More Smith-bashing

I’ve been thinking some more about the intensity of my reaction to Ali Smith’s Autumn, about how out of step I seem to be with a majority of Smith’s readers. How can it be that I – who after all have a PhD on one of the most ‘difficult’ writers of the twentieth century – find Smith’s books as sham and vacuous and dull (the worst literary sin of all) as I do when just about everyone else thinks she’s great?

Here’s what I think sometimes happens. A writer comes along who is granted a certain reputation on account of the fact that they are innovative and experimental and eschew conventional storytelling techniques. The writer continues to publish their barely-readable novels and readers and reviewers continue to admire them for their innovativeness, setting aside any considerations of their overall quality as works of fiction. As a result readers now come to those books with a freight of expectation: the writer is successful after all, they have achieved a certain prominence, so their books must be good. The fault, if there is one, must lie in me, in my not being smart enough to penetrate their many layers of subtlety.

You can see this in the Goodreads review of Autumn I quoted in my last post. The review continues as follows: ‘Most likely, I am not the right person to read Ali Smith. Sorry I cannot do better. Or another review from Goodreads: ‘To speak quite frankly, I think Autumn is a novel that is a touch too smart for me to properly wrap my head around.’ Or yet another: ‘I wasn’t sure I was getting it or what Smith was trying to convey, but I enjoyed the ride anyway.’ You can even see this same dynamic at work in the NYT review I quoted in my previous post: ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence.’ (Yeah and you know why it’s hard to grasp all the nuance? Because there is none other than what you unjustifiably attribute to the book.)

I’m not suggesting that readers deliberately lie about their response to Ali Smith. What I am suggesting is that a form of cognitive dissonance is going on, resulting in a kind of collective delusion or socially agreed fiction: this book is good not despite the fact that I can’t make much sense of it but precisely because I can’t make much sense of it.

I should also point out that ‘experimental’ writers were amongst my earliest literary enthusiasms: John Barth, Italo Calvino, Alasdair Gray. Equally there have been avant-garde writers I haven’t had much time for: Georges Perec (experiment for the sake of experiment, in my view) and BS Johnson (a literary cul-de-sac) spring to mind. It’s not the experimentation I object to in Smith, it’s the lack of substance or method or purpose behind it.

I’m currently reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography (unimaginatively titled Born to Run, no doubt at the behest of his publishers) and there’s more wit and cleverness and poignancy and sheer good writing in a single paragraph of Bruce’s book than there is in the whole of Ali Smith’s Autumn. Give the Boss the next Nobel Prize!

Blowing the whistle on Ali Smith

I recall many years ago reading an article by Martin Amis in which he posed the question: when will someone blow the whistle on John Fowles? Now I happen to quite like some of Fowles’ novels, especially The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but I want to ask the same question about Ali Smith, whose latest offering Autumn (shortlisted for the Booker Prize but losing out to the quite brilliant and mesmerising Lincoln in the Bardo) I’ve just finished.

Autumn is the third Ali Smith novel I’ve forced myself to read – a couple of others I’ve abandoned halfway through and flung across the room in sheer frustration and exasperation — bewildered by her success. Do people really enjoy this stuff? Why? Autumn for example is no more than a series of random meditations (or, let’s be honest, random jottings) on a variety of unrelated subjects that seem to have caught her attention in the last year or so, So we have short chapters about: the Brexit referendum (but nothing interesting to say about it), the Christine Keeler scandal of 1963 (ditto), an obscure female painter from the same period, the antiques show Bargain Hunt (here rechristened The Golden Gavel), various other books (A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, The Tempest) and so on. These are strung together on a thin necklace of a narrative about an art history scholar, her mother and their ancient next-door neighbour. What’s the point of any of this?

I imagine Smith’s thinking went something like the following: I’ll cobble together all these disparate random elements and hope they add up to a novel in the end. If they don’t, well, it doesn’t really matter because I’ll write them all in a quirky (for which read silly) style, so people will think I’m being bold and experimental. And I’ll call the book Autumn – though it has precious little to do with autumn other than the odd reference to Keats and a few descriptions of falling leaves – because that way I can make it part of a notional sequence and get three more books out of it. I find myself wanting to ask, like Amis, not just who will blow the whistle on Smith (a regular presence on the Booker shortlist) but how do her books even come to be published at all? If a novice writer sent this stuff to a publisher, it wouldn’t get beyond the slush pile.

The Guardian called Autumn ‘a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities.’ The New York Times calls it ‘the first great Brexit novel’ and ‘this beautiful, subtle work’ while conceding that ‘Sometimes it’s hard to grasp all the nuance, to corral all the unruly strands into a coherence, especially in Smith’s most Woolfian stream-of-consciousness moments.’ Among all the admiring reviews on Goodreads I found only one that came close to replicating my own experience of the book. ‘I don’t know,’ the reviewer writes. ‘I don’t know what to write about Autumn. I don’t even know what I’ve read. What was I supposed to get from this book, what was the purpose? Was it a Brexit novel? I don’t think so… As you can see, I cannot write a coherent review because I did not think the book was coherent either. I cannot say I enjoyed the experience.’ Hear hear to that.

For the record, here’s a short extract from the book’s opening chapter, which should give an idea of the sort of stupid, pointless, drunken style the book’s written in: It is perhaps rather fine, after all, being dead. Highly underrated in the modern western world. Someone should tell them. Someone should let them know. Someone should be sent, scramble back to, wherever it is. Recollect her. Affect her. Neglect her. Lie detector. Film projector. Director. Collector. Objector.

WTF!

The universe of storydom

Where do writers get their ideas from? I wish I knew, I’d be queuing up all night. If my own experience is anything to go by, the trigger or prompt for a story – what Nabokov called the ‘throb’ of an idea – can come from anywhere: something you see, hear, read, think, remember, imagine. It seems beyond conscious control. It simply happens (or, more often, doesn’t).

Take a story of mine, ‘Pasterity’, that’s just been published in a book called Horology, a collection of fiction and poetry on the theme of time. The idea for that story came while watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In the movie the Woody Harrelson character, Gil Pender, finds himself in 1920s Paris, where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali and others. At one point he gives Gertrude Stein the manuscript of his novel-in-progress to read, which she later returns to him with a brief critique.

It was then I had an idea. How much better it would be, I thought, if the roles were reversed, if Fitzgerald, say, gave Gil the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to read and if Gil returned to the present day to find he still had the manuscript with him. More than that, if the manuscript of Gatsby was the only copy that existed and so it had never been published, was lost to posterity. Wouldn’t that be a more interesting plot? How is Gil to restore the manuscript to Fitzgerald? Or perhaps he should publish it himself: Fitzgerald’s vanished masterpiece, miraculously rediscovered. He might even consider passing the novel off as his own.

It wasn’t much but it was enough. Swap 1890s London for 1920s Paris and HG Wells’s The Time Machine for Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, add lucid dreams and premonitory dreams to the mix, find a way of bringing in An Experiment With Time by Wells’s wacky friend, the philosopher JW Dunne, and I might have something. By the time the story was finished it bore little resemblance to Woody Allen’s movie. It was a story in its own right.

I suspect this is how a lot of stories are born, by being bounced off other stories (like the Shakespeare re-imaginings mentioned in my last post or like my own ‘The Book of Ands’, which I bounced off Borges’ ‘The Book of Sand’). The universe of storydom resembles a giant extended brain, with trillions of interconnections between its billions of cells and each interconnection unique.

The long and the short

Most flash fiction, especially the shorter variety (say, 500 words or less), tends to focus on a particular moment in time, a single scene involving just a couple of characters in a narrowly-defined setting. This makes sense: 300-500 words isn’t a lot and you can’t be expected to squeeze a multi-scened story into such a cramped space.

However, I like to go against the grain, to see whether the form can accommodate a longer-style narrative spread over days, weeks, months, even years. For example a story of mine called ‘First’ – runner-up for the 2014 Fish Flash Fiction Prize – tries to tell the story of a whole life by the use of a series of brief annotated headings: Breath, School, Girlfriend, Job, Miscarriage, Affair, Suicide attempt etc.

Along similar lines I’ve just written another short piece which attempts to recount the story of a single day in a character’s life, a sort of micro-Ulysses if you will. No idea if it will be published – inevitably such a story involves more ‘tell’ than ‘show’ – but I’ve entered it for Reflex’s latest flash competition, which comes with a first prize of £1000.

I’ve also recently written two much longer stories, which I’m currently looking for a home for. But at roughly 17,000 words (50 pages) and 8,000 words (25 pages), these will be fiendishly difficult to place, especially the former of these. Fiction that falls between, say, 10,000 and 30,000 words is perhaps the hardest of all to get published (I’ve had two such stories published online, at WriteThis and Long Story Short, but nothing of that length in print). And this is a shame because such stories, once published, can often become classics. For example, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, The Little Prince and A Christmas Carol all come in at under 30,000 words and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis is closer to 20,000. Size isn’t everything.

Returning to the subject of show versus tell, I’m halfway through Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, and am disappointed to find it heavily weighted in favour of the latter. As a result my attention is flagging. Smith is a writer I very much admire – I loved White Teeth and found all three of her other novels enjoyable reads – but my patience is wearing thin with Swing Time.

It’s the story of two mixed-race dancers born in London and the way their lives dip and swirl around each other over the succeeding decades in their own kind of slow-motion dance. For the first hundred pages or so I was firmly onboard – well-observed, smart, wise, Smith can write the socks off most contemporary British novelists – but increasingly it seems to be descending into a more discursive mode, telling rather than showing. This isn’t helped by the book’s weird paragraph structure, where a single paragraph often extends to two or three pages. Why Smith chose to present the book in this way I have no idea – perhaps she wants to be Proust – but it makes things tough for the reader, who longs for a little breathing-space. Needless to say, Swing Time has received ecstatic reviews.

As far as novels I’ve enjoyed recently are concerned, I’d recommend all of the following:

Ian McEwan’s wonderful, magisterial Nutshell, a modern retelling of Hamlet narrated by a foetus.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, another retelling of Shakespeare, this time The Taming of the Shrew (there’s a whole series of these – next on my list is Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest). All Tyler’s novels are terrific and this is no exception, having all her characteristic wit, concision and deceptive simplicity.

Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, anatomising a near-future America riven by social and economic collapse. Demanding at times, it’s still a powerful and brilliant dissection of the zeitgeist.

Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, a short novel set in 1924 and consisting essentially of one long scene between a housemaid (and future writer) and the soon-to-be-married scion of an upper-class family, with whom she’s having an affair. Never previously a big fan of Swift’s, this book won me over.