Welcome to Suzi Feay's home on the web

I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to be a Lit Ed

Working in newspapers means being in a world of constant flux. Everything's going smoothly, then suddenly you get a new editor and it's all change. Eventually this editor will send for you to discuss the books pages (you are a long way down the pecking order). They only ever say two things. Over the years you will hear the same two comments, over and over again.

First, they will say: 'I want you to run reviews on time from now on.' They will say this as though it is an amazing idea that may never have occurred to you before. They will have given a specific rival newspaper the once-over and noticed that you've run a couple of things after they have. 'All I want you to do,' chuckled one editor, 'is to review everything the Daily Telegraph reviews, a week before they do it.' At least he knew how daft he was being. (He meant it, though.)

The 'when did you stop beating your wife' version of this is: 'Why are all your reviews so late?'. Of course, you could patiently go through the week's books pages showing how in fact, everybody is early with some reviews, on time with others and late with a few. You could explain that there are many reasons why book reviews run late, from simple over-commissioning to clashes with other parts of the paper or the sudden appearance of a heavily embargoed, must-do book linked to a news story. But your editor's eyes will simply glaze over at this.

So you look suitably awed and wait for them to share their next gem of wisdom. 'I want you to get more big-name reviewers,' they will say. You mutter something about getting a bigger budget. If they laugh merrily and say no, of course not, you're in trouble. They will continually wonder why you do not bring them the moon on a stick, even though your stick is so small, and the moon so far away. But if they say, 'Absolutely, go get Martin Amis's head on a platter, I don't care what it costs,' you are in for so much fun! You will be talking to people's people all day long. Tony Blair will say no! Julian Barnes will say no! Germaine Greer will say no! David Eggars will say no! Martin Amis will probably not even bother getting back to you. Everyone you want will have better things to do: books to write, companies (or countries) to run. Hours of pleasure, after which you will contact your usual go-to guy or gal and they will do a great job.

The publicist for a famous young novelist would let me get half a sentence out then snap, 'It's a no.' 'But could you ask?' 'It'll be a no.' 'But I'd really like you to put it to her.' 'She says no to everything.' 'But could you at least relay the message?' Two days later: 'I told you it would be a no.'

Do readers care whether reviews are late? Unlike newspaper editors, they don't pore over every other paper noting what's in where. Nor do they believe a book has the approximate shelf life of a pint of milk. I understand the 'news' aspect of 'newspaper' and wouldn't want to go to the extreme of the London Review of Books which thinks nothing of reviewing a book a year late. But a bit of review-date slippage is fair enough.

Some big names are big for a reason; but for every brilliant, conscientious star, there are dozens of the lazy, the complacent and the past-it. Are readers particularly impressed by the name of the reviewer? Do they even read bylines? Perhaps that's where book blogs come in: simply sharing thoughts about books, without worrying too much about time limits or reputations.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Commercial versus literary fiction

A writer friend picked me up sharply recently for saying of a recent bestseller, 'Oh, it's only commercial fiction...' The division between commercial fiction and literary fiction is an artificial one, she argued, a marketing ploy for publishers, rather than a distinction recognised by authors. My friend, who has written both types, maintained they required the same skills and gifts and are equally difficult to write. She objected to the inference that commercial fiction is somehow inferior to its esoteric cousin.

Whether a writer has found it hard to write a book is beside the point for the consumer. We'd rather listen to Mozart than Salieri, and we don't expect the primo ballerino to hobble off stage going 'ooh, me back...' But that aside, just what is the difference? I thought I knew what I meant, but the distinction is hard to pin down.

I was once snarkily asked by a radio presenter: 'Why hasn't Catherine Cookson ever won the Booker prize?' When you're in the mood for a Mars bar, I said, you want it to be exactly like every other Mars bar you've ever had. Literary fiction is more like a gourmet dinner: a search for new flavours and techniques. (OK, I was being pretentious.) Commercial fiction has a pre-masticated quality, literary fiction is... snail porridge.

All professionally published works have to be commercial in some sense, and the aim to reach as many readers as possible is not an ignoble one. The wonderful Iris Murdoch (who did of course win the Booker prize) was capable of sloppy writing and saminess. Her books are wildly enjoyable (just in case anyone thought literary fiction has to be tough going). From what I remember she sold pretty well too. Ian McEwan is an easy read (getting easier) and a bestseller. The Brontes wrote genre fiction and Jane Austen was commercial. Du Maurier's 'Rebecca' is commercial fiction but as near to great literature as makes no difference, and 'Frankenstein', creaky, dated and clumsily written, is resonant as only works of genius can be. 'Commercial fiction' as a definition seems to dissolve the more you think about it, like all those Socratic dialogues about beauty and virtue.

'Well, maybe I mean it just isn't very good,' I eventually said to my friend.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The strange case of 'Catch'

I read Simon Robson's novel 'Catch' late last year and it still fascinates and vaguely bothers me. Did I enjoy it? Not really - or at least not in any straightforward way. There is a complicated sort of enjoyment to be got from a difficult book that is quite different from the pleasure of a 'can't put it down' book. 'Catch' was more of a can't pick it up book at times. But it has stayed with me when other novels have dulled and blurred.

I love embarking on reading challenges. A weighty tome, an obscure subject, a difficult style, let me at it. I have rushed to dash myself on the rocks of, say, Gerusalemme Liberata, or Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones which, like a CRAZY person, I decided to read in French. (At 1,300 pages, that's not going too well. I'll get back to you.)

But 'Catch' didn't look like it was going to be a stretch. Robson's debut was an excellent collection of short stories, so I was keen to read his first novel. But the first 10 pages were not only hard going, I thought this was one of the worst books I'd come across all year. It's an excruciatingly slow read, about some neurotic woman living in a cottage who for some reason is obsessed with her never-played piano. There are minute descriptions of her surroundings, particularly the turn on her stairs where there's a window ledge with ornaments. But slowly this weird book exerted its pull.

It covers a day in the life of Catherine, nicknamed Catch, a stay-at-home wife with a hero-lawyer husband. Lonely, she turns over in her mind every character, every remark, every nuance of village life. She broods about a misunderstanding with the vicar and another woman over the church flowers, and goes to see the woman's student daughter to advise her about her college application, a visit that backfires badly. Catch may be going slowly mad. The tension mounts as she waits for Maria, her best friend, a woman who is everything she is not: outgoing, sexy - and musical. In implication it's one of the darkest and bleakest books I've read in a long time; yet what really happens? We're just in the mind of a comfortably off young woman who thinks too much.

Opinion will differ as to whether Robson has got under a woman's skin well enough. I was convinced by the character, although the suggested explanation for her angst, that she wants to have a child yet can't conceive, rather simplistic. It's Robson's minimalist plotting that compels. For its length the book took a long time to read, and by the end I felt that I too had lived in that village, and paused on those stairs to pick up an ornament, and been humiliated by a pushy neighbour.

The book has obvious forebears in its compression of plot to one day, 'Mrs Dalloway' being the most obvious. Woolf is a brave writer to take on; Robson is just not as sensuous and virtuosic a writer. Perhaps the writing isn't quite exciting enough to justify this narrow focus. But even if it doesn't quite come off, 'Catch' is an intriguing work of art with a serious purpose. It performs the great trick of defamiliarising the world, of making the human psyche strange and mysterious, of stimulating our compassion by putting us into the mind of difficult people in mental turmoil.

This might well be a minority opinion. Other readers I've spoken to have been infuriated by the book, finding the whole project self-indulgent and wilfully aloof to its audience. What on earth will Robson do next?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The wonder that is David Mitchell

No, not the comedian. Who's also, confusingly, started writing books. I mean David Mitchell the twice Man Booker shortlisted novelist. I'm one of those who found it utterly baffling that he missed out on the shortlist last year for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Mitchell is so far ahead of the game that he seems to be in a different game. How could any literary judge not respond to that book's amazing linguistic inventiveness, its dazzling switches of register and tone, its sheer sense of fun - Look what I can do with words, wheeeeeee! Is he getting the 'too clever by half' backlash, do you think? It reminds me of the Jonathan Franzen backlash in London last summer when he came over for his book tour. I was at his mortifying book launch when a creepy student snatched his glasses and raced off into the night. It was odd to see the sneering hilarity that this created the following day.

Mitchell's body of work is now substantial. Cloud Atlas is the acknowledged masterpiece, and he just missed out on Booker glory (The Line of Beauty won that year). However, my favourite is number9dream, on the basis that it's the first I actually read, the first portal for me into that extraordinary world. I fell headlong into a sentence that compared the swirl of coffee in milk to the shape of a galaxy, like Alice falling down a rabbit hole. I've been scampering about in this Wonderland ever since.

When I had to commission a Christmas short story for the FT Life & Arts pages,  David was my first choice. He came up with 'Earth Calling Taylor', a black morality tale involving a trading analyst having a crisis on New Year's Eve. The previous year we had invited submissions and it was bizarre how depressing they mostly were: stories about people drinking themselves to death (thanks, that'll work for Christmas) or deciding, on balance, it would be a good idea to commit suicide, or coming to the realisation that They Will Never Love Again... what is it with short story writers? So one of the first things I said to David was, 'it mustn't be a downer.' He didn't exactly stick to the brief, but the story is so fantastic I barely noticed on the first read.

I loved the fit of the story - especially the way he even got Vancouver into it (my beloved second home). It was like getting a bespoke suit with a secret symbol on the inside jacket pocket. I must have mentioned it to David, I thought. But it seems he's psychic as well. He had no idea that the reference would feel special to me (in fact I had to slightly amend it - there's no 'elegant old quarter' in Vancouver, or if there is I've never found it).

When the time came to record the podcast, I opted to read the story myself. I had already read it about 10 times so nobody knew the rhythm better than I did. Reading something aloud, really chewing the words, is the way to test a piece. It is brilliantly constructed, intricately stitched, and left me admiring him even more (although I cursed him with some of the tongue-twisters). There was one mysterious line, however, that I just didn't get. I had to read it neutrally. The podcast is available on ft.com. Have a listen and see if you can identify the sentence! And tell me what it means!  

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

books on planes

Long haul flights always used to involve, for me, a bag full of books just to get me through the babies screaming, engine droning, claustrophobia, invasion of personal space and bad food. Sort of bring your own in-flight entertainment. This time I got only about 60 pages through a thriller called The Kingdom of Light by Guilio Leoni, then gave up to watch The Social Network, Get Him to the Greek and Toy Story 3 one after the other.
I've picked up the book again though. Leoni's thriller is set in Florence in 1300 and is one of the newish genre of books where crimes are either solved by famous figures from history or such figures feature in the narrative. Recent examples have been Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Shakespeare, Giordano Bruno and Immanuel Kant. (That's just off the top of my head - there are loads more I'm sure.)
You can probably guess that the person investigating a series of gruesome murders is Dante Alighieri, who in the book is working on his Commedia. He is having problems envisioning Paradise - indeed for many people it's the least successful part of the great trilogy due to the ineffable nature of heavenly bliss. Leoni is very skillful at weaving allusions to the Commedia into his gruesome thriller. Of course, these are occluded in English translation. The translator, Shaun Whiteside, points out that some of the lines of Dante are immediately obvious to Italian readers, just as quotations from Shakespeare are to English readers. The gimmick here is that the modes of death somehow reflect the personalities of the victims, a nod to Dante's knack for appropriate tortures in hell.
I was particularly interested to pick up this thriller, having just read the Inferno in the Everyman edition, where the swift-moving, plain but powerful translation is by C H Sisson. (Great Christmas reading...) I have also been working through the Inferno in the original, with a line-by-line crib. But, um, that's not been going too well.
Is Dante having a moment? Yes, but his seems to have lasted 700 years. More from my collection of Dante books anon.
My other Christmas book was a preview copy of Edward St Aubyn's latest novel, out in May, called At Last. (At last!). It is so rich and so dense, and his sentences are so brilliant and complex, that it demands another read. What I can say is that it is no disappointment after the other books in the Melrose family series: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Help and Mother's Milk. (Isn't he great on titles?) I was once asked who would be read in 100 years' time. I had no hesitation in replying: 'Edward St Aubyn.'

The Kingdom of Light by Giulio Leoni is published by Vintage at 7.99