Tuesday, May 24

Novels are terrible and you will never convince me otherwise | Fiction

Ben Butler: Lucy, novels are terrible and you will never convince me otherwise.

Genre fiction can be fine, as long as it doesn’t last too long. I haven’t finished the Game of Thrones books, but as I recall, they look more and more like a building material in shape, dimensions, and weight as the series progresses.

On the other hand, Ian Fleming’s Bond series is pleasantly light, both physically and intellectually.

What I am really opposed to is anything that claims literary merit, the novel with a capital N if you will, the kind that writers produce with a capital W (and / or a trust fund).

The point of this kind of thing seems to be to reveal to us a hidden truth of the world, to which I say: isn’t there enough of that in reality already?

After all, we live in a world where an orange-painted reality show host became president, our prime minister collapses because a Chinese propagandist was mean to him on Twitter, and we’ve all been locked up for six months because of a problem. Plague. Oh yeah, show me your exotic possibilities, oh novel. You can not.

Lucy Clark: Hi Ben. I know, you are right; truth has been far stranger than fiction during this ridiculous year. “You literally couldn’t make these things up” has been a popular saying. Except … Except … people have been making these things up for years. It just wasn’t supposed to come true.

I agree with the writers with a capital letter. There is a fine line between appreciating someone’s command of language and clever writing that disrupts the novelist’s created world. The best authors are those who are willing to sublimate the self at the service of the work… but these writers are hard to find; everyone wants to be smart.

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You are also correct in what is sometimes said about the purpose of novels to reveal a hidden truth from the world. But I would go a step further and say that novels are there to reveal the hidden truth of ourselves.

Woman in a red dress and white mafia hat sitting
Ben remembers The Handmaid’s Tale, written by Margaret ‘Queen’ Atwood, as ‘pretty good’. Photograph: George Kraychyk / AP

This brings me to one of my favorite things about novels: that there is only one writer and that the book is written only one way, but with really good literature there are potentially millions of ways it can be read. We all dedicate ourselves to reading a book: our emotional baggage, our morals and ethics, and our crazy, boring, or unimaginative ideas about the world, and this is the filter through which we sift the novelist’s work. So what you read in a novel will be completely different from what I read. That’s a kind of alchemy that doesn’t exist in non-fiction works.

Finally, there is the art itself. It is extraordinary that a language over 1000 years old can be worked by different practitioners in different ways to create entirely new word configurations, some of which stop you in your tracks with their beauty. That in itself is wonderful, and also a kind of comfort. And I haven’t even addressed the old arguments about the value of escaping to other worlds, or walking in someone else’s shoes, or, in my case, re-engaging in a certain amount of novel reading every day as a way to rebuild my decimated attention span.

Well, you mentioned two authors that you have read: George RR Martin and Ian Fleming. Do you know how overwhelming it is to set yourself a task that will somehow result in a 180 degree setback in your thinking about novels? This basically puts me in hiding out of nowhere… but here it goes. I have two exercises for you.

First, let me introduce you to my queen, Margaret Atwood, who talks a lot about the need to engage the reader in the first pages of a book. Since you like a bit of genre, I will suggest you read the first chapter of Oryx and Crake, the first in a trilogy. I hope you are intrigued enough to want to read on after that.

And second, this is a wild card that I’m going to throw at you. I tried to think of something that is as different as you can get from both the Martin series and the Fleming books. Swallow the air by Tara June Winch It is the book that occurred to me, one that I think about all the time, even though I have read it 17 years ago. His extreme economy of language to convey such emotion and meaning blew me away at the time. I’m not going to tell you more about it, except that it is a short book, 118 pages. Can you read 20 of them and tell me what you think?

Ben Butler: I must confess that I am not unfamiliar with Margaret Atwood, having previously read precisely one of her books, and precisely the one that one might expect, The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s been a while but I remember it was pretty good and I suspect there’s a reason it’s generally considered a classic. I feel capable of claiming the fiction genre exception. Obviously, it has a lot to say about our own society, but so does a lot of genre fiction.

Oryx and Crake also look interesting even if the words “first in a trilogy” scare me these days. Even a fool like me can admit that Atwood is a fantastic writer, but if he was going to be rude, why stop now? – I would say that the chapter you assigned takes a long time to get to the point and, unfortunately, my attention span has been destroyed by years of journalism.

That said, I wouldn’t say no to reading the rest of the book; I read a little later and it gets going soon enough, with ideas shooting out everywhere.

However, swallow the air; I’m afraid I refused to read the first few pages and found it difficult to continue. Sentences like “Shelter over the remains of the eagles, I inhaled their salty flesh that burned under the evening sky” are exactly what I object to. I have no idea what’s going on and little interest in getting to work solving it.

It’s a shame, because there are also some really interesting images there, I like the one of two children being taken out of the house like playing cards, and the story of the book seems fascinating. I feel that this type of writing is a barrier to understanding, rather than a help.

Long story short: as Meat Loaf never said, one in two is not bad. Maybe “I Hate Novels” was a bit strong, but I’m afraid the bar is still high.

prove me wrong is a summer series where Guardian Australia colleagues discuss what tastes in popular culture, food and leisure activities are right … and which ones are not


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