Sunday, November 27, 2005

Intellectual Phalloplasty

It must be coming up on Xmas, holiday season of self-betterment and self-love, because look,here's the Guardian Best Books of 2005 list. Lots of clever famous writers describing how their stockings will be filled with 4-volume histories of medieval Europe and books on Iraq.
Mmm-hmm. I too delight in poring over endnotes once the turkey has been digested (mainly because the soporific haze they induce aids digestion) but I find this list appalling. For two reasons. Firstly, I'll admit it, I think I could do it better - either as the compiler or one of the selected interviewees (although I'd probably be just as shameless about promoting my friends, but less shameless about name-checking other people on the list) and secondly, because, quite frankly, this is closed-minded intellectual poseury crap. Only Joolz Denby offers an honest picture of her reading that sounds sexy. Everyone else is busy showing off -- reading Orhan Pamuk in the original (and denying they're reading him just because he's in prison -- yeah right, I saw you at all those PEN meetings) or reviving obscure authors.
The snobisme is most apparent in the lack of non-English titles that pervades, and in the genre limitations that float unsubtly around the list like red-pen-wielding Dementors. Even Philip Pullman, the one children's author invited to speak from his ever more pulpity pulpit, has been reading "serious" adult fiction (he's not the one who notes that Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black is, in its inclusion of a medium, at least on the borders of genre fiction). Biography, history, current events, weighty tomes of grown-up writing (mainly historical fiction, satire or heterosexual romance), a few Euro-bigwigs (mention the War! mention the War!), short stories, mainstream poetry… Not a single book on the list that I want to read.
Or make that, not a single writer who persuaded me that I might want to read something. And I read this in the spirit of good cheer and capitalist expenditure that the holiday season is supposed to induce. My aim in the dark days of the year is to die of a surfeit of words, but they have to be good ones. Compelling, inventive, fiery, demanding, excoriating, alive. But the sense I get from this is that books are the new Ferrari, the metrosexual penis extension that you leave casually on the coffee table so that your impressionable young date will remark, "My goodness! You read all three biographies of Shakespeare published this year. How swoony," as you seduce her/him with little-known facts about the Bard that you actually gleaned from Germaine Greer's rant on the Late Review.
Here's the thing: I write book blurbs for publishers and for the TWB website. Do you know how much of the book you have to read to whip up a 150 word souffle about its wonders? None. The back, the table of contents, a paragraph in the middle, maybe the colophon if it has an interesting typeface. If you read reviews (which I do), you can sound erudite on 15 minutes' reading a day (and spend the rest of the time reading comix). So why not be up front about it? Why pretend that a biography of Anthony Burgess excited you more than, say, the last book you read with your kids? Or that PD James paperback you grabbed for the train ride home? Or that celebrity tell-all tawdry ghostwritten biography you couldn't put down (in case anyone saw that you were reading it)?
It's obvious that these lists are an exercise in dumbing down to anyone who reads more than 3 books a year (the best? I can't really remember the last). So why try to disguise that with a huge codpiece made of hardbacks? Undoubtedly, they won't see fit to publish my challenge to their innovation (and children's book-free) list of dullard dullness (mm, yes, I'd love to spend Xmas mornind reading about child soldiers and the invention of fish paste). So I'm posting it here, with the caveat that I'd add Abigail Child's This Is Called Moving (but worry about sounding pretentious, because it's kind of film theory) and the new Kabuki series, The Alchemy (but it hasn't been collected as a trade yet). #1 stocking hope in the book department? Astonishing X-Men: Gifted 2 (now that I have the Serenity book, gotta get me some Joss). #1 book you should put in someone else's stocking this Xmas? The Outlaw Varjak Paw (especially for a snowy Xmas, as the snow scenes are brilliant -- and very real ;)

So yeah, don't watch out for this in the Guardian…
Astonished to see that Guardian Books preserves the division between adult and "young adult" fiction. Nothing in the so-called former has struck me as much as Meg Rosoff's Orange-deprived How We Live Now, a beacon of immediacy and honesty about war (and love) and Geraldine McCaughrean's harrowing and beautiful The White Darkness. Two sequels -- Alison Croggon's The Riddle and S.F. Said's The Outlaw Varjak Paw -- reminded me of the delight and power of ongoing narratives and maturing characters. Writing for young people demands elegance and precision of phrase, which these authors have in abundance. Salt's Earthworks series, publishing emerging and distinguished voices in Native American poetry, is a fantastic, essential endeavour. Each book is differently rousing and compelling; Qwo-Li Driskill's Walking with Ghosts stands out for its combination of in-your-face protest politics and tender, sensual language.

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