Readersforum's Blog

March 26, 2013

The Infatuations by Javier Marías – review

The InfatuationsJavier Marías’s haunting murder mystery, embracing all the big questions about life, love and death, is an instant Spanish classic.

By Robert McCrum

A fine murder story is like a great love affair: an infinite catacomb of excitement, sorrow and desire. Apart from tales of love and death, what else matters to mankind’s stone-age brain? While we continue to push back the frontiers of knowledge, most recently in digital technology, our consciousness remains hard-wired with some very primitive storylines. The lasting challenge to literature is to achieve a satisfying marriage between high art and the low drives of a simple plot. The latter is usually much more demanding than the former. To find such a rapprochement in the pages of a novel is indeed a rare treat.

This is where Javier Marías, one of Spain’s greatest contemporary writers, steps into the picture. The son of a victim of Franco’s dictatorship, Marías is a characteristically European version of the literary man. He works as a distinguished translator, has a column in El País, and runs his own publishing house. He is also the author of two short story collections and 13 novels whose lyrical, conversational, and even errant, style has sponsored widespread literary admiration.

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March 22, 2013

The Booker prize and the battle for supremacy in a literary awards jungle

Sowing the seeds of success … 2012 Booker prize judges plant trees at the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Wood in Leicestershire

Sowing the seeds of success … 2012 Booker prize judges plant trees at the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Wood in Leicestershire

When Man Booker prize judges are photographed planting trees with the Woodland Trust, they offer a reminder of how English fiction and prize culture is flourishing on a global scale

By Robert McCrum

Last week I received a welcome reminder from the people who run the Booker prize of their commitment to the environment – a photograph of some recent Booker judges in wellington boots, planting trees.

Of course, this was not just about promoting green shoots and leaves. As spring heaves into view, the annual literary prize season opens again. It will run, roughly, from Easter to Halloween. During that time, Booker will want to assert itself as the premier book prize in the English-speaking world. No stone (or sod) will remain unturned in the ceaseless business of reminding the media and the reading public about Man Booker. The same goes for Costa, Samuel Johnson, the book prize formerly known as Orange, and many lesser awards.

Booker’s tree-planting stunt is also a reminder that these trophies are big business. Costa fights the coffee shop war against Starbucks with volumes of poetry, first novels and kids’ books. The Man Group extracts vital publicity for itself from the year’s best literary fiction. Who, outside the Square Mile, had ever heard of the Man Group before it became the Booker sponsor?

It’s big business for writers, too. Win the Booker prize and you become a millionaire. Win the top Costa slot (that one is a bit more complicated) and, like Kate Atkinson or Mark Haddon, your literary course is set fair.

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February 16, 2013

Are these the 50 most influential books by women?

HouseBy Robert McCrum

As readers pointed out, my last list was rather skewed to a male-dominated tradition. Here is an alternative perspective

Last week’s post about the 50 turning-points of English (and American) literature stirred up quite a bit of debate, raising some interesting issues. One of the big complaints about my selection was the inadequate representation of women writers. This blog has been admittedly slow to engage with the gender politics of literature, but this challenge – what about the women ? – is self-evidently a fair question.

My previous list (and it was only a list) reflected patriarchal values, and a male-dominated literary culture. That’s hard to avoid, in the light of history. But, as Kathleen Taylor and Gillian Wright have shown, there is another story, a different way of looking at our cultural bibliography.

And so, 50 years to the day since the death of Sylvia Plath, here is my alternative Anglo-American list of the 50 women writers who shaped our literary landscape – a list constructed with no conferring on my part with any other pre-existing catalogue.

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November 20, 2012

The rise of literary genres

In an ever more tightly focused books market, divisions into niche appetites are ever more specific.

By Robert McCrum

A week ago, writing about 62-year old Hilary Boyd’s Thursdays in the Park (Quercus), I coined the term “gran lit”. Hardly original, you will say, (no dispute there), but it caught on. Subsequently, variations on “gran lit” appeared in the Times, the Telegraph and the Independent, as well as getting recognition in Australia’s Herald-Sun.

The gran in question (Mrs Boyd) also popped up on both the ITV News at Ten and the Today Show, challenging the conventional wisdom: just because you’re over 60, you’re not interested in having a fling. I’m wondering how long it will be before gran lit joins chick lit, and the rest, as a term of art. That’s to say, as a shorthand for a now-booming genre of fiction for the “grey market”.

The development of the literary marketplace in the past 30-something years has been echoed by a new, and acute, sensitivity to the place of genre within the trade. In a market-savvy creative economy, you could say that genre has become everything. I have been able to identify 15 contemporary shades of “literature”. No doubt, readers will think of others, but here are some obvious first nominations.

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April 29, 2012

The sound and fury of book-prize brouhaha leaves literature nowhere

Arguably insouciant … How would Christopher Hitchens have reacted to his final book's failure to win an Orwell prize? Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe for the Guardian

As the fuss surrounding the Pulitzer and Orwell prizes shows, book awards are increasingly more about hype than substance.

By Robert McCrum

The great literary boom of 1980 to 2010 is over, but its glittering prizes still linger, like discarded party favours the morning after the night before. Hardly a day goes by without some new titbit of literary prize gossip, or speculation.

Last week, it was the brouhaha over the news that this year’s Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, would not be awarded in the fiction category.

Then came crowd-pleasing advance publicity for the People’s book prize (promoted by Frederick Forsyth and the late Beryl Bainbridge).

And on Wednesday, new depths were plumbed in reports that the Orwell prize jury had “snubbed” the late Christopher Hitchens by not shortlisting his final book of essays, Arguably. (I bet they’re shaking their heads up on Parnassus about that one.)

Really, it’s a shame Hitchens is no longer around to make hay with the ideas that: a) he was troubled by prizes; b) he had somehow always hankered after the Orwell trophy; and c) there can be any meaning whatever in handing out posthumous awards to books whose authors are beyond the reach of lunch, dinner, and especially critics.


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April 19, 2012

Pulitzer should take a leaf out of the Orange prize’s book

David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King was among those shortlisted for the Pulitzer fiction prize. Photograph: Gary Hannabarger/Corbis

A rickety shortlist doomed Pulitzer judges’ attempts to award a fiction prize this year – they should see how the Orange prize does it.

By Robert McCrum

The news that this year’s Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, now in its 96th year, decided not to award a prize in the category of fiction (or, indeed, in editorial writing) was coolly described by the New York Times as “notable”.

However, in some quarters, there’s already been some predictable hand-wringing. Jonathan Galassi, CEO of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a poet, translator and seasoned man of letters, with a distinguished track record of editorial excellence, has declared himself to be “shell-shocked” by this decision. No doubt there will be others who deplore a missed opportunity to promote new fiction and who raise that old, incendiary cry of The American Novel In Danger.

That – as I see it – would be hasty. There are at least three reasons to keep calm and carry on.

First, this quirky, ephemeral slight is not unprecedented. In 1977, the Pulitzer jury also chose to snub the contemporary American novel and declined to award a prize in the fiction category. The sky did not fall in, the sun rose over the East River, and New York publishing carried on, undiminished. From some points of view, it actually entered a long boom of magnificent remuneration and creativity from which it has only recently emerged.

Second, scrolling forward to 2012, whatever one wants to say about the state of the market (dire), or US bookselling in general (apparently in terminal decline), one commodity of which there is no dearth is talented – even great – American writers of all ages. Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Saul Bellow may be no more, but plenty of important writers have stepped forward to take their place. From Philip Roth, Paul Auster and Toni Morrison to Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson and Jeffrey Eugenides, these are good times to be reading the American novel.

Publishers may be struggling to launch new talent – that’s true of the UK, too, by the way – but, backed up by a boom in writing schools and college literature courses, there’s still a lot of talent breaking through.

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January 6, 2012

Are you ashamed of skipping parts of books?

Must I read all of it? I am on holiday … Open book on the beach. Photograph: Corbis

A quick skim through the reasons why it’s not always a good idea to read every page.

By Robert McCrum

Over recent days, I’ve been reading Somerset Maugham‘s Ten Novels and Their Authors in the Vintage edition (a Christmas gift).

Before he gets stuck into the lives and masterpieces of 10 great authors (the book began as a commission from Redbook in the early 50s), Maugham gives us an essay on “The Art of Fiction” in which he devotes quite a bit of space to “the useful art of skipping”. Skipping, says Maugham, is perfectly fine, because “a sensible person does not read a novel as a task. He reads it as a diversion”.

Whereupon a chasm seemed to open up between this reader of 2012, and the reader (or writer) of 1952, for whom the novel is to be treated as an entertainment. Modern readers might include “to be pleasing” as one of art’s aims, but they would also, I suspect, look for some moral enhancement, some thrill of style, and some cultural uplift, too. Strange as it may sound to contemporary ears, however, Maugham contends that “the aim of art is to please” – and of course, if that’s its aim, then when it fails to please, it can be ignored, or skipped. Maugham comes from an age in which the artist was paid to satisfy a largely middle-class, and essentially Anglo-American audience. Reading the book made me realise exactly how much has changed in these past 60 years.

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December 20, 2011

Fifty things I’ve learned about the literary life

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , — Bookblurb @ 5:40 pm

Jim Carrey in Disney's A Christmas Carol: 'Apart from Dickens, far too cinematic adaptations of novels disappoint.'

There’s no magic formula for success, and no one person knows best, but for what it’s worth…

By Robert McCrum

From time to time, this column is asked for advice, sometimes obsessively, about decoding the many mysteries of “the world of books”. There’s a widespread view, held by those looking from the outside, that there must be a philosopher’s stone for success in literature, a magic formula that will turn everything to gold. The truth is much closer to Thomas Edison’s definition of creativity: “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration.”

So this is not an advice column. In the celebrated words of the American screenwriter William Goldman, “nobody knows anything”. However, in the season of goodwill, here is my list of 50 things I’ve learned in the byways and saloons of Grub Street.

1. Less is more. Or, “the only art is to omit” (Robert Louis Stevenson).

2. The Man Booker, our premier literary prize, is not “posh bingo” (Julian Barnes), it’s a national sporting trophy.

3. Whatever works, works.

4. There are seven basic stories in world literature.

5. Writers who get divorced usually sack their agents.

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November 30, 2011

A dose of prose: bibliotherapy

Having an existential crisis? Or just caught in a reading rut? Bibliotherapy is the new service offering solace to jaded souls – by revitalising your reading list. We sent six of our writers to find out if it works.

By Jay Rayner, Robert McCrum, Alex Clark, Tom Lamont, Inez Sarkodee-Adoo, Eva Wiseman

Wander down one of those mildly shabby, fadingly genteel streets in London’s Bloomsbury and you might just find the answer to what ails you. For it is here that you can treat yourself to a blast of Bibliotherapy – a bespoke literary service offered by Alain de Botton’s delightfully offbeat School of Life.

Whether you are a whizz on all matters postmodern or you don’t know your Austen from your Rimbaud, these sessions are designed to enhance your reading life by exploring your current habits and preferences and then coming up with a “prescription” for your bookshelf. In part this is a response to the dizzying amount of choice on offer: as their website points out: “A new book is published every 30 seconds, and you would need 163 lifetimes to get through all the titles offered on Amazon.” Put like that, Bibliotherapy fees seem like a good investment for the bookish but bewildered, ranging from £20 for a “speedy session” to £70 for a 40-minute one-to-one (pre-Christmas heads-up: gift vouchers are also available).

Reading matter is, of course, an intensely personal choice, despite the proliferation of group activities such as book clubs. But even the keenest of readers often need a little inspiration, or to refresh their jaded palates; and so we sent six of our writers along – from a former literary editor to a student more used to the quickfire language of Twitter – to see what Bibliotherapy has to offer.

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November 23, 2011

The fight hasn’t gone out of literature just yet

The row between Bernard-Henri Lévy, left, and Michel Houellebecq kept Paris entertained for much of 2008. Photograph: Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images

Niall Ferguson’s spat with critic Pankaj Mishra is the latest in a long line of literary feuds.

By Robert McCrum

“I will hound him in print in a way he has never experienced before.” Professor Niall Ferguson’s declaration of war on critic Pankaj Mishra for a hostile notice in the London Review of Books will have brought some pre-Christmas cheer to those who row in the galleys of literary journalism.

For a moment it seemed as if this would be the year in which peace broke out on the slopes of Parnassus. In May, Theroux shook hands with Naipaul. In America, the critic Dale Peck made up with his long-term foe, “the worst writer of his generation”, novelist Rick Moody.

So, thank God for Prof Ferguson’s thin skin. The only question is: will this “spat” descend into a full-blown “feud”? In the taxonomy of literary bust-ups, which takes in Dickens v Thackeray and Henry James v HG Wells, there are three basic categories.

First, there’s the Row-Literary. This is really no more than the cost of doing business in Grub Street. The Row-Literary is usually inspired by a bad review. John le Carré’s review of The Satanic Verses in the Observer is a locus classicus.

A small domestic incident quickly became an international bushfire when lifelong literary fire-raiser Christopher Hitchens merrily chucked kerosene on some smouldering embers. Feud watchers will know that it’s the sign of a really good literary row when outsiders get dragged in.

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