Thursday, February 16, 2006

Figures of the (previous) day

Number of paragraphs in the Daily Mail's main story on the smoking ban before its first use of any variant on the word "nanny": 15

Total number of such uses: 1

Total uses of phrase "nanny state": 0

The Telegraph resists similarly; so, as far as I could be bothered to read, did the Express. They have plenty of fun pillorying the Labour party for U-turns, which also appears to be the Tory line, but the reluctance to quote or make a frontal attack is notable. Perhaps they really believe this is a popular policy. (The Guardian, in the way of these things, gave a front-page plug to a columnist arguing my expected Telegraph line.)

Monday, February 13, 2006

Heart of Darkness, as told by Wilkins Micawber

Just read David Copperfield for the first time and was left with an interesting question. Why on earth had I never read this before?

I decided to blame E.M. Forster.

You see, I loved Aspects of the Novel long before I read almost anything that it discussed. Most critics went in for fake precision. Forster had a calculated vagueness that seemed truer to real reading. And he was at ease in registers those other critics barely dared try: parody, fantasy, satirical attack. If they ever build a Tomb of the Unknown Humanities Undergraduate, his riff on pseudo-scholarship will serve excellently as an epitaph.

I remembered Aspects being somewhat sniffy about Dickens. Here, I thought, is where I bought my views, which Hard Times and Oliver Twist and Great Expectations up until the point when I realised my copy had 32 pages missing failed to shake. Then I looked Dickens up in the index, turned to page 78, and found an admittedly sniffy passage that anticipated much of what I wanted to say here:

Dickens's people are nearly all flat (Pip and David Copperfield attempt roundness, but so diffidently that they seem more like bubbles than solids). Nearly every one can be summed up in a sentence, and yet there is this wonderful feeling of human depth. Probably the immense vitality of Dickens causes his characters to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to lead one of their own. It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something, and when he is put into the cupboard of the young ladies' school he seems as heavy as Falstaff in the buck-basket at Windsor. Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow. Those who dislike Dickens have an excellent case. He ought to be bad. He is actually one of our big writers, and his immense success with types suggests that there may be more in flatness than the severer critics admit.

Dickens's caricatures, or at least the David Copperfield ones, live in ways that a caricature of a caricature would not. They change, for a start. Sometimes it's a flip of the cardboard, like the self-pitying "lone, lorn" Mrs Gummidge when she discovers someone else merits the adjectives and becomes instantly unselfish. Sometimes it's a slow mounting up of the initial characteristics, like Uriah Heep. And the man trusts them. Is it not an extraordinary act of courage to speak one of the climaxes of your novel through someone who seems to be a joke, as Dickens does with Mr Micawber?

"Then it was that--HEEP--began to favour me with just so much of his confidence, as was necessary to the discharge of his infernal business. Then it was that I began, if I may so Shakespearianly express myself, to dwindle, peak, and pine..."

and so on, through half a dozen pages it would be even more of a spoiler to quote. "Adroit and well trained" and "conjuring trick" seem hardly to do justice to that kind of bravura, but they indicate an appreciation of it within the fashions of Forster's time. (C.E. Montague, who I expect to be going on about here again soon, also fights to reconcile loving Dickens and feeling he shouldn't like him. Heaven knows what bits of conventional wisdom I'm bending to, even when I think I'm thinking straight.)

[Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster, 1927. Seductive account of how fiction works -- absolutely seductive when you're too ignorant, impressionable and thick to notice any blind spots he doesn't tell you about. Have resisted rereading it whole in case there are some. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, 1849-50. Worth several weeks of anyone's life, for reasons I haven't begun to describe.]

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Scenes from provincial life

'Twelve GCSEs!' said Minnie, marvelling.

'I thought it was thirteen?' said Zelda.

'Hang on,' said Israel. 'How did you know that?'

'It was in the paper,' said Minnie. 'Now tell me this: d'you really no' have hobbies and interests apart from reading? You must have some, eh, young fella like yourself?'


'It was all in the paper.'

'What, my whole CV?'

'Yes. Of course,' said Minnie. 'People have the right to know about their new librarian. It's like public office. You were definitely the best candidate, wasn't he, Zelda?'

Zelda was looking Israel up and down in a manner that clearly indicated that she did not believe him to be the best at anything.

'Head an' shoulders,' continued Minnie.

'They published my CV in the local paper?' said Israel.

'Not just yours.'

All my favourite hacks seem to have started in on serial detective fiction. The gentle, old-fashioned sort.

First there was Andrew Martin, a former holder of the coveted "only good thing in the New Statesman" title, who has begun an Edwardian-set "Steam Detective" series -- well-chosen social history, leisurely but cleverly tightening pace, and just a bit too much technical railway information for the comfort of normal readers.

Now there's Ian Sansom, the really, really, really stylish book reviewer. He has begun a series set in present day rural Northern Ireland, under the group title "The Mobile Library", the first volume of which, The Case of the Missing Books, is quoted above. If you were lost, Israel is a north London nebbish, newly arrived as librarian for the town of Tumdrum to find the library is shut and the stock has all disappeared; Zelda and Minnie run what's now his local cafe. Without ever quite uncovering anything, he will reach a solution that allows him to stay in town for the next of the series.

All this must be a side-effect of Alexander McCall Smith. Suddenly there is an attractive and apparently saleable model for not-quite-big-name writers: you leave a mystery simmering in the corner, to satisfy the sales department, and then you go off and spend the next seven chapters writing what you wanted to in the first place. In time, the mystery readers will discover they prefer it.

Now, I'm in favour of any literary gimmick that keeps Ian Sansom solvent. And as should be evident from the quote, The Case of the Missing Books is funny. It's also all-in-one-sitting readable. It treads a fine line between gentleness and plotlessness, and I'm not sure it lands the right side, but perhaps that will improve as the series goes along. I shall be depressed if such a good comic writer turns out only to be saleable as an about-average producer of crime novels.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Shouting fire in a crowded theatre

This phrase just occurred twice in half an hour or so on Radio Four; once in Brian Walden's Cooke substitute thing, and once in Any Questions, both times in relation to the Danish cartoons clusterbuggerup.

It's a nice cliche. I've used it myself. But what I failed to understand until a few years ago, and what I suspect may be more widely forgotten, is the full meaning of a shout of fire in a theatre before building regulations.

We're not talking about severe inconvenience or discomfort that's worse because it arises from malice; nor even about Walden's "behaving in a way that deliberately puts other people at personal risk". A man who falsely shouted fire in a Georgian London theatre could expect a stampede that killed half a dozen people. This happened quite a few times. Indeed, it was a technique for blackmailing producers. The restriction proposed may therefore be less severe than the phrase now suggests.

Unfortunately for this argument, the source of my revelation was a display in the basement gents' toilet of Sadlers' Wells theatre in 2003, which I now only dimly remember. Confirmation is beyond my Googling; corrections would be greatly welcomed.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Alternate test

Or if the below is not to your taste, there is Jenny Turner's sort-of-response, from a more recent Edinburgh Review:

If I were only Superman, I could just say my responsibility lay with Truth, Honor, Justice and the American Way of Life, believe it and have done with it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Seriousness test for critics

Imagine writing this in a preface to your collected works, and meaning it, and not being either intolerable or unintentionally funny:

I see very little in my Reviews to alter or repent of: I always endeavoured to fight against evil, and what I thought evil then I think evil now.

The critic in question? Sydney Smith, official comic relief of the first Edinburgh Review. Clive James should be so lucky.

Aphorism for marketing people

If you want to see real hype, convince 50 journalists that you're a word-of-mouth success.

(Apropos of the obvious people, although they happen to deserve most of the hype. Anyone who can rhyme "Mondeo" with "say owt" is more than fine by me.)

Genres that, now you come to think about it, probably had to exist

Number 96: Vampire chick lit. It's a series: four so far, and I bet she's starting to wish she had a more flexible title format then "Undead and Un...".

Friday, February 03, 2006

Authority figures

Further to this, you can tell that you possess traditional journalistic authority if, when you set up comments sections, most of them start like this. Traditional journalistic authority could be defined as the power to consistently command the attention of people who despise you. Most bloggers can expect to experience such attention from time to time, but not all the time; when it's every day, it may have as much effect on your relations with readers as any imagined professional standing.