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).

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The F***ing Famous Five

I have been reviewing YA (young adult) fiction for about six months now for the Financial Times. One of the main differences between YA fiction and adult fiction is the attitude to bad language. The YA convention is to avoid it where possible, though it can be alluded to: 'Dad dropped the teapot and said a bad word,' in younger teen novels, for example.

It can go a bit further. Here's the protagonist of Paige Harbison's excellent new novel about a female bully's rehabilitation, Here Lies Bridget (Mira Ink).  She's sitting in the school loos, reading the inscriptions on the inside of the cubicle:

'My heart sank as I read. I was a slut, I was a bitch, I was a spoiled brat and I was a lot of other things. I gasped audibly when I saw that someone even called me a c*** [asterisked in book], a word I had completely banned from my vocabulary...'

So far so good. But Lex by James Mylet (Quercus) takes it to the limit. The eponymous protagonist is 17, living in a small town in Ireland and running a pirate radio station from his bedroom in between school commitments. The book is fresh, it's funny, and it contains abundant four-letter words, all of which are justified by the subject. Lex would swear like this, just like any other 17-year-old.

To me, it's primarily a book about adolescence for adults rather than teen fiction per se, but such is Lex's wonderfully funny voice that it would certainly be enjoyed by someone of the hero's own age or a bit younger. Especially winning is his philosophy of life, expounded throughout the book. 'To be interesting and keep being interesting and keep being interested, that is the pinnacle, that's the ultimate goal of man, not to climb a fucking mountain or score a fucking goal,' is a typical pronouncement. He's also very sound on Bono: 'He's Ireland's most famous person globally and he's a total knob.' (U2 are 'shite'.)

I contacted the publishers about the issue, only to receive an airy comment that teenagers are not likely to be offended by bad language these days. No doubt. I still think it's appropriate to mention in a review if a YA novel contains more than a modicum of cursing, for the parents' sake if nothing else. Books don't have to mimic the real world in every detail. In any case, the most burgeoning genre in YA is fantasy, which generally avoids the issue entirely (fairies don't say 'fuck').

Certain words are starting to creep in now: 'piss off' is pretty standard, 'fuck off' can appear maybe once per book for the older age range. But to be honest, I have rather enjoyed roaming this largely F-free zone. Something would definitely be lost if YA novels routinely employed the sort of language you hear down the high street.

I'd be very interested to hear other peoples' views on this, especially parents of teenagers. It's possible I'm entirely out of touch on the subject of bad language - but just consider the writers we love who elegantly expressed all aspects of human emotion without recourse to it.

It reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons, which shows a woman in a bonnet facing two gentlemen across a desk. 'It's very good, Miss Austen,' says one, 'but all the effing and blinding will have to go.'

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who needs Downton Abbey?

Thursday 9 June

Off to the 8th Althorp Literary Festival in Northamptonshire. This is my fourth year. It will be hard work: I have 11 events to chair over three days, starting tomorrow morning.

Arrive to find that it's just me and the Antonius Players, who are rehearsing next door while I sip sherry in a magnificent sitting room filled with oil paintings of rectangular cattle. After the introductions we have dinner and return for coffee and liqueurs and much hilarious theatrical and musical gossip. The six of us file off to our bedrooms. Mine seems miles away from everyone else's; I briefly feel unnerved, marooned in a house set in a park the size of Monaco (as Charles Spencer puts it in his book Althorp: The Story of an English House). The stable clock chimes. I fall asleep.

Friday 10 June

Breakfast with the Antonius Players in the Tapestry Passage, then a quick walk to the lake before the day's visitors arrive. It's deserted, apart from a friendly gardener edging the path, and an indignant flurry of ducks. Bliss.

To work. This year the Green Room is the library, a sumptuous room painted in 13 shades of cream to maximise the light. Through the large windows, rolling parkland, dotted with mature trees, stretches to the horizon; early that morning, when I peeped out through my shutters, a herd of deer appeared like a benediction.

First gig: the wonderfully energetic Evan Davis, talking about his book Made in Britain. A very entertaining hour; Davis is not afraid to tussle with the audience on the subject of Thatcher, immigration and unemployment.

There's a half hour break and I'm back in the marquee, interviewing our host Charles Spencer on the topic 'Althorp: A personal view'. And personal is what we get, with funny anecdotes about stepmother Raine, and touching portraits of his father and grandfather, not to mention favourite members of staff, including the housekeeper who used to descend into the cellars with a poker to do battle with the rats. (I wonder briefly whether he's ever uttered the phrase: 'You can't get the staff.')

After lunch I introduce a very entertaining lecture by Professor Gordon Campbell on Bible: The Story of the King James Version. I point out that the house we're in is actually 100 years older than the KJV. In the evening there's a grand old lit fest tradition: supper outside on the Portico, whatever the weather. Old hands like myself know to bring a warm shawl; others position themselves under the heaters. It's worth it for the stunning view of the park; but as night falls we're glad to return to the warmth of the library and its open fires. Yes. Open fires in June...

Saturday 11 June

Phew. A whirl of events today. Start off with the regular morning walk: encounter Rachel Johnson and her adorable dog, Coco, by the lake and walk back with them. Over breakfast am amused to read Blake Morrison's piece on country house fiction.

First up is Henry Worsley's tale of Antarctic derring-do, In Shackleton's Footsteps; and a fascinating one-on-one with David Baddiel, whose excellent fourth novel The Death of Eli Gold, tackles the life and troubled legacy of a Roth-Bellow-Updikean Grand Old Man of American literature. Baddiel politely dissents from my view that, his work aside, the phenomenon of Comedian-Writes-Novel is on the whole to be deplored.

In the marquee, Craig Brown's mirthful One-Stop Literary Festival takes no prisoners. Compiled from his spoof celebrity diaries in Private Eye, it takes in W G Sebald, Jeanette Winterson, D H Lawrence, Anthony Powell and many more. He continually toys with one of his recent victims, Kay Burley, who is in the audience. Finally she stands up, delivers a spirited plug for her book and ends ringingly, 'I'm on at 5pm in the house, not in a tent.' Thus encouraged, Brown reads his Burley spoof, which is brilliant - but she gets a round of applause too, for being such a good sport.

The last event is a brief introduction for Peter Snow's To War With Wellington, a thrilling worm's-eye-view of the Peninsular Campaign told via diaries and memoirs from Wellington's troops. Swingometer Snow really is as excitable and enthusiastic in real life as he was on all those election broadcasts.

It's been a busy day and myself and Fiona Lindsay, the other chair, have kept going on adrenalin and the constant chocolate biscuits provided in the library. Dinner is in the magnificent State Dining Room, and we all tiptoe back into the marquee to see the second half of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's brilliant set. 'Genius,' says Charles Spencer. 'Proper genius.' Finally, those who can tear themselves away from the drinks trolley get another treat: the now traditional late-night tour of the house. Stay up chatting to the affable Craig Brown until 12.30am.

Sunday 12 June

Up late; no morning stroll. At 10.30am, I'm in conversation with political grandee Michael Dobbs, who's talking about his new thriller Old Enemies. It  reintroduces us to his long-running hero Harry Jones, an MP with seemingly very little time for constituency work as he swings into action to foil a complex Zimbabwean/South African kidnap plot. Top stuff.

Dr David Starkey only requires an introduction and a helping hand on to the stage as he's done his foot in. You can tell he'd rather be striding around than sitting in a chair with his foot up on a stool, but his waspish and penetrating talk on marriage and the monarchy is perfectly to time and delivered without notes. It is rather mean-spirited - what on earth does he have against the Archbishop of Canterbury? - but since he has promised to outrage us, we can hardly complain about that.

The very last event for me is an interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore about his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography a work of vast scope. He mesmerises us with tales of the Herodian dynasty, the death of Jesus, the point where archaeology meets politics, and his prognostications for the future and views on the Arab Spring. Erudite, passionate and humane, it is a brilliant talk. Most impressive of all, his two children, each clutching a stuffed toy, sit through it without making a sound.

Then, in a last flurry of goodbyes and chocolate biscuits, it's over for another year. Roll on Althorp 2012!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sir Vidia's lofty peak

Poor VS Naipaul, he just sounds mad these days, doesn't he? Strutting on the island of his own self-belief, surrounded by the seas of solipsism, he announces via the Evening Standard that all women's writing is 'unequal to me'. Astonishingly for someone so blinded by his own egotism, he declares that women have a 'narrow view of the world' and goes on: 'inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.' Bless him, he doesn't get out much, does he?

Anyone who makes statements like these first has to demolish the mighty monolith that is Jane Austen, and he is quoted as saying that he 'couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world'. Is this, would you say, a particularly intelligent reading of Jane Austen? I can detect no sentimentality in her world of rigidly enforced conduct and complex social mores, undercut by a savage irony and even a hint of malice. He's like the man in the old joke about the Samurai sword: her sharp wit has severed his neck, but until he nods he thinks nothing has happened.

It's not ridiculous or philistine to dislike her work - Mark Twain's advice to anyone seeking to build a library was first to omit the novels of Jane Austen - but you had better read it carefully before you make sweeping comments about it. Naipaul shows all the signs of the intellectual despot who doesn't need to think or study before he makes his comments, he just 'knows'. How lonely he must feel up on his  peak, with no one to look up to or admire. Sadly, his conceit is the hallmark of the lesser mind, not of the genius. There are all too many people in this world who don't need evidence or logic to support the idea that they are superior to others.

Last night I led a reading group discussion at the South Bank Centre on The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. The lively debate on this brilliant and many-layered novel danced for an hour and a half and at every turn we found new things to criticise and admire. Her themes - the rise of McCarthyism in America, the position of the artist in society, the power and responsibility of the press, the rights of the individual to privacy and free speech, democracy versus demagoguery, and fundamentally what it is to write at all - are so far from the 'sentimental, narrow view of the world' that Naipaul diagnoses in women's writing, that he might actually enjoy the book. If he could take his blinkers off for one second.

Of course, this might just be a brilliantly conceived stunt to give more prominence to the Orange Prize, the winner of which is announced next week. He has single-handedly demonstrated why the prize is still needed, which is more than the most ardent feminist could achieve. Or he could just be a sad, bitter old man whose best work is far behind him, who realises that he has to say obnoxious things just to get people thinking and writing about him again. It's a rather tragic finale for the towering author of A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River.