Monday, December 9, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“STUFF I’VE BEEN READING” by Nick Hornby  (Viking / Penguin $NZ37)

            Okay, here’s one for the books. You’re reading a blog, which is going to complain about something sounding too much like a blog. Not very cool, eh? But then there are blogs and there are blogs.
I don’t want to get stuck into Nick Hornby too hard, mind, because I know part of the problem is the way I’ve read his latest collection of bits and pieces. In one gulp, as if it was a real book. And I’ve come increasingly to think that that’s not the way you should read collections of bits and pieces which “name” authors (or their agents) decide to bring out between novels and real books, as a way of keeping their names in front of the public. Collections of real essays – or of loose blog-like observations – are better read one item at a time and therefore best kept as long-term bedside books. They’re better not galloped through in a day or two as I have just galloped through Hornby’s lucubrations. Read ‘em all together, instead of in monthly servings, and you end up getting too familiar with the author’s mannerisms and jokey tricks.
Stuff I’ve Been Reading is a selection of the columns which Nick Hornby wrote for Believer magazine between 2006 and 2011. He’s brought out at least one other selection from his Believer columns before. In case you’ve never heard of it, Believer magazine is a publication for ageing American hipsters trying desperately hard to pretend they’re younger than they are. Middle-aged baby-boomers who would still like to be twenty or thirty. Because it’s American, the Englishman Hornby every so often has to explain English references for his readership. Hornby’s particular schtick is pretending to be the ordinary, non-intellectual football (i.e. soccer)-following bloke who doesn’t approve of these arty and intellectual types who take literature too seriously. Remember, this is the guy whose fame rests on High Fidelity (about fanatical fans of rock music), Fever Pitch (about fanatical fans of soccer), About a Boy (about reluctantly accepting parental responsibility) and the movies based upon them. His persona is doggedly, obsessively (and tiresomely) laddish, though as he’s also a dad now, you don’t get much of the sex stuff in his columns. There’s a bit of parental responsibility in the mix.
Am I allowed to call Hornby’s persona a pose? As you read, it’s quite clear that he’s a guy who’s actually read quite a lot of serious stuff, but he can’t let the fans down, so his columns are written in an offhanded way as a kind of diary of what he’s been reading. And this is part of what I find too damned bloggy. He rarely settles down long enough to tell you enough about any individual book. His laddish-ness also has a habit of turning into luvvy-ness as he (casually and offhandedly, of course) boasts about being a member of BAFTA and attending the Academy Awards and swapping ideas with movie directors and lounging about poolside in California and so on.
At which points I feel like screaming “Age is catching up with you, you twerp!” Hornby is now in his late fifties (i.e. he’s six years younger than me). Give him just a few more years and he will be an Old Fart who can’t pretend to be anything else. He will then have to ditch the soccer-and-rock-music-obsessed-kid mask, unless he wants all the world to understand he’s like that guy who buys a Harley-Davidson when he can’t get it up any more.
Alright, enough of my intemperate ad hominem rant, but as Hornby writes in an ab homino style (I just made that phrase up) I think he’s invited it.
How does this laddish luvvy-ness play out in purported columns reviewing books? Here’s a typical Hornby introduction:
Last month I read nothing much at all, because of the World Cup, and this month I read a ton of stuff. I am usually able to convince myself that televised sport can provide everything literature offers and more, but my faith in my theory has been shaken a little by this control experiment. Who in the World Cup was offering the sophisticated, acutely observed analysis of the parent-child relationship to be found in….” etc. etc. I won’t bother offering more of what Nick Hornby says here (pp.26-27) as it’s an introduction to a notice on a “graphic novel”; and though I do appreciate real artistry in graphic novels, I also see enthusiasm for them (like enthusiasm for YA books, which Hornby touts in another column) as another part of his agenda of pretending he doesn’t read the arty, wordy stuff.
Luvvy-ness, did I say? Its absolutely worst symptom is the way Hornby provides too much bloody puffery for the novels of his brother-in-law Robert Harris, as in “I have been writing this column for so long that I am now forced to consider a novel by my brother-in-law for the third time. Irritatingly, it’s just as good as the other two….” etc. etc. (p.88) One wonders if his wife would be annoyed if he didn’t praise her brother’s novels.
You also too frequently get wilful put-downs of literary classics for the benefit of semi-literates who want to feel good about not having read them. Here is Hornby speaking of The Simpsons Movie: “From what I saw, the movie was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together – an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel.” (p.106)
Yeah, so take that in the eye all you arty blokes who think you’re smart ‘cos you read Flaubert!
Hornby also stoops to a number of patently unfair reviewer’s tricks. When he compares a memoir about the horrors of life in Russia under gangsters with a novel set among the English middle classes, he concludes: “Politkovskaya is writing about the agonies of a nation plagued by corruption, terrorism and despotism: the highly regarded literary figure is writing about some middle class people who are bored of their marriage. My case rests.” (p.46)
Well actually his case doesn’t rest at all. He’s simply put down the novel by “a highly regarded literary figure” by comparing it with a totally different sort of book.
By now (if you have read thus far), you will see that I am not particularly enamoured of Hornby’s style, which is more than a teensy bit smug. But then he is part of the celebrity culture – and of course he (correctly, but very defensively) reminds us that Charles Dickens was in the celebrity culture too, and William Shakespeare wrote for money (both of which factlets I already knew, luvvy). Anyway, this puts him into some silly situations not entirely of his own making. He tells us he’s asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Our Mutual Friend. He reads it. He doesn’t like it. He for the first time reads some criticism on it (you know – the stuff written by those serious critics whom he frequently slags off) and discovers it’s one of Dickens’ less esteemed novels, considered by many to be a dud. “So how am I going to write this introduction, when I’m supposed to be positive about it?” he wails. Now oddly, in this situation I don’t think badly of him. But I do think badly of trendy publishers who get “names” to write introductions to books rather than people who actually know what they’re writing about. Think of it. Nick Hornby writes an intro to Our Mutual Friend not ‘cos he knows anything about it, not ‘cos he’s expressed any enthusiasm for it (he hasn’t yet read it) but because some agent somewhere says it’ll drag in the punters to have Nick Hornby’s name attached to it.
Okay, enough, enough. I can now generously cut to the good stuff and say there are times when Hornby lapses into sense. The mask slips and he shows he can get caught up in the good stuff. He develops a taste for Muriel Spark, reads everything of her’s he can get his hands on, and writes: “But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a well-established writer previously unknown to me that resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre…” (p.147)
It would be rude, ungrateful and unjust of me not to admit that there were other times when I thoroughly endorsed Hornby’s judgements. Take this one on Cormac McCarthy’s unrelievedly bleak and horrible dystopian novel The Road:
It is important to remember that The Road is a product of one man’s imagination: the literary world has a tendency to believe that the least consoling world view is The Truth. (How many times have you read somebody describe a novel as ‘unflinching’, in approving terms. What’s wrong with a little flinch every once in a while?) McCarthy is true to his own vision, which is what gives his novel its awesome power. But maybe when Judgement Day does come, we’ll surprise each other by sharing our sandwiches and singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, rather than by scooping out our children’s brains with spoons. Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from our lives that occasionally seem unendurably drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other – they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have a duty to read it.” (p.63)
Also, bravo for this crusher on a piece of trendiness that was doing the rounds a few seasons back:
The French book about reading that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends Because the Ones You’ve Got Are Jerks: literary editors seem to think it’s zeitgeisty, but out in the world, grown-ups no longer feel the need to bullshit about literature, thank God.” (pp.95-96)
I have to admit that Hornby provided for me at least one moment with real food for thought. He is writing about a non-fiction work by David Knyaston on Austerity Britain, and he remarks:
 “If you read and write fiction, you may be gratified to see how Kynaston relies on the contemporary stuff to add colour and authenticity to his portrait of the times. The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? In fifty or one hundred years’ time, we are, I suspect, unlikely to want to know what someone writing in 2010 had to say about the American Civil War. I don’t want to put you off, if you’re just writing the last page of a 700-page epic novel about Gettysburg  - I’m sure you’ll win loads of prizes, and so on. But after that, you’ve had it.” (p.128)
As you may have noticed, I’m an admirer of historical novels that give a real sense of the times in which they are set (very few do). But I think Hornby is right here. In the main, after a few years have gone by, most historical novels tell us more about the age in which they were written than they do about the age in which they are supposedly set.
You see what I’ve done in this notice, don’t you? I’ve just praised Hornby when he says something I agree with, and rudely shoved him away when he says something I find offensive or stupid. Ruddy book reviewers commenting on other book reviewers, eh? Soon you’ll reach the conclusion that criticism is just a matter of taste, and we wouldn’t want you thinking that, would we?

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