Tag Archives: books

Searching for the Great American Novelists

11 Jul

It’s no secret that I love American novels, so when I saw an article by Matthew Spencer in the Guardian searching for the Great American Novelist, I was instantly drawn to see who he might include in the mix. The two lists (one of seeded contestants, non-replaceable, and a second of equal length of which can be changed if a stronger case is made for another novelist) were strong but it niggled me somehow. I spent a while thinking about what points I thought were making me wince a little bit, and I’ve come up with a short list.

Philip Roth, the first seeded author

Before beginning, I have to say that this doesn’t mean I’m rubbishing the list by any means: no list would be complete without the likes of Faulkner, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald and Mailer, but I just wanted to highlight some of the sticking points with creating such tournaments and why searching for the Great American Novelist could be a fruitless search.

1. What Constitutes a Great Novel?

I had a hard time working out whether each of the listed authors had four novels that could be considered equally great or, perhaps, masterpieces. Undoubtedly there are novelists that have produced good bodies of work, but most of those have one or maybe two standout novels with the rest being good, but maybe not quite as masterly as that one defining work. Everyone, for example, thinks of The Great Gatsby when they think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but fewer people have read Tender is the Night or The Beautiful and the Damned. Does that mean that Fitzgerald has created one masterpiece and a few other good works that aren’t quite up to that level?

On a similar topic, many of the novelists on the list can be said to have written ‘heavy’ works. By that I mean works that either have a heavy subject matter or are written in a complicated, serious or classical literary style. The authors of the modernist period (of which there are many on this list) are clear examples of this. Maybe that’s why we don’t see names that are synonymous with a genre that couldn’t be more American: pulp fiction. We don’t see the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, Raymond Chandler and, arguably, James Ellroy, on the list. Surely these works have something specifically American about them that perhaps sets them in a league of their own.

As a last point, where’s Jack Kerouac?

Raymond Chandler: omitted

2. The one-book dilemma

An author has only written one work of fiction. Okay, according to the rules they’re off the list but… that’s not fair is it? The four-book rule means that a whole host of authors are being excluded. I say: does an extensive canon equal a quality author? I’d like to use the example of Jean Toomer here: Toomer’s only novel was Cane, an experimental mix of loosely interconnected stories interspersed with songs and poetry following the lives of African-Americans in the Deep South and Washington DC and the everyday racism and frustrations that they face. Though largely ignored at the time, it is now widely regarded as a brilliant novel filled with insight (and it’s beautifully written). Should novelists like Toomer be penalised for an unfortunate lack of work? After all, sometimes this is not the author’s fault, other issues impose upon them and they have to quit.

3. Where did all the women go?

Linked to this idea of the four-book policy… where are the women? It’s as if the competition was designed to keep Harper Lee from winning (she famously only wrote the one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, but it’s one of the most beloved books in the American canon). 1/8 of the list are women, and two of those women aren’t actually safe. But thee are a whole host of women you could add into the mix. At one end of the scale you could include Ayn Rand and her novels which were an inspiration to the likes of Silicon Valley (her books are controversial in a way, but in that way they embody the edgy spirit of American writing) and at the other you could easily shout out for some children’s literature and include Ursula Le Guin, whose books are unconventional and challenging (at least they were to me when reading them when I was about ten or eleven). It’s an interesting one to ponder: does the lack of women novelists mean a lack of ‘great American’ women novelists (i.e. the men are just better in America?) or are the rules just locking them out of the competition?

All in all, it’s one that could be debated for hours. Everyone will have a different opinion on who should win (nobody has the same taste in novels after all: I love the modernist period, but a lot of people will recoil in horror at the likes of Faulkner), so is a competition like this actually pointless? Maybe the quest to find the defining novelists, encompassing a wider variety of novelists, would be more of a worthy competition than trying to find one standout writer. Still, it’ll be interesting to see who actually wins so we can all quibble over who should’ve been the real winner…



Gatsby Casting: Still A Sticking Point?

6 Jul

I know it’s been a long (long long long) time since the casting and shooting started on Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby and I’m still highly skeptical. Very skeptical. First I was put off by the fact that Baz found the need to shoot the film in 3D – I still don’t understand this logic. 3D works best when there’s a lot of action, not when it’s a tender talkie (unless he’s trying to reinvent the image of 3D, which is admirable in a way but still a bit… pointless). Still, that’s just a small quibble when compared to the casting of the film. Well, the casting of one character in particularly.

I have no qualms with the following: Carey Mulligan is wistful and pixie-like enough to be airy-fairy irritator Daisy, while Leonardo DiCaprio is the obvious choice to play our eponymous hero as he’s one of the only modern actors I think is suave but also quietly ponderous enough to play Jay. No, I have a huge issue with Carraway, our narrator and eyes through the story, because Baz has cast Tobey Maguire.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with Tobey Maguire or his acting. He’s great in the likes of Pleasantville and was the perfect Spiderman (his adolescent, almost nervy performances were what you wanted in a Peter Parker, not Andrew Garfield’s too-cool-for-school approach). But… he’s just not Carraway. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, Carraway is a man who intimates the strain of his own life, how he has had to struggle through, and he presents a world-weariness, an almost depressed view of the world. For every time he mentions the brilliance of the metropolis, there’s some downer to go with it. The Jazz Age isn’t so great for Carraway, and his conclusions at the end of the novel sum up his attitude to life and the world around him.

Tobey Maguire just doesn’t scream ‘world weary narrator’ to me. Despite some stills and his attempts to look more manly, I can’t shake the fact that Maguire looks a bit too young and fresh (still!) to be Carraway. You’re probably thinking: ‘well, smartypants, who should play Carraway?’ Yes, admittedly the options seem a little bit limited nowadays. I am, though, tempted to suggest Michael Fassbender as an alternative Carraway – more rugged, more beaten by life and just a bit less adolescent.

Of course, Maguire could prove me completely wrong and be the biggest revelation I’ve seen, producing a pitch-perfect Carraway that defies all expectation and if he does, all power to him. Until that happens though, I’ll remain skeptical.

Fifty Shades: Good for Books?

26 Jun

It’s the book phenomenon of the year: seemingly from nowhere, a fanfiction writer called EL James is snapped up by a major book publisher and within a week all three of her novels have sold more than 100, 000 copies, the first writer to do so. Aside from that, in two months the records were broken again as the first novel sold more than 765, 000 copies, beating the previous paperback record holder – Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – which took six whole months to reach that total. But what is going on with the Fifty Shades trilogy? And is it good or bad for books?

Basically, the books follow the story of recent university graduate Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey, who makes her sign a contract saying that he can have full control over her life as well as a non-disclosure agreement. As their relationship gets more involved, Anastasia begins to wonder about her own life and who she is. And obviously, there’s lots of erotica.

But I won’t focus on that: there’s plenty of reviews out there pointing out the sheer awfulness of the prose itself, whether its Anastasia’s only line of ‘Oh my’ or the tiresome clichés that seem to follow the characters around in their own little world. What seems more interesting is the way in which these books have become so popular and what it means for books themselves. The Fifty Shades trilogy was originally Twilight fanfiction. That doesn’t sound appealing at all, admittedly, but it apparently filled a void for those Twi-hards who thought that there wasn’t enough physical action between Bella and Edward (basically, those who didn’t realise that the series was basically a big symbol for why abstinence is good and moral, based on Stephanie Meyer’s Christian beliefs). James posted her fanfiction on websites and after the content of her stories was questioned, began publishing on her own website.

It became a hit on book blogs and after a while word of mouth spread about James’ works, leading to her having a massive fanbase for her three works. The internet, it seems, did for James what it did for music: spread the word about new authors, even if it was someone whose prose style and vocabulary was questionable at best – though, if we’re honest, there’s plenty of mediocre bands who have built up huge followings through the internet in the same way. Secondly, James’ case exposes just how powerful the nature of e-readers are nowadays. Perhaps a woman (and we are talking women here – the majority of James’ readers are reported to be married women over 30) wouldn’t be seen reading a paperback version of James’ books ten years ago in a public place, leading to her having much smaller sales thanks to the ’embarrassment factor.’ But if you’re reading a Kindle, or a Kobo, or any other sort of reader (even a smartphone with a books app) then who’s to say what you might be gandering at? It could be James, but it could just as easily be Dickens or another classic.

Technology, then, might not be heralding the death of the book in the way that the industry predicted. Yes, it’s nice to have something more tangible in your hands with that new book smell but it’s also lovely to know that you can carry around a device that’s portable and that people won’t be secretly judging you on, particularly if it’s in the types of genres that James places herself in. Aside from that, viral marketing and the internet could well help launch a new generation of writers – I participated in NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago and it’s amazing to see the amount of people who are actually interested in writing their own novels. Publishing on blogs and encouraging feedback on forums could help create better prose style and spread word of mouth for writers who wouldn’t be considered through the usual publishing routes. The relatively cheap cost of books on E-Readers compared to paperbacks and hardbacks could also encourage publishers to take more of a risk on a younger, less-established generation of novelists who wouldn’t have been given a chance a few years ago.

So while I wouldn’t be interested in reading James’ work myself, I can appreciate the ways in which new media has turned her into a phenomenon – her books are an example of how technology can revitalise the book industry and bring new talent in. As long as they don’t litter their works with the phrase ‘Oh my.’

Karenina and Les Mis: Battle of the Classics

25 Jun

It’s barely past the halfway point of this year, and already there’s some flittering buzz over who might be picked for next year’s Oscars. And if this article is anything to go by, then it’ll be a battle between two extravagant costume dramas as opposed to the quirky charms and nostalgia of The Artist.

It’ll be frocks at dawn when Anna Karenina and Les Miserables face off against each other. In the left corner we have Joe Wright (of Pride and Prejudice and Atonement fame) directing Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Aaron Johnson in a grand adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel. In the right corner we have Tom Hooper (of The King’s Speech fame) directing Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in an, er, adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.

I’m starting to wonder if Hollywood has good ideas anymore. To be fair, Wright has directed two movies that isn’t adapted from a novel (Hanna and The Soloist) but Hooper’s last film was equally based on nostalgia and aimed squarely at the type of audience who would lap up Les Mis with relish. Aside from this, Les Mis is almost too well known as a successful musical, while Karenina has already been adapted into film a massive twelve times – that’s twelve times, people, double figures. I’m not sure that plonking Keira Knightley in the role will add anything to the wealth of performances we have out there. Then again, I’m not sure plonking Keira Knightley in any role really adds anything to a movie – she has ‘the Keira Knightley face’ and not a lot else. Oh, but she did a bit of gurning in A Dangerous Method to look ‘tortured’; not sure that’ll be helpful with Anna though.

As for Les Mis, it’s been said that Anne Hathaway has some raw power as factory worker Fantine (in the teaser trailer she sings ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ which won people over). That’s all good and well, and I’m sure the film will look beautiful, will be well-acted and feel like a genuinely solid costume drama, but it’s just that little bit depressing that so much should be put into it that smaller indie movies that could be getting a look-in might be completely blown away by the extravagance on show in both Karenina and Les Mis.

If you look at the winners of the Best Picture Oscar in the last five years, four of them were adapted from other sources or real life: No Country For Old Men took as its source material Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name, The Hurt Locker was based on the journals of journalist Mark Boal, The King’s Speech revolved around the true story of George VI and The Departed was mostly adapted from successful Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (which is actually a better film – I still think Marty won the Oscar because he was robbed in the past).

So, while the competition between Karenina and Les Mis will undoubtedly be huge (both in terms of critical and commercial success), it would still be nice to see just a little bit less hype about adaptations. Particularly ones that have already been done twelve times before – yes, I will keep stressing that point. Personally, if it came down to the pair then I would say Les Mis has a better chance of succeeding: its cast seems more solid and star-studded (with added facial movements!), its story is more familiar to a bigger audience and it has at least one song that everyone seems to know. But there’s always room for a surprise…

Eat. Pray. Love. Buy. Now!

26 Aug

Okay so people must remember a time when movie merchanidising was squarely aimed at kids: when I was younger it seemed that the film-related merch was all tacky little dolls, t-shirts with strange slogans and catchphrases on them and a whole load of other twiddly, cheap crap that they’d sell in the cinema (because at the time my local cinema had a merch section. It’s now a pick’n’mix section).

Now it’s not so simple. It’s also covering a whole range of the financial spectrum. You must know what this is a still from:

If you don’t then you’ve clearly been living under a rock for the past few months. It’s Javier Bardem and Julia Roberts in the adaptation of “Eat Pray Love” which was released in the US just recently. Basically, a woman leaves her husband and goes on a journey of self-discovery, doing those three things that the title would suggest. But aside from that all-important ticket to get in to actually see the movie, there’s a whole load of merchandising that’s been tacked on alongside it.

I was first exposed to this merch while waching “The Daily Show”, where, on it’s “Back In Black” section we were given a whole load of products from those home-buying networks to look at and, yes, maybe even laugh at. Some of this crazy crap includes: prayer beads, necklaces, t-shirts, make-a-wish bracelets, fragrances, special travel packages, more t-shirts, more jewellery aaaaand special tea. So there’s no denying that these products perhaps have some kind of tie-in with the movie but do we really need to be going around wearing bracelets and necklaces that have the words “Eat. Pray. Love” stamped on them?

Of course, this is actually a bit of an epidemic in terms of merch. When “Sex In The City 2” came out we were bombarded by promotions, not least from Muller and other yoghurt companies who plastered the branding all over their 8-packs. Then there was “Alice In Wonderland” which resulted in many kids in my town carrying bags and other such obvious merch around with them (although my suspicion about this surrounds “The Nightmare Before Christmas” which hasn’t stoped producing tween-goths since it tooks its first steps in the merch world. “Alice” has taken eerily similar steps).

I suppose it means that Hollywood could be taking their older female audiences a little more seriously: market research shows that the biggest cinema-goers are between the ages of 16-25 yet we’re given merch for a film that’s clearly aimed at a much more specific audience, perhas indicating that people think promoters think they’re a market that needs to be catered for. On the other hand, I don’t think we need all of this stuff on sale. It would be better to buy something without the labelling on it so it would last longer and not fade into obscurity a few months later when the film finishes its run.

Birmingham: The Booty

25 Aug

Those of you who follow my Twitter will know, or maybe have guessed, that I’ve been away for a few days meaning that I’ve had to just set away my posts on timer rather than actually giving my blog some proper TLC. One trip to Birmingham, UK, and £68 later, this is what I ended up bringing home:

  1. Peacock-embroidered purse from Urban Outfitters: I really badly needed a new purse to hold all of my stuff in so when I saw this in UB I was incredibly pleased. This was the single most expensive item I bought on the trip. But it was worth it
  2. “Head First” by Goldfrapp and Them Crooked Vultures: As a lifelong fan of Goldfrapp I jumped at the oportunity to get this at a marked-down price, and seeing Them Crooked Vultures on the same offer sealed the deal. Expect reviews soon!
  3. Miniature Japanese dolls: These are so kitsch, but I’ve loved these little dollies for a long time. The store was having a 20% off moving sale as well, so it must have been fate. I’ve called the larger, green one Shinto and the smaller, yellow one Kabuki. I know, I’m sad. But who cares? These are so much better than Russian dolls
  4. “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami: Well I first saw this book for cheaper than I paid for it a few weeks ago and was attracted by the mix of manga and photography on the cover. So I judged a book by it’s cover. Who cares? It’s a dark neo-noir tale of suspense, murder and claustrophobia in the seediest areas of Tokyo. And it’s great.
  5. Verbena hand-cream from L’Occitane: L’Occitane are soooo expensive but this was a relative bargain. I love anything lemon-zesty and it gave me an excuse to buy from one of the poshest beauty stores around. Joy!
  6. Ruffled polka-dot shirt and long cream jumper, both H&M: Actually the jumper wasn’t the one I really wanted, but that one was far too large. But I still love this warming jumper that’s got me set for the autumn. Oh and I loved the shirt. I’ve thrown all my other shirts out, so I guess this fills the void.

Well that’s it. I could have bought an awful lot more if I’d wanted to but… I’m just not that much of a spendaholic. Besides, it gives me more money to spend on CDs and DVDs back home. Yay!

Making Austen More Fun

10 Jul

There simply has to be plenty of people out there who were forced to read some novel or other by Jane Austen in their time and found themselves to be extremely bored by the lack of action and the tortoise-like pace (yeah, okay in the last few days I’ve pretty much dissed every book that, due to general profiling, I’m supposed to, but don’t, like. Hey, that’s what blogs are for!).

Well, Austen has had a well-needed 21st century revamp…. well, sort of anyway. Step in Quirk Books and their crack team of co-authors readying to deliver a better sense of when things actually happen into a bunch of novels that have only ever previously delivered on social commentary of the 18th century.

Yes there’s nothing like a bunch of rampaging zombies and a gang of ugly sea monsters to liven up your average Austen day!

Some of you are probably thinking that this is basically the murdering and flogging of two classic novels that didn’t need anything added to it in the first place: well, rest assured, they haven’t actually tampered with the stories that much. For those of us that are familiar with the works of Austen, the co-authors haven’t taken a single element out of the original books: all of the events, trips, marriages, deaths, money troubles and socially awkward situations are still there except this time there’s added danger.

The brilliant thing about these books though is that the extra bits with zombies and sea-monsters written in nearly exactly the same style as Austen, so it still has that 18th century regency feel. I think this gives the books a real edge. In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the battle scenes are interwoven with other elements of the story, and with the added threat of an impending attack by the undead, the events take on a new life.

However, they’re not books I would recommend to younger Austen readers. Better off giving these to teenagers, since there’s a strange level of eloquent ultraviolence added in to them that gives you odd images in your head, not to mention the beautifully drawn yet cartoonish illustrations that are given to some of these scenes. On the other hand, if you were a teacher and had a class full of boys who were forced to learn Austen then you could do a lot worse than use these as an introduction: grab their attention with the violence, point out that very little of the story has been changed, move on to the fact that the depictions of the scenes and some of the characters (e.g. Captain Brandon as a hideous sea monster in Sense and Sensibility) are more graphic representations of the personalities and chracters that Austen depicted as metaphors in the original novels.

More than anything though these books are just good reads that are light and fun for those lazy days or long trips. And that’s the best kind of companion you can have in those situations!

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