Friday, May 19, 2006

Modern Novels are Bollocks: Discuss


Is this crap? Or is it just me?


I'm afraid this may be a wittering and silly post. It's 11pm and I'm slightly drunk. But anyhow.

Here's a conundrum. My last novel, The Cheek Perforation Dance, got pretty damn good reviews ('powerful, poetic and compelling' - the Times) and sold about six copies. My new memoir, Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You, is getting sniffy and snide reviews* (apart from India Knight in the Sunday Times - bless) and is number 15 at Tescos etc., and has already outsold all my other books put together (not that this is very hard).

What's going on? Who's right and who's wrong? Are reviewers just talking out their arses? Or maybe the general public is stupid?

I'm starting to tend to the former opinion. I have, in recent years, read so many wildly praised novels - White Teeth, God of Small Things, Fugitive Pieces, Life of Pi, etc etc - only to hurl them across the room, or at least break into yawns, that I start to wonder if critics know jackshit. Contrarily, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed mega-blockbusters like the Da Vinci Code, which have been universally panned.

But maybe it is me? Perhaps this is a "deformation professionelle" - as a novel writer, maybe I know too well the tricks of the literary fiction trade (e.g. ostensibly poetic prose) to be impressed by this fancy stuff; yet, at the same time, I am still admiring of the professional, Hollywoodish skill of sheer plotting - a la Dan Brown. Or maybe I have reached literary middle age, when stories aren't good enough any more, when I just think 'this isn't true, this didn't happen' about too many novels, and I yearn for the reality-voltage of non fiction.

Or maybe lots of modern novels are just crap and overhyped.

Anyhow this is why I am posting. You people are smart; lend me your smartness. What's the five best novels you've read in the last five years? I would like to have my faith in the novel reaffirmed. I'd like to read one or two great contemporary novels. The only modern novel I have really admired in the last couple of years is The Reader, by Bernard Schlink. There must be others?

If you have a second, I'd welcome your opinion.

Thankyou.


* Weekend Update. Actually, I've just had a couple more nice reviews of 'Millions' -the book is "captivating" according to thefirstpost, and "absolutely terrific" according to the Sunday Telegraph. But my point about overhyped novels remains, I reckon. All the good reiews of my memoir are, of course, entirely true.

4 comments:

Blithering Bunny said...

"The Cheek Perforation Dance" was never going to sell at Tescos, whereas "Millions of Women are Waiting to Meet You" is commercial genius. Looks like titles really do matter.

I can't recommend any good novels from the last five years because I haven't finished any new novels for years; as you say, they're all crap.

Anonymous said...

Philip Pullman.

Cookie said...

Sean - I don't say this meaning to belittle your trade - but attractive English is actually realtively easy. I could, if I so chose and could get someone to pay me for it, come up with page after page of mellifluous and florid prose. But ask me to come up with an interesting story and I'm stuck. Much as I hate Dan Brown's style of writing, I am full of admiration for his skills as a plotter (apart from Deception Point, which he nicked from Peter Hoeg). This is a talent that critics, mysteriously, see as rather secondary to a novel, but even for a prose-snob like myself it's far more important than anything else.
Anyway, to answer your question - Lynne Truss's Going Loco and Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller.

Paul Soderberg said...

You're absotoffeewombly right, Sean, when you say that, "lots of modern novels are just crap and overhyped." No mystery why that's so. It's simple supply and demand. There's a huge demand for stories, and a very small number of truly skilled storytellers; therefore, to meet the demand, unskilled works have to be hyped as masterpieces. Exactly the same thing happened in the visual arts--a precious few true artists and a huge demand for true art resulted in crap and nonsense being hyped and sold as true art--witness especially Hirst's dead shark in formaldehyde, sold to an idiot American for $8.2 million. So a truly skilled storyteller faces a terrible decision: write "down," like "what everyone else is publishing," and get wealthy; or write the best you can, and risk the virtual certainty of rejection slips or minimal sales? Personally, I don't mind poorly written novels being out there (just as I don't mind all the Sunday painters flailing away at perfectly good canvases), but I just wish that "poor" would stop being hyped as "best."