Popular Prose And The Public

Reading & Writing

I have always been fascinated with the physical acts of reading books. It’s something we don’t much discuss. Critics often seem to regard ‘readability’ as a bad thing, something to sneer at, but what is wrong with wanting to communicate clearly?

Popular non-fiction can become academic and abstruse, littered with notes and references. But Jason Goodwin’s ‘Lord of the Horizons’, about the Ottoman Empire, makes you believe he went back in time, and manages to thrill without simplification. Should that ability be denigrated?

My father always told me that American science journals were better than European ones because they made comprehension easy. Malcolm Gladwell is good at melding populism with the abstract. His latest, ‘Talking To Strangers’, raises an interesting point about the global popularity of TV show ‘Friends’ (which I confess I’ve never seen). The facial exaggerations of the characters are a dumb show that allows you to turn down the sound without losing your comprehension of the plot.

I’ve always argued that you shouldn’t be able to turn off the sound and tell whether something is a comedy or a tragedy. My benchmarks for this idea were the TV show ‘Steptoe & Son’, and the film ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (opening in the West End now as a play), to which can be added ‘Fleabag’, ‘Arrested Development’ and others. The problem besets the CG ‘Lion King’, described in the New Statesman as ‘David Attenborough with showtunes’. Animal features are not human. Animation bridges the gap. Photorealism makes the exercise absurd.

Writers like Robert Harris, Gillian Flynn, Michael Connolly, Alice Walker and the late Michael Crichton are highly readable without losing nuance. It’s only at the extreme end of this process, in Dan Brown’s books, that readability goes wrong, because he’s not a good enough writer to keep things simple without making them stupid.

When I write a Bryant & May novel I stand by the exacting principles of crime writing, but I also do two things that limit my readership;

I use humour, which removes gravity from prose no matter how it is employed. And I don’t simplify my cultural references, because my main character functions through them.

I face criticism sometimes, accusations of being ‘deep English’, and I’ve sacrificed global rights – Bryant & May does not exist in a single translation. All of my non-B&M books can be found in other languages.

Bryant & May is not only untranslatable, it’s ongoing and heading for twenty volumes, with loyalty points built in for regular readers. No wonder I was warned off from attempting the series at the outset.

As I’m putting the finishing touches to the 2020 Bryant & May novel, I have no plans to broaden the appeal of the books, and have accepted that they are what they are; a joy to write, and I hope not too annoying for new readers to try.

21 comments on “Popular Prose And The Public”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    I’m glad you find the books a joy to write because I find them a joy to read! The cultural references and humour are an integral part of their appeal, and their essential Englishness. I do read novels in translation from other languages, sometimes they are easy to follow, sometimes not, which probably is my own ignorance of the history, culture, and social customs of the country concerned. What I do find irritating and downright off-putting is authors who set their books in a country that they do not, and never have, lived in, and base the background detail on brief visits for “research”. I won’t name names, but one is an American murder mystery writer.

  2. Roger says:

    “Bryant & May is … untranslatable”
    Not if people can translate Finnegans Wake.
    The interesting challenge for a translator would be how to translate it – to make it like reading the English version in a foreign language or to give the equivalent in another language and culture.

  3. Bernard says:

    Completely endorse Liz Thompson’s comments with especial emphasis on American writers who write novels set in the UK (is it still united?) but clearly have limited knowledge of our customs, colloquialisms, and history. I can cite at least three such and all are unreasonably popular. I write this as a Brit living in America.

    PS. I suspect you mean Michael Connelly not Connolly. His Bosch and Rankin’s Rebus are twins separated by continents.

  4. Jo W says:

    Just waiting for England’s Finest at the end of October is helping to blur reality for me,as we are witnessing England’s worst everyday. Now you tell us we have more to come in 2020, yes! Something to keep taking the pills for. Thank you Mr. Fowler!

  5. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    It also irritates me when authors feel the need to explain cultural references by introducing dialogue discussing them. If I don’t understand something I am prepared to research it.
    I’m very glad Bryant and May aren’t going to be ‘upgraded’. We were all new readers once, and don’t seem to have been annoyed.

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    The problem of finding a good translator is getting someone who understands the nuance and can adapt it.
    Some of the Scandi-noir stuff has different translators and you can tell the difference. How can you check whether you’re getting subtle points across? Or how does humour cross cultures?
    Maybe its easier with mobile technology and general Americanisation but its still hard to translate some terms adequately .

  7. Brooke says:

    ITA with Liz T and Bernard with caveat that it’s U.S. writers who assume; authors in Canada, Central and South America have more sense. I was going to name and shame, but it’s Sunday afternoon, feeling lazy.
    Please stick to deep English; such intellectual joy.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    The words can be translated into equivalent level vocabulary; take a look at Asterix and Obalix in English where Anita Bell found English humour to trade for the Belgian French. I’ve tried to read them in the original but some of the slang is completely beyond any dictionary I have available, especially when the pirates come on. I have a collection of “Wallander” stories in translation home just now to see how they feel against the Swedish tv series, which I really enjoyed with subtitles. That is a different process because the interpretation has to be as fast as the original and still carry the sense of the original.
    We are constantly translating from one cultural group to another, from one age group to another, from one historical period to another. We assume we have it right, too, and wonder why our contribution is met with howls or stones. Perhaps we need to read as much as possible in other languages: Caribbean Black, North English White, Victorian Upper Class English, Polish pre-world war II (in translation by whom?), American Southern White (with Black commentary). We hide as much as we reveal when we speak although watching Vera last night I realized I knew the class of people when they pronounced “garage”. I had just been reading Dorothy Sayers where a small town woman was trying to up a young man’s class by changing his pronunciation from garridge to garahj.

  9. Bronwen Rowlands says:

    Christopher: I’m another one who’s fascinated with the act of reading. Your Bryant and May novels are a dream to read; smart, funny, deep. In fact they’re TOO readable; I have to slow myself down so I don’t finish the novels too quickly. I’ve discovered them rather late in life. Have always been a voracious reader (always “drifting away to the library” as I think you say in Book of Forgotten Authors) and I don’t know of any books I love more. Don’t change a thing. Keep doing what you do so beautifully.

  10. Brooke says:

    @Helen. ITA. Btw, there are great Polish writers whose works have been translated–pre and post ww2–including Milosz (although born in Lithuania). Currently reading Olga Tokarczuk; her book Flights is a case in point regarding translation. The title is not original Polish title and thus the English reader misses her main point. Original title opens the reader to a quite different perspective.
    Southern white literature stands on its own–doesn’t need black commentary, as authors of the genre are too busy describing what they think is the black community. See Mr. Fowler’s fav, William Faulkner.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke, what was Tokarczuk’s original title? Surely she had to authorize the change? Unless the original title also conveyed an undesirable meaning in English? The more I think about translation the more convoluted it gets.
    When I’m adding a list of examples I sometimes wander in my logic. You’re right, of course.

  12. Denise says:

    Please don’t change a thing, it wouldn’t be Bryant and May without you. I love your humour, I can’t tell you how much I have laughed , too much to count at your little jokes, I was never sure iif anyone else could see them too.

  13. Peter Tromans says:

    If you turn off the sound… Where does that leave the great silent film comedies?

  14. Eliz Amber says:

    I’ve generally purchased Jasper Fforde’s books hardback from Amazon UK because they do get changed for the American audience. I don’t think yours do?

  15. admin says:

    No, Eliz, mine are left intact but for grammatical differences; all the references stay. I think two or three ever got changed at most.

  16. Brooke says:

    @Helen. See Wikipedia article, Flights (novel), which gives the not-easily- pronounced Polish title; refers to sect of Orthodox Church and their beliefs. Flights is not a bad choice for an English title; it is one of the novel’s unifying themes. But the original points to spiritual complexity. Yes, translation is convoluted–insert story about translating CEO’s speech into Chinese–hilarious, not so much.

  17. Liz Thompson says:

    Yes Brooke, but as it’s now Monday afternoon and I’m feeling vicious, the American author I had in mind is Martha Grimes and her Richard Jury books.
    It’s a pity, because when she sticks to her own country, she can write quite well. Hotel Paradise is pretty good.

  18. Brooke says:

    @Liz T. Monday’s inspire evil in me, too. MG was not on my list as I stopped reading RJ books for reasons you noted. My name & shame list has more recent authors , e.g. writer whose acknowledgements read: “Thank you to my friend (X) whose invitation to visit (country y) inspired this novel.” Said novel, set in Victorian age, contains so many anachronisms as to be embarrassing.

  19. Lauren C says:

    Fforde’s books are changed? How? And I wish someone would “name and shame”. The speculation is killing me.

  20. snowy says:

    [Choosing my words with exquisite care, so as to avoid upsetting the sensibilities of those in the US, and avoiding Boston Harbor getting another ‘bloody good tea-ing’.]

    I have often been puzzled by the asymmetry of how books are treated as they cross the Atlantic in different directions.

    If an American book is to be published in the UK, almost nothing is changed, [somebody usually goes round the text with a bag of ‘u’s to slot into ‘color’ etc. and flips over the last two letters of center, provided it is not part of a compound noun. But that is mostly it.]

    It is assumed that British readers are intelligent enough to absorb and understand American usage and cultural references, [or they are just too lazy to change the text for what is a relatively small market.]

    But if a British book is to be published in the US, whole armies of people get involved. Out goes Chemist, in comes Drug Store, Pavement becomes Sidewalk, Road becomes Pavement?! [How they handle the odd Fanny is probably best left un-discussed.]

    Why are American readers treated by their publishers as if they were semi-literate children? And why do American readers put up with it?

  21. Helen Martin says:

    Fanny is part of a mortgage handling facility of some sort, I believe, Snowy.
    Canada is treated the same way only more so. We get the American version with no changes at all because we’re “just like them”. They visit us and wonder why we aren’t celebrating July 4th (!) and why Good Friday is a holiday and what do you mean we can’t bring our guns along?
    We are expected to understand their culture but they won’t even look at our books unless we have become international like Margaret Atwood. That’s probably not quite fair because there are departments of Can Lit in American universities but not as many as we have American Lit departments. English authors at least have the advantage of being exotic. We read American studies of various behaviours and extrapolate to estimate how we would stack up against their data.

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