The Modern Novel or Why I Am Here

When I decided to do this blog, I vowed to myself that it would not be about literary prizes. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I am not particularly interested in them though, of course, I do get caught up in the hype for the Man Booker and Nobel.  Secondly, other bloggers do this very well so I am not sure that I can add much value.  So, as a result, my first four posts on this blog were about literary prizes. My excuse is that a) it was  Man Booker and Nobel season and b) that I have strong views on both (as regards process and content).  The two prizes are over for this year and, though I may come back to them, in order to comment in general terms, enough of this year’s prizes.

So this post will be a start of my explanation of why this blog or, rather, why my site, the Modern Novel came into being.

It actually started in 1998 when I first decided to create this site. I was inspired by Martin Seymour-Smith’s seminal New Guide to Modern World Literature. It may have been intended as as reference book but I read it from cover to cover and found recommendations for all sorts of writers I was unaware of or only somewhat unaware of. Of course, the trouble with a book like that is that it soon goes out of print and/or becomes outdated. I kept hoping that he would update it but, sadly he never did. When he died in 1998, it was obvious that he would not publish a new edition and it seemed unlikely that anyone else would take on the task. By this time, the Internet was in full swing and it was clear to me that this would be the ideal way to put this sort of information out. I could never hope to match Seymour-Smith in erudition, energy and writing skills but I could, perhaps, make a modest contribution. I did rather expect to have something going in two or three years but, of course, life got in the way, both professional and personal and it also took much longer than I expected. There are still numerous books that should be on here that are not but I have been persuaded by my significant other that I should go ahead with it, very incomplete though it is, so here it is. Books and authors will be added as and when but I will never come close to matching Seymour-Smith.

I would rather have expected that someone else would have done this by now but there are really only two sites that I am aware of that have attempted this sort of effort. This is not to disparage the many very wonderful blogs and other literary sites out there but most do seem to focus on a fairly narrow range of countries and limit themselves to books published in their own languages. The two exceptions are, obviously, Wikipedia (in its various language versions) and The Complete Review. The former needs no introduction though I would just say that, while there are many interesting entries, it can be frustrating, both as regards incomplete entries and, in some cases, clearly erroneous entries. Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review is without doubt the best site on the web. Had it existed before I started or had I discovered it sooner, I may not have attempted my site but, by the time I did discover it, I was well advanced in design and layout, if not content, so I carried on, not least because two sites in English on foreign literature is still not enough.  He seems to read a book almost every day as well as produce a <a href=””>a very useful blog</a> every day of the year, including Christmas, Thanksgiving, July 4 and every other holiday you can think of.

I suspect that no-one is reading this blog right now, except perhaps a few close friends and family members, but people may read this later, so I will say that I intend, in this blog, to talk more about the site, its whys and its wherefores and discuss such matters as the canon, women writers, why US literature dominates on this site and, yes, maybe even literary prizes.

More on the Man Booker/Literary Prize

When I set up this blog, I vowed that I would only touch peripherally on the literary prize bandwagon/farce and here I am writing my fourth post and my fourth on literary prizes. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said. There have been two burning (?) issues on the topic. The first is the issue of “readability”. When the Man Booker shortlist was announced, it was said that the were aiming for readability. This raised two issues. Firstly, did this mean that they wanted popular fiction rather than good fiction to dominate the list? And, if not, what did they mean by the word readability ? As usual, Elizabeth Baines summed up the issues admirably. As she points out, if readability is so good and it means books people read as opposed to admire, does this mean that admirable books are unreadable?  Well, no she says but, in fact, the reality is that there are many admirable books that readers consider unreadable, including some of the greats such Joyce, Kafka and Proust.  There are books that other consider great that I consider unreadable: on my site this would include David Markson and Péter Esterházy. There is nothing wrong in considering some books unreadable, even if that book is by Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce, as has been pointed out. However, do we want our foremost literary prize to award readability or quality? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive – many readable books on my site are also of high quality.

This has been addressed by the announcement of a new literary prize to rival the Man Booker. Literary agent Andrew Kidd is the spokesperson for the prize which, as yet, does not seem to have funding. Will this prize work? Maybe. Maybe not.

The sad fact of the matter, despite Booker director Ion Trewin’s comments, is that the quality this year is not there. This is no fault of Trewin, Dame Stella Rimington or the Man Booker people. Authors have not produced. The Literary Prize might well have gone with The Stranger’s Child but that would not necessarily have been a huge improvement. It’s quite a good book but certainly not a great one.  So what are we left with?  Like Robert McCrum, I suspect it will be Julian Barnes – what the Committee thinks is, after all, the quality, but like McCrum, I am hopeless at guessing these things so I will probably be wrong and they will go with something more readable. And the Literary Prize will probably quietly fade away…

Man Booker

I was surprised to find in my morning Guardian an interview with Stella Rimington not on spying but on the Booker Prize and in the main section of the paper, not the Review section. Apparently she cannot tolerate personal abuse. Who can? Tony Blair? However, she must be aware that she is in a highly political position (Chair of the Man Booker Prize Committee for this year, if you have sensibly kept away from the all the prizes) but has made some very odd choices. In particular, she and her committee have been roundly condemned for omitting Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child, a early favourite with the bookies and the public. Moreover, she has been accused of being homophobic for omitting both the Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher. I have not read the Hensher but I have read the Hollinghurst and while it certainly was not bad, it was not a great novel, either. The problem is that many of the likely contenders this year – Anne Enright‘s The Forgotten Waltz, Jane Harris‘s Gillespie and I, A L Kennedy‘s The Blue Book, Hari Kunzru‘s Gods Without Men, Graham Swift‘s Wish You Were Here and Barry Unsworth‘s The Quality of Mercywere less than brilliant, so the Committee had a real problem.

I have not read any of the short list and do not expect to. Julian Barnes, I feel, peaked with Flaubert’s Parrot, which wasn’t a novel so I have no great desire to read A Sense of Ending and none of the others inspired me, though I may be persuaded to change my mind. Books sometime can seem better later. They can also seem worse. Maybe this year is just not a very good year, with the English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) novel being of the same calibre as their respective rugby and cricket teams.

The Nobel Prize – the winner


Well, at least neither Bob Dylan nor Philip Roth got it. It is definitely the turn of a poet to get it but I suspect that Tomas Tranströmer will not turn out to be a big seller. I must confess that I read very little poetry and almost none in translation so I doubt that I will read any Tranströmer. Fortunately, there is enough of his poetry in translation for those that do not read Swedish to read him. And good luck to him and thanks for sparing us from Dylan and Roth.

The Nobel Prize

As this is my first post on this blog, my aim was to talk a bit about my new website The Modern Novel but that will have to wait till another day as tomorrow is Nobel Prize for Literature day. I generally avoid literary prizes as I think that their decisions are often wrong but I cannot avoid getting caught up in the hype of the Nobel Prize and the Man Booker Prize, even though I tend to think many of their decision are really wrong. However, however silly they may be, commentators seem to be even sillier. Cases in point:

1. Someone called Michael Bourne, who writes for a site called The Millions, produced a very silly blog post in the form of an open letter to the Swedish Academy, suggesting Philip Roth get the prize. I can think of hundreds, yes hundreds of writers more deserving than Roth. I can think of many US nationals more deserving than Roth (Oates, Pynchon, DeLillo, Coover, Cormac McCarthy, Vollmann and, yes, Bob Dylan – see 2. below). I wonder if Bourne has read many non-US writers. In particular, I wonder if he has read any who write in a language other than English, in the original language. My guess is no. (My apologies in advance if I am wrong.) We all know that the USA is very US-centric but come on, Mike, as a reader, you should be aware that there is a world beyond Brooklyn and a world where not everyone speaks English. Pop downtown and you are likely to hear Russian, Spanish, Yiddish, Italian, Polish, German and many other languages spoken. Yes, Mike, people write in these languages, too, and some very good stuff. Nobel Prize winning stuff. So let’s bury the Roth campaign once and for all. He is not all that good. He does not deserve it. How’s about Goytisolo, Murakami, Farah, Nooteboom, Kadare, Handke, Butor, Ireland, Tabucchi, Tournier?
2. According to Ladbroke’s, Bob Dylan is now favourite. Oh dear, I hope this is a joke. I love Bob Dylan. He is perhaps my favourite musician. I love his lyrics. They are brilliant. But Nobel Prize? I don’t think so. But rather Bobby Z than Roth.
3. I am deliberately writing this before the announcement. Whoever wins, I won’t have guessed it, as I never do and, I suspect, many others will be wrong.