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Old 29th Jul 2010, 10:32   #1
Stewart
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Default The State of British Fiction

This is going to be a much discussed topic in the coming days -- I hope -- and it concerns Gabriel Josipovici's comments, reported in the Guardian today, that "feted British authors are limited, arrogant, and self-satisfied".
"We are in a very fallow period," Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel "profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears".

He said: "Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

"I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock." Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy remained more avant-garde than the so-called avant-garde today, Josipovici argued.

"An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie's just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration."
I, for one, am glad this discussion has finally been started by someone twixt academia and the industry, as it's why I feel increasingly disinterested in British fiction. I've got loads of Rushdie, McEwan, etc. at home and, having read one or two - and enjoyed them for what they are - I feel little desire to hoover up the rest.


What do others think?
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 11:12   #2
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Who's Gabriel Josipovici when he's at home?
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 11:19   #3
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Having got decreasing amounts of pleasure from Barnes, Amis and McEwan in recent years, and having got more pleasure from elsewhere, I can only agree with him. I think his comment that to begin with (whether he means when they started writing, or when he started reading them), they did give much pleasure, is important too.

Josipovici is a figure held in high regard by a certain sector of the litblogging world: Mark Thwaite, Steve Mitchelmore etc. What I've found is that while I continue to like a lot of stuff they would probably hate, the recommendations I take from them (Thomas Bernhard, Hugo Wilcken, Cesar Aira) have invariably provided some of my greatest reading pleasures of late. So I suppose that, by some method of triangulation, makes me feel sympathetic to Josipovici's arguments too.

I haven't actually read any Josipovici, bar a couple of intros (to Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939, and Kafka's Aphorisms), but CB Editions are publishing his novel Only Joking (first English language publication) in the next couple of months, so I will be reading that. I also gather his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore is recommended.

When I was contributing to the Man Booker forum this month, and wondering what would be on the longlist, I realised that there wasn't really any eligible title I'd read that I would urge onto the list. I realised too that the books that had given most delight over the last year or so were by authors either not British or not alive. I've since read a couple of goodies - Gerard Woodward's Nourishment and Tom McCarthy's C - but as with Stewart, the 'traditional literary fiction' from the UK seems to tickle me less these days.
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 11:32   #4
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by amner View Post
Who's Gabriel Josipovici when he's at home?
From Wikipedia:

Quote:
Gabriel David Josipovici (born 8 October 1940) is a British novelist, short story writer, critic, literary theorist, and playwright. He was born in Nice, France, of Sephardic, Egyptian-Jewish parents, who lived out the war years in a village in the French Alps. After studying for six years in Egypt at Victoria College, Cairo from 1950-56, on emigrating with his mother to England in that year, he finished his high school education at Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire. He obtained his B.A. from St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1961. He won the Somerset Maugham Prize for his fiction in 1975. He taught at the University of Sussex at Brighton from 1963 until 1998, where he is Research Professor in the Graduate School of Humanities.

In 2007, Gabriel Josipovici gave the University of London Coffin Lecture on Literature; the lecture was entitled "What ever happened to Modernism?"

He is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement.
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 11:36   #5
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Oh, right.

And a whole load of publications, of which I have never heard. Academic stroppiness.
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 18:26   #6
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Sorry Stewart, but what an absolutely pompous prick. Having contributed nothing to the canon, he chooses to denounce those that do. He should be shunned.

Even better, why not a Pompous Prick competition? Josipovici would be the early favorite.

As a reader who remains committed to reading contemporary fiction, I can certainly understand why readers such as yourself and John Self look elsewhere (although I think you are both guilty of over-celebrating marginal Central European works). There is a lot of dross on the contemporary fiction table.

I hesitate to raise this, but I will. The book promotion industry in the UK as it applies to bloggers is much further advanced than in Canada. As I understand it, established bloggers get 40-50 titles a week, most of them unrequested, shoved through their door. I'll admit that faced with that amount of garbage, I'd stop blogging. I am one of those booklovers who cannot throw a book in the bin -- so getting rid of reading trash would be far worse than paying for books that I wanted to read. I think this creates an ennui about how bad work is.

Whereas in Canada, I only receive review copies that I request, or ones that pr people know fit my tastes. And I still purchase more than half the books that I choose to review on my website. Maybe part of J's problem is that he has become a victim of his own exposure -- too many books delivered through the door, not enough purchased at the shop?
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Old 29th Jul 2010, 20:58   #7
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by KevinfromCanada
As I understand it, established bloggers get 40-50 titles a week, most of them unrequested, shoved through their door.
Am I an established blogger? I get nothing like that, maybe half a dozen a week. I think people like Scott Pack and dovegreyreader get more, but they're more widely read than I am, blog much more frequently, and have more industry contacts.

Quote:
Having contributed nothing to the canon, he chooses to denounce those that do. He should be shunned.
But is that valid? I have contributed nothing to the canon but I can denounce Amis or McEwan (or anyone else) for what I think is bad work. A reader criticises because he is a reader, not a writer, and it's as a reader/critic that Josipovici is best known. Our own dovegreyreader rates his essays The Singer on the Shore among her 'Tomes of Great Import' ("these books tend to be permanent fixtures, touchstones only displaced when some Tome of Even Greater Import comes along. I pick them up and browse them frequently, they bear repeated reading, they are chock full of underlinings and marginalia and some tiny new seed of inspiration is sown with each delving"). As mentioned above, Josipovici does say that they have produced satisfying work in the past, so he is not lashing out at them universally. Even I, an Amis-head of old, wouldn't claim that his last few books have been among his best.

Quote:
I think you are both guilty of over-celebrating marginal Central European works
An interesting charge! When you say 'over-celebrating', do you mean we are claiming to like them more than we do? I ask merely for information...
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Old 30th Jul 2010, 0:02   #8
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Ouch. Okay, I probably went overboard. Now I will do my best to retreat.

1. Even at half a dozen a week (and you are probably right about Scott Pack and dgr), there is a swamping effect. That in no way is meant as a criticism of you or anyone else who is getting the volumes, simply an observation that marketing always finds a way to trump legitimate reading and contemplation. My observation here would be all the books that you have started and, while not disliking them, abandoned after 50-100 pages. As someone who respects your point of view, I would far prefer that you a) finish them and say what you think or, even better, b) spend that reading time on works that truly interest you and then give us an opinion.

2. Perhaps if the conclusion was presented as an hypothesis rather than a judgment I would have been less grumpy. I think it is ludicrous to say that British fiction (I am assuming he doesn't exclude the Irish EDIT: whoops, I see on rereading that he does) is in a "fallow" period, when there are so many fine writers, even if some of them (Mitchell for me most recently) do fall short of the mark. No mention of Byatt, Martel, Drabble -- is there sexism at play here?

3. I do retract "over-celebrating" -- what on earth was I thinking when I typed that? Fifty lashes with a wet noodle for me. On a more serious vein, I do find it interesting that serious English readers are looking back, both in time and geography, to works originally published in other languages during the last century. Again, that is an observation, not a judgment -- but I am interested in what might be driving the phenomenon. It is not just you and Stewart -- almost every blogger would fit the description.
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Old 30th Jul 2010, 4:21   #9
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Quote:
Originally Posted by KevinfromCanada View Post
... an observation that marketing always finds a way to trump legitimate reading and contemplation.
K-k-k-kevin (brings head out of smelling salts), do you really believe this to be true? If so, wouldn't that negate the point of any literary blog, discussion board, or analysis?

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Originally Posted by KevinfromCanada View Post
No mention of Byatt, Martel, Drabble -- is there sexism at play here?
A incestuous sex sandwich maybe, with yer man in the middle?

Quote:
Originally Posted by KevinfromCanada View Post
On a more serious vein, I do find it interesting that serious English readers are looking back, both in time and geography, to works originally published in other languages during the last century. Again, that is an observation, not a judgment -- but I am interested in what might be driving the phenomenon. It is not just you and Stewart -- almost every blogger would fit the description.
I blame the Internet. Bam, the whole thing's wide open, all the centuries and languages spilled out there in front of god'n everybody. I enjoyed the Guardian piece, it's an interesting theory, but it isn't possible to fully understand what he's saying from a snippet online. Would need to read him and think about it. And possibly be British.

Some of the comments are fascinating. From #10, Sweeting:
Quote:
There is something in what Josipovici says - British letters is a parched realm that harbours a great and long-standing dread of sincerity. But if a British novelist plays it too straight, they are accused of being precious, or taking themselves too seriously...
The Brits can't claim ownership of fear, unless its kernel sprouted in England and has been sprinkled the world over. The Ironic Stranglehold is everywhere, and it's as boring and clichéd wherever it grows in excess, worse than the kudzu vine.

Last edited by Beth; 30th Jul 2010 at 4:42. Reason: Hie me to the fainting couch, just spotted the sisters!
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Old 30th Jul 2010, 4:59   #10
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Default Re: The State of British Fiction

Okay, Beth, it was supposed to be Mantel, not Martel. But I do rather like the result of the mistake. A.S. and Margaret would give Yann a proper drubbing.
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