HOW SHOULD AN INTERVIEW BE? Conversation with Sheila Heti

There is a question which writers (and readers) of literary fiction get tired of hearing: which bits really happened? The traditional and respectable answer is that this doesn’t matter. Everything in the book will have been transformed by art, and isn’t something that comes straight from an author’s imagination more autobiographical, more telling, than things that might have happened to them, anyway? But these serious maxims don’t always quell your desire for real-life incident or gossip. Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be, subtitled ‘A novel from life,’ had me googling paintings by Margaux Williamson: Heti’s best friend in real life and a character in her book.

How Should A Person Be? is the story of Sheila, a writer living in Toronto, who believes she might one day be a genius. For now, she’s struggling with inspiration, morality and an obsession with Israel: an artist whose dirty talk is as second-rate as his painting. Having been commissioned to write a play for a feminist theatre company and feeling she ‘[doesn’t] know anything about women,’ she records conversations with her friends to figure out ‘what reality had that my play did not.’ But this, of course, is the play. Written in acts, and borrowing from self help books, HSAPB? is the stand in for the artistic project the narrator has been unable to complete. But this was the project all along.

The games with reality and art didn’t end with the book itself. Having taken years to be accepted by American publishers, and subsequently becoming her most famous and lauded book, HSAPB? fulfilled, then capitalised on, the kind of attention it records: it became a celebrity. The book was reportedly influenced by The Hills – a semi-scripted American reality show – and people have compared HSAPB? to HBO’s Girls, the creators having since nodded to each other in interviews.

I saw Heti in conversation with Adam Thirlwell at the LRB book shop last month. Two days later I interviewed her myself. It was invaluable to see her self-reflexive, reality hungry book in the light of reality, and I would have asked a different set of questions had I not seen her speak.

Her book is, among other things, a series of transcribed conversations. I’ve tried to keep this transcription as raw as something out of the book itself, which nicely matches the quality of the recording, with its occasional roadworks outside the Random House flat. And as Heti is also interviews editor for The Believer, I got the sense, at times, that I was the one being interviewed, or even fictionalised. If you want something neater, you can read my abridged version for The Spectator.

Jonnie

Sheila, you are the interviews editor for The Believer, and have said that interviews attract you as an art form because you like ‘hearing someone speak to themselves.’ Em, has interviewing people taught you how to speak to yourself in books?

Sheila

Erm, I think I said ‘speak for themselves’

Jonnie

Okay, I might have copied that down wrong. But the typo still stands.

Sheila

The typo still stands… Erm, and the question is, whether interviewing has taught me to speak in books? in some way?

Jonnie

Speak to yourself, or for yourself? What have you learnt from interviews in terms of the novel?

Sheila

Well I started doing interviews around the time I started writing How Should A Person Be? so they were kinda simultaneous with each other. Erm, I guess they taught me about, well, that it’s not always the content of what someone says that’s interesting: it’s the way that they express themselves and the way that they form their thoughts and the way they form their sentences and, um, the kind of really quiet things that happen in a conversation that maybe on first read you don’t always notice but that second third and fourth read you do; like, I think that there’s always, you know, the surface level conversation that’s going on and then, but when you transcribe you always see that there’s, you now it’s like, you know the ex – you know micro expressions?

Jonnie

Yeah.

Sheila

Like, so the micro expressions in speech. So, I think doing interviews taught me how to value that, and learning how to edit interviews also helped me like, learn how to edit, you know, the kind of conversations that I used in the book. Um, like there is a form and a flow to conversation that you can see, well, that you can hear if it’s a podcast like this but you can also see if you write it, write it down. There’s ways of like preserving that in the editing and highlighting that I learned.

Jonnie

Cool. Em, you’ve said that preceding this book you had a crisis about the conventions and motives of traditional fiction. Em, can you locate the exact moment or book that caused this, like, what were you reading that –

Sheila

 I, the first thing that came into my head, and I don’t know if this is true or not, but there’s a book called The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Do you know this book?

Jonnie

No, not at all.

Sheila

It’s a really, really – it was a really popular sort of self help book for people that wanted to be more successful I guess, you know like people in business and so on. And I was at a writers’ colony called Yaddo in upstate New York and, uhm, I had brought that book with me among other books, and there’s just something so terrible and wonderful about it, like, it had you do these exercises and one of the exercises was, uhm, think about what you would want people to say about you at your funeral, and you’re supposed to write down what you’d like people to say, and I wrote this down – I was doing this exercise – and, and I went back a week later and I read what I had written, and it was so horrible. And I was like, that’s not – it was just so revolting to me what I’d want people to say, and it made me think about this idea of self help and how we’re compelled by it but ultimately in some ways how terrible and revolting it is, how it kind of brings up the worst parts of you, you know? Uhm…

Jonnie

And that was good for fic – for writing?

Sheila

It just seemed more interesting to me, like what that book had shown me about myself, or even about our – the contemporary – self, seemed more interesting than what somebody writing, you know, about our horribleness in a novel might, you know, show; so I don’t know, I guess I got interested in self help and a different relationship to the reader, from the self help books I was reading. Yeah.

Jonnie

There’s a bit in your book where Sheila says to Margaux ‘I like boring people. I think it’s a virtue. People should be a little bored.’ Em, can you tell me more about that, possibly?

Sheila

Yeah, just, I dunno. I think there’s something about – no one wants to be bored all the time and I think if you’re interested in the world you’re never really truly bored; like, I don’t think I’m ever really truly bored. But there’s something about those books that are always packing in information and packing in exciting, stimulating events, and, that are always entertaining you and books that are always on, that I find really exhausting, you know, so it’s more like a comparison to that, um, those kinds of books, um, I think James Wood even wrote about it, what did he call them? Hyper?

Jonnie

Hysterical Realism.

Sheila

Yeah. It’s as though like the book’s duty is – and I do think that books should entertain, but to hyper entertain, I don’t think that’s the book’s job.

Jonnie

Excellent. Em, Yeah: there’s a section of the book where Sheila and Margaux rate famous philosophers, artists and writers as being ‘funny’ or ‘not funny’, by which you mean a kind of marrow-deep, unintentional comedy in their sensibility. How do contemporary artists and writers figure in this? I’ve got some names, but if you can start off, if there’s anyone,

Sheila

Who’s funny?

Jonnie

Who’s funny or not funny and why.

Sheila

 What’s her name? There was a documentary made about her where she adopts an African baby: she’s a British artist and she has those naked women, like thirty or forty naked, or, you know, women in bras standing in a gallery, what’s her name?  Yeah I think she’s funny even, I think she’s very funny. Well who are some of the names you had? I wish I could remember…

Jonnie

Jonathan Franzen?

Sheila

Not funny.

Jonnie

Not Funny. Elif Batuman?

Sheila

Funny.

Jonnie

Good answer. Zadie Smith?

Sheila

Erm, I haven’t read any of her recent novels, so I’ll take a pass.

Jonnie

Was she funny?

Sheila

Uhm. Not to me, I think other people found her very funny though.  Actually when I was reading her I felt very keenly, like, that we had a different sense of humour, though meeting her I found her very funny, so I don’t know what to, maybe she’s, maybe… I don’t know what to say: as a person yes.

Jonnie

Tom McCarthy?

Sheila

Yeah, very funny. At least – well I’ve only read Remainder but I thought that was very funny. And absurd, you know? And uncanny.

Jonnie

Adam Thirwell?

Sheila

Uhm, I haven’t finished his books yet so I don’t know.

Jonnie

Okay, I’ll leave that one. Geoff Dyer?

Sheila

Funny, I mean I read that book her wrote about D. H. Lawrence, that’s very funny.

Jonnie

Out Of Sheer Rage.

Sheila

Yeah.

Jonnie

 Erm. David Shields?

Sheila

Not funny.

Jonnie

Not funny. James Wood?

Sheila

Well he’s not a – is he a novelist?

Jonnie

Does that matter? He is a –

Sheila

Is he funny? Is he a funny critic? I don’t know if it applies to critics in my, in my head. Do you find him funny?

Jonnie

I find, yeah, I find him funny sensibility wise. I think there’s an awareness of that deep-seated –

Sheila

yeah, what do you think about the people you just – I want to,

Jonnie

Yeah, erm, haven’t read any Jonathan Franzen. Efif Batuman: definitely. Zadie Smith: almost. Erm, haven’t read Tom McCarthy. Adam Thirlwell: clever but no. Erm, Geoff Dyer: very much.  David Shields:  no.

Sheila

So we agree?

Jonnie

 We agree, yeah. We should tally it up – yeah, this is going well. Okay, so do you think How Should A Person Be? is your best executed or most indicative work? If you wanted a reader to get a feel for you, because all your books are quite different, would you recommend this one above other ones?

Sheila

Mmm. I don’t think it’s my best executed because, each book I was trying to do something different, and I feel like, you know, yeah, I don’t compare them, I don’t think this one was – I got closer to it, what I was trying to do than I got in the other ones. In some way I think I got closer in the other ones, maybe, because I knew what I was trying to do, more – well I knew what I was trying to do in terms of the shape of the book. But would I recommend people read this one? I think that I can tell, sort of: this book I would even recommend to people that don’t read literature, you know, or don’t care about art in any way, but I think that Ticknor is something that I would recommend to people who are writers more, because I feel like, I dunno why but just in terms of the response I’ve had I see that people who are also writers prefer that book or have a more special relationship to that book. I’m not even sure why.

Jonnie

You’ve mentioned before that you watched the reality show The Hills in order to transcribe dialogue to get a feel for their reality. I was wondering, not on a level of which bits happened and which bits didn’t, but what ratio of the transcript dialogue in the book is your invention, like, completely, and how much of it is taken. Just ratio. I’m thinking of the technicality –

Sheila

Of the transcripts? I should look at the book. I think that it’s mostly real. I’m trying to think if there was any that I made up in the transcripts. I’d edit them. I’m not sure that any were, I don’t know. Definitely mostly real.

Jonnie

My favourite transcripts are the ones which seem to good to have just happened – seemed like art has played a big part –

Sheila

Like the copy shop?

Jonnie

And the two theatre people with their terrible ideas.

Sheila

 All those things are real.

Jonnie

Oh really? It just seems like impeccably constructed satire.

Sheila

I know it’s amazing. It’s terrific. I couldn’t believe it!

Jonnie

Well I was going to ask you did you ever get a sense that art made a better case for itself in this book that ‘reality’? But –

Sheila

 That was reality, but art is finding the situation I guess. When I went into that copy shop in New York I turned my tape recorder on – I’d never turned my tape recorder on in any other shop I’d ever been in. What I liked about writing this book was feeling that, you know, for me with the other books I would try to be sensitive to the moment that I wanted to write and always write in those moments, and with this book I’d try to be sensitive to the moment I’d want to record, so it was a different kind of discipline or different kind of sensitivity to the world so, yeah; and as I was recording in the copy shop I had a second consciousness – you know when they say that about writers that they walk around the world with a consciousness of, like, oh I can write about that? But I’d never had that because I have such a bad memory I’d be like, how can I write about that? Or I’d get home and be like, what was I going to write about? So for me the recording was a way of doing that in the moment. But, like I was saying, as I was recording I had a second consciousness of understanding myself in that situation not really to be me but to be this kind of character that I had been writing about in my book and understanding, sort of seeing it on the page as I was interacting, and again there was a lot of editing. I didn’t write anything that he said or anything new that I said. And that’s sort of the reality TV thing of sort of performing in your own life. That fascinated me.

Jonnie

That’s brilliant: the idea of not creating it but editing – planning where to edit the reality. It’s very interesting. You said in conversation with Thirlwell that ‘if you spend too much time on style, you forget about the meaning.’ This for me is a problematic statement in the context of your book, which is preoccupied not only with always relating things as they are, but also with unlearning things, unlearning literariness and artistry: there is the ‘ugly painting competition,’ and your character Sheila borrows heavily from self-help clichés: footprints in the sand, stormy seas, brick walls. Is this kind of thing not as counterintuitive to meaning and your way of seeing things as they are as overworking a sentence?

Sheila

Is what counterintuitive?

Jonnie

Erm, the consciously unlearning and adding the layer of euphemism and cliché from a different medium. Is that not just as counterintuitive to the way you see the world –

Sheila

 Adding cliché?

Jonnie

Well, the unlearning aspect.

Sheila

I don’t know if I understand your question. So you were talking about when I said with Adam that I was trying not to think about style with this book.

Jonnie

Yeah. You were trying not to think about it. But surely because you’re a writer, the way you think is also as a stylist. So sometimes you borrow these self-help images, and there’s all the things about, erm, Sholem saying that you have to unlearn your sense of line.

Sheila

Right. In order to make something ugly.

Jonnie

But is that actually a ‘natural’ way of seeing the world – inhibiting your natural faculties? Is inhibiting those things not counterintuitive?

Sheila

Is it not counterintuitive to inhibit thinking about style? Yeah, totally counterintuitive. Yeah it felt really counterintuitive – this whole thing. Everything about it. That was what was so hard about Margaux and I, like, everything that she believed and thought was exactly the opposite of what I believed and thought, and I was trying to write a book in the way that she might write a book or with her aesthetic, which is not mine, I mean, she is much messier, she’s much freer, she’s not as tight and precise. She’s a painter; it’s different to be a painter and to work with words: I think you can be much more precise with language than you can with paint and you can go back to an earlier draft, whereas with painting if you make a line you can’t just, like, go back to an earlier draft; you have to deal with the mess you’ve made. And so it was trying to learn how to move. You know, Margaux and I have had this conversation a lot where she thinks the writer becomes neurotic because you can go backwards, and because you can go backwards in your art you can go backwards in your life – well I’ll take back that thing I just did, I’ll take back that thing I just said. You know? And that’s neuroses. Margaux’s… I’ve never seen her be like, in a neurotic loop, and that’s I think because the discipline of a painter is you have to deal with what you did and move forward. So yeah. Anyway, it was really counterin – yeah, that’s why I think: that’s why I don’t really like the book in terms of, uhm, like, with the other books I sort of, I feel that they’re clean and good and so on, and after I publish them the response didn’t make me feel any less clean or good, and this book is so dirty or whatever, and the response to it, and allowing myself to do all these interviews or whatever, everything’s just become messy and dirty in my life and in my sense of myself, and the effect that the book has had on my life has been, uhm, kind of radical in a way that feels counter to my nature and everything. So, yeah, it’s weird when you do something counterintuitive or you make choices that are the opposite of what your nature would choose. You know I really, uhm. And then the repercussions are much more than I thought. But I think it’s odd in a way because we are so – I think everybody’s really extreme, like every person is a really extreme case. And so to balance yourself with the characteristics of somebody, like in my case Margaux who’s  the opposite extreme, you come to some new place, and what happens is pretty unpredictable as a result.

Jonnie

The other day with Thirlwell you talked a lot about the importance of vulnerability. You have put on lectures where speakers aren’t expert in their topic to encourage an empathic bond with the audience; your latest book’s appeal is the vulnerability of the material and the speaker; and you communicated that admirable, sympathetic vulnerability when you spoke, too. Yet when an audience member asked about the way you wrote sex – the place where most writers would feel most vulnerable – you said there was ‘nothing embarrassing about it.’ Is this not a very vulnerable thing to say?

Sheila

You think that’s a vulnerable thing to say?

Jonnie

Or defensive.

Sheila

I think it’s just true. I mean I did worry putting the sex in the book would eclipse everything else but I didn’t worry that it would reveal anything about me.

Jonnie

 Do you not see vulnerability as a key aspect in writing about sex?

Sheila

I didn’t feel vulnerable when I was writing it. I felt kind of powerful when I was writing it and very assured. I never felt vulnerable writing it. I mean the attitude of the sex passages is very centred and confident, even though she’s writing about degradation and submission, you know? I was mostly embarrassed by that question because she [audience member] was sort of saying you and Adam write about sex in the same way –

Jonnie

Oh yeah, you don’t.

Sheila

We don’t?

Jonnie

You don’t.

Sheila

(laughs)

Jonnie

Carry on.

Sheila

That’s all I wanted to say.

Jonnie

There’s a funny thing I realised: in a book which deals intimately and unsparingly with your real life friendships, erm, it seems to me you’ve been far more tactful and guarded about sex, because you seem to hide it behind the most obviously symbolic and fictional character: Israel.

Sheila

I also didn’t name my ex-husband. I just felt that certain relationships in my life had this contract in them from the beginning which was that this is – our relationship will involve this art relationship, and in the case of my romantic or sexual life, those relationships didn’t have that contract, so I’m not the kind of writer who’s gonna uhm, abuse the human contract, if the contract’s not there. You know? I didn’t get married with the contract that we’ll write about the marriage, you know? I mean I did write a little bit about it, and so did my hus –  ex-husband in his book, but just in terms of my feelings about it not in terms of anything that ever happened. And also, it’s better to use the name Israel than to use his real name, and then in terms of Margaux it’s better to use her real name than to use a fake name.

Jonnie

Yeah, but you see my thoughts on it, about the tact?

Sheila

Yeah, you see my thoughts on it? (laughs)

Jonnie

Yeah, of course. But do you see my thoughts on it?

Sheila

What are your thoughts? (general laughter) No I don’t see your thoughts on it…

Jonnie

Oh okay. Well I’ll leave that there.

Sheila

Well no I mean that, yeah…

Jonnie

One of the reasons I brought up the whole sex thing is that you seem to write literary sex very well, which is hard, because it seems impossible for writers to convey the urgency the characters may feel about it to anyone else: what you do is allow the hypnotic effect it has on your characters while allowing the unoriginality of sex itself to be perfectly visible in the prose. Did you have an aesthetic agenda to begin with about how you’d present sex, and I know vaguely what you’re gonna say but, did that choice actually change as you wrote?

Sheila

No, I wrote that stuff very quickly, just in sort of one sitting; I didn’t return to it. A lot of the stuff I wrote just in one, it’s like the prologue, I just wrote it in one burst? So there wasn’t a conscious, you know, what did you say? Intellectual agenda?

Jonnie

An aesthetic –

Sheila

Aesthetic agenda? No. But I know what I don’t like, and I’ve always known what I don’t like in sex writing. I just don’t think it’s usually right. It’s not usually the way sex feels the way people write about it: It’s something else. It’s like they write about the body. I mean it is the body but it’s what you say – it’s the urgency, usually, that’s the exciting or interesting part of it, not the animal part of it.

Jonnie

For one of your characters, the artist Sholem, freedom is ‘having the technical capacity to execute whatever he wants.’ And this question plays into something you said before. In this book you wanted the freedom of direct expression or formlessness, but its success for me largely comes from your technical capability to execute that directness and formlessness. Do you think you could have written a ‘formless’ book as effective as this without first training in traditional forms?

Sheila

Well this couldn’t have been my first book because it was just – the hard thing for me was the balance between form and formlessness, and beauty and ugliness, and being a novel and not being a novel. All the editing was about making it seem like having enough narrative to draw you through it but not having so much that it becomes to artificially novelistic and, you know, having it be like life and having it not be like life, so all those balances I think, no, I wouldn’t have been able to do that had I not written fiction before, or if I’d not understood some of the mechanisms of fiction. Yeah, I think that was definitely, you have to sort of know, yeah. I feel now after having written this book like much more capable of writing that I did before. Uhm, things are coming, it’s easier somehow, so I feel like I learned a lot, over those years, and I think Margaux feels the same way too about the movie she made during that time, like, now she’s thinking about a second one and uhm, I feel like when we started these projects we’re babies or something. And I don’t think either of us feel like that now.

Jonnie

 You say you wouldn’t have dared this as your first novel, and it seems that this book maybe a call to arms for young writers who crave a similar kind of immediacy. In Girls, one of the in-jokes is that Hannah, an unpublished and unknown author, writes ‘personal essays.’ Would you feel compelled to read the potential children of HSAPB?, which would inevitably be young people’s debuts which aspire to be like it but don’t have your understanding of form?

Sheila

Yeah, probably not. I mean, I don’t think that I would be, and I don’t think that I’m that interested now in any of this. You get it out of your system or something. No, I’m afraid, actually, of being sent all these books that I’m supposed to like and want to read, when you know –

Jonnie

For review?

Sheila

Yeah or whatever, and it’s happening. People keep saying do you want to read this young woman’s like, autobiographical novel and it’s like, no! I want to think about other things now.

Jonnie

You’re saying you don’t have the desire to do something like that again, and it’s made you feel like a better writer. I suppose the place to end would be, what’s next, what kind of thing. You don’t need to tell me what you’re writing next, but what you’re excited by?

Sheila

Well, truthfully I was on an aeroplane a while ago, maybe like a year or two ago, and I realised that I’d never written as me. I’d always written as – in character? So Ticknor’s a character, and this Sheila’s a character, and that’s what I became excited about like, it sounds so banal actually saying it out loud, but in reality it’s not banal because it’s much more difficult. That’s a different kind of risk.

Jonnie

Being yourself rather than playing yourself?

Sheila

Yeah, it’s a huge difference, and for a reader they can’t tell the difference, but I can tell the difference and, uhm, I think it’s easier to write like a stupid version of yourself or a less sensitive version of yourself. But to actually try to write with whatever intelligence you were given, uhm, is scarier than to try and write a dumbed-down version of yourself, because you have to actually contend with the limitations of what you have and who you are in a different way. So the books that I’m working on now, and some of them are collaborations; some of them are just on my own, I guess they all have that in common, but none of them are characters. And so with HSAPB? I really do think of it as fiction because the narrator is a charcter, so these: I wouldn’t even know if I could call them fiction.

Jonnie

I was expecting you were going to go down a more fictional…

Sheila

Well I wrote a novel that I’m editing, but these other things are more, yeah, are not. But then I think after these are done then I’ll want to do that, but I feel like I learned some things while writing this book that I want to deepen rather than just doing their opposite.

PERSONA NON GRANTA

In a radio interview which coincided with the Granta announcement, twice-listed judge A. L. Kennedy mentioned that the business climate means publishers pick safe books, which makes for blandness. I was worried, and following Alex Clark’s desperately slender prediction for the Guardian, people were right to worry. There is a danger that lists like this perpetuate a cycle of deserving, whereby, based on previous recognitions, awards and competitions, a certain writer becomes the right person to recognise and award. Luckily, the list didn’t fall into that trap.

Chances are, you won’t know who half of these authors are. If you do, you wouldn’t have a couple of weeks ago before you swotted up, and even then, everyone was way off. If you haven’t heard them, here they are very quickly: Naomi Alderman, Tahmima Anam, Ned Beauman, Jenni Fagan, Adam Foulds, Xiaolu Guo, Sarah Hall, Steven Hall, Joanna Kavenna, Benjamin Markovits, Nadifa Mohamed, Helen Oyeyemi, Ross Raisin, Sunjeev Sahota, Taiye Selasi, Kamila Shamsie, Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Adam Thirlwell, Evie Wyld.

 The story so far: Adam Foulds, Sarah Hall and Ned Beauman were certs; and lists were bound to scramble for Selasi, a protege of Toni Morrison whose debut Ghana Must Go was a bit of a sensation. Smith and Thirlwell deserved to be on the list again purely for being two of the only British novelists who write importantly about the novel and its future. Thirlwell’s fiction since his first novel, Politics, hasn’t been great, but that’s the risk of innovation, and he appears to be on the cusp of writing something brilliant; his big work of non-fiction, Miss Herbert, a history of formal innovators, the art of the novel, and a manifesto for his own writing, is his most significant work. Smith’s NW finally delivered on White Teeth’s promise of a Great London Novel, and on the promise her New York Review of Books essay ‘Two Paths For The Novel’ made for an essential one.

 There is the usual handful of changeables and forgettables, and everyone will have their own tips they’ll be indignant not to see on the list. Richard Milward, a compassionate, formally ingenious, stylish writer in his twenties who has nonetheless been publishing for almost a decade, is mine. But he is young enough to still make it onto the next one. Even then, the list is surprisingly strong.

 I have been keeping up with Granta events this week. On Tuesday I went to see seventeen of the authors read a few sentences each in the Piccadilly Waterstones. I was Persona non Granta, getting in the way when the authors reached for a smoked salmon blini. In the Q and A at the end I asked John Freeman, Granta’s editor, whether he felt pressured by the literary climate – the record badness of the Booker in 2011, for instance – into choosing a reactionary, overtly rigorous list. A celebration of the writers chosen probably wasn’t the right place for a question about the politics of list making. Freeman quite predictably said that he hadn’t been ‘pressured’ into anything, and had picked the best of what he was given, though this contradicted the remarkable and unexpected way he and the authors later demonstrated their engagement with the list: they turned it into an intellectual investigation of lists. These authors seem to be in constant writerly transit: they’ve lived in many places each. Kamila Shamsie, in a beautiful response to a trite question about the concept of home, noted that ‘people expect there to be a kind of monogamy – why shouldn’t you be allowed to have more than one?’ Helen Oyeymi said that she has recently been writing in a second language, because it forces you to ‘become comfortable with never saying what you mean to say,’ which is comparable to the natural state of writing.

  The list is almost half made up of expats, some of whom read the best extracts and gave the best answers: Markovitz, Anam, Shamsie and Guo, by a stroke of luck for us, chose to move here after a portion of their sensibilities would have developed elsewhere; Smith, Szalay, Oyeyemi and Selasi no longer live here. But the double fact of not being responsible for the gifts of half of these, and not being able to hold on to the other, must say bad things about our literary culture. If anything, it is the list’s surprising, almost undeserving strength which throws the British literary reputation into question. Had some of these authors not chosen to live here, or had there been a rule excluding those who left the country at the time of submission, would we have had to make do with Stephen Kelman and Francesca Segal? If Britain’s list turns out to be world class, that will only be because it has borrowed from the world.

The following day I went to a panel at the London Book Fair where Freeman, Thirlwell and A. L. Kennedy spoke more about writing and Granta in general than this year’s list. I asked a lighthearted question this time, which got a couple of laughs. I think I managed to perturb Thirlwell the night before when I cornered him, accidently told him I loved Miss Thirlwell rather than Miss Herbert, and asked him to sign Nabokov’s book on Gogol instead of one of his own.


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THE GOOD TRUANT: Interview with James Wood

James Wood is arguably the most celebrated, possibly the most impugned, and definitely the most envied, literary journalist living. By his mid twenties he was the chief book reviewer for The Guardian. From there he moved to America’s The New Republic, then, as of 2007, The New Yorker. He also teaches at Harvard. There is a tendency, therefore, for critics to spend more time reviewing the superlatives other reviewers have used about him than his books themselves. His previous collections have tilted on an axis of religious belief and philosophy: he writes that our investment and belief when we read fiction is a metaphorical substitute for religious faith because it ‘resembles’ real belief. The style of his criticism, too, is highly metaphorical – something he has been praised and criticised for – because it resembles the process by which he understands what he is reading. In his new collection, The Fun Stuff, when discussing Edmund Wilson, Wood talks about ‘permanent criticism – which lasts… only if it, too, becomes literature.’ This is what Wood’s essays offer: they are a joy to read without knowledge of the books they discuss. Like the essays of William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf, they are an art form in themselves, though of course other literary critics may contest this.

In an age of rationed book pages Wood’s reviews have a sense of luxury, as if the scrutinised author is a dinner guest on whom no expense is spared; they get Wood’s best china, even if they are the meal. Even when he doesn’t like a book he gives his full attention, which is surely worth more to reader and author than flippant praise. He quotes at length, is sensitive to detail and texture, and makes an effort to understand a book’s processes. And unlike critics one reads for the wit of their put-downs – those who tend to be most stimulating when on the attack – Wood is nearly always at his best on writers he likes. The most enlightening pieces in his new book are on W. G. Sebald, Marilynne Robinson, Mikhail Lermontov, and Richard Yates.

Book reviewing, to some extent, is always going to be propaganda for the reviewer’s own tastes. It then becomes a case of deciding whose manifesto you prefer. When I was seventeen my uncle gave me a book of Wood’s essays. When I went to university he gave me another, this time signed. I spoke to Wood between an interview with the BBC and a reading at the LRB bookshop and we talked about criticism and books.

In the first essay of this book you say rather uncharacteristically that perhaps novel writing, like athletic prowess, has improved in the last century. How so?

That’s a little bit of a throwaway line, but I meant simply that, as with athletics and classical music, when a form or activity becomes more professionalised, the average level probably goes up a bit. That’s all I meant really, that we may not be in an age of titanic novelists, but we’re probably in an age of many pretty good novelists.

 There is diminishing space in English papers for rigorous reviews. Similarly, papers’ blogs, which theoretically have unlimited space, require snappy, uncluttered pieces of writing. How has book reviewing changed since you started out and what do you recommend for reviewers as serious as you might have been? 

 I have noticed that diminishment, and I’ve noticed it in the reviews of my own book. For instance, I got two reviews from The Independent – one in the daily and one in The Independent on Sunday – but they were very scrappy, short things by people who didn’t really seem to know what they were talking about: they were sort of disengaged; there wasn’t much investment. And that was sad to me because I remember when I started freelancing: It was the early days of The Independent, and it had a very serious book section that was edited by Blake Morrison, and there was space given, rather as there is still in The Guardian book section, to longish reviews and profiles. And I feel with The Independent, in style and the way it looks, it’s becoming a bit like Metro Magazine. Eighty years ago Cyril Connolly’s advice to the young reviewer was choose wisely what you review: don’t spend too much time reviewing bad stuff; minor art, because your pieces will be forgettable too. I think now my advice would be try and write longer pieces wherever you can. One thing that’s changed since the late ‘80s when I was freelancing is that there’s space online now to do that kind of thing. You don’t get paid for it, largely, but there’s the chance to do something at length. In the ’80s if you wanted to write at length there was the TLS, The London Review of Books, and maybe The London Magazine. Now it’s infinite online. But how you earn a living I don’t know.

 Are there any young reviews over here or in the states you particularly admire or with which you keep up?

 Yes, there are two freelancers I like who are both managing to keep alive from freelancing, and that’s Leo Robson and Edmund Gordon. Leo writes for The New Statesman, and a bit about film for the TLS. Edmund writes pretty much exclusively about fiction and is also teaching at King’s College. That’s another change from the ‘80s. Apart from UEA, Creative Writing didn’t really exist in Britain, so there wasn’t a chance, unless you had a PHD, of doing the teaching thing. Now I guess, if you get a book out, there is a chance to bulk up your salary by doing some teaching in addition to reviewing.

Over here we have the Hatchet Job of The Year, its aim being to reward high quality book reviewing. It’s also become a way for people to locate the funniest negative reviews.  Do you think this kind of thing will encourage serious reviews or just witty ones, and does trying to be witty sometimes get in the way of a good book review?   

 I think it’s not a good emphasis, and I have to say, judging from some of the excerpts that I read, I wasn’t actually that impressed with the standard either. I thought, if you’re going to have an award with that title, then there’d better be a really good, sort of Martin Amis level, Gore Vidal level of vituperation, or, dare I say it, James Wood level. I’m all for wit, but what I saw there was strained; flat-footed insults. It seems to me the wrong kind of emphasis; it’s weird how obsessed people are with negativity. But you know, any panel I’m on about criticism, half the discussion seems to be about negative reviews, and I always want to say to people, that represents about 5%, not just of my output, but of most critics’ output. Maybe not Adam Mars-Jones: he’s very good at what he does, I have to say, having suffered twice at his hands I can tell you he’s a good surgeon.

In your essay on Edmund Wilson, you said that a young F. Scott Fitzgerald was grateful to be criticised by Wilson, because at least somebody was reading him intelligently. Do authors ever correspond privately with you about their books which you have reviewed; and do you see evidence of their work changing in response to your criticism?

 They do indeed. I get quite a number of communications from people. Obviously most of them are thanking me for something I’ve written; the negative reviews tend to get a chilly silence, as you’d expect. But I do run into people who will say, not so much about their own work, but they’ll say that thing you wrote about Toni Morrison or whatever – it helped me work out something that was wrong with my own work, and I adjusted it. And I suppose in some ways Zadie Smith and I have been in some kind of…

Public dialogue?

Public dialogue, some kind of communication in which I would say, probably as an author – or I think it’s a temperamental thing – she’s quite susceptible to criticism and perhaps feels that she needs to incorporate it and learn from it, which maybe she does to a fault. But I feel that in some way she and I have been going back and forth on certain issues and I thought her new novel was absolutely splendid.

 Do you think writers should respond to critics and write about their own work?

 Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I know there’s a code of etiquette which seems very English, doesn’t it, in which you’re supposed to grin and bear it. There’s that Kingsley Amis thing: ‘I’ll let a bad review spoil my breakfast but not my lunch’ which is doubtless a wise coping strategy – I’ve used it myself. But in some larger sense I don’t see why a writer shouldn’t – particularly if you think the critic is wrong – come out and say ‘I that’s a load of bullshit. I’m going to defend my work; I’m going to produce an apologia for my work.’ Jonathan Lethem did that with something I wrote about him. The comedy there was that it was quite a nice review and he’d sort of misread it in his mind as being a negative review, so in a sense his response turned out to be more personal that he meant it to be. But in principle there was nothing wrong with the idea.

 You have attacked writers like John Updike for being too prolific – almost profligately productive. The implication is that his fiction reads like it has been too easy for him. Do you require a book to have been an ordeal for the writer to produce?

 It’s more that I feel, particularly in a post-war environment, that language needs a kind of respect for silence. We’re postmodernists. There’s a modernist and now a postmodern tradition, and both of them, in different ways, incarnate a kind of wariness about language, and a sense that every word you choose is surrounded by its opposite – by silence. And I suppose in somebody like Updike and similarly in someone like Paul Auster who I criticise in this book, there’s a feeling that they’ve not had to grapple with that; that their language has come out too easily. And yes, I suppose that gives a metaphysical, moral shallowness to the prose.

 William Deresiewicz once said that ‘Wood’s critical authority has become so daunting, it seems, that even he is afraid to challenge it.’ It seems that to some extent you new book does challenge your own ‘dauntingness.’ In the collection’s eponymous essay, you talk about the freedom of Keith Moon’s drumming – how its virtue is that it is comprised wholly of fills, and how the truant in you is drawn to it.  Do you ever feel constrained to be consistent with the taste and seriousness you have previously displayed in your criticism? 

 First of all, as to the Deresiewicz thing, that just shows you how much, in this relation to authority in particular – and I think this is also the case with Lethem’s response – people are talking about themselves. They’re not really talking any more about the subject, they’re talking about their own fear of authority, or slightly resentful relationship to it I don’t feel I have any authority at all. I understand I have the authority…

Invested in you?

Of an institution, and of a space, right. And that’s a big deal. And there’s no doubt that a million people or a thousand people in America would love to have that freedom to write in The New Yorker. But I do firmly believe that the authority of any piece is a rhetorical authority and it’s made each time you write a piece, and that’s what makes reviewing quite interesting: that you’re trying to win a legal argument; you have quotes and a case to make. And you’re trying to do a very peculiar thing which is you’re trying to convince a reader who hasn’t read the book and who may never read the book that it is or isn’t worth reading. That always seems a little perilous to me: at any moment it seems to me likely that you’re not quite winning your case; that you haven’t quite convinced enough with your marshalled evidence or with the force of your arguments. In that sense I don’t think you can rest on authoritative laurels. So on the one level I understand that thing about authority but on the other I think it’s just a nice freedom of reviewing that it’s made anew each time.

There is a line in the new collection: ‘One despises oneself in near middle age for still being such a merely good student.’ Do you ever want to be a different James Wood who doesn’t have the baggage of your reputation: your templates of belief, your hard-won atheist’s scepticism of miracles and the magical in fiction?

 I would happily. It’s not just that Deresiewicz thing of authority – there’s also something tedious about having a past as a critic which then becomes the sum of all your pronouncements on things. What happens, actually, as a critic, is that your writing tends to get ignored sentence by sentence as texture and gets flattened into a series of pronouncements: he likes X, he didn’t like that; he’s against Pynchon but he’s for so and so. And then of course if there’s a negative element, like there is with my argument against ‘Hysterical Realism’ or Pynchon, it never leaves you and is always stronger than anything positive. It’s always ‘He’s against this or that’ – the prohibitions are what’s remembered. That becomes a tedious past that one is quite desperate to get rid of. No-one lives like that. We’re always losing and growing skin. It would be horrible to remain consistent in that way: ‘Oh, I’m exactly the same now as I was twenty years ago.’ We change, our reading habits change, so I’m quite keen to escape that. You know what: if I didn’t write another book review for ten years – or forever – and just wrote other things, I’d be very happy. Who knows?

You’re fine for all this to go in?

Yeah! The other thing is, sometimes I do look at what I’ve written and think: it wasn’t meant to be anything like that. And the reason it wasn’t meant to be anything like that is because when I was a teenager what I really wanted to do was poetry – I wasn’t any good at poetry. Then I wanted to write fiction, and for a long time a wrote a bit of fiction and then I’d tear it up and throw it away, then I started putting off the writing of it all together.  Suddenly, by my late twenties I was sort of known, at least in London, as a reviewer and as a hard reviewer. I was very hard on current English writing then, and people would come up to me and say, well your novel better be a masterpiece because clearly that’s what you demand of other people. That was completely terrifying, so I went into arrest and didn’t write a novel until I was thirty-three.

 Your position on the aesthetic isn’t solid: some people seem to think you favour millionaires of style, but in your reviews you often demonstrate a wariness of style; of language for its own sake. Is this an evangelical hangover? Is the aesthetic a ‘guilty pleasure’?    

 I think you’re right to relate it to the Christian upbringing, where there was a hostility towards fiction. Of course I didn’t have that – fiction when I was a teenager was the great liberation; it was seeing that I could escape that prohibitive Christian world of surveillance: that you can think some things but you can’t think those things. I could see, as soon as I read grown-up novels, that what made a novel good was that anything could happen and anyone could think anything. Where I do think I’m a child of my background is – to dignify it a bit – this Kierkegaardian either/or thing; the ethical or the aesthetic, whereas there’s part of me always wanting to go to the sweet box and enjoy almost amorally. And then there’s another part of me, if not wary of that, feels, well, that won’t be quite sufficient, will it? Surely beauty must account for itself. Surely beauty to be beauty is also truth. And this was always my quarrel with Updike a bit: he’s a great painter but where’s the metaphysical gristle.

You can also be quite irreverent about language. You did two of your infamous parodies in the new collection: one of Paul Auster, who you don’t think is good; one of Alan Hollinghurst, whom you allow is a beautiful writer. Do you not feel conflict when you parody a writer as good as Hollingurst? Is this not reductive to fiction’s overall currency? Is it not shitting in fiction’s nest to parody a great prose writer?

 I think that’s true, and he is a lovely prose writer, except I thought he had become – I won’t say lazy; that’s not a fair word – but I felt that in his new novel his prose had become a little bit too fluent and was in danger of becoming a parody of itself. I thought it was okay to do a parody of a prose that’s becoming a parody of itself. I don’t know about you, but I thought there was some really nice stuff in that novel but I pushed against the whole literariness of it. Maybe I just made the cardinal mistake reviewers do make…

Of saying, why couldn’t you have written a different book?

Or why couldn’t you have done that one again, which is unfair to writers. If they did do it again they wouldn’t get praised for it. But do you remember the middle section in The Folding Star? It’s beautifully done: he goes back to that village – there’s that old writer. I thought he did that better in that novel than any of the rather similar material in the new one.

You used to come under fire for censuring books that were praised everywhere else.  You are noticeably more generous now. Do you feel under pressure to be kind, especially to young offenders?

Yes. Absolutely I do. I pretty much started my career at The Guardian – it wasn’t the very first review I wrote but it was probably the first that made a name for me: a cruel review of a debut novelist, actually. And I think I was so young, and so ambitious myself to write, that it didn’t register that this was a first-time novelist. It was a first novel, and a pretty terrible novel and I was horrible about it. And who cares, really? Both the review and the novel have been long forgotten, but a few weeks later someone told me that the review had come out on the day of the author’s book launch, that she was in tears, and that it ruined the party. That’s a pretty horrible thing to hear. Nobody wants to be that person, and ever since it’s made me very wary. All the firepower has been concentrated on big names. Delillo’s strong enough to takes it: Updike, Pynchon, Auster… I’ve always been tender on first time novelists. Since going to The New Yorker in 2007, there’s a slightly different emphasis when you move from a smaller magazine like The New Republic that defines itself militantly. ‘We only have sixty-thousand readers, and we’re out there fighting a cultural cause’ – I liked that about it. But when you’re writing in The New Yorker for a million readers actually there’s good work you can do which is going out – Edmund Wilson did this too when he was at The New Yorker – going out and finding people and saying to that large readership: hey, what about this person? I just reviewed a first book of short stories by a writer called Jamie Quatro – I want to show you more. Great name! I thought there was some marvelous stories in that book. And it was fun being able to say, here’s something worth reading.

 A few years ago in Harpers, Wyatt Mason charged you with not looking hard enough for new fiction worth championing. One of the books he said you could have mentioned was Alexander Hemon’s Nowhere Man. Of course, in your new collection there is a very good essay on Hemon. To what extent does your criticism ‘take’ and respond to criticism?

Absolutely it does. Mason was completely right, and I sometimes think, and can say this for the record, that my fabled negativity is just laziness on my part, which is to say, damn it, I can’t really be bothered to read X, or do I really have to make that extra effort with Y.

So you have resented authors for having to read them?

Slightly, yes. With Pynchon, when I’m looking hard at myself – though I think it’s undeniable that for the last 15 years since Vineland his work have not been very good – I think that I’ve never really liked Pynchon very much because I’ve never been willing to do the hard work of getting stuck into Gravity’s Rainbow or V and cracking them. So that laziness of choosing your diminished horizons has to be guarded against as a critic.

That’s funny. I have this image of you having great things to say about the sinuous writers who you inwardly resent, who accumulate slow nuance over a massive text like The Magic Mountain and then attacking books with wonderful sentences which you might inwardly love. Are there any young, or at least very new novelists, who have really impressed you of late?  

Yeah, I’ve got one here which I’m reviewing for The New Yorker: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. It’s absolutely phenomenal! I’m loving it. She’s just a natural novelist. It’s set in the ’70s and it’s narrated by a young woman from Nevada who’s obsessed with high speed motorcycling. It’s really well written. Jonathan Franzen has also praised her as a coming novelist.

There are certain quotations which you like to reuse from review to review, from book to book – Flaubert’s ostrich feather of train-smoke, Hardy’s ‘scarlet handful of fire’ – which suggest a deep personal relevance or fascination. Is there still room in your likes and dislikes for manoeuvre? Does knowing definitively what you like become an impediment for a critic?

I hope not. When I reuse stuff it’s almost always laziness / journalism, that is to say, the deadline gun is pointed to the temple and I’m essentially self-plagiarising. It’s not a great habit, but it gets you through a piece. And you’ve exactly put your finger on a danger. It’s not just the repetition – readers notice the repetition – repetition is fine: there are touchstones you go back to: I always keep coming back to this lovely description in Bellow’s Seize the Day of Mr Rappaport’s cigar, or his ‘big but light elbow.’ But the danger is this awful sclerosis, whereby you wouldn’t feel any need to admit anything new because you’ve got it all taped up. I don’t feel that at all.

You once made the example of Socrates’ scholar, who, each time he reads the same book, must forget what he knows in order to teach himself new things, or rather, to ‘learn from himself what he already knows.’ How willing are you to re-read an old book and forget what you have said about it in order to learn something new?

I actually feel that way about DeLillo; I would like the chance to reassess him. I still think I’d feel that Underworld was overwrought, and I would still have arguments with the controlling paranoia. And I noticed, actually, when Martin Amis reviewed it in The New York Times, it was a very positive review but he used a weird formulation; he refused to say it was a great novel but that ‘with Underworld, Delillo has certainly become the greatest American novelist,’ which is how he put it… But, what it would allow me to do is go back to some of the earlier stuff you were mentioning: go back to Mao II in a slightly less adversarial mode, and to this new book of stories, and just be more patient. I’ve tried to do that with David Foster Wallace – I haven’t written on him, but I’ve taught Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in a very academic, non-judgemental sort of way, trying to decouple the evaluative side which is so important in reviewing, and the academic side: investigating his techniques and strategies. It increases your respect for the book. I mean, he has a tremendous ear in those stories. He’s a writer I keep coming back to. If you look at how I’ve written about Wallace it’s like a cardiographic up and down. I reviewed Infinite Jest very positively for The Guardian,  though with a word of warning about comedy of culture rather than the comedy of character, then dipped down and threw him in with Hysterical Realism, and went against him in the Oblivion review, though with some praise. But that’s the normal and natural way we live with writers.

Have you considered writing a long work on one author?

Yes, I would love to write a long work about Chekov, and the only reason I haven’t done it is I felt that not being able to read any Russian at all was a real impediment because obviously there’s a whole other layer and criticism I couldn’t have access to as a non-Russianist. So about five years ago I had a crazy idea to take Russian lessons and almost at the very moment that I was about to commit time to Russian lessons, what happened? I got a drum kit – for the first time in my life! – and started drumming lessons, which I have never had.

In an old essay on Schedrin’s The Golovlyov Family, you say some books – great ones – become more modern the older they get. Do you feel you can keep up?  

Wow. That is a bloody good question, isn’t it, and you really know how to ask them. Well, why not? I feel more curious and more open to new writing now than I was ten year ago, when I was sort of in the trenches, and probably more than I was even when I was at The Guardian, when I was twenty-three and doing battle with phantom English forces – things that were half in my imagination: Julian Barnes must be sliced down! Maybe one thing that comes with getting a bit older is some sort of reason about temporality, which is, when you’re twenty-three the fact that Julian Barnes is sort of there in your face as it were is a kind of offence and an insult. You think, no! He’s not good enough! Or Ian McEwan or whoever.  But what you don’t realise is that as you get older so he’ll get older. Time and posterity will sort people out to some extent. Julian Barnes: it’s irritating when he wins the Booker Prize, but he’ll fade away. And when you’re older, you can put some of those battles to rest.

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BEN LERNER’S POETICAL NOVEL: Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station is a novel by a poet about poetry. Or rather, it is a novel about translation, pretense,  inspiration, neurosis and inaction. Ben Lerner is a young, award winning American poet with three full-length collections. In his novel, the protagonist Adam Gordon is an American poet who has moved to Madrid on a prestigious university fellowship, much like the Fulbright Scholarship the author himself won. He meets a group of arty, rich locals who want to adopt him as a foreign talent and indoctrinate him in their politics. Bipolar, and apparently dependent on tranquillisers and hash, Gordon spends the time he should be writing poetry worrying about the poetry he should be writing. Convinced he is a fraud and worried about being exposed, he bolsters his fraudulence by telling lies to anyone who will listen in his allegedly broken Spanish. As the novel goes on many characters remark that he is fluent, but as he bases his relationships with Spanish women on the ‘mystery’ and poignance of the linguistic barrier between them, coming clean would mean revealing the insufficiencies of his personality. He tries his best as a narrator to convince us that he is a dilettante, all the while insidiously crafting a brilliant work of prose. The book’s success lies in its subversion of what people would expect to be a ‘poet’s novel.’

The lauded poet Sean O’Brien, after writing Afterlife (2009), a novel about poets, gave an interview to The Guardian in which he said he didn’t want to write ‘a poet’s novel in the pejorative sense of something brilliantly, beautifully immobile.’ The stereotype would be that poets as prose writers are impatient with the drudgeries of form and plot, and find that the effect they produce is one of extending a static image over the expanse of a novel.

A good example of this might be Adam Foulds’s Booker nominated The Quickening Maze (2009), which tells the story of an asylum which held the poet John Clare and Septimus Tennyson: the brother of Alfred. Foulds is a poet, and, subsequently but altogether separately, a beautiful prose stylist. Even though the novel shows itself to be practical and dutifully novelistic, dealing with plot and moving lithely between characters’ consciousnesses, one gets the impression that the action is continually being suspended between viscous and perfect descriptions of autumnal light and woodland. You rarely get this from Alan Hollinghurt, to whom Foulds has been compared, even though his prose is equally thick with lyrical style.

But such is the form of Ben Lerner’s debut novel that it avoids novelistic drudgeries to some extent without becoming a ‘poet’s novel.’ And this is doubly remarkable considering that Lerner hasn’t, like O’Brien and Foulds, written a novel about poets, but about the stuff of poetry, and the poetic character. This doesn’t sound like promising ground for a fizzing, hilarious novel. Leaving the Atocha Station turns the preoccupations of the writing process inside out and into valid, attractive subjects for a work of fiction, which, most will acknowledge, is difficult to pull off or even justify.

Lerner’s title is taken from a John Ashbery poem, and the novel becomes not a homage to Ashbery but a homage to the narrator’s own short-circuited response to John Ashbery. ‘The best Ashbery poems, I thought… describe what it is like to read an Ashbery poem.’ Similarly, Gordon’s hermetically stilted responses to art and the world around him create a miraculously solid form for the book. Poetic structural devices, such as the chiasmus, create a matrix capable of supporting a novel, and the smaller ambiguities that occur line to line in a poem are subdued further and made into a formal pulse that drives Lerner’s spare, often totally unfigurative prose. Adam Gordon’s misunderstanding of Spanish becomes a way for the author to demonstrate the sidelong possibilities of his character’s consciousness, as well as explain the way his book works: ‘I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.’ We are invited to follow Gordon’s example and understand this prose in chords: its vertical as well as its linear motion. This, we realise, is the way a poem asks to be read.

This novel is crafty in that its vagueness, despite itself, always communicates articulately. It is also concise. At less than two hundred pages it is a witty blast of a book. It reads like something by Geoff Dyer at his curious, frequent best: full of the contradiction of formal motion, the inertia of getting on with things, and that scholarly delight in truancy. Lerner’s self-equivocating sentences are a signature shared with Dyer, whether the latter is writing through a fictional surrogate or as himself. Adam Gordon is a neurotic, immobile thinker, anxious about how he appears on the outside world though he spends most of his time living an inner life: ‘I tried my best not to respond to most of the e-mails I received as I thought this would create the impression that I was offline… while in fact I spent a good amount of time online.’ He is conscious of ‘living’ as it were – of gathering experience to write about. And though most of the time he believes himself to be avoiding this by just thinking about it, we notice that bits of his verse included in the narrative are influenced by observations that came to us earlier in his prose, and then, vice versa, we see him recycle lines of his poetry through his mind in prose or as scripted lines in conversation.

The way the book gets away with being a book about being a poet, is that poetic inspiration isn’t portrayed as a higher calling, but as closer to the traditionally indiscreet hackwork of the novelist: what Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s most famous alter ego describes as being ‘ [a] coldhearted betrayer of the most intimate confessions… [of] women to whom you have been deeply bound by trust, by sex, by love.’ Adam asserts his being a novelist’s narrator in his honest use of lies(– he tells us he will never write a novel). We witness Adam hearing a friend’s story about a woman drowning in Mexico – a story which qualifies, for the friend in question, as ‘novelist’s experience’ – which Adam then reproduces as his own traumatic experience when trying to solicit sympathy from a girl.

Adam Gordon exists in a strange place between total self-involvement and negative capability. Where negative capability involves imagining oneself as something other, Adam Gordon chooses to dwell, whether it is a poetic exercise or form of ascetic penance, in the worst corner of himself. He becomes a flâneur of his foibles. Here is Gordon on too many tranquilisers:

Both side effects had a certain rightness of fit with my general despondency, which was not diminishing, and I found this correspondence comforting, the way one savours abysmal weather when one feels abysmal… It gave me a kind of vampiric energy, although I was my own prey.

In the way negative capability is intended to strengthen a poet’s imagination, Gordon’s self-indulgence becomes sympathetic because it displays dedication to acquiring self-knowledge – even self-omniscience. As is the case with Geoff Dyer’s voices, the etiquette of inaction – the routine of dwelling in his acknowledged vices – has brought Gordon such a heightened awareness of self that he often seems to resent his own company. And this is manna to the reader in both its novelistic richness and comic potential.

In Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, the eponymous slob sees busy people around him and wonders how they preserve their sense of self alongside their careers, ideals or ambitions. Where is there room for ‘the person?’ he asks. One feels that in Leaving the Atocha Station, because there is so little intrusion or hindrance from the career of plot, one gets a whole lot more person, as well as a whole lot more novel.

MIDDLE IMMATURITY: Adam Thirlwell, Kapow!

In an exchange with The New Yorker, Adam Thirlwell discussed his choice to include a glossary of all the literary allusions he makes in the back of The Escape, his second novel. He said it was part of his experimentation with ‘immaturity,’ which was the novel’s ‘subject.’ In this instance, exploring immaturity involved telling the story of Raphael Haffner, an irresponsible and irrepressible womaniser: one who is nearly eighty years old. Immaturity, Thirlwell is saying, sometimes can’t be shaken off. He is also saying that if you are a writer, immaturity takes a while to master.

Between Thirlwell’s novels; Politics and The Escape, came Miss Herbert, a non-fiction curiosity about authors, novels and the concept of style. Here Thirlwell tells us that Saul Bellow had to learn how to be artfully immature, and that Witold Gombrowicz’s novel Ferdydurke is ‘deliberately malformed and sarcastic’ – all about experimenting with how a novel can be immature and flippant.

The sarcastic, flippant treatment of form, the exposing of a novel’s modesty and mystery, was what reviewers had a problem with in Thirlwell’s first book: Politics. It described the moral scruples of young people involved in a ménage a trios, and it did so with an exhibitionist narrator who constantly told us which characters he liked and advised us how we should judge them. Sadly, not many reviewers paid attention to this narrator as a continuous character with an agenda, preferring to believe that it was nakedly Thirlwell, baldly linking a story together with demonstrations of his cultural knowledge. It wasn’t the device itself that they revealed themselves to have a problem with, but rather that in choosing this route Thirlwell was announcing himself to be a provocateur. He was only twenty-four.

Almost ten years later here is Kapow!, Thirlwell’s fourth book. The central story is that of a few people involved in the recent Egyptian Spring. Rustam, a taxi driver, and his wife Nigora are accidently drawn into the revolution. Their story is related by Faryaq, another cabdriver, this time in London, to the narrator of the novel we are reading. This narrator is a practiced apathete who heightens his disinterest in world affairs by constant marijuana-smoking and overeating. (‘I have no expertise in it. I’m only, after all, a very multiple sarcasm.’) He admits to being more concerned about texting his East London friends than listening to Faryaq’s story. But after a while he gets drawn in by a love story between Nigora and a young, hip filmmaker called Ahmad which occurs on the periphery of the political narrative. But here’s the rub: our narrator is in the habit of indicating which bits of the book are Faryaq’s germ and which bits he has embellished, imagined or added on. And all the bits between Nigora and Ahmad – the bits which made the narrator interested in the first place – seem to be the bits he’s made up. And yes, this unnamed narrator bares all the stylistic marks of Thirlwell’s pervious formally flippant, sarcastic narrators.

Has Thirlwell learnt how to be immature yet? He’s had four books to master it, and if he’s still using the old devices now, what type of immature does that make him? His persistence, the refusal for his treatment of immaturity to show signs of development could well be part of the joke’s sophisticated immaturity. But where does that leave the innovator? Why, out of all the fantastic routes he could go down, must he keep to the ones with the road works? If he does this for another book, he risks giving the impression he doesn’t know how to do anything else.

Luckily Kapow! has another couple of tricks in its dust jacket. It is a totally beautiful object, embracing the fight to invigorate the printed page. Part of this is to do with a form of typographical experimentation: the text is printed in various directions so you have to turn the book to read it, or unfold pull-outs of extra pages. The book is more of a novella, less than one hundred pages, so the ‘revolutions’ we have to make while reading don’t irritate too much (though the narrator tells us at one point he wants his book to ‘age’ us).

The typographical bits are, we discover, in pursuit of ‘a system where as many things as possible [are] visible at once.’ They are, in fact, parenthetical asides, and much more conventional and simple than they might appear when opening the book for the first time and seeing the text run in different directions. They are footnotes that occur in the middle of pages rather than at the bottom. But Thirlwell has already explained what he is doing with these pages. In Miss Herbert, his non-fiction curiosity, he spends time on Laurence Sterne’s typographical innovations with Tristram Shandy: the black, blank and marbled pages. But when compared to what Sterne was doing in the middle of the eighteenth century, some of Kapow!’s visual treats seem almost primitive or prototypical. Thirlwell comes out looking less current than Sterne. There is a polka dot page near the beginning of Kapow! because one of the characters is supposed to wear an (implausible) pair of polka dot track-suit bottoms. Having no clout next to Sterne’s black page of mourning, this spotty page doesn’t seem allusive; it seems derivative.

All a novel can do is teach you how to become a better reader of that novel. Miss Herbert is supposed to be a book about international style and the formulation of a secret heritage of the novel, but it is mainly about Thirlwell’s novels. It is a key to reading and better appreciating Thirlwell’s own fiction, as well as a statement of intent.

Miss Herbert discusses the ‘visible invisibilities’ in Madame Bovary – motifs and echoes that hold the novel structurally together. The example he picks is a recurring cupid in a few set pieces: on a wedding cake, in a garden and in a hotel room. Cupid, Thirlwell tells us, is ‘love’s kitsch.’ Reading Politics after consulting Miss Herbert, you will see the invisibilities of Thirlwell’s allusions to Flaubert made visible. Here, one of Thrilwell’s characters walks onto the balcony of a London nightclub, deeply in love and anxious about his girlfriend:

The balcony was a collection of black wrought-iron curlicues and florets. The floor was millioned with thin diamonds. There was some trio sharing a joint – two girls and a boy, a sarcastic cupid and his angelic hosts.

Here is the Bovarys’ wedding cake as quoted by Thirlwell in Miss Herbert:

..on the upper platform, a green field with rocks and pools of jam and boats made out of nutshells, there was arrayed a little Cupid, perched on a chocolate swing, its two poles finished off with two real rose-buds…

It’s a crafty way to validate one’s artistic choices, this: obliquely showing their weightier referent. It would save critics a lot of bother if every novelist sent out a list of ancestors and intentions instead of a press release. In Miss Herbert Thirlwell tells us how Pushkin claimed first-hand social acquaintance with Eugene Onegin (– similar to the narrators of The Escape and Kapow! who know their characters ‘personally’) and how Tolstoy would ‘leap around [his] characters, happily, with his essayistic digressions.’ Miss Herbert could well be seen by some as a presumptuous anticipation of Thirlwell scholarship, but should also be seen as something very brave and, to me, admirable.

Not many modern authors who have only had one book published could expect to command an audience for a book-long defence or treatise on their art. Thirlwell’s self-belief fills me with hope. I want all young novelists to care about books as much as Thirlwell does. Miss Herbert says, this is my tradition: I am next after these authors. And why not? Somebody has to be next, and nobody else has claimed the tradition for themselves yet. Thirlwell says in Miss Herbert that nobody wanted to follow Gombrowicz’s experiment in sarcasm, Ferdydurke, and it seems Thirlwell does.

Thirlwell is possibly better equipped to judge who comes next in this tradition than a reviewer who has never been interested in Sterne, Svevo and Machado de Assis; or, as Philip Hensher calls them in his review for The Telegraph, ‘the usual suspects of the clever-silly pantheon.’ Such a curt dismissal of these authors demonstrates a fault in Hensher’s authority and a misapplication of his skill and energy as a critic. Why review a book primarily about authors like Stern, Svevo etc if you think them below your seriousness?

Anybody who claims to be a champion of, or has their wages paid by literature, ought be warmed by the prospect of somebody with Thirlwell’s post-Politics trumpeting these innovative authors at book length. It’s one thing wanting to be read by as many people as possible. But to want Italo Svevo or Bruno Schulz to be read by as many people as possible? Of course, this kind of thing will always involve small concessions, i.e accepting Thirlwell’s anti-style with its persistent reiterations, its one sentence paragraphs, it’s ‘And I like this’s. Let him sex-up eccentric books for people who don’t normally find them sexy. He’s not just writing for Philip Hensher and Adam Mars-Jones.

So where is Kapow! in Thirlwell’s tradition? Joining the quick, idiomatic sentences (the ‘I can maybe put it like this’s) is the use of contrived flatus (the ‘as they say’s), so now, when something is patronisingly flagged up to the reader, it can seem hesitant rather than (or, sometimes, as well as) over-confident: ‘no folks, he was, I’m afraid, kind of a sexist.’ At first I was disappointed that Thirlwell didn’t seem bothered how nuanced his characters appeared. In Politics, though they were targets or props for his narrative intentions, Thilwell imbued his characters with convincing interiority. In Kapow!, Nigora is possibly the only character who is given consistent inner life. The Egyptian men, with the slight exception of Ahmad – who acts as a kind of middle-eastern surrogate for the author and narrator’s tastes – are very underdone. But about three quarters of the way through the game he’s playing with his characters and his mannerisms becomes apparent.

Thirlwell’s preferred tone draws attention to both its pompousness and its affability. This was suited to the mixture of bungled sex and sensitivity in Politics; maybe even to Miss Herbert, and the way this literary treatise often allied itself with tricksters of the mock-heroic, like Cervantes and Sterne. But the tone’s repeated use across more books makes me unsure how seriously to take anything at all.

Throughout Kapow! we are told, with varying levels of seriousness, that Rustam is a hero. The first instance, which comes as he stops his taxi to help an unconscious man at the side of the road, is off-hand – so off-hand as to be tilted at 90 degrees to the rest of the text: ‘He had his virtuous principles. His nature was Heroic.’ But here we are firmly in the realm of the mock-heroic. Rustam’s actions were decent, but we don’t know enough about him for his nature to be ‘heroic.’ We are told soon afterwards that he had to flee Uzbekistan because he was a revolutionary. We now understand the ‘heroic’ epithet, but the first occurrence of it, rather than being justified in retrospect, devalues this new exposition. The effect is to make us sceptical of what Thirlwell has to tell us. In Miss Herbert he states (in parenthesis) that a reader of Flaubert ‘would constantly have to ask whether [he] was writing sincerely or parodically.’ Thirlwell, it seems, aspires to write similarly sceptic-making books. His irony seems intended to be taken as sincerity, too, as we watch the narrator of the book weigh his judgements casually, almost promiscuously.

When Rustam is arrested, his friend Mouloud, a more serious revolutionary – the one Rustam rescued at the side of the road – calls him ‘a hero.’ In prison Rustam contemplates his situation. ‘Yes, thought Rustam, grimly: this is what a hero has to do.’ This is a surprise, because it is the first evidence we have of Rustam actually thinking. He has never been allowed to think before. We are told prison breaks him, turns him serious and theological and kills his sense of humour. But we haven’t got to know him properly, and the announcement that he no longer has a sense of humour isn’t much of a loss. We weren’t given any examples of Rustam being, or finding things, funny.

Thirlwell wants to show us that he can flip his characters from stooges into humans with depth. He doesn’t quite achieve this with Rustam. But in the case of Nigora, who has had a bit of depth all the way through, we are made to feel her humanity squarely. Hence Thirlwell flips his experiment in immaturity into something more mature. One sees he can be crafty even though he announces what he is doing along the way. I suppose it’s to do with the contrived candour of his novels that puts you off-guard. You don’t expect to be taken in. For me, this was mainly because his previous books hadn’t managed to ‘take me in’, though Politics didn’t need to. Kapow! shows an alarming acceleration of seriousness in its last quarter, and Thirlwell reveals his storytelling and emotive gifts in high concentration.

You realise, almost with a sigh at wasted opportunity, that Thirlwell’s emotive talents outweigh his cloying habits. Why couldn’t we have had this all the way through? Maybe he’s self-conscious about his aptitude for sensitive, almost sentimental tension and hides it with nervous ticks. Or maybe he’s rebelling against the burden of a populist narrative gift. Either way, there’s display of immaturity, and the tender grasp of people that was evident in Politics is made to seem like it emerges in spite of itself.

Milan Kundera is Thirlwell’s most obvious influence, and reviewers often bring this up when they are disparaging his digressions and so forth. But Thirlwell is similar to Kundera more in his emotive style: nobody will deny the force of learning, casually, less than half way through The Unbearable Lightness of Being that the novel’s two emotional focuses will eventually be crushed to death by a truck. It is this kind talent for the near sentimental about turn which could become the focus of reviewers, if and when they get bored of taking him to task over digressions.

If, with Thirlwell’s fiction, there has been a temptation to ask where the heart is, then the answer is out of sight, and hidden safely beneath Thirlwell’s other recurring concerns. The effect of Kapow! on me is, I expect, different to many other readers. It makes me want to see and read more of Thirlwell – see what else he is capable of, now his immaturity has matured a little.

‘It is not a critical biography. It is, rather, an uncritical biography.’ Martin Amis: The Biography. Richard Bradford

Richard Bradford’s biography of Amis has inspired some brilliantly damning reviews. Leo Robson’s review for The New Statesman was particularly acclaimed, being nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award. And I have the feeling that if Robson’s review hadn’t been nominated, someone else’s review of Martin Amis: The Biography would have been. The most obvious candidate would have been Geoff Dyer’s, but then, his piece on Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending had already been nominated. It would seem Martin Amis: The Biography was only good for invigorating the standard of book reviewing. The majority of reviews focused on Bradford’s misinformation (– The Statesman devoted an entire article to correcting his inaccuracies). But, since the book fails on so many levels and in each with such articulacy – it is a polyglot of failure – there remains much unexplored territory.

But there is another way of looking at the book’s apparent failure: it seems the fault is ours. We’ve been reading it wrong. Just because Bradford has written biographies of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin doesn’t mean we should automatically assume that Martin Amis: The Biography is also a straightforward biographical work. Silly us! No, it is a Nabokovian novel in the form of a biography, one in which the subject, known for his forays into the post-modern, is punished for his tricksiness by having his biography written by an incompetent. Because, surely, the worst thing that could happen for Amis won’t be not winning the Booker for Lionel Asbo, or having second-rate authors strain themselves to give him a slamming. No, the biggest hit will be correspondent to his particular hubris: that of aspiring to literary immortality. This was his topic in The Information ( – the protagonist reviewed biographies of mediocre literary figures while nobody appreciated his own books). The worst thing for Amis would be a misanthologisation for future generations. Imagine literature students of the future looking for Amis biographies in university libraries. Even if better ones appear, the author of this one’s name begins with a B, so it would still probably be first in the catalogue.

What a brilliant stroke of cruelty this is on behalf of Richard Bradford the arch-author (as opposed to Richard Bradford the character: that feckless, fusty idiot)! The fates really have all turned out for the event of Amis’s rubbishing. But the joke is clearly on the biographer character, because despite his inadvertent efficiency in making Amis look terrible, his subject still manages to elude him. We laugh when it takes Bradford a whole paragraph of flatus to commend the ‘brilliant and wonderfully economic verbal choreography’ of his subject. Or when in the last few pages he sagaciously informs us (while giving examples of his own bad style) that Amis’s talent as a stylist helps him, as a reviewer, to differentiate between good and bad writing: ‘These are the comments of a ruthless, unsparing critic, a man who feels that stylistic laziness is an insult to the profession.’ Amis wins! And the triumph of subject over biographer alludes to this work’s clear ancestor: Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight – another fictional biography in which the subject and his fictions are too tricksy for the biographer. V, Nabokov’s narrator, poses the question: ‘Would the biographee have found that special “Knightian twist” about it which would have fully compensated the blundering biographer?’

My bogus reading could go on indefinitely: the ironies are all this glaring and Bradford’s unsuitability for the job can’t help but announce itself.

There is something about a modern literary biography that ought to inspire huge anxiety in the biographer. His subject would have spent his whole writing life practicing for this moment – the ultimate test of literary skill: the influencing of their biography through their corpus and their public actions. The job of the subject is to hide himself in his fiction. This is the ‘Knightian twist’ – the possibility that the author is the only one who can solve his puzzles. Imagine the headache the Philip Roth biography will give someone. But you can imagine, also, that a Roth biographer would relish all this; would be hip to Roth’s tricks. You’d expect an Amis biographer, likewise, to be full of guile as a reader.

Luckily for a biographer, Amis has repeated many of his maxims almost word for word in his reviews, fiction, newspaper and television interviews for at least thirty years. There are Amis sound bites. He very much likes saying the same things about himself. But still, you’d expect the Amis biographer to have a complimentary skill set to his subject: a mind that’s receptive to Amis’s attitude, sensibility, style and shortcomings.

Amis’s fiction and non-fiction, if anything, seek to teach us not to be Richard Bradford.

The ‘biography’ begins with an account of Kingsley’s escapades in Swansea and Cambridge, then Martin’s disinterest at school and sudden late epiphany where he ‘became an autodidact and went from nowhere to an Oxford First in little more than three years.’ This is followed by coverage of his time at The New Statesman and another epiphany, this time political, where previously apathetic Amis becomes preoccupied with nuclear disarmament, Stalinist cruelty and Fundamentalist Islam.

Alongside the above developments we have Amis’s fiction and his love life. The latter is what seems to interest Bradford most: he is so impressed by Amis’s success with women that all he can offer is slavering commendation. The admirer then becomes the defender of Amis’s love-ratting in the seventies and eighties, saying things like ‘few males would have behaved otherwise,’ citing the equally weak argument of Anthony Howard as moral authority: ‘any male who claims he would refuse such unsolicited opportunities is a liar.’ Bradford argues with the moral logic of a Coronation Street adulterer. ‘It was on a plate’ would have made his case with fewer words. The weightless appeal to ‘few would’ appears again and again in Bradford’s justification of his subject’s behaviour: ‘few would expect that in business nostalgic fidelity should overrule financial necessity.’ Who, we ask, are these ‘few’ to whom Bradford defers?

(Moral judgement aside, his capability for immoral judgement is also poor. I admit, I was interested in hearing about Amis’s love-life as a young man. But even on the level of trash or gossip, Bradford manages to squeeze any salaciousness from it. His ogling – the way he ogles: with the wheezing admiration of an old impotent living through his nephew’s exploits – gets in the way of our own ogling.)

This irresponsibility of both judgement and rhetoric is applied to the fiction as well. Reading Bradford, one often thinks one has missed a trick; that paragraphs of his argument must have been left out by a slovenly copy-editor. After quoting a number of negative critical responses to Yellow Dog, he shamelessly claims that ‘it is none the less a work of genius,’ without offering much in the way of a defence. On the topic of Amis as formal innovator, Bradford would have us believe that a novel with two narrators was ‘previously inconceivable’ before Success was published in 1978, and that this patented device ‘would later be borrowed by Julian Barnes.’

Not content with butchering Amis, Bradford wades, cleaver in hand, through the rest of the canon. He must specifically have it in for Nabokov, because he can’t stop talking about how Amis constantly surpasses him. Success ‘outranks’ Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. (Yes. He’s allegedly read The Real Life and still doesn’t get the irony.) John Self of Money is ‘more unsettling than Humbert [Humbert],’ while Xan Meo of Yellow Dog makes Humbert ‘virtuous by comparison.’ (Not true: Xan Meo, unlike Humbert, never acts out his pedophilic desires). The really disturbing thing here is that Bradford seems to be attempting to rip off an Amisism as a form of encoded crawling and fawning. In an essay on Lolita, Amis said that in terms of conscious cruelty, ‘all the Lovelaces and Osmonds turn out, on not very much closer inspection, to be mere hooligans and tyrants when compared to Humbert Humbert.’ This happens again when Bradford makes a comment about Amis’s first person techniques being the closest a prose writer has come to Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, which alludes to something else Amis said in the same essay about Nabokov ‘[Constructing] a mind in the way that a prose Browning might have gone about it, through rigorous dramatic monologue.’ I get the impression Bradford wants Amis to read these comments and raise an eyebrow in smug mutual congratulation. (This, one would assume, is meant as an offering to appease Amis for taking his name in vain and his other reviews out of context.)

Then there is the problem of the totally uninteresting, as well as inappropriate, personal voice that pervades the biography. If we don’t get a good impression of what Amis is like, we get an accurate portrait of Bradford. He can’t help interrupting to tell us what gets on his nerves ( – usually Modernism and ‘political correctness’). But this would be less irritating if he didn’t insist on demonstrating his ignorance by addressing these subjects as if he’d given them a second thought, rather than having dismissed them offhand as he so clearly has. After disclosing his ‘abiding contempt for all brands of psychoanalysis’ he goes on to give us his two cents on Robert Jay Lifton’s psychological study of Nazi guilt, The Nazi Doctors. According to Bradford, Amis’s research into the female psyche for his novel Other People amounted to questions like ‘why do you choose that kind of make-up, what do you do with your hair and so on?’ And so on? And so on, indeed.

The fundamental error, it seems, is that Bradford’s study shouldn’t be a biography. It should be the novel I was pretending it was earlier, a novel of the school Bradford invents for Amis’s works in the course of his ‘biography’: ‘Conservative Postmodernism’ (– after Bradford’s treatment, even something edgy enough to have a ‘post-’ prefix arrives with a portly gut). The concept would be slightly different from the one I suggested earlier: a biographer is so enamoured with his subject he not only misunderstands him; he not only loses any analytical ability or purchase, but becomes all the things his subject stands against.

In the early 80s Amis reviewed A.N Wilson’s The Life of John Milton. He attacked it for all the same faults Bradford shows in his book. As far as content goes, it ‘is not a scholarly biography; it isn’t popular either, or semiotic or psychohistorical. It is not a critical biography. It is, rather, an uncritical biography.’ As far as style goes, it ‘must set some kind of record as a thesaurus of speculation.’ The real sad thing about all this is that Bradford, as well as reading Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, must have also read this review in The War Against Cliché and not noticed himself. If it were a novel, this would form the axis of our sympathy and pity. But Martin Amis: The Biography is allegedly a work of non-fiction. If it achieves anything at all, it demonstrates how unsuitable Bradford is for the job of explaining his subject’s life and prose.

THE WAR AGAINST BOREDOM: ‘Energy’ in the talked about first novel

In a Youtube video from May 2010, Ned Beauman, the Author of Boxer, Beetle, suggested that readers aren’t entirely honest with themselves: that our motivation for reading novels and the way we talk about them may not be aligned.

There are lots of words that book reviewers use in book reviews that you and I never ever use talking about books, like ‘coruscating’, or ‘timely’, or ‘scandalous’… but there’s one word that you and I use all the time talking about books that book reviewers never use, which is ‘boring’: which is weird because we all know that lots of books are boring. Most books are boring. It’s a triumph ever to come across a book that’s not boring. And yet the biggest crime that a book can commit is to be boring… All I wanted to do when I started this was write a book with a modicum of intelligence that’s not ever boring, and if I’ve achieved that then I’ll be relatively happy.

One could take this as a preventative strike on his part, anticipating reviews whose only negative word about his debut would be something like ‘busy’, ‘convoluted’, or a patronisingly meant ‘ambitious.’

This is to be expected of a novel which features collectors of Nazi memorabilia; assassins; a gay, Jewish-Cockney flyweight-boxer; an aristocratic eugenicist; carnivorous super-beetles and a composer of atonal music. I am a reader who found the book to be constantly interesting without being convoluted. In fact, it is surprisingly well executed. Every circus-level curiosity gives the impression of being handled with subtlety, modesty and understanding. The slimness of it – only 250 pages – certainly contributes to its polish. But Beauman was dead right in expecting that some reviewers are suspicious of literary novels which make a concerted effort not to be boring.

The ‘Hysterical Realism’ debate may be old news now, but it is insistent enough to reassert its power every time a ‘busy’ novel is written. The essay of that name which appeared in James Wood’s collection The Irresponsible Self: Laughter and the Novel identifies and (in most cases well deservedly) attacks ‘The contemporary, big, ambitious novel’ – a long work, full of acrobatic plot-twists and multifarious coincidental, interlinking sub-stories. Wood’s main gripe was that the authors of these CBANs (and his list is formidable: Pynchon, DeLillo, Rushdie, Foster-Wallace) appeal to the reader’s hunger for storytelling, but neglect their duty to make their stories convincing. Boredom is avoided at the expense of seriousness. Wood believes this type of novel to be the enemy of nuance: ‘The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted, overworked… it seems evasive of reality while borrowing from realism itself.’ The other author Wood mentions in his list of offenders is Zadie Smith.

It seems silly, patronising even, to return to White Teeth – a debut that was discussed exhaustively when it came out at the turn of the millenium – now Smith is a mature artist. But youth will always be topical. It is especially relevant to the discussion of novels which display – even advertise – their energy and verve. Apprentice novels are often overly conscious of delivering a specific kind of vivacity or voice; they might not get published or noticed otherwise. Wood spent most of his essay talking about White Teeth, even though he believed Smith to have offended far less than (and, actually, to be a far superior writer than) the established authors of the other CBANs he condemns. This favour is partly the result of him making concession to her youth, and to her ‘potential’ – to that type of energy and vivacity that is no longer present in the established authors who sit comfortably in their readership and acclaim.

One need only read Smith’s short story ‘Mrs. Begum’s Son and The Private Tutor’ to get a compact sense of this youthful vivacity, and of her promise in every other area of the craft. One obviously requires and expects more concentrated immediacy from a short story than from a novel. But this short story is one we can expect to have a double injection of verve. It was a showcase piece, written for The Mays: Oxbridge’s most prestigious and competitive creative anthology, which, every year, is judged by people like Seamus Heaney and Andrew Motion, and circulated to agents and publishers. Smith was a Mays success-story. ‘Mrs. Begum’s Son’ secured her an agent, publisher and large advance before she’d written her first novel. And all this while in her final year at Cambridge.

Again, this is old news, but it gives a context to the urgency of her writing. She wasn’t just the apprentice: she was the intern. The prose is pretty good, but carrying that intentional, deferential awkwardness of a student writer, which is articulate and acute, but eschews pompousness and precociousness almost fanatically. This is the literary equivalent to broadening one’s accent in speech in order to seem humble or intellectually unthreatening. Smith embraces the unliterary, proclaiming her relevance with mentions of Barbie and My Little Pony. Having had a short story in there myself, I can testify that as well as whatever else the judges may have thought of my writing, my inclusion would have been reinforced by my lucky choice to depict the wedding of two young adults in Northeast England, with the possibility of a political statement about the war in Afghanistan hovering in the title (but not in the story itself.) I like to think that my style, voice, handling of character etc. were the reasons I was picked, but it was probably down to (what was seen to be) my ‘relevance:’ the things I consciously put into my story to fulfill the showcase’s criteria.

Zadie Smith came from this into writing White Teeth. She was still writing for a competition – an author’s first novel. The first few pages are obliged to be either the biggest of them all, or a promise of consistent massiveness for the rest of the book. And how massive Zadie Smith’s first pages are! They are some of the most massive first pages I’ve ever read. Wood identifies the sensationalism of Smith’s plot as an excess or ‘acceleration’ of storytelling. If Wood sees the chief vice of ‘Hysterical Realism’ to be a sort of nervous boredom: a rambling and sprawling listlessness, Smith has a nervous eagerness to entertain and to earn respect. The main difference between a CBAN in the hands of a first time novelist and in the hands of a seasoned one is that the former needs her novel to be interesting. And White Teeth reads like a first novel, and reads like it knows it is a first novel which must earn its place. Beauman’s debut, Boxer, Beetle reads like it needs to be interesting to survive, but also wants to be interesting for its own pleasure. Its vividness is not a strain on the reader. It is all interesting, and meticulously researched, but has an energy that is vital and worldly rather than academic and bookish.

White Teeth is designed in a different way. Smith said in an interview with The Guardian in 2000 that ‘to worry about whether a Bengali man of a certain age might say such and such, well, that’s very limiting.’ She would advocate not only using ones imagination, but trusting it above researched or received knowledge: ‘As long as you honestly believe that people can be, say or do anything, then you stop worrying about it.’ Therefore, her job as a novelist is to create a dialect from which her characters can convincingly speak. And for the most part, it is convincing. She generates a narrative folk-lore – a received wisdom where details seem exaggerated from generation to generation. But rather than being obscured by the path of time, family histories acquire more narrative vehemence the more unlikely or miraculous they sound. They take on such a life of their own that they seem independent of the characters produced by them, and are more often than not entirely superfluous to the action.

The effect created is one which has divided readers. James Wood believes that in the most part this detracts from the craft of the novel. I have a fondness for it as a structural curiosity – but this sort of fondness looks kindly on imperfection, and therefore reduces what it praises. When you read about Archie Jones’s first wife (the existence of whom is never mentioned again, and has hardly any bearing on his actions), you can’t help wanting to join in the fun of Smith’s ingenuity: ‘She referred to Ophelia’s madness, which lead her to believe, half of the time, that she was the maid of the celebrated fifteenth-century art lover Cosimo de Medici.’ It delights at the reading, but upon recalling it, seems put there for the author’s amusement rather than the validity of the work.

Smith’s interest in the provenance of everything, as well as being the premise of White Teeth, resigns her to a formula that any novelist would struggle to sustain over a long stretch. Every character must have an interesting genealogy. They must be approached through their religious leanings and backgrounds, rather than how they appear in the present and what they have gathered with them to that moment. One tires of going backwards rather than forwards, not because the many back-stories are uninteresting – on the contrary, they are all quite brilliant. But one gets bored of exercising the same readerly muscles over and over again. On the level of character, this process doesn’t enrich them. The narrator can go one hundred years into a character’s past without giving an impression of why they are who they are.

Smith’s novel is founded on the trite-ism that ‘everybody has a story.’ True – but those stories aren’t instantly available to the eye. They should be the reward of more study than the cursory, though ever-penetrative, glance. Smith tries to make her people wear their stories on the outside, which cannot be achieved. If anything, White Teeth is a means for other apprentice novelists to learn that a narrator doesn’t have to demonstrate her entire knowledge of a character at once. James Wood compares White Teeth to another ambitious debut – another lengthy family saga – Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. As one would expect, Wood finds a way of demonstrating that, though both authors use similar apprentice techniques for character – the leitmotif for instance – Mann’s characters ‘live!’ more convincingly that Smith’s.

One of the most famous young debuts of European literature – upon its publication both esteemed and popular – Buddenbrooks was allegedly the reason for Mann’s winning the Nobel years later. And it was written when he was only twenty-five. But however casually damning it can be to say of White Teeth; ‘Well, it’s no Buddenbrooks,’ it is an undeniable elevation. And I would assert that Buddenbrooks and White Teeth have more in common in terms of quality than Wood would like to acknowledge. Smith’s and Mann’s characters often live at the same rate. Mann’s novel is ultimately (very slightly) finer because it displays more evidence of authorial duty than Smith’s: Mann’s eye is trustworthy because it doesn’t show favouritism. He has been given a town to observe and dedicates himself to depicting each inhabitant – knowing them – even if they are not immediately rewarding. Whereas Smith’s authorial eye is that of a magpie. A fickle, impatient observer, it moves quickly, only attracted to garish curiosities that glitter with irregularity. Characters must court authorial attention in order to be noticed. But just because Mann’s eye is diplomatic where Smith’s shows favoritism doesn’t mean that he never errs on the side of hyper-exuberance. Herr Permaneder, with his verbal tick ‘pain in th’ ol’ (said even as he is forcing himself on the maid, and then as he apologises to his wife for doing it,) is no more respectable than something by Smith at her most flagrant.

But it must be Smith’s serial hyper-exuberance which gives the impression not of idiosyncrasy, but difficult conventionality: what philistinism would term ‘quirkiness.’ Smith’s character list often reads like a roll call of Big Brother contestants in the later years. There were two types of idiots there: ones with a single massive trait, who said things like ‘say it to me face, don’t go slagging me off behind me back;’ or the people deemed misfits by the production company – an amputee with pretensions of clairvoyance and an unapproachably complex sexual identity would be a typical contestant: typical because of her atypicality. The object being to imply a diversity and range in the national populous through such particularity. But doing so is a fallacy. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this is done to enable a story in the easiest way possible. Ned Beauman’s debut would appear to give a similarly berserk cross-section of characters if one was to read a blurb or a synopsis, but not if one were to read the novel itself.

Boxer, Beetle is realised through repellent consciousnesses: the repressed homosexual eugenicist with his 1930s homophobia (the cold rejection of homosexuality as an illness, as opposed to the modern hot fear of it as a threat); and the collector of Nazi memorabilia who constantly examines and justifies his hobby in light of his conscience. Where a character that has a disease making him smell like fish could conceivably appear in White Teeth without attracting too much notice, Beauman treats such a garish abnormality with respect and responsibility, rather than as a gimmick which advertises the narrative. This treatment is evident in all of the creations which could easily be made into flashy curiosities. Where Smith has a host of characters which she has thoroughly inhabited, she hasn’t accessed the true potential for their ironies, or if she has, she hasn’t become comfortable enough to handle them with affection. Beauman’s scientist Philip Erskine has none of the endearing exuberance of Smith’s scientist, Marcus Chalfen: he has less showy mannerisms that say ‘I am Philip Erskine!’ but nevertheless vivifies his own substance far more convincingly than all of Smith’s characters (excluding Samad, who would be a credit to any novelist).

Characters in White Teeth have a tendency to appear as advertisements for themselves as well as for the novel, in a similar fashion to the way Ricky Gervais writes the celebrity cameos in his comedy. They move as if the thought ruling their interiority is ‘I am X – I must remember to be X,’ and the effect is that they seem, at some stage, to have forgotten who they are – forgotten they have a self at all. They announce themselves as if they aren’t thoroughly convinced: ‘I’m Ben Stiller!’ ‘I’m Clive Owen!’ ‘I’m Liam Neeson – I was in Schindler’s List!’ The effect is one of curious tentativeness and disassociation. But in a Ricky Gervais comedy the actors are playing themselves. It is knowing self-parody.

It takes a feeling novelist to know his characters so well as to play irreverently and affectionately with their inner ironies. Beauman has Philip Erskine’s sister Evelyn (an ingenious character in her own right) say to him ‘I really don’t understand why anyone is interested in children,’ to which he responds ‘no.’ What a great thing for a Eugenicist – somebody who’s primary interest is the preservation of the species – to say! One couldn’t imagine even in Joyce Chalfen – the creation who demonstrates some of Smith’s most scathing and at the same time sensitive work – the same lightness of touch that has gone into creating Philip Erskine and the conflicting loyalties of his conscience and consciousness. Where Beauman is backed by his research, Smith protests to be comfortable without it. But it is Beauman who is more comfortable in the very essence of his characters. And it is from the essence that Smith believes she speaks when she trusts her imagination over research.

Buddenbrooks is economical in the way it allows characters to survive and demonstrate their essence. The leitmotif, though initially helpful, is a troublesome way of keeping a character afloat. Remember what Humbert Humbert says in Lolita, about a novelist writing a character with a dog and being lumbered with the prospect of finding new ways in which the dog can be brought into the action. Mann has to constantly find new opportunities for his characters to exhibit their one or two idiosyncrasies. They live the same, they don’t need to change, but they have to busy themselves to be believed. The fraud Benedix Grünlich is a relatively brief but significant contributor to the book’s action. A dandyish conman posing as a merchant, he is a master of economy in social and emotional matters as well as in business. Full of gestures that connote ‘flourishing’ and elegant prosperity, he is constantly aware of the price of the effect produced – getting value for money – and in doing so never ceases to demonstrate a certain lack of sense, a meanness of spirit; a meagreness. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than his verbal tick, ‘I have taken a couple of rooms at the City of Hamburg Inn.’ This phrase comes in even when he is begging for Antonie’s hand in marriage. Putting it here would naturally seem crass and needless, as is the case with Antonie’s second suitor Permaneder’s verbal ticks, but the effect produced here is acute:

I could bear it no more. I threw myself into the next coach. Hastened here as fast as I could. I have taken a couple of rooms at the City of Hamburg Inn… and here I am.

The leitmotif here is used not to amplify the character but to restrain him; to regulate his emotional expenditure. It is not just the minor characters who are made full by skilful use of this device. Christian Buddenbrook, one of the leads, after coming to work for the family firm, often dismays his family at the dinner table with explorations of his sensibilities; how he sometimes dares himself not to swallow, for instance. And then when it appears that he has settled into bourgeois respectability, he delights by transforming the solid, satisfying, dynamic routine of a businessman into something his brother Thomas would call, ‘unusually obscure or supremely refined,’ by describing the way his hand feels satiated and tired after a day’s writing. This perturbs the family just as much. Witnessing a character resist development and expansion here yields equal pleasure to seeing a character develop, and is in itself an appropriate kind of expansion. Deriving sophisticated pleasure from a static character is reliant on that character being subtly static. Smith’s static characters afford the reader much pleasure, but often the shallow pleasure of merely laughing at them. Yet how deep a pleasure can one really afford  through observing Mann thoroughly master a shallow technique? One easily gets bored of Mann, increasingly so as he gets better at writing his big novels.

The more rigorously I probe the hasty impulse of characterisation in White Teeth the more I have a niggling sense that my approach is wrong, and that James Wood’s philosophically-aware seriousness, rather than being too high for the novel’s shortcomings, is in fact of no use to this novel and its goals. After Wood, I am frustrated by the tasteless economy of some of Smith’s descriptions. A spotty face is a ‘join the dots enthusiast’s wet dream’, Clara’s father’s chair is ‘bug infested.’ These are the luminous, hasty brushstrokes of the idiomatic voice which has read Martin Amis and believes the world to be its oyster. There is nothing wrong with learning how to capture modern urban life from 80s-90s Amis, and there is everything to gain from learning about style from him. The problem comes when Amis’s innovations of voice, originally a quest for freshness, are lazily reproduced. This is excusable in White Teeth, however, in that it runs on unoriginalities. They are the novel’s fuel. Just as James Joyce constructed characters’ interiorities from the refuse, the unoriginalities of the mind in Ulysses, Smith constructs an exterior narrative out of trite-isms. She gets the tone of her debut right for its day. The narrative voice is enabled by its endorsement of public hearsay. This is what Wood doesn’t seem to understand: hyperbole is part of the process by which the narrative voice has collated her story. It engages directly with a semi-urban climate of storytelling. Transmission happens everywhere, sometimes across continents, so it is no wonder details find themselves ‘hysterically’ altered: ‘So the legend went back in St Elizabeth.’ The narrative embraces the possibility that the tales may be too wonderful to be true. Where for Wood this cheapens the novel, for Smith it makes the story possible. This is how the narrative sources its information, and this is a reason why Wood and Smith can’t get along here.

One can’t imagine James Wood readily investing himself in a narrative process so close to blind faith. And when a novel asserts that ‘It couldn’t be, but it was. That is how people describe a miracle,’ it is to be expected that the steady mind of the knowledgeable, tested atheist may demand a little more ‘seriousness’ from the book. He has written a collection of essays about the intersection of Theology and Literature; it is his subject, and the axis of his one novel: The Book Against God, which establishes it’s narrative / reader bonds on mistrust. One could imagine him seeing the ease of miracle as a shirking of responsibilities on the part of the logician, the craftsman and the self-respecting reader. But Wood himself, in How Fiction Works, asserts that the success of a novel should be judged by how well it teaches you to follow its rules: to believe its texture and grammar. A novel fails, ultimately, when it ‘has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level.’

Smith allows her narrative provincial and blind belief as well as scientific caution because such an argument is the crux of her creation: Chalfenism versus Bowdenism – the determinism of science versus the determinism of God. I believe in the texture and grammar of her book, and for me, it very rarely fails on its own terms. But when it does, it happens drastically. Smith turns on her conventions and her whole creation in the very last two pages, abandoning the tension between the unbelievable and the determinable to a disenchanted logic. She imagines her reader as a focus group who ‘would no doubt tick the box that asks to see all these things played to their end,’ and goes on a little parade around the hypothetical, then condemns the hunger for storytelling which she has (up until now) been satisfying. It seems she has run out of steam and wants her novel finished: ‘But surely to tell these tales and others like them would be to speed the myth, the wicked lie, that the past is always tense and the future, perfect. And as Archie knows, it’s not like that.’ One thinks, now you decide to reject the sentimental elements of story-telling? – for exaggeration is a function of the nostalgic: the sentimental. That is what White Teeth teaches us.

It isn’t the novel’s busyness that defeats it; the way it bristles with information actually holds it together. After reading it all, we realise that although we might have felt overwhelmed by the novel’s fullness, it was the way it voided itself in the end that damaged it. Zadie Smith was trying so hard not to let her novel get boring, and she was doing so well. But then the novelist got bored of the novel.

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