Did you know that before he played Bond, Pierce Brosnan played Robinson Crusoe? Did you know that he did it with a dodgy Scottish accent? Did you know they changed the end significantly? Did you know the film flopped terribly? Did you know that it's actually quite good?
I started this blog to talk about the things I like, particularly literature and the eighteenth century. In general, I’m not a big fan of blogs and videos that only talk negatively but sometimes there are books I don’t even love. This is a time to look at those.
Generally, when I do dislike a book, I assume it's because of my own weaknesses as a reader or a miscommunication, usually I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I can't with the following ten.
These books haven’t been discussed on this blog before (so no ‘Basilisk of St James’s' or 'The Fatal Tree'). I’ve also ranked them from least hated to most.
Montenegro by Lawrence Starling
Were I to read this again today, it’s probably not a book I would particularly hate but it is the first book I ever read where I objectively noticed that it wasn’t any good.
It tells the story of mild-mannered spy, Auberon Harwell, who is sent to Montenegro to assess the political situation just prior to the First World War. There’s argy-bargy with Serbs, Turks and Austrians, a two-pair of star-crossed lovers… I had to get these details from Goodreads because I remembered none of it.
As I remember it, the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero walks on the stage and announces, “Hello, I am the clean, strong-limbed, mild hero and I shall be testing my cleanliness, the strength of my limbs and my mildness through the machinations of the plot.” Then the machinations of the plot (whatever they were) occurs.
It’s stiff, it’s awkward and the only impact it had on me was the realisation that some books are bad.
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker
This book is 728 pages long and I read it in one sitting, powered through the sheer weight of verbiage by the force of my hatred for it.
To say there are 7 plots is a fair enough claim, we are creatures of pattern and certain patterns appeal to us. Claiming that each of these plots represents the psychological journey of growing up, overcoming ego and finding place in society, is also not a terrible notion. There have been many stranger and more objectionable ideas about what stories are and why they work. However, when Christopher Booker finds that he can’t find a single novel that properly fits his plots or properly exemplifies his theories - it may be time for those theories to be ditched.
Christopher Booker doesn’t do this. instead he concludes that all authors since the romantic movement have not been emotionally mature enough to fit his theory, so it must be the author's fault. A dead horse he flogs for over 700 pages.
But it gets worse. He decides to show how the last three-hundred years of literature have been too immature exemplify his great theory by summing various works up and saying how they fail - and this is where things get really ugly. A story can fail because a woman is the hero, because a love story is between men, because the man and woman don’t fall in love, or even because a female character shows any agency (her role is only as a prize to be won).
Imagine ‘Fiction and the Reading Public’ as told by Jordan Peterson and you’re halfway there.
That said, I couldn’t put this lower down my list as I had enormous fun hating this book.
Never the Bride by Paul Magrs
This one seems pretty innocuous compared to the last. It’s a quirky, cosy mystery about an old woman who runs aa B&B in Whitby. She and her friend Effie investigate mysteries in the town that all have an odd, genre-novel, twist.
The tone the book is trying to reach is a Douglas Adams-esque fun romp, full of crazy ideas and hilarious jokes but it does it in an extremely lacklustre way. There isn’t a plot as such, it’s more like a number of short stories squeezed together. The jokes almost always fall flat. Sometimes a book can feel a little unsteady at first but eventually the authorial voice comes together and you can rely on them to keep you on track for the rest of the book - this book never does that.
The authorial voice reminds me of one of those people who try and be funny by doing comedy catchphrases, or like an awkward uncle who doesn’t really know any children, trying to be fun for the nieces and nephews. It’s clumsy and sad and irritating.
The most irritating part about this book was Brenda’s mysterious backstory. She’s covered in scars, she takes different size shoes, she’s extremely strong, she’s…The Bride of Frankenstein. Oh-ho, how we failed to laugh!
The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas
This is a well written book that contains practically everything I dislike about twenty-first century novels.
The subject was about rich, miserable and intellectual sorts who are their own worst enemies, usually because of love - the same people three quarters of all modern British novels are about.
The narrative viewpoint is busy and confusing, there are a billion different narrative viewpoints some belonging to characters, some belonging to various plants and flora and some belonging to no-one. Even a bird narrates - and in an irritating bird-language.
Major events are hardly ever described but we constantly walk into rooms before or after a main event happens. These usually involve conversations about things we were never shown - and none of the dialogue is ever attributed.
Add to that, everything is painfully over-described to such an extent that all clarity is lost..and there are ellipses…so many bloody ellipses…hardly a sentence is finished.
Oh - and one of the characters is a professor of Eighteenth-Century literature and another is one of his students but they never think about any Eighteenth-Century writers, books or thoughts - they think about sodding Derrida instead.
But I trust Scarlett Thomas. I have very much enjoyed all her books since ‘Going Out’ and I understand that everything I hate about this book was a conscious choice - as such, I hope she next turns her attentions to ways of telling a story that I don’t find knuckle-gnawingly irritating
Umbrella by Will Self
My housemate's dog chewed this book to shreds and I wasn't even upset. I agree with the dog, the book needed an editor. It’s presented as a block of text without chapter or paragraph breaks. Speech isn’t marked and is never attributed. There’s italics sprinkled about the place. Point of view changes without any warning (one of my strongest dislikes) and the lack of formatting makes this even harder to swallow. I liked Will Self’s short story collection, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity’ but haven’t much liked anything else by him. All I can say, and this might be the biggest insult I can give, this is a book that might be liked by people who enjoy books for their individual sentences.
Bedlam: London and its Mad by Catherine Arnold
I could enjoy this book when it was compiling contemporary reports on Bedlam layout and architecture or when it was discussing the specific comings/goings and cheatings of its porters and governors but whenever it dealt with something I knew about, it was wrong.
There is a paragraph about Christopher Smart. That paragraph contains one thing about him that is completely false (that he ever went to Bedlam), one that was sloppily interpreted (that he was 'addicted to hartshorn' - it was the best relief for his asthma) and one thing that could be found on any internet quotation page (Samuel Johnson's verdict about being 'as leif' to pray with Kit Smart as anyone). There are a number of Kit Smart biographies in the bibliography of the book, I can only presume the author never read them.
I can also assume that Arnold never got beyond the first page of Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' as it mainly discusses the woodcut there. Another book not properly (or at all) read was George Cheyne’s ‘The English Malady’ as it is said over and over in this book that the malady is ‘madness’. The notion that Europeans all thought the English to be mad was also backed up by the part in Hamlet where the Prince is sent to England because he is mad and so are all the English people. Aside from the fact that it wasn’t actually Danish people saying those things but an English writer, they are not referring to madness in general but melancholy in particular. It would not take much research (i.e reading the book) to discover that the ‘malady’ in ‘The English Malady’ is melancholy. It might also be interesting to note some ideas about why the English thought themselves so prone to melancholy, maybe a look into the fashion of melancholy or it’s supposed links to genius but… no.. that would involve reading the books in the bibliography.
Then there were the digressions seemingly put in to pad the book out. What need was there for three pages about witch trials in a book about the London mad? There never were any London witch trials and there were no witches locked up in Bedlam, not even anyone who thought they were such.
The book couldn’t even decide if it was about Bedlam, madness or London. It’s arranged scattershot as if whatever garbled notes from whatever Google-search were plonked willy-nilly.
I have disagreed with historic works because of differences of interpretation, but never one that has made me put it down so many times because the facts were simply not researched enough
Lord of The Rings by JRR Tolkien
I’m sorry, I’m sorry and I’m not even going to justify myself.
I simply don’t think that cramming a book with invented languages and songs is very good world-building if all the characters bob about to the constraints of the plot like little stick-puppets.
Add to that, mountains that shake people off them, ‘true-king’ narratives and Tom Bombadil and I just can’t face the huge oceans of sludgy wordage that make up this trilogy.
Vernon God Little by D.B.C Pierre
It’s fucken awful, ‘nuff said.
The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A.C Grayling
A great idea, a compendium of healthy secular thought using great writings from the general literature cannon.
Initially it fails because the choices are by one man with a classical education. Even the actual Bible is the result of many voices, how a person feels they can construct a workable Holy Book replacement by themselves is ludicrous.
But what really ruins the book is it’s aspirations to be a Bible for the secularist age.
It takes all the influences, strips them of all context, rephrases them in some of the ugliest cod-Biblical language I have ever heard and puts them in ‘books’, roughly analogous to the books of the Bible. The book sounds so ugly on the ear and so false. It’s the textual equivalent of one of those mid-thirties pubs that has perfectly straight beams in it and puts a sign up declaring it ‘ye olde’.
Even more tone-deaf is the fact that all the original thoughts are placed in the book, rephrased, without attribution or any textual support. The very point of secular humanism (as I thought) is a rejection of received wisdom, that all knowledge should be taken with providence and evidence if possible but that is impossible with this book.
A proper humanist Bible would probably look nothing like the Holy Bible. It would be the combined work of many minds, cover many subjects and be searchable with proper attributions. A number of these books have already been written, they are called Encyclopaedia.
The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Kretser
Without a doubt 'The Hamilton Case' by Michelle De Kretser is my least favourite book I have ever read.
Slow, dull and so heavy on repetitive descriptions of foliage it's like cutting through a jungle to read it.
The main character is weak, dull and is completely reactive to everything around him.
The book shifts from first person to third to a different first person for no discernible reason.
The book is so engaged with its desire to be lush it forgets to be clear, there are some moments that despite reading them 9 or 10 times, I still couldn't work out what had happened.
Which doesn't matter, because there isn't anything like a plot in the book anyway.
The experience of reading this book was gruelling but I had to finish it for a course. It put me off reading for a month.
There are two main rules to follow when setting up a religion; first, never make a claim for the end of the world and second, never claim immortality for your leader. While the Panacea Society did not make the first mistake, they fell full prey to the second. Not only did they claim immortality of their leader, Octavia but also for each of them. Now the religion is no more but they had a good run of it, over ninety years of faith carried out in the Holy Town of Bedford.
Last year I visited the Holy Town, to The Campus, home of the Panacea Society. I even had tea and lemon drizzle cake in the garden, believed by the Society to be the Garden of Eden itself. It was a beautiful July day and as I sat there with my refreshment, watching a blackbird singing on a bush, I could see how the Panaceans felt as they did.
It was in Bedford that I bought a copy of ‘Octavia: Daughter of God’ by Ruth Hall at a price I began to think may have been an accident. The book was written in 2011, when there were still a couple of Panaceans left alive. She was given full access to the archives and free rein with all the secrets and hidden doctrines. This is partly due to the fact that the book and the project that the book was part of was funded by the Panacean Society after urging from the charity commission to liquidate their wealth and do more with it. This may mean that the book is too kind to the Octavia and the society but I don’t think this became an issue.
First we learnt about Octavia herself. What sort of person becomes ‘the daughter of God’? What sort of people confirm her in this notion? How does a religious community spontaneously come together in the first place? These were all fascinating questions and were well explored.
Octavia, originally Mabel Andrews, was a London-born member of a family with literary connections. She was intelligent and a voracious reader but did not receive an education more extensive then any other girl in her time or place. She married Arthur Barltrop, a curate whose career was hampered by ill-health. A keen reader of his theological library and a vigorous worker for charities, she took an interest in the church and religious matters. When he died, she lived in a respectable house in Bedford with her children.
Always prone to nerves, she was (at least once) committed to a mental hospital, where she was dismayed to be treated like a crazy person. There she discussed religion as well as the many other new spiritual categories like spiritualism and theosophy. Having read works on Joanna Southcott, she wrote letters to bishops to get her mystical box of prophecy opened.
Coming back home, she carried on her interest in Southcott, taking part in letters and later meetings with other Southcottians. She was linked into a whole network of people who felt that the Anglican church was in some ways dead, cutting itself off from new ideas that could inject new life into it. Many of these people were women, cut off from careers in the church, they began to cohere into a religious community of their own where women did all the main jobs. Although many of these early members were suffragists and even suffragettes (one had gone on hunger strike in Holloway Prison), Mabel Barltrop herself felt that women were essentially different from men and it was this difference that made them vital to reviving true religion.
Many of these people were involved in currently popular practices like automatic writing and Mabel became one of them. The community began to regard themselves as the real church, connecting themselves with Joanna Southcott and the prophets that came after her, a line called ‘The Visitation’. A recently deceased member, Helen Shepstone, was declared the sixth prophet of this lineage, then the idea grew that Mabel was the eighth. As a result she took the name Octavia. Soon after, it was revealed to a member that Octavia was not only the eighth prophet but Schiloh, the spiritual child of Joanna Southcott and the direct daughter of God. In the letter where Octavia recognised the call and took the responsibility, she also thanked a friend for knitting her a lovely pair of bed socks - so the spiritual and the mundane mixed for this group.
With the belief that God’s daughter was among them, the new ‘Community of the Holy Ghost’ formed the notion of a four-square trinity with Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Daughter, this developed into the notion that the Holy Ghost was also the voice of the Divine Mother, creating something of a nuclear family. Octavia’s own mental sufferings became a subject for belief, so Jesus had suffered bodily for the soul of humanity, so Octavia had to suffer mentally to save the humanity’s bodies - for if a follower managed to live the tenants of the new faith, they would be bodily immortal. When 144,000 people had achieved this, then there was a foothold on Earth for Jesus to return and establish the New Jerusalem in Bedford. The town was initially favoured for it’s good shops and new Selfridge’s department store, but as beliefs grew, the notion that Bedford was a holy place and the garden of ‘The Campus’, the houses around Albany Road the members bought up, was the Garden of Eden. Octavia believed that if she walked 77 paces away from the centre of it then the Devil would kill her, so was essentially imprisoned into her base of operations.
The key to bodily immortality was a process known as ‘Overcoming’. The idea was to become ‘comfortable to live with’, to overcome all the irritations and annoyances of normal life and become something better. One of the ways to do this was to write a large, permanent confession, not only because confession was regarded as good for the soul but because the Panaceans believed that each confession was an accusation with which to imprison Satan. On the more mundane level, there were strictures to not eat toast noisily, to put plenty of cherries in a cherry cake and a two page instruction manual of how to make tea. It was important to do these small activities perfectly to promote all around perfection.
As the society ‘regarded as true, anything that was interesting and meaningful,’ coincidences often helped form their beliefs. One day Octavia’s medication jumped out of her hand so she prayed on water and drank it. Drinking this blessed water was spread over the community until they developed a system where Octavia breathed over rolls and rolls of cloth which were cut up and put in water. This turned into a worldwide healing ministry, with thousands of people writing in for the cloth (and reporting their progress) up until the 1990s. This water was the ‘panacea’ that the society later took its name from and was one of its main activities other than putting up posters in London demanding Bishops open Southcott’s Box.
Where the early society was a community of believers centred around a charismatic leader, the functions in the community became stricter. When an American seeker of knowledge entered the community and started preaching that gay sex was spiritually neutral in a way straight sex wasn’t, he was ‘tried’ and expelled under the ordinances of the ‘Voice of the Divine Mother’. Emily Goodwin has originally been the nurse to Octavia’s Aunt Fanny but quickly became the enforcement arm of the Panaceans. Although Octavia was regarded as the Holy Daughter herself and Emily was only the conduit of the voice of the Divine Mother, anything said in that voice was regarded as absolute.
In its prime, the community had been a thriving place with garden parties that were regarded as rehearsals for Heaven on Earth but as everyone grew older and many died it became a place for ‘old people, cripples and the feeble-minded.’ If the book is accurate, the joy of the thing withered as it became tighter.
You can imagine the surprise when Octavia died in 1934. The members stuffed her bed with hot-water bottles and waited, just as Southcott’s followers had done, and much with the same effect. Octavia started to rot and leak fluid from her nose. She was buried under a quiet and unassuming gravestone.
The Society kept going though, buying a house for Jesus’ return, expanding the healing squares and taking adverts in papers about the Box. Even as this book was written, there were still two believers who kept things ticking over. They were in the process of doing up the building kitted out for the Bishops and creating a museum. By the time the museum was opened, the followers had died at the society turned into a museum trust. It’s a museum well worth visiting and this is a book well worth reading - there was loads of interesting stuff I missed out.
Incidentally, as I chatted with the man at the front desk, he told me that although the Panacea Society did not exist, there were still dedicated Southcottians and some of them in Bedford.
‘The Basilisk of St. James’s’ by Elizabeth Myers is another one of those basement of a Charing Cross bookshop discoveries that occasionally reinvigorate my reading. It tells the London adventures of Jonathan Swift during the end of Queen Anne’s reign, from the ousting of Marlborough to being sent back into Ireland. In this novel, Swift is pulling the secret strings of government, hating humanity with a passion, having secret passions to reform humanity, detesting all womankind with all his passion… and falling in love with a woman.
I think I hated this novel. I certainly left the novel with a feeling of hatred. What I couldn’t decide was whether I was supposed to feel that hatred. Certainly, I felt there was more happening in the book than I was understanding. Whether my feelings of disgust are a result of my attitudes as a reader, or a result of the book itself was something I couldn’t decide. Was it a bad book or did I not just read it right?
My first reaction to the book was a feeling of it being overwritten. I wrote the phrase ‘flagrant graveyard depths of his mind’ as an example of this overwriting but I could have picked many phrases from every page. Not only was the book overwritten but it frequently felt overstuffed. Page 17 was one I picked out in particular, it’s a description of Swift walking through London and the page is packed full of lists of different jobs, types of people and buildings. Never did the book let up on this denseness. Even in the quiet moments, the page is stuffed with the characters’ thoughts and feelings. What’s more, the point of view swings wildly around, sometimes being very close to Swift, then to other characters and then somewhere in the middle. What’s more, when we explored a character’s thoughts, they were as stuffed and overwrought as the main narration and as every other character. The combined effect of all this, is that I was constantly exhausted to no particular end.
Using my notes to write a review of this book is difficult as they are so repetitive. For my third note I wrote, ‘are they going to keep calling Swift great?’. A few notes on I wrote, ‘I hope they stop telling me how great Swift is.’ A little later I wrote the quote, “hampered as he was by the extravagant and extraordinary outlook of his genius.” A little later I write frustrated, ‘narrator repeatedly tells us how vital and important Swift is.’ One of my final notes reads, ‘Why does everyone have long, detailed thoughts about life, love and how great Swift is.’ Obviously, I was getting a little irritated with being told of Swift’s greatness. What made this worse was that I was could never believe that Swift was great, only that he sincerely believed he was.
In terms of plot - there isn’t one. Things happen. Some of them are Swift’s interminable political wrangling, some of them are bad romance and some of them are strange like the scene where he went into a brothel and was led to the corpse of a woman he had once known. I think the purpose was to use the political stuff to show Swift’s political clout, the weird, grimy stuff to show us his misanthropy was justified and the romance stuff was supposed to be the core of the book - but it all simply piled on each other.
I’ve read a few of Swift’s works and found them sardonically funny. The only biography I’ve read of him is the one Samuel Johnson wrote for his ‘Lives of the Poets’. Johnson sees Swift as a vicious, misanthropic man whose hatred and lack of connection with humanity make him a bad writer and a worse person. Peculiarly, Elizabeth Myers seems to see Swift in exactly the same way and seems to love him for it. What I couldn’t decide was whether Myers admired Swift his misanthropy or happened to enjoy writing it. There are so many ‘people are evil’ chunks but even more ‘women are especially evil’ parts. Is Myers a misogynist, or just have fun writing women-hatred stuff? What made the misogyny even stranger was that this is a love story.
Swift, who hates all people, especially women, falls in love with a woman he calls Vanessa. His hatred of women makes romance a little difficult. He mainly hates the woman he loves but sometimes he loves her but he never gives her any real love and what’s worse, she is fine with that. He mainly views women as malleable clay to mould his own personality on and seems to love them as only extensions of himself. At one point Swift and Vanessa have sex but it’s disappointing for him because he can never escape his own massive, earth-shattering ego. If he can love, he simply won’t because that would mean giving a part of himself.
By the end of the book, Swift has been sent to Ireland where he locks himself from all people and Vanessa has followed him. The last pages of the book present her as a hero for wasting all her love on someone who can’t and won’t return it. Was I supposed to regard her wasted life as a noble sacrifice? I couldn’t ever decide. My final note on ‘The Basilisk of St James’s’ was, ‘what is this book?’
The language kept reaching towards the notion that it was saying something important but I couldn’t work out what it was saying, or even the vague area it was trying to say something about. Was it about the price of genius? The immanence of love? The dirty, nasty, ego-centric mania of humanity?
I think that the book began with Myers’s love of Swift, her interest in the idea of a noted woman-hater falling in love and the implications of that love. I think the over-reaching, gushing tone, the horrible moral about how great romantic sacrifice is, and the hatefulness of Swift’s character were all results of her sincere desire to create something epic out of the material. There is a little part of me though, that thinks that she may have been doing it all as a sardonic joke and even the overblown style is a comment or parody of some grand love narrative. If this is all a joke, then it’s gone over my head and if it isn’t… eesh. Either way, I would like to read another of her books just to get some sort of handle on this one, so in the end, she wins… sort of. (This book was so muddled even the review is).
The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss ‘The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner’ a mere three-hundred years after it was published. Naturally, we pretended that this was on purpose and not happenstance at all. Often taught as the first English novel, it was one almost all of us ‘knew’ but almost none of us had actually read. Like ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’, the situation and characters are imbedded in culture that there didn’t seem any reason to read it. Old copies were levered out of old bookcases, cracked open and… the reaction was very positive.
‘Why weren’t later eighteenth century novels this gripping’ was one comment readily agreed with. One of the things that makes ‘Robinson Crusoe’ different from other books in the century is the lack of pretensions or ‘showing off’. There is no needless Latin or Greek. Crusoe, despite his extended travels, is never compared to Odysseus - a notion that would have been inescapable for other writers. There is no romance in the landscape, everything on the island is described in its practicable terms, to be used and not enjoyed. Nor are there any supernatural elements in the book, at one point Crusoe thinks he sees a demon in a cave but quickly realises it’s nothing but an old, dying goat. This constant grounding, the constant reaching for physical and practical reality, gives the story its texture and its power.
Even when the book touches on areas of religion, it deals with religion as a practical necessity. God is a companion as much as anything else. This means that even in the most religiously-minded parts of the book, it doesn’t feel didactic. As one member said, ‘this is because his religion doesn’t really affect him’, and in many ways it doesn’t, he doesn’t have the luxury for it.
There were disagreements about whether Robinson Crusoe had much of an ability to think or reflect. Early in the book, his constant need to be somewhere else, to be doing things, is partially what caused his situation in the first place. When he arrives on the island, he is still deep in the process of ‘doing’ things, of making plans, of gathering and growing his resources much as a merchant or plantation owner would at home. His faith is tied with his successes, his mind tied up with the processes of living and then living comfortably. For Crusoe, civilisation is a cooking pot to make stew and a loaf of bread, culture is the ability to make things to control and harness his environment.
It is the arrival of Friday, much later in the book then we expected, that prompts Crusoe to learn to think. In teaching Friday about European culture and religion that he thinks about them. They work together, with Friday asking difficult questions and prompting Crusoe to more complex answers. As such, the characters of Friday and Crusoe meet more equally than the commonly held notion of them as slave and master. It is Friday’s choice to serve Crusoe, if just to learn the secrets of gun and bread. However, it is not a completely even relationship and as the book moves to its climax and onto a small adventure across the alps, Friday is relegated to a bit part. We wondered if this was because of Defoe’s own prejudices against the character or the actions of a novelist unable to deal with multiple characters in a novel and having almost no examples of the form to guide him. (It is amazing to think that Defoe must be one of the few people to have written more novels than he read - rather like E.L James).
In learning to think, Crusoe comes to a form of relativism. Although, as a European, he feels his ways are better and feels a revulsion at the acts of cannibalism brought to the island by the natives, he feels he cannot kill them. Crusoe reasons that the natives of the area are created by God for his own reasons and it is not Crusoe’s place to interfere with them or harm them unless he is attacked himself. Crusoe also develops a primitive form of cognitive-behavioural-therapy, using notions of gratitude to re-enforce his mood and practical work to displace his loneliness. Despite his many set-backs and many mistakes, he is able to start again, achieve a little more than the time before and most importantly, to recognise those successes. It’s a lesson which we could all take into our non-desert-island lives.
The final part of the discussion revolved around the tone of the book and of Defoe himself. Particularly, does he have a sense of humour? There are many parts of the book where ‘Robinson Crusoe’ could be read as satirical, especially Crusoe’s delusions of grandeur as the Governor of his little island. He proudly declared his a benevolent monarchy where free expression of religion was allowed, even as the occupants consisted of himself and a herd of goats. Defoe’s own dedication to realism, to the solid and practical details of the story obscure any larger intentions of the work. I can only suggest readers look at the novel to decide for themselves. At the very least, they’ll have a good time with it.
This book appealed to me because of the title, ‘The Craft of Fiction’. I have always been convinced that novel writing is a craft rather than an art because a novel is a functional object designed to convey story and characters to the readers.
The first chapter was a fascinating look at the problems of critiquing a novel because; “As quickly as we read, it (the novel) melts and shifts in the memory.” We read a novel in instalments, experiencing it as a moving stream of impressions. This means that the structure of the book can’t be held in the brain by itself the way a picture or sculpture can and although we have a sense of character and structure, there is nothing properly solid to analyse.
What’s more; the language of literary criticism is the same one we use for other arts and don’t properly fit the written word as well. The aim of the book is to try and give the critic or informed reader a way to analyse structure and the language to do it with.
The next chapter was a little more about the relationship between reader and writer. Because an author can’t “transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of a critic,” it is up to the reader to piece the book back together again. Luckily, the ability to do this is hard-wired into us and we use these faculties all day long to process our impressions of the day into meaningful content.
“The novel asks for no other equipment in its readers than this common gift, used instinctively as the power of breathing by which we turn flat impressions in out senses into solid shapes.” A good reader is someone who manages to do this with detail and precision so a reader must take some responsibility for the enjoyment of a book. The author’s responsibility is to give all the information to aid this process as easy as possible.
Great books are distinguished by the skill of the author to lead the reader as clearly and accurately as possible. “The well-made book is the book in which the subject and the form coincide and are indistinguishable.” I would personally agree with this statement wholly, a book as painfully digressive as ‘Tristram Shandy’ works because the characters are interesting but also because the subject of the book is the digressive nature inherent in life. According to Lubbock, a book’s theme can usually be expressed in no more than ten words.
As much as I agreed with much of this analysis, I did find it interesting that Lubbock never notes how a novel is written in piecemeal as much as it is read that way. To only be concerned with the piecemeal nature of reading seems to miss an important part of the novel’s crafting, often taking a period of months and years.
The book then looks at various books, including ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Madame Bovary’. From his point of view, ‘War and Peace’ is not as good as it could have been as it has two conflicting themes, although he was full of praise for the novel, he paints a picture of a tighter, stronger novel that focuses on one theme. In “Madame Bovary’, Flaubert paints most of the book from Emma’s perspective but needs to pull back slightly at time as Emma and all the other characters lack the perspicacity to fully grasp what is happening.
Most of the rest of the book takes the issue of point of view. He takes great issue with an omniscient author, as the introduction of a storytelling character causes the reader to question how the narrator knows the story and to remove the reader from it. He says that an omniscient author needs ‘charm and genius’ to pull the trick off, to be such a captivating teller that problems of veracity are ignored.
Much more successful, to Lubbock, is the use of a more direct way of telling. “In one case, the reader faces the storyteller and listens to him, in the other he turns towards the story and watches it.” A first-person perspective gives veracity and immediacy to a story but can often obscure the central character as there is no one to describe them solidly. He goes through different methods of fudging and manipulating point of view, describing the different ways authors have done so.
He alights upon Henry James as the ultimate hero of point of view - at this point the book becomes a true Henry James love-in. I have a little problem with this as I have never been able to read a page of Henry James without feeling inescapably sleepy. The special trick of James, as Lubbock sees it, is the enactment of the drama of inward thought, as opposed to simple reportage.
This is the best point of view, as Lubbock sees it, because it gives the strength and veracity of first person but allows them to give a view of the character also. He also sees this to be the best method as it unites his other obsession, the need for authors to show, which he calls ‘picture’, and show, which he calls ‘drama’. A skilled author weaves between the two and he sees Henry James’s method as the most dextrous way to do it.
The struggle between showing and telling comes about because telling is the main method a novelist is given that other narrative forms don’t. As such a novelist can include multiple viewpoints and great swathes of action. The price of this is that telling loses intensity. It’s up to a writer to dramatise great moments in scenes, to choose them and pay them off. However, telling is needed to set them up and often to pay them off. Again, Lubbock sees that Henry James is the most subtle of writers, being able to use his point of view to bring the intensity of drama to the vagueness of thought.
This is a book which I immediately got on board with, but as he went into his details of point of view and showing/telling, he seemed to have another goal in mind, to venerate Henry James. This ultimately lost me.
That said, I am having great difficulty with the novel I am currently writing. I think the characters are okay, the plot and themes are fascinating but the storytelling keeps coming out flat. It revealed to me that the problem with the novel is one of point of view and if I can just get a hold of the right one then I can make the book sing again. I might even submit myself to Henry James.