Thursday, 19 February 2009

James Bradley on Mad Men & Big Novels

Further to recent remarks I've been pleased to learn that James Bradley (pictured) lately wrote an excellent piece for the Australian ('The idiot box grows a brain') about long-form narrative in television drama series and in the novel - occasioned, I suppose, by some much-praised recent instances of the former:
"Mad Men, made by American cable network AMC, is only one of a growing catalogue of ambitious [TV] programs distinguished by not just by their complexity and intelligence but by their urgent engagement with the world we inhabit. Taken collectively these shows, this new television, constitute nothing less than a revolution, a revolution that has transformed series television, late in life and perhaps improbably, into our most vital cultural form... No longer tidy, predictable, generic, at its best the new television commands the richness and breadth of vision that was once the sole preserve of the novel."
James also summons The Sopranos and The Wire to his argument:
"Indeed, in the ambition, complexity and detail of its depiction of the corruption of Baltimore's public institutions, The Wire quite deliberately (and sometimes a little too self-consciously) has in its sights the great social novels of the 19th century and their ambition to represent the whole of society from top to bottom and, more importantly, to tease out the way the destinies of the greatest were intimately connected to the fates of the most insignificant. The novel abandoned this ambition some time ago. Although the English still dabble in the great social novel - Richard Kelly's Crusaders and Phillip Hensher's Booker-shortlisted The Northern Clemency are recent examples...'
I might say that it's a fine thing to be cited in such a debate and in such a manner. But the case James makes for the New Television is very compelling and, in a highly well-minted way, expresses a lot of what I've heard anecdotally from quite a few other informed observers. It does make me worry for the poor old novel, though. As James puts it:
"Some critics - see Zadie Smith's New York Review of Books piece on Joseph O'Neill's Booker-shortlisted novel Netherland - argue that the novel, or at least the realist literary novel, has reached some kind of logical end point, its polite but reflexive aestheticising now an end in itself, unable by its very nature to engage with the world as it is."
Clearly, then, it's counter-revolution time. More long novels, comrades! And make 'em as radical as reality itself, to steal the words of Lenin from before he got on the train.

Mailer, Freud, Blair/Brown, Philip Collins: Coincidence? I think not

'Coincidence, what do you make of it?' So Tim Madden asks his father Dougy in Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance (a book, you may have guessed, that is rarely far from my thoughts.) In fact, Tim already has a theory on the matter:
'I believe we receive traces of everyone's thoughts... I think when something big and unexpected is about to happen, people come out of their daily static. Their thoughts start pulling toward one another. It's as if an impending event creates a vacuum, and we start to go toward it. Startling coincidences pile up at a crazy rate...'
Freud didn't buy coincidence, no sir, but Jung did. Freud thought there was a causal explanation for dual manifestations that we would otherwise see as uncanny: basically a repetition of old mental habits congealed around buried traumas, familiar repressions, always wearily likely to resurface. But Jung defied his former master, arguing that coincidence, 'syncronicity', pointed toward something meaningful - 'big and unexpected', even.
Now, it is no coincidence whatsoever - in fact, a matter of hard causation - when the scholarly think-tanker Philip Collins (pictured), a former habitue of Tony Blair's Downing Street, writes an op-ed piece in the Times strongly critical of Gordon Brown's goverment, and a rash of media comment on said piece breaks out. The Evening Standard reports said piece as news. The Spectator nods its head fiercely in agreement with Collins. For The Independent Jon Cruddas MP rates the Collins critique as a worrying recurrence of scarlet Blairism, never quite brought under control or inoculated against.
What is the substance of said critique? Collins argues that Brown is a creature of obsessive manouevring and positioning rather than of any fixed and worthwhile principle: in short, that he would never espouse 'equality', say, because it's 'good' or 'right' but because it's 'politically useful', and that he thinks of 'crime' as 'a political event rather than an infringement of liberty.' (So much, then, for all that supposed 'integrity' Brown used to wear as lightly as sainthood.) And as a consequence of this obsessive tendency, in light of recent events, Collins believes that "Labour now finds itself just to the left of sensible on everything."
It's scarcely a coincidence of note, given my recent musings, that I should seize on the sight of Philip Collins leaning heavily for his analogy upon the general incorrectness of Freudian theory, which he does like so:
'The strain of repressing the traumatic past - devalued currency, winter of discontent, public spending run riot, the regulatory regime of 1997 - and the task of displacing the present - “it all started in America” - is exhausting [the Brown government's] capacity to act. The only response is a series of dreams as wish-fulfilment - the Prime Minister will become the international sultan of regulation, the economic news will be good by the end of the year. The truth is that Labour was never going to win on the economy. It was just a daydream, on Freud's definition, in which the hero wins out and achieves his heart's desire...'
An instance of the sadness as Collins sees it is that Labour under Brown has 'bogged itself down in guidelines for rhubarb crumble recipes and instructions for playgrounds to be painted' rather than bolder strokes for improving schools. (He invokes the name of the Department for Children, Schools and Families rather as a sort of Grey Lubyanka.) But of what measures would Collins himself approve, were he nearer to the levers? He thinks Michael Gove’s plans to 'free schools from the control of local authorities' are the right idea, because Labour could and should have done it already. More generally he's on the side of 'plans to improve literacy... transfer power to local authorities...reform of policing', all of which seem to his eye to be written off or forgotten. In brief, the small-c-conservative, liberal, pragmatic New Labour project has been spitefully abandoned, and the excuse of the international banking fiasco is no sort of a fig-leaf.
You can sense Collins' special concern over the notion that Labour has wound up chasing the Tories' lead just like an opposition party. For wasn't Blairism about making Labour the natural party of government? It seemed to me at the time that this was attempted mainly by outflanking the Conservatives, triangulating them in Clintonian fashion by adopting any elements of populist good sense that the Opposition managed to display. Has Cameron now triangulated the Blair Project? Collins seems to think he's seized the opportunity:
"[Cameron] says that he wants to give people the power to instigate referendums on, for example, council tax increases. He wants to change the assumption that local authorities should have to beg Whitehall for permission to act. He wants a referendum on elected mayors in the big cities. An imaginative Labour party should be exploring all these ideas."
Too much in there to quibble with, other than to say I'm not much interested in either of those referenda and I don't know enough about how local government does or doesn't work in the shadow of Whitehall. But I'll look forward to the next column on the subject, and finish instead on this business of coincidence. I happen to know Philip Collins a little bit through a mutual friend, just as his predecessor in the post of Blair's chief speechwriter, Peter Hyman, was once my editor at a student newspaper. Coincidentally I ran into Philip late last year at the same hotel to which we'd taken our respective families for a 'weekend break' (though Philip had his laptop with him, such was the workload...) As for Peter, I routinely see him pushing his kids on the swings at the same municipal park to which I take my little girl.
After 10 years of Blair's premiership I daresay we all felt to some extent that we could ventriloquise him a bit, 'do Blair'. I certainly tried my hand at same in Crusaders. Maybe I felt myself sufficiently qualified for such mimicry on account of having spent some time in the company of a couple of the fellows who best received the traces of Tony's thoughts (a la Mailer)and so could put well-minted words directly into his mouth?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

James Bradley's City of Tongues

One of Faber and Faber's biggest and happiest successes of recent years has been James Bradley's novel The Resurrectionist. Though James and I haven't (yet) met, I would presume that we share not just a publisher but also a few aspects of a certain sort of nineteenth-century mindset... At his website City of Tongues he curates links to some terrific material pertaining both to The Resurrectionist and to his other novels and assorted writings, as well as blogging on various matters of a literary bent - and the other day he was kind enough to pay compliments both to Crusaders and to this blog, which I am hereby happy to repay.
I'm also pleased to note that, while a number of Australian writers and readers have now gone online with the view that Crusaders wasn't much noticed on its publication in Australia, these selfsame correspondents have more than fulfilled my own hopes in that regard, just in terms of the generosity of their particular responses to the book.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Crusaders and the Exotic North East

The website of the non-fiction-specialising literary agency Andrew Lownie seems to like to run occasional vox-pop commentaries on the state of UK publishing, and this month they've invited a number of editors to prognosticate about what sort of books might work in the trade during 2009. The results are interesting, and reflect an increasingly familiar debate about whether Realism or Escapism is the dominant cultural/creative response to Hard Times. Some believe we will all want to get serious and austere now, to rediscover lost values, tool ourselves up for possible future hardship, and ensure that we are never fooled again. Others are quite sure we will all continue to dodge the dreary stuff and cling on to our natural capacity for foolishness...
And where does your correspondent come into any of this? Well, by way of the following contribution from Sarah Norman, editor at Atlantic Books, shortly after she has considered a few of the Escapist options and expressed high hopes for a forthcoming and seemingly fantastical Atlantic novel entitled Girl with Glass Feet:
"For the past few years the public have also been embracing some significant new literary voices from around the world, but I wonder whether the success of novels like Ross Raisin's God's Own Country and Richard T. Kelly's Crusaders – in which the regional British setting is so integral to the narrative – are a sign that we're beginning to find what's closer to home exotic and intriguing again."
Well, if so, then that would seem to chime with Stuart Evers' observations on the Guardian Book Blog as mentioned below. In truth, I am perhaps a tad fortunate if Crusaders is rated a 'success' in the company of Ross Raisin's acclaimed debut novel, for which, if I heard right, he was paid a six-figure advance by the publisher, and duly went on to earn them and himself a couple of highly rated literary prizes as well as a few other nominations. I can claim no such distinctions but, still, if anybody reckons I fit this particular cap (if only for the purpose of debate) then for sure I will wear it, for sure and no worries...