Fancy Words & Plain English
This is the latest in an occasional round-up on readers and writers, books and their readability or unreadability, general discussion points for us all. First up;
Are you a book snob?
Recent reports suggest that one reason for not buying e-books is that others don’t know what you’re reading. Women find men who carry books less threatening. The young are keen to appear well-read. Bookcases in photographic backgrounds are being examined for clues to personality. Cover design is a major contributing factor in hardback sales.
I usually read the Booker and Pulitzer shortlists because these authors guarantee a degree of erudition even if the books themselves are flawed. It sometimes seems that the more eloquent a writer becomes, the weaker their narratives grow. Over the years I’ve followed writers like Don DeLillo and James Ellroy while reading page-turning crime and fantasy novels, but have fallen out with the former as they hone their language at the expense of what they have to say.
As a result, I find myself not reading the book club books and exploring the byways of lost or unfashionable writing. I was shocked to discover that Magnus Mills, the bus driver turned Booker shortlisted author, is now self-publishing his books. Thank heaven he is, though, otherwise we’d be without his latest, ‘The Muffle of Oars’. How do you go from being a major voice to self-publishing?
The problem is that he has ceased to be a fashionable name that spikes sales and is just a career writer. Forget the fact that he has an extraordinary worldview, or that he didn’t keep his early vaguely sinister style and moved to offbeat fairytales – his recent book ‘The Forensic Record Society’ is one of his most accessible titles (although my favourite is ‘All Quiet on the Orient Express’).
When it comes to finding interesting writers, it pays not to care if they’re being talked about. People talked about ‘The Girl on the Train’, a book so appalling I read it twice and saw the film and still couldn’t separate the characters from each other.
What is Unputdownability?
Not enough books have it. The power to drive you from the first paragraph through the first page and overleaf, then on to the next chapter. There comes a point when you decide whether you’re enjoying the book you’re reading, and whether you’ll stay with it through to the end. In the cinema, this point is theoretically reached 6-7 minutes in. With a book it’s perhaps somewhere around the third chapter. Here’s Miles Jupp’s Radio 4 show I contributed to last week on the subject.
The Guardian newspaper recently ran an unusual article that highlighted this readability. The op-ed piece was written entirely by AI and challenged readers to try and spot the difference. True, the piece is lucid and perfectly written, even if all the sentences seem the same length. Where it fails to be human is in replicating the rises and falls, acceleration and deceleration of written language, so that it’s like driving over a flat featureless surface rather than one with hills and trees. As a consequence it’s boring and very putdownable. The Guardian points out that generating whole paragraphs of text is a powerful tool, but it’s not authorship, not by a long shot.
Above, Jonathan Coe, who for me defines, as William Boyd, Beryl Bainbridge and Evelyn Waugh do, the very essence of readability. Weirdly, I find some Thomas Pynchon unputdownable, but only if consumed in small amounts frequently, like pudding.
What Are You Reading?
This week it’s been ‘Dictatorland’ by Paul Kenyon. The tragedy of Africa has always been placed at the feet of those who imposed colonial rule, then deserted its countries, leaving tribal factions to fill the void with kleptocratic thuggery. But nothing can prepare you for Kenyon’s lucid and frightening analysis of a phenomenon repeated throughout the continent.
Taking six nations and looking at them from their commodities, gold and diamonds, oil and cocoa, he shows how the fickleness and greed of the controlling colonists opened the way for horrific dictatorships. Even when Cadbury’s, founded by Quakers, set out to expose the horrors of slavery they were prevented from doing so by the government. The pattern for each country is the same. A young idealistic student leaves a European (usually British) university and returns to Africa promising democratic free elections, shared wealth and land rights. America and Europe panic about the possibility of communist infiltration, and fear a loss of profits from mined wealth.
Soon the idealists realise their hands are tied by local parties and international corporations, leaving them no room to manoeuvre. They fall prey to corruption, stealing from their treasuries to build mausoleum-style houses and churches while their people sift dirt for food. Some brave souls manage to negotiate these political minefields, but in Equatorial Guinea they have to deal with a ruler who is clinically insane. By the time you read about a dictator who murdered impoverished children for failing to buy school blazers with his face on them, you feel like giving up on humanity.
It’s a humane, urgent and heartbreaking book – timely too, as China looks to repeat past history in Africa.
The Face Behind The Page
JK Rowling has fallen foul of her trans social media stalkers again, as her latest Robert Galbraith novel coincidentally baits them with a bloke in a frock. I don’t care about JK Rowling’s views on trans people but I’ll defend her right to hold them. Before social media turned itself over to hysterically entitled agenda-thumping solipsists and their perceived slights, authors’ political and social views were barely visible behind their words.
But in times of stress people seek out enemies, so that during the war even genial PG Wodehouse became a pariah because of his German broadcasts. How much do we need to know about our authors? Despite revealing more than I’d ever really intended, I don’t go into areas I consider unnecessary and/or boring to readers. The one time I welcomed the confluence of public and private was in my memoir ‘Paperboy’, and there I was rather defeated because ‘me’ was played by an actor on the audiobook.
Many Golden Age writers were organically right wing, being born of landed gentry, some racists and homophobes who reflected their times. How do Ms Rowling’s trans attackers feel about writers who hold more extreme viewpoints? Chances are they don’t read them because they’re mostly former Harry Potter fans now suffering the more complex disenchantments of adult life. When it comes to public exposure, sometimes less is more.