A Rather More Circumspect Summary

Apologies for the delay in posting this update. I’m working a lot of extra hours at the moment, and on top of that we’re in the middle of moving flat, so I don’t have much access to the internet. Posts are going to be a little patchy for the rest of the month, but hopefully things should even out by the middle of November.

So a couple of weeks ago, I posted my statistical analysis of the past year’s worth of books, and promised that the more traditional “Which books did I like and hate?” post would come later on in the week. I think you can see where this is going…

Continue reading “A Rather More Circumspect Summary”

Year of a Hundred books – #15 And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their TanksAnd The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,

by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac


This rather morbidly (and irrelevantly) titled book tells a fictionalised story of the murder that launched the Beat Generation, a crime both authors were arrested in relation to, though neither were directly involved.

I’m not a huge fan of the Beats (aside from Allen Ginsberg), but this was quite compelling. Set during the Second World War, with two of the characters (one of whom is Burroughs’ alter-ego) invested in trying to enlist in the navy, it actually reminded me a lot of the last book I read all the way through (more on this in a future post). Of course, unlike Bellow’s existentially fraught protagonist, Burroughs and Kerouac’s peers are, as even the most limited knowledge of the Beats will imply, a feckless bunch of wasters.

Through as far as I can tell the first work Burroughs and Kerouac wrote, chronologically speaking, The book was published posthumously for both the authors and the perpetrator, though it is, according to the editor’s notes, far from the only interpretation of the events published by members of the group. These editors notes were actually almost as interesting as the novel itself, almost providing an element of closure to the story. While the fictionalised account ends fairly abruptly, the notes tells what happens next, and I think, some much-needed context that is absent from the novel.

I’m still unlikely to love either Kerouac or Burroughs writing simply because I enjoyed this, but I think this, early work that doesn’t quite have their signature styles, worth a read.

In Defence of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Today, it was announced that Mo Yan is the latest Nobel Laureate. As has come to be expected, a lot of people have complained about this (though actually not as many as I’d expected. Still, early days). Some of these people are complaining that it wasn’t Murakami/Kundera/Dylan that won, while others are whingeing yet again that the winner isn’t American, or that the prize is irrelevant, and has been since Jorge Luis Borges died without winning. Then there are the myriad of people who are complaining because of, or attempting to make rather weak jokes about, the fact that they’ve never heard of Mo Yan. It is these last two branches of the complaints that I want to address, one directly, the other indirectly.

Before I came home from work this evening, I had never heard of Mo Yan. I’m not ashamed to admit this, though I do feel a bit frustrated, because it underlines the fact that despite my best intentions, I’m not as well-read as I like to think.  So yes, my initial response was a somewhat apathetic, “Oh, all right then, I’ll go and add his name to my list“. After having done so, (and deducing that Edinburgh City Libraries are not going to have many copies of his books in stock for a while now), I decided I’d have a quick look to see how much one of his eBooks would cost. A search for his name on Amazon presents four of his works available to purchase in eBook form: Two versions of an analytical textbook, an Italian language translation, and an English translation of Red Sorghum, the only of his works that had been adapted into a film. Oh, and the last of these is only available to pre-order, ahead of its publication date, which is tomorrow.

Now, I realise that presence in the Kindle store is far from a good indication of popularity and quality, particularly for foreign language authors; Umberto Eco (one of only a few living author that I would wholeheartedly champion for the award) only has two books available there. Translation adds an extra layer of copyright and publishers resistant to the eBook trend, and in Mo Yan’s case, China’s own “unique” relationship with the media would perhaps go some way towards explaining this discrepancy.

So, as far as I can tell, very few English language readers have heard of Mo Yan, let alone read any of his books. Despite the complaints, no one who is in a position to comment seems to have suggested that his work doesn’t merit the award (Apart from Ai Weiwei, though this has more to do with politics than literature) This begs the question, how does this disparity occur?

I think the answer lies in the way people perceive the Nobel Prizes. There is a collective idea that because the award seeks to commend, as Alfred Nobel decreed “greatest benefit on mankind”, the awards themselves are the greatest prize a man person to achieve. This is blatantly untrue. How can they be? And if people expect the Prizes to fill this role, then there is always going to be disappointment. Yes, the awards are prestigious, in no small part due to the prize (10 Million SEK) and the longevity (111 years and counting), but equating this to supreme merit leads to sickening territorialism.

I’m not saying the Nobel Prize does not have its flaws. First and foremost it is exemplary of wider literary issues of gender imbalance, which I myself am guilty of (note, as I mentioned above, I automatically assumed that Mo Yan was a man, despite having no gendered frame of reference for the name). Fun fact: only 10% of Laureates are women, although statistically the number of female winners appears to be increasing over the last two decades. There are also issues of Politics – as the exclusion of Borges, Ezra Pound, and others demonstrate – Genre fiction, and Philosophy.

However, if you chose to discount the merits of a prize based on its flaws, then I’d argue that the somewhat disconcerting level of sponsorship in most Literary Award (for example, the Man Booker Prize, The Orange Prize for Fiction,and The Costa Book Awards, to a name a few British examples), is more worrying to me than an award that spans language, state, and culture, at the expense of rewarding the same group of authors that are celebrated by the distressingly insular Anglosphere. As I said, Mo Yan’s book is being published in eBook form in English tomorrow, and while I don’t know the context to this, I’d be willing to put money on the fact the Prize had a strong influence on that date, thus demonstrating my point that the Prize allows great literature to transcend its own cultural sphere.

Ultimately I think it’s very important for non-English, or indeed non-French, non-Spanish, or non-Swedish, books to be brought into international, and inter-linguistic attention. If the Nobel Prize, as the most famous literary award, is the only prize that is capable of doing so, I think that is where the Nobel Prize in Literature succeeds at providing the “Greatest benefit on mankind”.

Have you read anything by Mo Yan? What do you think of the Prize, this year or any other? Who would you nominate for it? 

Essay: Proofreading and Narrative Voice

In my review of Siddhartha, I commented on the quality of the eBook copy that I read, which included a number of off-putting typographical errors. In that instance, I would assume that it was due to the quality of the digitisation procedure used by the Gutenberg Project. However, since it’s been in the forefront of my mind, I’ve been noticing misspellings and odd grammar more regularly than I ordinarily would (That’s not to say that I don’t normally notice, it’s just that I often get so immersed in the story that I can’t see the trees for the forest, to invert an expression).

For example, I’m currently reading The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, which features as one of its protagonists, a Hasidic Jew. During a long explanation of the history of Hasidism, (in which the name and its derivative are used many times), at one point “Hasidim” is misspelt as “Jasidim”. It’s just sloppy, and while I’m loving the book, I can’t help but think that it’s a fairly major thing to miss, especially with the technology that is available to a major publishing house such as Penguin.

However, I’d argue that there is another aspect of proofreading that people often overlook: Voice.1
I don’t mean that everything should be written in perfectly regimented academic English, rather that your characters have to speak and think in ways that make sense. Sometimes this can happen when there’s a long gap between books in a series, or if one volume is written by a different author. A particularly good example of this is Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. Prose was not Adams’ primary medium, and so over the course of his five books, particularly Mostly Harmless, the last instalment he wrote, the character’s voices vary wildly. This is continued in the posthumous novel And Another Thing, written by Eoin Colfer. Despite Colfer’s engaging personal writing style, he completely failed to grasp either Adams’ own narrative voice (which was at least consistent) or that of his characters, which ultimately ruined the book.

The most egregious example I’ve come across, and perhaps the easiest to have changed was Audrey Niffenegger’s Our Fearful Symmetry, which I’d say is one of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. I really enjoyed The Time-Traveller’s Wife, but there was so much wrong with this book, most of which I’m not going to go into. What’s relevant here is that even though most of the book is set in contemporary London, and most of the characters are Londoners who have lived their entire lives in the Hampstead, a particularly posh area, they all spoke American English. Not so much spellings, that was at least localised, but just using phrases that they as characters would never use, like the septuagenarian woman dealing with her mail rather than her post, taking a cab, not a taxi, and riding the subway, not the underground. Nothing big, but enough to pull me out of the book and to be honest it makes Niffenegger look like a second-rate author.
It would have been so easy to fix as well; just to get a Londoner to proof-read would have solved one major problem. Of course, the weird scene where one of the characters is perving over an episode of Doctor Who, the frankly bizarre plot twists and unlike-able characters would still have made me hate the book, but at least it would have been more technically well-written.

I realise it’s very easy to make mistakes; everyone does, but that’s why publishing houses employ proofreaders, and why I’m still a wary about buying self-published books, because for every author that’s put care and effort into their work, there are ten others with delusions of competence who haven’t put the necessary work in.

1 I guess that technically this isn’t strictly “proofreading”, as it has little to do with the proof of a manuscript, but in common parlance I think it’s covered.

Essay: Authorial Intent and Political Beliefs in Literature

Authorial intent is a large part of literary criticism. Even in a post-Barthes world, it is impossible to completely separate the creator of a work from the work itself, and sometimes deeper knowledge of the author can affect a reader’s perception of their art.

A good few years ago, during my first forays into the internet, I tended to frequent forums devoted to books, generally of the Young Adult Fantasy variety. I once spent a few days lurking around the official forum attached to the website of William Nicholson (co-writer of Gladiator, author of The Wind on Fire trilogy). I’d read and thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in his series, and was awaiting the publication of the third, and I imagine that was how I ended up on his forum. What I saw there, I didn’t really like. Unlike most places where people congregate to discuss works of fiction, Nicholson himself sometimes frequented the message board. Whether it was his intention or not, in most of the posts of his that I read he came across as an arrogant man full of disdain for his target audience who had come together to express appreciation for his work. When the final book came out, I found I enjoyed it significantly less than I had hoped, and unlike many of the books I read at that time of my life, I’ve never felt a desire to reread them. Nicholson had, by allowing me to learn a little of his personality, coloured my view of his work.

That said, I still really appreciate and enjoy the works of Philip Larkin and Neil Gaiman, despite discovering the former’s racism and misogyny and being all but ignored by the latter at a signing at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago. Yes I know how childish that last part sounds. In part, I suppose it depends on the level of my appreciation for the works initially. While Larkin and Gaiman rank among my favourite authors, Nicholson was overshadowed at the time by Philip Pullman, Garth Nix and Philip Reeves.

This phenomenon is not always limited to written works. The Guardian recently “outed” punk-folk-singer/songwriter Frank Turner as a right-wing, libertarian, Europhobe. In retrospect, as the article says, we should have seen it coming; you only need to look at the track-listing for his latest album, England Keep My Bones, to see a level of patriotism uncommon in UK music. Somehow I had deluded myself into thinking that an Eton boy would have written songs in favour of social revolution from a leftist perspective. Instead, lines such as “If you steal the land of an Englishman/then you will know this curse/your first-born son’s warm blood will run/upon English earth” from English Curse are no longer declarations of socialist support against the wealthy/corporations, but nationalist declarations against the encroaching European Union.

In a way, it doesn’t matter in the slightest, and this is just sour grapes because he doesn’t share my political beliefs. Turner has plenty of non-political songs which as still just as moving as they were before this revelation. But somehow it makes it much harder to appreciate songs like the aforementioned English Curse while knowing the author has commented on the Lisbon Treaty being the end of 800 years of parliamentary democracy, something I disagree with fundamentally.

Am I just bitter at being “tricked” and making a fuss about nothing, or have other people had their appreciation of an artist/author sullied by knowing too much about them?