The Silver Eel

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

Monday, September 05, 2005


In sympathy with literates across the country, I heaved a sigh on seeing that the Vintage Future Classics list includes such novels as To Kill a Mockingbird, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, The Master and Margarita, The Leopard and many others which have yet to make their mark on world literature, popular imagination and civilisation in general. Or maybe it's just that civilisation stops where the marketing department of Random House begins. A wholly revolting and cynical exercise, designed to increase sales on the cheap, and without going to the trouble and expense of reading, editing and promoting work by new writers.

The involvement of reading groups, presumably to give the appearance that this is somehow a "people's list", that it enjoys popular support and legitimacy, only makes it worse. Reading groups are - caveat: almost without exception - an activity for encouraging the banal, the mediocre, the second-rate. You never get excellence from committees. They do not raise: they level. You get excellence from individuals striking out on their own. That's the beauty - indeed the whole point - of the written word. One person speaking; one person listening, thinking, arguing. Hopefully, growing. OK, so call me an elitist.

Alan Warner's article in last Saturday's Guardian is worth a look. His comments on Scott are interesting, and I agree with what he says in the last paragraph about the benefits of browsing in second-hand bookshops, away from the horror of 3 for 2.


"The best children's novel for adults since The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (Time Out).



"The evictions have gone off far more peacefully than was feared" (ITN journalist).

Another eviction, involving a window, is overdue.


And my all-time favourite, from a poster last year to promote Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close: "There's a fine line between cop or killer."

Please join me in summoning the ghost of Bill Hicks: "If you work in marketing - kill yourselves."


It's enormously satisfying when the ground you've covered makes a surprise connection. (Note that storytelling, in Australian Aboriginal culture, is myth, history and territory). From Sciascia's The Knight and Death (Granta - though I'm not keen on their synopses):

"The final words of the conversation, however, left him with a yearning for the deserted island, for a spot where, as though huddled over some map, he could give free rein to an ancient dream and an ancient memory: in as much as certain things from childhood and adolescence were now ancient to him. Treasure Island: a book, someone had said, which was the closest resemblance to happiness attainable. He thought: tonight I will re-read it."

Just so. Although I admit that for me, Kidnapped is the thing. I took a look at a page at random recently and marvelled at it. You just can't break down the prose. Every sentence follows the last one and leads on to the next one perfectly, as if the entire thing had sprung fully-formed from Stevenson's mind, like Mozart's music. Obviously that's not the case - he had to work at it like anyone else - but what a gift he had to work with!


At 6 September 2005 at 17:23 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Synopses on the back of books always lie. I reckon this is because synopsis-writers don't actually read the books they are summarising. For instance, on the back of Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone, it made a big deal about how it was about football. This put me off reading it, until I realised that it was probably a gimmick to get Nick Hornby fans to buy it. I then discovered that there was hardly any mention of football in the book at all.

I actually liked The Master and Margarita (a cult classic) and have read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and The Leopard - but I agree with your point that new writers should get more of a chance. Look at the way British SF writers are treated by British publishers...

I suppose with reading groups, it depends on how they choose the books. If it involves picking popular stuff from mainstream publishing, I gues the results will inevitably be mediocre. And they do say "a camel is a horse designed by committee".

At 6 September 2005 at 22:14 , Blogger Joe said...

The SF book group I organise selects each month's choice after discussions (and arguements) of suggestions by the regular members. Obviously this sort of approach will vary enormously from book group to book group, but luckily our group has been pretty determined to include a diversity of subjects, writers and eras.

If we've covered a classic like H G Wells one month then there's a strong urge to cover something contemporary such as Susanna Clarke. If we've had heavy SF then we'll balance it with some fantasy. We've gone from the Sandman to Margaret Atwood to Alfred Bester, so obviously some groups can work this way while others may struggle. I suppose it comes down to the literary knowledge of the group members; if they have a reasonable knowledge of writers (and a willingness to experiment) then the system works.

If they lack knowledge in the book sphere then I imagine they are going to be limited to the most obvious choices they have heard of via the media or the (almost identical) front table displays in chain bookstores. Some publishers are involved with groups and I suspect that if the group does lack literary knowledge (not trying to sound elitist here and good on them for endeavouring to expand their book horizons)then they may be unduly influenced by publishers who are often going to promote the usual suspects.

On Kidnapped however I totally agree - it is a fabulous book which I've enjoyed as a child and an adult and then a child again. I can think on a dozen comments I could make on how wonderful it is but a former colleague picking it for a staff recommends years ago summed it up perfectly when on his mini-review he simply wrote 'the single best boy's adventure story ever written'.

At 13 September 2005 at 12:11 , Blogger Yvonne said...

I also run an SF reading group. At the moment the way we select books is for people to take it in turns. Our choices so far are listed on our reviews page.

At 14 September 2005 at 21:08 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Huvnae read Master and Margarita. Or The Leopard (yet). Or One Day in the Life... Or - or - or. Alan Warner has read 78 of them, which I think is just showing off.


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