Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE USES OF WHITE BREAD AND WATER
Some months back, I was sitting opposite a good friend who is a bibliophile and critic. We were having a good moan about the pretensions of “literary novels” we had both been reading.
So many of them chewed more than they could bite off, we agreed.
So many of them pondered and analysed more than they acted out.
So many of them told more than they showed.
We were tired of the post-modern trick of having characters reacting to something they had read in a literary work, rather than reacting to life itself.
All those ruddy novels about somebody’s life being changed because she or he had read Virginia Woolf or Proust or another canonical writer sufficiently highbrow.
All those wretched novels about how a noted author or composer or artist might have lived, or might have reacted to things that were not in their historical ken.
“Are we meant to be impressed that the author is literate?” we asked.
We were tired of the plotless waffle novels - the ones that tried to carry us through on vague mood and psychological observation, rather than developing character in terms of event.
And God save us from the self-referential ones, where we were meant to gasp in awe at stylistic tricks lifted from recognisable modernist classics.
Yes, we exchanged many specific titles as we bitched, with many prize-winners among them. But having no wish to start a brush-fire I refrain from citing any of them here. Suffice it to say that we were in the mood to agree with the playwright David Hare when he said that “literary novel” was the most depressing phrase in the English language.
Above all else it was the opaque style of too many “literary novels” that got to us. We were thinking of circumlocutory sentences without clear referents. We noted the inability to write clearly or to indicate, without being too obvious about it, where and when episodes took place.
But as we raved and grew more wild, I suddenly told my friend that I had discovered a novel with the perfect prose style.
It was clear, it was concise, there was not a wasted word.
Sentences functioned as they should function, taking the reader from A to B and giving as much information as was necessary to locate a scene and keep events in motion.
After the Booker long-listers we had been excoriating, it was, I said, a breath of fresh air.
“What is this wonder novel you have discovered?” he asked.
I told him.
It was one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. An old private eye yarn, of no fame whatsoever, published about seventy years ago.
Of course I then had to add that the characters were cardboard, the mystery artificial and the outcome disappointing. Verily, any Perry Mason story is no more nor less than professional formulaic pulp.
But at least the prose was clean and clear.
And this, dear reader, is the point of my feeble anecdote.
When I have become tired of deciphering highbrow novels, when my mind has become clogged with their indirect prose, and especially when I am beginning to yawn at their literary pretensions, then I reach for some old-fashioned lowbrow crime fiction and I marvel at how well, sentence for sentence, the old hacks could write.
Of course after one lowbrow tome, I’ve had enough and I go back to beating my head against real literature. The spell of clean prose breaks on the back of predictability, but it is still a tonic while it lasts.
This, I believe, is the best possible function of old crime fiction.
It clears the head. It puts literature into perspective. It is perishable, forgettable and easily consumed before you go back to the stuff that tests the brain.
Like the white bread and water that wine-tasters use to clean the palate between sampling vintages.