Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
The American cover is especially striking, with the bird and skeleton looking like something out of an old illustrated encyclopedia. And the wide black band suggests something important is hidden within. The British version feels generic, with the beach-front watercolor looking like a perhaps slightly more menacing version of the art you’d have hanging in your room at a seaside motel.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year, but all five of the finalists got a fair amount of ink. No huge surprises. In fact, as we’ve noted in the past, the NBCC seems to do a better job of catching the zeitgeist than other major prizes like the National Book Award and the Booker, which like to play kingmaker by annointing less well known titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books.
Teju Cole, Open City (our review, excerpt)
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot, our review, excerpt [pdf])
Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (our review, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics, excerpt)
Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (excerpt)
Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (our review, excerpt)
Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (excerpt)
James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Ben Marcus on The Information, excerpt)
Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (excerpt)
Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (excerpt)
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf])
For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
“Style is to some extent everything to me,” Joan Didion recently said at the New York Public Library, discussing her melancholy new memoir, Blue Nights. Possessing a marked style has become almost a sin in contemporary literary culture: the fashionable line on Didion is that she is “trapped” by her familiar cadences, and the same is sometimes said of Alan Hollinghurst, whose novel The Stranger’s Child explores the biographical enigma of a minor English poet. Can a writer’s prose be too fine, too composed? In an age where language seems to be getting crummier by the minute, I’m inclined to doubt it. Didion and Hollinghurst are vastly different stylists: the one spare and Hemingwayesque, the other ornate and Jamesian. But each serves for me as a beacon or bulwark; I trust the grain of the voice, and am not let down. Their new books are haunted by a past that has taken on golden hues, but neither is an exercise in nostalgia, and what gives the reader hope, amid bleak scenes, is the persistence of style. Whether in Hollinghurst’s lingering glimpses of a destroyed English fin-de-siècle or in Didion’s flickering memories of a troubled child, the beauty of the writing is the thin, strong thread that holds together a tattered world.
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This was a sad year for my bookshelves. Most of my favorite books of 2011 were full-on sob-fests, stories that had me reaching for the tissue box as often as I turned the page. Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir The Long Goodbye, written about her mother’s death, is honest and vivid, written with a poet’s precise use of language. The observations of illness and grief are both exacting and heartwrenching, and I hiccuped so loudly while reading it that I’m surprised the neighbors didn’t call the police. Darrin Strauss’s Half A Life, a slip of a book about accidentally hitting (and killing) a high-school classmate with his car, was a meditation on guilt and sadness, and I think I read it in one sitting. Furious Love, Sam Kashner’s biography of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s extremely tortured love affair, made me simultaneously disappointed and relieved that my husband is not an alcoholic Welshman with a penchant for poetry.
Of course, fiction can be sad, too: Justin Torres’ We The Animals made me want to go grocery shopping, clean the house, and take better care of my imaginary children. Jessica Francis Kane’s novel The Report made me afraid to walk up or down subway stairs, for fear of being crushed to death. My favorite novel of the year, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, is one of the most melancholy books of all, following a writer’s legacy for decades after his death. That, my friends, will not only make you cry, but also question your entire existence, and everything you know about your favorite writers, and if that isn’t worth reading, then I don’t know what is.
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This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:
The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo (Most Anticipated)The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (The Gay Question: Death in Venice, By Nightfall, and The Art of Fielding)The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalists Announced)The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (The Sea and the Mirror: Reflections and Refractions from a Voyage by Ship in Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table)Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy (William Kennedy’s Long Dry Spell Ends with Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes)11/22/63 by Stephen King (Most Anticipated)The Free World by David Bezmozgis (The Price of the Dream: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, The Millions Interview: David Bezmozgis)Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (Most Anticipated)Gryphon by Charles Baxter (Most Anticipated)House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Ham Steaks and Manstarch: Nicholson Baker Returns to the Sex Beat)The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Most Anticipated)The London Train by Tessa Hadley (Most Anticipated)Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks (Porn, Lies, and Videotape: On Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin)The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write ‘The Marriage Plot’, Wanting it Bad: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides)A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles (Robert Birnbaum in Conversation with John Sayles)My New American Life by Francine Prose (Albania the Beautiful: Francine Prose’s My New American Life)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (A Novelist Unmoored from Himself: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (The Burden of Meaningfulness: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King)Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Most Anticipated)Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Most Anticipated)The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (The Favorite Takes Home the Booker)Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta (Rock ‘n Roll Malaise: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia)The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (The Impermanence of Memory: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics)Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (The Millions Interview: Karen Russell)Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (The Millions Interview: Eleanor Henderson)The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife)The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips (Most Anticipated)Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Most Anticipated)
It is sometimes hard to remember — in our enlightened Internet era — that the line between writer and critic was once very sharp, and that there was no love lost between the camps. “There are hardly five critics in America,” Herman Melville once wrote, “and several of them are asleep.”
Not that you can blame the man, considering the drubbing he took at the hands of the critical establishment, but the quote gives a good sense of the bad blood brewing between writer and commentator all the way back in the 1850s. We don’t lack for contemporary examples, either; in 1991 Norman Mailer called critic John Simon “a man whose brain is being demented by the bile rising from his bowels,” after Simon panned Mailer’s novel Harlot’s Ghost.
But surely it’s not all bile and bellowing; there have to be other, more civilized examples of the writer playing nice in the critical sphere. Henry James, for example, had a prolific side gig as a writer of judicious criticism, and his essay “The Art of Fiction” is one of the most well-considered and fair-minded examinations of novelistic purpose you could ever hope to read. But even James, in the middle of his reasonable defense of novelistic art, couldn’t help giving a swift kick to an unnamed “writer in the Pall Mall” who opposes “certain tales in which ‘Bostonian nymphs’ appear to have ‘rejected English dukes for psychological reasons’” – Portrait of a Lady, I presume? It seems that, no matter their composure, writers look to draw a little blood when they enter the critical ring. Maybe it has something to do with accepting blows in silence all those years.
Which brings us to the latest example of a writer stepping into the ring to defend his work against a rapacious critic: award-winning author Jonathan Lethem v. award-winning critic James Wood, literary heavyweight bout par excellence. The first round of this fight happened recently, when the Los Angeles Review of Books published an essay by Lethem entitled “My Disappointment Critic,” in which Lethem discussed his anger at Wood for panning his novel The Fortress of Solitude eight years ago.
Lethem is not some cranky author we can write off lightly and go about our business. He is himself a thoughtful critic, and, as if to remind us of this fact, the title of “My Disappointment Critic” (and some of its content) alludes to his book The Disappointment Artist, a series of excellent essays about growing up in Brooklyn, the pleasures and perils of being an autodidact, and Westerns – among other things. His essay on the way to escape a subway train when you fear being pursued by other passengers is one of the best evocations of frightened childhood and how it shapes (urban) consciousness I have ever read.
All this is to say that Lethem is more than familiar with a critic’s responsibilities. Even when you’re an author/critic with fame hanging heavy on your shoulders — especially when you’re stepping into the ring to defend your own work — you’re held to the sort of standard all criticism is held to: you have to marshal evidence and portray your viewpoint convincingly. One might even argue that writer/critic dealing with his own work has a higher bar to vault, because if he fails at any of these aims he looks worse than a reviewer writing a poorly-argued review. He looks like a whiner.
So what are we to make of Lethem’s new essay, in which he steps into the ring to defend his eight-year-old novel The Fortress of Solitude from James Wood, critical heavyweight of the age? Is he merely grousing? Or is he making serious critical claims?
Lethem understands our concerns. He wants us to know right away that he knows what he’s doing.
“Why,” Lethem writes, “violate every contract of dignity and decency, why embarrass us and yourself, sulking over an eight-year-old mixed review? Conversely, why not, if I’d wished to flog Wood’s shortcomings, pick a review of someone else, make respectable defense of a fallen comrade? The answer is simple: In no other instance could I grasp so completely what Wood was doing.”
And later: “Was this how Rushdie or DeLillo felt — not savaged, in fact, but harassed, by a knight only they could tell was armorless?”
This is Lethem’s stated purpose: instead of taking the opportunity to complain about his own disappointment, Lethem is going to give his own disappointment greater cultural relevance. He is going to use his own experience to show us what James Wood looks like without the armor. He is going to accomplish something far more serious than simple griping: a true critical takedown.
The critical takedown is well-known cultural corrective with a long and glorious history. Renata Adler attempted something similar in her New York Review of Books article on Pauline Kael 31 years ago. James Wood himself performed similar treatment on Harold Bloom; it’s no surprise that Lethem quotes both of these projects above his essay.
The fellow critic providing cultural corrective to someone who has gotten too big for his or her britches — it’s practically a public service, if you do it right. In our current literary discourse critics can easily become unimpeachable. Wood gets the lofty heights of The New Yorker’s book section whenever he feels like it, and if he’s fudging his responsibilities, chances are a lot of people won’t notice. It’s more or less exactly the argument Adler makes in her takedown of Kael: most critics get sloppy on their soapbox. Their ingrained prejudices take over.
So there’s a precedent for the fellow critic accomplishing such a takedown, but rarely does the author being criticized make the attempt. Maybe this is because the burden of proof is uncommonly high when personal interest is involved. And Lethem’s criticisms, for all of their higher purpose, do spring from personal concerns: Wood failed to see what Lethem was getting at in The Fortress of Solitude.
“James Wood,” he writes, “in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility. This, the sole distinguishing feature that put the book aside from those you’d otherwise compare it to (Henry Roth, say). The brute component of audacity, whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd.”
This comment is, at its heart, disingenuous. Is the magic ring really the “sole distinguishing feature” that separates the Fortress of Solitude from Henry Roth? Wood would never make such a simplistic statement, nor would any other critic with a professional reputation to uphold. The act of criticism, in large part, is to figure out what distinguishes books from each other, and such distinctions never come down to one detail, whether it be a magic ring or a madeleine.
But let’s set this aside for now, and continue to Lethem’s critical conclusion about Wood’s review.
“Perhaps Wood’s agenda edged him into bad faith on the particulars of the pages before him. A critic ostensibly concerned with formal matters, Wood failed to register the formal discontinuity I’d presented him, that of a book which wrenches its own “realism”– mimeticism is the word I prefer– into crisis by insisting on uncanny events. The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive. I doubt Wood’s ever glanced back at the piece. But I’d like to think that if he did, he’d be embarrassed.”
I read Fortress of Solitude several years ago. I remember that magic ring. I remember it having the shaky status of a symbol, and that the boys who used it were themselves unsure of whether it represented real invisibility or some sort of wish fulfillment: imagination grounded firmly in realism (or whatever less offensive word Lethem wants to use). I certainly don’t remember it ever “wrenching” the book’s realism out of whack — it was one thread in the greater fabric of a mimetic narrative.
But let’s set that aside too — maybe Wood was wrong about the magic ring, and its singular symbolism within Fortress of Solitude. What we’re really dealing with here is a takedown of Wood, after all, not a defense of Lethem’s novel. That’s why Lethem proclaims his larger purpose early in the essay. That’s why he includes the paragraphs from Adler and from Wood himself, that’s why he tells us Wood is “armorless” as a critic. What we’re concerned with here is Lethem’s critical judgment of Wood as a critic: “The result, it seemed to me, was a review that was erudite, descriptively meticulous, jive.”
Read that line again, substituting the word “book” for the word “review.” Now imagine that this sentence appeared in a book review. I assume your critical alarm bells are ringing.
Are we as readers expected to believe Lethem when he says that Wood was “erudite” and “descriptively meticulous,” (not to mention “jive”) without evidence?
Lethem obliges us. He drops a Wood quote at the start of the next paragraph.
“Wood complained of the book’s protagonist: “We never see him thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book … or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman.” …My huffy, bruised, two-page letter to Wood detailed the fifteen or twenty most obvious, most unmissable instances of my primary character’s reading: Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, Robert Heinlein, Mad magazine, as well as endless scenes of looking at comic books. Never mind the obsessive parsing of LP liner notes, or first-person narration which included moments like: “I read Peter Guralnick and Charlie Gillett and Greg Shaw…” That my novel took as one of its key subjects the seduction, and risk, of reading the lives around you as if they were an epic cartoon or frieze, not something in which you were yourself implicated, I couldn’t demand Wood observe. But not reading? This enraged me.”
This is the only quote from Wood that Lethem uses in his essay, and he buries it within a full paragraph of editorialization. This on its own would give the average critical reader pause for thought. But when you look closer, when you read Wood in the original, you notice that there is a more fundamental disconnect at work. Lethem has fundamentally misunderstood what Wood was saying.
Here is the Wood quote in the original, concerning the main character from Fortress of Solitude:
“We never see [Dylan] thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book (there is a canonical mention of Steppenwolf, which is just more cultural anthropology, and just about it for literature in Dylan’s life), or encountering music that is not the street’s music, (italics mine) or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman. There is no need for Lethem to be conventional, of course; but there is a need for Dylan to have outline, to have mental personality.”
Wood’s point in his review of Fortress is that Lethem is a fabulous cultural chronicler of childhood, but that he fails when it comes to describing adulthood’s particular individual consciousness. There is something beautiful in Wood’s phrase “music that is not the street’s music” — maybe this is why Lethem chose to elide it in his quote. It reinforces how much Dylan Ebdus’s character is informed by group consciousness.
But all Lethem can see is Wood’s snobbery. “Wood is too committed a reader,” Lethem writes, “not to have registered what he (apparently) can’t bear to credit: the growth of a sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit, in graffiti and street lore.”
But this is precisely what Wood is talking about. He is pointing out that Dylan, for all his theoretical interest in Sendak and Heinlein, is not very interesting as an individual; far from ignoring street culture, Wood points out that street culture is what makes Dylan who he is. When Dylan grows up and loses sight of the street, Dylan becomes boring. Wood’s snobbery is beside the point here; the critic admits that Dylan doesn’t need conventional interiority, a world of high-brow books or high-brow music — he just needs interiority, period. We’re reminded once again of Henry James, the snobby fussbudget who occasionally got it right — “the only obligation to which we may hold a novel is that it be interesting.” Dylan, in Lethem’s later pages, is no longer interesting, and Wood, as a critic, wants to try and explain why.
Maybe a close examination of Lethem’s article will shed light on the reasons why so many authors attack their critics, and why literary fights can seem so personal. Because authors, at heart, are much more interested in the verdict a critic renders than the evidence they display. And why wouldn’t they be? Authors understand that good reviews sell books and that bad reviews don’t — they are the most consumer-minded of all cultural observers, because they know as well as anyone how hard the literary marketplace can be. This isn’t even considering the personal aspect of having one’s work attacked in public, the feeling, as Edith Wharton put it, that “one knows one’s weak points so well… it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”
Lethem, despite his own critical experience, isn’t immune to this view. “The review,” he writes, “wasn’t the worst I’d had. Wasn’t horrible. (As my uncle Fred would have said, ‘I know from horrible.’)”
Lethem looks at Wood’s review in a familiar cultural context — is it good, or is it bad? Will it sell my book or will it turn people away? Does it make me look foolish or paint me as a genius? What’s the judgment here?
But what if the purpose of a review is not just to render judgment, but to explicate the way literature works? One can’t fault Lethem for disliking having his own work on the operating table, but certainly he’s been on the cutting end before.
The pain of the writer is that he has to sit still while the critic pokes through the vitals of his work and shows them to the audience. When the critical work is at its finest, the audience is like a crew of medical students standing around a doctor at work — even when we disagree with the way things are being handled, we can still see the body of evidence and draw our own conclusions. The process itself helps us learn; it adds to our understanding of literature as a whole. That is, if the body on the table would only stop complaining.
This is extreme, I know. The body of work on the operating table has its own concerns. Staying alive, for example. An irresponsible critic, like an irresponsible doctor, runs the risk of killing the work — we don’t call it a “hit piece” for nothing. And if Lethem is right, and Wood is not doing high-level criticism anymore — if, like Adler’s vision of Pauline Kael, he has gone “shrill,” “stale,” has fallen prey to the tendency “to inflate” — then we have legitimate cause to worry for other books, other authors.
Where do we go to find if a critic — or an author — is being irresponsible, is failing at their literary mission? We go to the text, naturally — we render the evidence as best we can. This is the burden of proof, the burden the critic takes on when making judgments. This is the burden Lethem must assume if he is to be a critic of Wood’s own critical project.
“When Wood praises,” says Lethem, “he mentions a writer’s higher education, and their overt high-literary influences, a lot. He likes things with certain provenances; I suppose that liking, which makes some people uneasy, is exactly what made me enraged. When he pans, his tone is often passive-aggressive, couched in weariness, even woundedness. Just beneath lies a ferocity which seems to wish to restore order to a disordered world.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not all critics (and readers) like things of certain provenances, we find ourselves again with the verdict but no facts. If Wood is passive-aggressive, why not show it? And what are we to make of Wood’s supposed ferocity, his drive to correct the world? Are we supposed to take Lethem’s word on Wood’s intellectual makeup?
Lethem gives Wood some credit: he points out that Wood wrote “4,200 painstaking words” about Fortress of Solitude. I would highlight another salient point: of these words, eight hundred (or nearly a fifth of the article) are direct quotations. Say what you will about the subjectivity inherent in what a critic chooses to quote, Wood uses ample evidence from Lethem’s own text to make his points — and nearly 600 quoted words come in blocks, without any editorializing from Wood at all; the critical equivalent of a primary source.
This is not just a feature of Wood’s review of Fortress — it is a feature of his critical style. Wood may be blinkered, he may be a high-culture pedant, but he quotes with vicious abandon: great block quotes of prose that give the reader a decent sense of how the writers he picks use language, so that no matter what verdict Wood renders the reader is capable of viewing the evidence on its own merits.
Take Wood’s review of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, for example. As readers, we are quite justified in our anger when Wood attempts to parody Hollinghurst’s style with his own prose; critics, whether they are also writers or not, are supposed to keep their own prose out of the critical game, lest we realize just how disingenuous they are. Or, as Hollinghurst himself put it, “it exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But we can’t fault the rest of the review of Stranger’s Child for anything other than having an extremely intense, well-considered, and well-supported opinion, because we have the tools to respectfully disagree with the opinion if we like — Wood gives us reams of quotation on which to draw our own conclusions. I happen to disagree with Wood’s conclusions about Hollinghurst, as I do with many of Wood’s conclusions, but I do not make the mistake of thinking that my disagreement with Wood’s verdict means his article is a failure. I am interested in his ideas, I am interested in his evidence. Then again, it’s not my book under the scalpel — if I were Hollinghurst, I imagine I would be furious. Not being Hollinghurst, however — a fact I share with the vast majority of the readership of The New Yorker — I am free to enjoy the article on the merits.
Quibble how you will with the verdict Wood renders on The Stranger’s Child, just as Lethem does with the verdict he renders on Fortress of Solitude in 4,200 painstaking words, but it’s difficult to fault his methods — considerable quotation, much of it in blocks, and statements based on these quotations. This is why Wood remains a sometimes inspiring, sometimes infuriating, consistently debatable literary critic.
(A critic, mind you, who saw fit to send Lethem a postcard in return to the angry letter Lethem sent him when this review was published — and here, perhaps, we can allow ourselves a little incredulity — eight years ago. A postcard pointing out that he had actually liked a lot about Fortress of Solitude — maybe it’s Lethem, not Wood, who ought to be embarrassed upon re-reading the review, so many years later.)
Lethem has now written 1,700 words attacking, not just Wood’s article, but his entire approach to book reviewing, his “bad faith” — and he supports his argument with 47 of Wood’s own words. Whether or not you would like to see Wood exiled from his favored perch atop The New Yorker’s book section — and many do — this is not a ratio to inspire particular confidence.
It is very difficult to analyze anyone’s bad faith. Lethem himself points this out at the end of his essay; that he goes ahead and attacks Wood’s bad faith despite his own assertions is evidence of his critical perspective. Lethem has every right to be angry at Wood, for criticizing a work which he held dearly, for rendering a verdict that might hurt the work in the marketplace. But those of us who care about criticism are more interested in the evidence than the verdict, and in the case of Lethem v. Wood, the evidence is skimpy indeed.
Alan Hollinghurst’s work combines the joys of the traditional tropes of the 19th-century novel with a contemporary sensibility unencumbered by the 19th century’s social strictures. The Line of Beauty, his 2004 Booker winner, employed the strategies of a “Jamesian procedure,” he says, in which one writes about a large period of time from the point of view of one person. The result is a series of “social events” that are all filtered through a singular main conscience. But unlike a Henry James novel, The Line of Beauty, a story set in the upper class milieu of Thatcher’s England, includes among these “social events” lyrical descriptions of gay sex. What is suggested by James’ strange use of the word “perverse” in his late story “The Beast in the Jungle” is here made explicit and definitive. There is an argument that the golden age of the novel died with the rise of divorce. A Portrait of a Lady cannot emerge from a society in which an upper-class woman can happily remain single. Hollinghurst’s examinations of gay culture in differing periods may suggest otherwise.
The first third of The Stranger’s Child, Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, indulges a pleasure common to recent historical fiction. The book opens in 1913, when Cecil Valance enjoys a day at a fellow Cambridge sodomite’s family estate, where he scratches off a poem in a 16-year-old girl’s album. That poem, thanks to a Churchill speech, becomes a national elegy for England’s World War I dead, of which Cecil becomes a member. In the third and fourth sections of the novel, set respectively in 1967 and 1980, an enterprising writer, Paul Bryant, sets out to write Cecil Valance’s biography in an attempt to uncover the contours of the poet’s sexual lilt. If the early sections of the novel excite our desire to read between the lines of the codes of the past, adopting a style not unlike Evelyn Waugh, but with fewer double entendres, the latter sections call that very desire into question.
I met Hollinghurst at his room at the Grand Hotel on October 27 in Minneapolis, where he was on book tour. The hotel was a hilariously ugly Vegas-like concoction in the city’s downtown. I sat down on an armchair next to a strange coffee table shaped like a silver tree stump. He sat on an office chair at a desk in front of his laptop. We started by chatting about James Wood’s unflattering review of The Stranger’s Child in The New Yorker and I turned my digital recorder on. What follows is a pared-down version of a one-hour conversation.
The Millions: Do you read reviews?
Alan Hollinghurst: I do, unless very strongly warned off them by some kind person. There’s no point in upsetting oneself unnecessarily.
TM: So did you read the James Wood review up to the very end?
AH: I did. But actually, when he got to the bit when he was imagining how I might write something, it just seemed so pathetic that I stopped taking it seriously.
TM: When he did the parody of you?
AH: Yes, it’s very ill-advised to do something like that, I think. It exposes your own fear of the charge that you don’t know what you’re talking about.
TM: I know you lived a very social life during your time at the Times Literary Supplement. But when you’re in the process of writing novels, you don’t seem to be living a very social life, as far as I can tell. All these profiles describe you as somewhat reclusive.
AH: I do rather play that up for profile writers. (laughs) I’m actually very lazy, and put off doing anything for as long as possible. But a combination of reasons will bring me to my desk. And then when I get on with it, I do get on with it. It is, after all, how I make my living, what I feel I’m supposed to be doing in this life. So I’m then very disciplined. But I have quite a social life in the periods when I’m not writing a novel. This book took me four years to write, but there were quite a few periods during those four years when I wasn’t at my desk.
I love society. And it’s true I used to live a more social life before. Working at the TLS threw me into the whole world of literary parties and book launches, which I used to go to all the time. Like any professional world, the behavior is extremely repetitive in nature. I described in The Stranger’s Child, Paul Bryant having this experience, of going to a party and staggering out at a quarter to nine, drunk, hoping to find someone to have something to eat with. And then having a horrible blur of that night after night. (laughs) So that was a kind of socializing I really quit quite happily. I think as one gets older one just wants to see the people one really likes and not be bothered by all sorts of mere social obligations.
TM: I’m trying to get at the machinery of writing. Joseph Conrad takes a trip around the world and finally settles down to his desk and writes about Africa and Latin America. My assumption had been that you had lived your youth and then decided to sit down and write about what life is like in society.
AH: One has reserves of memory, which is obviously a writer’s main resource, really. It’s not really a problem. I think the way I write I tend to have periods of exposure to life, as it were, where particularly dramatic, thought-provoking or stimulating things might happen. Then there are periods where I withdraw and reflect on them. But it’s not as if I did everything in my youth and then retired to write about it for the rest of my life. Writing is a constantly growing, alternating process. It’s reassuring to know that one still has pockets, areas of one’s life that can still be explored.
TM: There are a lot of holes at the end of this book. There are lingering questions about all sorts of things we realize won’t be answered. When you leave those holes, do you, as the novelist, have them filled in for yourself?
AH: No, I don’t actually. I really want the reader to be left in as great a state of speculation as a lot of the other characters are both [in the earlier sections] and those who weren’t there but were trying to work it out later on [in the later sections].
What to leave out is so important. I like the fun of withholding information, the trickle of disclosure, the distance that might create in the reader.
TM: But does not knowing those things make it harder for you to do your work as a novelist?
AH: Yes, it was very hard. (laughs) But you’re right, if I had written a more substantial outline of all the stuff it might have felt different. But actually being in uncertainties seemed to be somehow part of it. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps I could have written it much more quickly if I had outlined it all.
TM: But did you consciously decide that there were things that you yourself wouldn’t know when you started the book?
AH: Yes, I suppose so. It’s so peculiar talking about unknown things in stuff that is fiction. In a way, I feel I don’t know anything about my books except what’s on the page. It’s not completely true, because in the process of writing there are projected scenes that don’t get written and scenes that do get written that get cut out. So there’s a slight blurring of that idea. People often come up and ask what happened to characters in The Folding Star and it’s not just me being tediously teasing when I say, “I don’t know.”
TM: So there’s Paul Bryant in The Stranger’s Child and Nick Guest in The Line of Beauty. They’re similar characters in that they’re likable as we see them. We read them from their point of view. Nick is something of a moral coward. Paul is covered in moral turpitude. In both novels, I’ve heard you say before you don’t like to tip your cards, you don’t like to make moral judgments. And yet there’s a moment at the end of both novels where you snap the reader awake to the point where they realize these characters may be worse than they have been presented as being.
AH: But there’s a complicated moral thing going on. I don’t like to seem as a novelist to be rewarding and punishing. I hope the reader is led on these complicated processes of identifying with the character instead. I deprived Paul of all sorts of things which Nick has. That came from a determination not to keep writing characters who shared all my own enthusiasms and experiences. He has no understanding or appreciation of music at all.
I hoped that in the long confrontation with Daphne in the end, we would have two characters the reader had an inward relationship with and now were head-to-head with each other. Neither behaves terribly well. The reader might not know where their sympathies lie.
TM: But there’s a trigger in both. Why do you wait to the end to give us this little knock?
AH: I guess it seemed to me quite effective. I’m trying to get away from certain novelistic stereotypes not to write books where the last minute revelation of a secret explains everything else. But nonetheless it’s hard to resist putting it in.
TM: I didn’t much care for the television adaptation of The Line of Beauty. I thought the book was very funny, but when I saw the adaptation I saw moment after moment that seemed to suck the comedy dry from the book.
AH: Well it was different in a lot of ways. I did sometimes feel that even the characters who more or less had the lines in the original book didn’t quite seem to get them. It would be a bit invidious to pick out people who don’t live up to my expectation. I think I hear the tone of things in my head and I’m gratified when readers do. But I don’t think they do necessarily. And the shooting script is such an exiguous thing. It’s this tiny little column. The dialogue is so pared-back. I think it worked best in the things that weren’t funny at all. My feeling was it got better after a rather clunky start. I was actually quite moved by the third episode. It’s a very constrictive sort of medium, the TV.
TM: I interviewed Colm Tóibín a few years ago and he went on a rant a bit about John Updike’s infamous review of The Spell. He said that it just showed that Updike had a “super-developed heterosexuality” that just “eats” into his work. I thought I would just let you respond to the review yourself.
AH: Well, it was deplorable in various ways, but I also remember being very amused by it. There was this person who had gone to rather extraordinary lengths in his details of heterosexual sex and for whom the analysis of sexual behavior seemed to be so fundamental to his work as a novelist. But who was giving the impression in this review that everything he knew about homosexuality he gleaned from my novels, like he had never come across it in real life at all. I thought it was absolutely extraordinary, therefore so absurd, the old way he put it about the animating chirp of the female presence or something that he so missed in my books. It was terribly silly. It showed that he had chosen to emphasize his own failure with this large and interesting aspect of human behavior.
TM: You have a lot of very good-looking characters who seem to enjoy this aristocratic privilege of their good looks. I know so many gay men, who no matter how good-looking they are, are extremely uncomfortable with their looks, simply because they are subject to the interests of other men. So why do you keep returning to this character who I don’t believe exists in real life?
AH: (laughs) Yes, well, I suppose vanity is a form of insecurity isn’t it. It’s true. Nick is uncertain about his looks. He looks in a mirror when he’s going on his first date. And he’s seeing what could be attractive to someone else. That’s the fundamental thing that’s happening at that point. But really he is magnetized by what seem to be the greater attractions of other men. Perhaps people rather lose themselves in the worship of beautiful people. You think these characters should be more neurotic? (laughs)
TM: Well, maybe it’s again what I like about your books. There’s a certain indulgence of fantasy and then a deconstruction of it. You have these characters for whom the obtaining of and the act of sex is so easy.
AH: Well, I’ll certainly ponder it when I write my next book. There’s a yearning for a world of superb sex and beauty, but there’s often quite a lot of anxiety and comedy about the failure to attain that. Will’s adventures in The Swimming-Pool Library are quite farcical
TM: In your profiles you say you don’t want to be seen as a gay writer. I guess the best defense of that is that you don’t wish to be seen as a herald of your people.
AH: Yes, I don’t feel able or have any desire to take on any representative role or take on anyone else’s agenda. I always wanted to write my own books about rather odd people. This came up again recently in an interview in The Guardian with someone who didn’t really understand what I meant. I was so hoping that we could get beyond the whole gay writer thing now, which I feel stuck in. It’s a very changed sexual world in which we live now. It’s changed a lot from when I started writing. [Being gay] just wasn’t such a significant thing anymore. But I’m afraid the interviewer adhered to the type of broad-minded straight bloke who had come to interview this demon of perversity and that was the story. There’s a strong desire in the media to maintain these types. I believe that article was entitled “Sex on the Brain.” And there was nothing in it about sex. [It was] the idea that gay books have to be dangerously and obsessively sexual.
TM: But being dangerous is part of what has made being gay a rich and interesting literary subject for so long. So if it ceases to be dangerous can an interesting novel still be written about homosexuality?
AH: I see your point absolutely. I think that’s why I keep going back to write about periods in which being gay was more challenging, more emphatically critical of the status quo. That thing E.M. Forster said about Maurice that being gay is what saved him because it turned him into a critic of his own society. That’s always been rather fundamental to me actually.
But I was bored with the association of gayness and licentiousness in the straight imagination. I feel a certain thinness in the social subject of gayness at the present moment.
TM: Do you laugh at your own jokes when you write?
AH: Yes. But not absurdly…Wit is a quality which I really appreciate in novelists. I don’t mean telling jokes. You get it in James. You get it in George Eliot. This wonderful play of intelligence which I really prize, which often finds things funny in something more serious. That’s something I admire and strive to maintain.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.
But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)
The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)
The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.
The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.
At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:
She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.
A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.
A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?
We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
One of the biggest literary releases of the year is out today, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Read the book’s opening here. Another literary heavy hitter out today is The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. One of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s masterpieces, The Palace of Dreams, is now back in print in English, and Blake Butler’s memoir Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia is now on shelves.
Geoff Dyer, lately everybody’s favorite literary critic, reviews The Stranger’s Child, and tells us why Alan Hollinghurst, “the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.” Hear, hear!
With the unveiling of the Booker Prize longlist, the 2011 literary Prize season is officially underway. As is usually the case, the list offers a mix of exciting new names, relative unknowns and beloved standbys. The lone past winner (for The Line of Beauty) is Alan Hollinghurst, and longlisters Sebastian Barry and Julian Barnes have gotten shortlist nods in the past. At the other end of the experience specturm, four debut novelists make the list: Stephen Kelman, A.D. Miller, Yvvette Edwards, and Patrick McGuinness.
All the Booker Prize longlisters are below (with excerpts where available):
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (excerpt)
On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry (excerpt [pdf])
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (excerpt)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (excerpt)
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (excerpt)
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (excerpt)
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (Staff Pick)
Far to Go by Alison Pick
The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor