On not being good enough

Stories with stories
Stories with stories

My bath-time reading of the Guardian Literary Review recently involved reading D J Taylor’s interesting article, rather badly titled Literary hero to zero (I am guessing that the title is a sub’s and not Taylor’s.) However, before getting to the article, I am going to go off on a tangent, which will lead to another tangent, which will lead to… and eventually, I hope, back to Taylor’s article, though I may get lost on the way. This, of course, is a literary trope, a variation of the story-with-a-story or nested story, which I happen to enjoy. Indeed, it is found in three of my favourite novels: Italo Calvino‘s Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller), Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript and Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer. So if I don’t get back to the beginning, please forgive me and remember that far greater writers than I have had the same problem.

I have finally read it
I have finally read it!

I keep quite a few lists of books. Some are on my website, while others are either on my computer or in my head. Yes, I am clearly very anal-retentive. They even used bits of one of my lists (many years ago) on the David Letterman Top Ten list. One of the lists (in my head) is the list of books that everyone else seems to have read but which I have not yet got around to reading. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been on that list or a while but she is about to come off it, as I have just read Half of a Yellow Sun and will shortly read her other two novels. I have to admit that there is something of an ulterior motive here. (Warning! Tangent coming!) But before I tangent, I would mention that I have another list which is Books that everyone else seems to have read but which I have no intention of reading. It includes the likes of Harry Potter, Dan Brown, E L James and most of Philip Roth and Martin Amis. Back to the tangent.

On the the shortlist for the Bailey's Women's Fiction Prize
On the the shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize

Last year I promised myself that I would read all the shortlisted novels for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I failed miserably, partially because I was busy reading the Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. Accordingly, I decided that this year I must read the shortlist for what is now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have been helped by having read two of them already (The Lowland and The Goldfinch) and I was planning to read Americanah and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing shortly. Fortunately, I have read others by Tartt and Lahiri but, with Adichie, I am planning to read all her three novels. The other three have all only published one novel each.

It won the Pulitzer.  It is on the Bailey's shortlist.  Will it make the ManBooker shortlist?
It won the Pulitzer. It is on the Bailey’s shortlist. Will it make the ManBooker shortlist?

When this shortlist was announced, there was a communal throwing of hands in the air in the British press at the fact that there were no British authors on the list. (It contained two Irish authors, one US, one Indian, one Australian and one Nigerian.) Given that the Folio Prize went to a US writer and he shortlist of eight only had one British writer on it and that the ManBooker is now allowing US writers, this seemingly looks like the end of civilisation as we know it. It seems likely that no British writer will win any of the major three literary prizes. People say that this is unfair. After all the Pulitzer Prize is only for US writers (Only U.S. citizens are eligible to apply for the Prizes in Letters, Drama and Music; it went to The Goldfinch this year) as are The National Book Awards (All authors must be U.S. citizens.). So why not not a British award just for British writers? It is a valid point. But are British writers up to it?

Alan Bennet - prefers US authors
Alan Bennett – prefers US authors

Alan Bennett has recently caused another collective throwing-up of the arms in the air with his remarks that he prefers US authors to British authors. He rather spoils his argument by mentioning only one writer – the execrable Philip Roth. However, his general point is certainly valid. A quick look at the statistics for my site reveals that I have covered more English books than those of any other nationality. If you added in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it would be a lot more. This does not, of course, represent where the best novels have come from since the beginning of the last century. There is no doubt in my mind and, presumably in Bennett’s mind (disclosure: I was born about four miles from where he was born but I hope the similarity ends there) that US writing since the beginning of the last century has been generally far superior to English writing, particularly as far as the novel goes. Right now, things are not looking too good in England in this area. My reading of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists was, frankly, disappointing. There were two or three good ones but the rest were certainly readable but far from being great. Of course, these were the young novelists and they may go on to write the Great British Novel but I am not optimistic. The older generation – Amis Jr, Swift, McEwan, Ishiguro, Barnes, Byatt and Co – is, well, getting old and clearly have their best days behind them. The generation after them produced Mantel, Winterson and Coe. None has really approached greatness, even though they are fine writers.

No-one reads him but his biography is in print
No-one reads him but his biography is in print

Which brings us back to D J Taylor or, rather, his article. He mentions Beverley Nichols who briskly informed his friends, in 200 years’ time he would be spoken of in the same breath as Jane Austen and Beatrix Potter. Taylor says that there is still a long way to go but clearly it is not going to happen. Have you read Beverley Nichols? No, nor have I. Have you even heard of him? I vaguely remember my parents reading him, many years ago but I certainly never read him. Wikipedia says he is best remembered for his gardening books which may put him in the company of Vita Sackville-West, though I doubt that Nichols slept with Virginia Woolf, as Sackville-West did, nor did he own a beautiful house and garden, now a famous National Trust property. In short, Nichols is almost entirely forgotten as a novelist. Of course, many novelists slip out of the public consciousness, as Taylor shows in his article. In this context I always think of Christopher Morley who was very well-known in the US in the 1920s and 1930s and is now almost completely forgotten. I bought a copy of his Thunder on the Left at the 4th Avenue Bookstore but have never read it. (Another tangent would be sad reminiscences of bookshops that have disappeared. If I did it, which I probably won’t, I would start with the bookstores of New York, including the 4th Avenue Bookstore.) So will these British writers slip away into the mists? A few will remain but, I suspect, many will be forgotten, along with Beverley Nichols, in fifty years time and certainly in 200 years time.

Kushner for the ManBooker?
Kushner for the ManBooker?

Which brings me back to the beginning. An interesting Bailey’s Women’s Fiction list but no British writers, with, presumably, Tartt and Adichie as favourites and the ManBooker longlist coming out in just over two months, with Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of East Anglia as one of the judges. Will she go for Tartt and other US writers? What about Richard PowersOrfeo? Philipp Meyer’s The Son? Kushner? Saunders? Doctorow? Oyeyemi? Oops. Not a single Brit there. Oh well.

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