“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On Intelligent Reading

I had an interview with Howard Jacobson published today in the Irish Examiner, in which he speaks of intelligent reading as a dying art, which put me in mind of John Boland’s review of SLAUGHTER’S HOUND a few weeks ago in the Irish Independent. At the time, I mentioned that John didn’t much care for SLAUGHTER’S HOUND; and it should go without saying, although I’ll say it anyway, that John is as entitled as anyone else to dislike any book; moreover, being a reviewer commissioned to express his opinion, he is duty bound to say so as honestly as possible.
  In fact, all Three Regular Readers of this blog will know that I have for some time been an advocate for a more rigorous quality of review when it comes to crime and mystery writing, and the review in the Irish Independent certainly provided that. Not only was the reviewer afforded plenty of space, the review itself was quite detailed. Having established that the protagonist, Harry Rigby, is inherently implausible on the basis that he is both capable of thuggish violence and a basic grasp of poetry and philosophy, John concludes as follows:
“Indeed, more persuasive is the response of teenage Grainne, who midway through the book tells Harry: “You’re a horrible human being” -- a judgment the reader had already made after noting the abuse he had just meted out to his ex-partner and to the troubled son he professed to care about.
  “There’s no reason, of course, why the principal character of a book has to be endearing or even likeable (Richard Stark’s icily amoral killer, Parker, comes to mind), but there’s no indication here that the author finds his vengeful anti-hero inherently repellent or that he wants the reader to judge him in any negative way.
  “Matters aren’t helped by the fact that every single other character is just as aggressively unpleasant. The result is as bleak a picture of contemporary Ireland as you’ll encounter -- though undermined by the reader’s sense that the author has nothing interesting to say about such an Ireland and that it’s all merely being served up for lurid thrills. On that level, the book is brutally efficient.” - John Boland, Irish Independent
  Now, I’m not going to suggest that John Boland’s overall verdict on the book is wrong. That is his opinion, as I say, and given that I review books myself, it would be hypocritical of me to engage in special pleading on behalf of my own. I am, however, going to suggest that he misread SLAUGHTER’S HOUND.
  The word ‘abuse’, for example, is a loaded one, particularly as John uses it to set up his claim that the reader will have already judged Harry Rigby a ‘horrible human being’ by the time young Grainne delivers her verdict. The word ‘abuse’ often comes prefaced with ‘domestic’, ‘emotional’, ‘psychological’ or even ‘sexual’, whereas Harry Rigby is guilty of engaging in bitter arguments with his ex-partner, Denise (she is his ex-, after all), arguments Harry invariably loses given that Denise is smarter and more pragmatic. As for his son, Ben, the ‘abuse’ there consists of verbal tough love when Harry discovers that 12-year-old Ben is indulging in substances not appropriate for any 12-year-old. Certainly, Harry Rigby will win no prizes for sensitivity. A ‘horrible human being’, on the other hand, would simply walk away from complex emotional scenarios rather than try to engage with them in his clumsy, inarticulate way.
  Grainne’s judgment of Harry, incidentally, as a ‘horrible human being’ may well be true by the time it is delivered, by which point Harry has been well and truly slapped around by life; it’s as true a judgement as when she tells him, some pages later, “Fuck, you’re cold.” The crucial line in the book follows on directly from this comment, when Harry says, “I wasn’t born this way.” By this point, squeezed on all sides and physically and emotionally drained, bent out of shape by forces beyond his control and trapped in a vice between cops and ex-paramilitaries, it’s perhaps understandable that Harry Rigby has little time for the social niceties.
  But the crux of the review, I think, and the misreading, comes with John’s assertion that, “there’s no indication here that the author finds his vengeful anti-hero inherently repellent or that he wants the reader to judge him in any negative way.”
  SLAUGHTER’S HOUND is not about my finding Harry Rigby inherently likeable, or about providing a scenario in which readers might judge him in a positive way. A character is a product of his or her story, just as a person is a product of his or her time and place, their culture and society. If Harry Rigby is perceived as inherently repellent and negative, then I’d suggest that he becomes that way as a result of his experiences, most of which impact on him personally in a negative way. He wasn’t, as he says in one of his few sentimental statements, born that way.
  The author has nothing interesting to say about a bleakly pictured contemporary Ireland, reckons John, but he may have misread Harry Rigby: by turns thuggishly violent and capable of poetry and philosophy, of sentimental self-pity and delusion, of self-wounding hypocrisy, a desperate, ruined figure who finally erupts in a terrible rage when he is systematically stripped of all hope, he is intended as a symbol for modern Ireland in these benighted times. I certainly didn’t aim for ‘lurid thrills’ when writing the book, but then, any book belongs as much to its reader as it does to its writer, and perhaps I simply didn’t write it well enough to clarify such issues.
  All of which is a (very) roundabout way of bringing me to that Irish Examiner interview with Howard Jacobson. Well, it was ostensibly an interview, but given that his new book, ZOO TIME, is a black comedy about a failing writer, with which yours truly was able to empathise with a little more than I’d like to admit, the interview pretty much amounted to a series of increasingly entertaining digressions about the state of writing and reading today.
  At one point the notion of a character’s ‘likeability’ came up, this in the context of one of ZOO TIME’s themes, the slow death of the intelligent reader.
To wit:
Winning the Booker Prize has not mellowed him, nor changed his unfashionable view — which gets hilarious treatment in ZOO TIME — that intelligent reading is a dying art.
  “If you’ve ever been invited to a book club reading,” [Jacobson] says, “you’ll have encountered this notion about the hero being ‘likeable’. People saying that they can’t identify with the hero. Likeability?” He rears back, as if startled. “What is this? Where did this come from? I don’t remember this when I was first writing books.
  “Certainly, when I was a young man reading books, ‘likeability’ was not a criterion. Or ‘identifiability’. In fact, non-identifiabilty was a criterion. ‘I am not Raskolnikov, therefore I am interested in Raskolnikov.’ You used to read to experience something that was not you. Now it’s a complaint.”
  For the rest of that interview, which is published today in the Irish Examiner, clickety-click here

5 comments:

Johnson said...
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derekflynn said...

Excellent post, Declan. I agree wholeheartedly with you (and Jacobson) as regards the “likeability” of characters. I did an interview with Claire Kilroy recently and we talked about this issue. If I can quote her, I thought she hit the nail on the head, when she said, “I don’t do sympathetic characters, which seems to be, for some reason, a real requirement of a novel. My favourite novel is Lolita which is narrated by a paedophile. I think it’s possibly the greatest novel ever written but a paedophile is not a sympathetic character.”

This issue is an increasing problem for aspiring writers, I think, because if you’re going to write something that’s original and multi-faceted (as you have attempted to do), there’s a chance that your main character may not be sympathetic. But these aspiring writers are met with a brick wall from agents and publishers, who tell them that their characters aren’t sympathetic enough. It’s seems to me the only solution to this is that more writers continue to attempt to deconstruct this fallacy and that more readers (hopefully) vote with their feet and show that people DO want to read about multi-faceted, troubled, contradictory individuals (as we all are, in fairness) rather than “cookie cutter” characters.

Declan Burke said...

Thanks, Derek; and yes, the trend towards 'cookie cutter' characters who adhere to expectations is a bit of a pain. I can only say that I like to read about characters who are a little rough around the edges and don't conform to expectations, and as a result I think I'll always write characters like that too. I can fully appreciate Claire Kilroy's attitude - most of the central characters of my favourite novels are not 'likeable' by any stretch of the imagination.

Cheers, Dec

Richard L. Pangburn said...

I read the other day that the industry's efficency experts are saying that detective novels should be edited so as to make all locations generic, and that detectives should be likewise stripped down so that more people can identify with them. This, to booster sales in Bangkok and other far-flung places with economic impact.

lil Gluckstern said...

I still feel that Harry is one of the most poignant and "human" characters I've read. I resent cookie cutter characters and plots because I feel that the author is treating the reader with-shall we say-less than respect. Or I just like flawed-read real-characters. I am not as kind to reviewers as you you are. I don't like when they write something that says how clever they are, rather than talking about the book.