The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I knew this would raise comments. Thought about deleting or amending before posting, then second-thought, naah: ginger sooner than tofu. No doubt I’ve been excessively mean about book groups. There are good arguments that can be mounted in favour of them - not least, that they allow you to meet new people, with the benefit of even a mild intellectual stimulation; being compelled to find the time to read regularly; being forced to read outside your normal range, including the classics you always meant to get around to; developing and arguing a case; supporting writers and the book trade in general; improving the literacy of the nation. All of this is worthy and defensible. It can also be said that the book group is like any other tool - it can be used well or badly.

My problem with them is that they seem - and here the weakness comes in, ‘cos I admit I’ve never actually attended one - to be too vulnerable to submitting to the lowest common denominator, partly out of a desire not to offend. Worse, to spreading the perception of literature as a mere pasttime, a commodity, a piece of entertainment on a par with going to the movies - see Joe's comment on blog entry of July 19th. (No, of course we have right to be entertained. There are two reasons for reading fiction that I can think of - enlargement, and delight. But many of the novels on the Vintage list are about a hell of a lot more than just “a good read” - they have a cultural and artistic weight which has to be accounted for.) Worse still, that they grant legitimacy to the two-bit opinion of the semi-literate and unthinking. Alright, unfair to a degree: how else are the semi-literate going to become literate? How will any of us improve? Perhaps rather, the same legitimacy as that given to the opinion of the informed, insightful reader. One of the pitfalls of our brave new people's whatever.

I think SF is significantly different and this must have an effect on reading groups. Most SF readers come with a well-developed awareness of the genre (tonstant weaders, many of 'em) and certain common expectations intrinsic to it. These have been argued over endlessly and fruitfully, but include the “sense of wonder”, technological or social extrapolation, problem-solving or problem-exploration - in other words, there’s an agenda, which can be used as a standard for judging to what degree a piece of SF succeeds or fails. It’s also worth noting the longstanding invovement of SF fans in supporting, promoting and providing feedback to SF writers. There’s a closeness, a sense of common ownership. SF readers don’t have to ask permission to be let in - which it often seems mainstream book groups are aimed at doing - because they’re already there.

Also, despite the flood of new titles produced every year, the SF canon - the cultural frame of reference - is smaller, younger, easier to get a handle on, than that of mainstream fiction. It’s easier to see where a given novel fits, the sources it draws on, the traditions it builds on. The limits of the genre focus and channel attention. Ironically so, given that so much of SF is, superficially, outlandish, bizarre, extraordinary. Mainstream fiction doesn’t have that advantage - in a field where theoretically anything is fair game, it’s often the ordinary, the everyday, that bamboozles us. You would have to be Anthony Burgess to be able to give a considered critical judgement on every title in the Vintage list, and that’s why the involvement of reading groups seems to me to be false.

I drive a Fiat Uno. I can maybe give you a crit on the capabilities of a Saxo or a Metro or a Volvo 340, but don’t give me the keys to a Maserati and expect my opinion to be worth a damn after a test drive. Doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to get into one, doesn’t mean it won’t put a smile on my face that’ll last a week. This is not about denying people the right to read what they want, or to enjoy or reject it as they see fit. But to quote Harlan Ellison: no, people don’t have the right to an opinion - they have the right to an informed opinion. You need to know the cultural context, and you need to understand the artistry behind the work, the thing that drives it; this takes time, wide reading, and maybe repeated reading. Took me three goes - and indeed three years - to get Garner’s The Owl Service, and I love the way Garner thinks. I just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. All I saw was this neat, fairly hokey, underwritten story with a crap ending, seemingly perfect for analysis in an ‘O’-level Eng Lit class. I just wasn’t reading it the right way - slowly, and close up. It was a revelation.

To close, on “A Good Read” the other day, Matt Harvey and Simon Evans were praising Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. By contrast, Sue MacGregor said she’d dragged her way through it, hadn’t enjoyed it at all, couldn’t get to grips with it, found large sections of it incomprehensible. [Riddley Walker is set in a post-apocalyptic Kent where technology, historical knowledge and - crucially - language have all degraded. The novel is written - well, like so: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I ain’t looking to see none agen.”] Fair enough.

She then noted that it took Hoban five years to write it, and that it sometimes felt during the reading of it that it would take five years to finish. At this point I began to twitch - well, yeah, Sue, if that’s what it takes. Then she read out a line of the novel, I believe taken at random, to illustrate what she meant. Sue MacGregor is an experienced broadcaster, but she won’t be presenting Jackanory any time soon; in her dislike of the novel, she succumbed to the temptation of reading it badly. Always a bad move. If there’s a badly written sentence, and you read it to friends, colleagues or passers-by to show how bad it is (and how smart you are for having seen it), always read it well. Give the line the most generous chance, and let it fail on its own. Don’t condemn it beforehand.

She read it in a monotone. Now, it should be clear from the line I’ve quoted above that Hoban - or Riddley, the narrator - eschews conventional punctuation and spelling, but nonetheless there is a music, a rhythm in the language, and a definite accent. (The accent is, I suspect, pretty close to that of my great-aunt Doris, who despite having lived in Glasgow for sixty years retains the voice of her childhood in Bures, a village in East Anglia.) Not to respect that is to wilfully misrepresent the writing. Even Vicky Pollard (sp?), who probably speaks the longest sentences ever emitted in the Engish language, has a certain rhythm.

Then came the finisher. MacGregor whined - and I promise that's the word for it - “Why couldn’t he have written it in simpler language, made it easier for the reader?”

Because that’s what the work demanded! Because that’s the truth the vision led him to! Because the medium is the message! Because he’s a fuckin’ artist and you’re too dumb even to realise that there might be a point behind the way he choses to do things, even if you can’t see it!

I’d love, I’d really love, to hear her response to Finnegan’s Wake. (“Sorry Jim - it’s just not reader-friendly enough for us.” Incidentally, Sean Connery has given the best response to it I’ve heard. Mark Cousins was interviewing him and expressed surprise and respect that Connery had actually read it all the way through. “Well,” Connery said, “the thing is that it gives the world’s greatest scholars exactly the same problems it does to you and me.”)

Ignorance and stupidity are fine, because that’s our lot. It’s permitted to us. If we’re lucky, we manage to develop some awareness, some knowledge, in a few areas of experience. But not to acknowedge even the possibility of our own ignorance is inexcusable, the action of a moron. One has to come to literature with the contradictory attitudes of humility and arrogance: knowing that it's ours - it's ours - and we don't need to ask anyone's permission to claim it - but that we have to give the artist his or her due respect. Rejection of a work is one thing - but dismissal is another.

I’ve had my eye on Riddley Walker for a while now, and there was an interview with Hoban in the Guardian a couple of years back which piqued my curiosity. Bought a copy today. First impressions are that it is truthful, honest and genuinely exciting, and that the difficulty of the language doesn’t bar you - not too much - from the story, but denies literary artifice and convention, forces you to engage with it, makes the experience of reading it raw and direct. (I find this is the effect of some surrealist art - and of Red Shift as well. It gets harsher, more pitiless, with each re-reading.) We’ll see how it goes.

[Amended 10/09/05]


At 10 September 2005 at 15:23 , Blogger Joe said...

It is amazing how often devices like these divide readers. Some people enjoy the use of a patois, be it artificial as above or a real, regional dialect (eg Trainspotting). For McGregor to rubbish the book for this inventiveness is certainly foolish - would she expect Trainspotting to be written in 'proper' English? I once had an ignorant review editor for a well-know bookstore's magazine castigate me for the 'silly' names and phrases I used in a review of an Iain M Banks SF novel. Pointing out these were alien names and terms from the actual book did not impress him and I suggested he find another reviewer. Review duly appeared, obviously written from the publisher's blurb and not by someone who read the book.

This attitude also flies in the face of much of what we are taught in English at school. For instance Burgess' language use in his SF work is held to be inventive and Orwell's Newspeak is held to be both intellectually clever and to add verisimilitude to the future society.And yet do the same thing in a contemporary novel and some culture commentators deride it... As if language were a static thing to begin with - as the new entries show in the OED each year English is, as it always was, in constant flux, adding and altering words and terms. Good writers breathe language and understand this on a subconcious and concious level, commentors like McGregor obviously are too close-minded to accept it.

In the case of fantastical literature one of the phrases used to defend it from detractors is that we need to employ suspension of disbelief. Actually this is wrong I feel - what the active (as opposed to passive) reader needs is the power to believe in the tale, regardless of whether it conforms to their expectations or not. I suspect McGregor belongs to that poor, blinkered group who know what they think constitutes a 'proper' novel and nothing may deviate from that template. How awfully tedious for them. Perhaps they need a good beating around the synapses with The Doors to Perception?


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