?

Owen set up his eponymous company in 1951, after leaving The Bodley Head where he worked for Stanley Unwin (“a dreadful old shit”), with one typewriter and £900. His first editor was Muriel Spark, whom he referred to as “the best bloody secretary I ever had”, and who later drew on her memories of working with Owen for her novel A Far Cry from Kensington. He looked – then and now – for writing “slightly out of the ordinary”, and scored an early hit with Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (“I still think it’s one of the best books we’ve ever published”). Back in the 50s, Owen says, “we were one of the only publishers seeking out such writers. No one had the foresight to get into Hesse, they didn’t even know he existed or know who he was” – despite his having won the Nobel prize in literature in 1946.

Since then Owen has published a staggering array of writers outside the mainstream. My own reading pleasures from his list include Anna Kavan (who changed her name to that of one her own characters, and reportedly died with enough heroin in her home to kill the whole street), Tarjei Vesaas (whose novel The Ice Palace explores child sexuality in a way that still seems ahead of the time, 50 years on) and Blaise Cendrars (bizarrely productive writer, influence on modernists and friend of everyone from Hemingway to Braque).

It cannot simply be good luck that leads one man to publish such an embarrassingly long list of riches.
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February 12, 2011

Martin Amis: Only brain injury could make me write for children

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , , , — Bookblurb @ 7:29 pm

Children’s authors have expressed anger over ‘insult’ to their work on BBC programme.

 Remarks about children’s books made by Martin Amis on the BBC’s new book programme Faulks on Fiction, broadcast this week, have caused anger and offence among children’s writers.

“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book,” Amis said, in a sideways excursion from a chat about John Self, the antihero of his 1984 novel Money. “I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

 “I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write,” he added.       …read more

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