The Real Thing

Reader Logo by Elizabeth Baines

On being appointed a judge of this year’s (ultimately controversial) Booker prize, novelist Susan Hill told Robert McCrum in an interview for The Guardian, "I don't mind experiment if there's a genius behind it. If you're James Joyce, you can write Ulysses. But I don't want experiment from writers who can't do the real thing."

That’s reasonable, isn’t it? We all know, don’t we, that the rules might be there to be broken (by geniuses), but any genius must know those rules first, which means knowing how to use them, which means practising first (and in the process proving you know how to use them)? And who wants any novels at all, leave alone experimental ones, from writers who can’t really write? And isn’t it true (I think this is one of her implications) that often writers who can’t write hide their lack of ability with a faux-experimentalism which is really obfuscation?

No, she doesn’t mind experimentation by geniuses. Doesn’t mind: she doesn’t love it, it really isn’t her bag – indeed, she revealed on Twitter recently that Ulysses is her number one ‘unreadable book’. She’s by no means alone: as Will Self noted recently, there are lots of people who feel the same. She’ll tolerate its existence, we can basically conclude. Well, fair enough. We’re all entitled to our taste, and we should, like Hill herself, tolerate the taste of others.

But look at her last three words. To Susan Hill experimental novels are not the real thing. The real thing, by implication, is non-experimental novels, novels that conform to conventional or recognizable modes. The real thing implies both authenticity and superiority: conventionally-written books are better than experimental ones. No wonder that there were good but eccentric and unfamiliar books left off this years’ Booker shortlist.

Well, here’s a different view: when I pick up a novel that doesn’t stretch the form or do exciting things with language, I am overcome by a claustrophobic sense of unreality, the sense of being half awake and unable to shake off an old, recurring, stifling dream. When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live. I feel in touch with reality. I feel alive. I tell you, it’s the real thing.

Photo by fastLizard


Marcus Speh said...

great post. love the last paragraph. so well put.

nmj said...

Great post, Eliz.

'When I read a good novel that does the opposite, overturns my narrative expectations or uses language in new ways, then all at once I feel in touch with something true about our human condition and the nature of the fluid, changing, fragmentary world in which we live.'

Exactly ('good', of course, being the operative word).

Susan Hill was rather rude to me on a writers' forum once - offering me 'advice', which was entirely unsolicited. Still, I am wise enough to be able to consider her commentary here - and elsewhere - objectively, but must admit, I rarely agree with her.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I know you're not doing this nmj, but I don't want this to turn into an attack on Susan Hill. I'm simply taking issue with a particular statement she made - indeed with three words she said - and with the literary hierarchy they imply.

Dan Holloway said...

I thoroughly agree with your comments at the end. What I would take issue with most in the attack on experimentation is the "by genius" bit. It seems reasonable, as you say, but it completely misses the point of how genius bubbles its way to the surface. My sense is what we need are two things: a culture of lack of fear of failure and self-exposure, and critical mass. In other words, we need everyone to feel they are free to put anything out there. Of course most of it will be dire, but without that freedom the genius will get lost amongst the direness. It just doesn't work that you can keep everyone out but the brilliant. As in so many things you must choose - keep out all the awful; or admit all the wonderful. You cannot do both. I wrote a rather opinionated piece about this at the start of September with the unprovocative title "We Need More Bad Books"

Elizabeth Baines said...

A very good point, Dan, which I hadn't thought of.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Also implying that only geniuses at conventional forms will be geniuses at experimentation misses another point, ie that the way we write is down to personality and outlook. Certain forms may simply not suit a writers' world view, so the possibility follows that the same writer may be able to write well in an innovative form but not in a more familiar form. So claiming that one way of writing is better than another is to claiming that one world view is superior to another, which makes the whole thing more political than it seems on the surface. And now I must leave the converation to hear Jane rogers read at the Manchester Lit Fest!

nmj said...

Absolutely, Eliz, this is the first time I have referred to this in 3 years - I simply do not have energy or inclination for such 'attacks' as you fear might develop. No worries - but I am only being honest in my appraisal of SH's comments.