Weekendnotes, April 7-8

On Saturday mornings, Splice rounds up the previous week’s best literary criticism and serves it up to you in a single dish. You didn’t have any plans for the weekend, did you?

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This week’s biggest to-do came in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, where Alex Clark revealed the results of a recent poll to determine “the best British and Irish novelists today”:

a group of 200 or so critics, academics and writers of fiction were asked to supply a list of the ten British and Irish novelists whom they considered to be producing the best writing “at the moment”; the ones whose recent books have been among their most impressive, and whose future work is the most eagerly anticipated. The idea, wrote the Editor of the TLS Stig Abell, was to steer clear of the “tendency to fall back on a group of authors who came to prominence a few decades ago”; the partiality of the results was accepted ahead of time, with the hope that “at the very least” a debate would be stimulated. Here, then, is the beginning of that debate.

Indeed. For the record, in order of those who received the most nominations to those who received the least, the top (eleven?) novelists are: Ali Smith, Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Eimear McBride, Colm Tóibín, Nicola Barker, Alan Hollinghurst, Anne Enright, Sebastian Barry, and Jon McGregor. By “a group of authors who came to prominence a few decades ago”, Stig Abell probably meant the Granta Class of 1983, but still Kazuo Ishiguro is on the list, and the top ten is rounded out mostly by authors who have been labouring away for near on twenty years. Far more interesting and less conventional are the ten runners-up: David Szalay, Kevin Barry, Deborah Levy, Tom McCarthy, Sally Rooney, Kamila Shamsie, Claire-Louise Bennett, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, and Sarah Waters. And Alex Clark’s article on the poll is worth reading in full, since many of the individual responses were more insightful than the aggregate results.

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The rest of the TLS was in top form, too, this week. One of the other highlights is Thomas Meaney’s very judicious review of Upstate, the new novel by the New Yorker critic James Wood:

Upstate is set in the winter of 2007 before Lehman Brothers collapsed. It includes some political dinner discussions when Vanessa and Josh chirp on about the prospects of Barack Obama taking office. We have seen these same kinds of discussion in McEwan’s Saturday and O’Neill’s Netherland, but where both of those authors used such vignettes to look in askance at the opposition to George W. Bush’s wars, Wood forces these scenes into place with the cruel lever of distance: the naivety is laid out like the rest of the dinner spread. It is Vanessa’s crisis of personal belief that is meant to be the novel’s problem, but it is gradually overtaken, as the book unfolds, by both Josh and Alan’s inability to face up to it — a failure of male understanding, perhaps, but one that is moving partly for the sensitivity with which the failing is felt by all the characters. If The Book Against God was Wood’s novel that, in its very telling, confronted a running concern in his criticism — the problem of freedom — Upstate diverts from this problem to the question of individual happiness, and to the most mysterious variety of happiness, family happiness.

This kind of theme might be enough to sustain an entire novel, but the shortcomings of Upstate are a product of the kind of theatricalities that intrude on it; the way that scenes that might have been better if reflected in one of the characters’ minds have been flattened and cheapened by their narration in a kind of standardized omniscience.

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Meanwhile, 3am Magazine made space for Lee Rourke to offer a paean to an altogether more interesting writer, namely Ann Quin, and connects her work to books by other writers including Stewart Home and Samuel Beckett:

Ann Quin, the working-class writer of four novels who went out to swim one morning and never came back. The working-class writer who was ignored by already established reading tastes, who herself ignored the normality of these bourgeois expectations thrown her way, who left these shores to explore and experiment. The working-class writer who left many perplexed, indifferent, and unaware. The working-class writer who taught me never to write what is expected of me as a working-class writer.

The working-class writer who looked outside the burry window. Who was ultimately modern. Who understood our fractured selves and disjointed world.

A working-class writer who is now, after a long time in the darkness, emerging into the light of popular literary interest. A new collection of stories and fragments, The Unmapped Country, expertly curated and edited by Quin scholar Jennifer Hogdson, is causing much delight, curiosity, and excitement.

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And at the end of a week during which Splice has been covering the work of one great Australian novelist, Mark Byron has taken to the Sydney Review of Books to look very closely at Blindness and Rage, the latest book from one of Australia’s other literary masters, Brian Castro (pictured above):

One might conclude this circular narrative satisfied with its denouement, the resolution of time, locale, geography, ancestry, and the dissipation of the title states of emotion into ‘the peace that passeth understanding.’ But is this all there is? An epic poem drowned to counterbalance the baptismal regeneration of its unprepossessing author? If Blindness and Rage is a kind of homage to Pushkin’s epochal novel in verse, and to the genre it engendered, how it responds to the pivot Onegin represents between Romantic poetry and the Russian prose tradition makes Castro’s work a meditation of a different sort. It registers the gallows humour concerning the marginal state of poetry publishing today, but as a mechanism to register a threat of an entirely different order: the existential threat to literary production of any kind.

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Finally, be aware that there’s some great literary criticism available now in the début issue of the Brixton Review of Books.Highlights of the first issue include Marion Rankine on a fictionalised version of Leonora Carrington and Vera Chok on the new novel by Nikesh Shukla. You can’t read the Review online, but happily you can pick up a copy pretty easily — for free at any number of hotspots if you’re in the London Borough of Lambeth, and for a song if you wish to become a subscriber: £10 for four quarterly issues. It’s worth making the effort to get your hands on a copy.

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And away you go! See you back here on Monday…