Ranting to keep warm

Autumn has suddenly arrived, and I’ve taken to retreating to the duvet with books toward the latter end of the evening (my partner is sailing in the Mediterranean, and sending occasional texts about the heat). But the books – with the notable exceptions of Patrick McGuinness’s The Last Hundred Days and J Robert Lennon’s Familiar – have provided a great deal of snugly satisfaction. They have, however, made up it for: they’ve significantly raised my blood temperature in a sweaty, ranty sort of way.

I am – and I’m hardly unusual in this – a member of a Book Club. The seven of us take it in turns to pick a book for the group to read. With radically different tastes, but a shared willingness to give most books a try, it’s an interesting way of reading authors and books you otherwise would leave in Waterstone’s artful displays. Without it, I might never have read Michael Frayn’s My Father’s Fortune – a wonderful read. But I’m noticing a real trend in the recently published fiction that have been chosen (usually on a ‘not read it myself yet’ basis).

Checklist novels, I think of them as. Like 200 page versions of what PRs call listicles – those soundbite-ish web-based articles that have invented ‘in depth-lite’. Novels that must state their appeal in ten seconds, and state it to an audience who possibly don’t intend to sustain their attention indefinitely longer. Novels written with at least one eye on the film-writes, the interviews, the spin-off articles. Probably headlined along the lines of ‘My private hell with .. {insert issue}’, and possibly conducted with the kind of author who privately sneers at celebs doing the just-left-The-Priory number.

Novels written with that same eye on the zeitgeist: drop the right topics, make the right brand name references, mention the ‘iconic’ recent events, and you’ll turn up in Google searches even if the novel itself wasn’t what anyone was looking for. Novels torn so fresh from the pages of the national press it might be quicker just to read the papers and daydream. It’s almost as if, somewhere unknown to the reader, there’s a specialist warehouse where authors can pick their next book, straight off the shelf, as they hope that we will once it’s published.

Now there’s – with one recent read in mind – a thought …

He padded through the aisles till he found the section that he needed: Contemporary Book Club novels. He was pleased to see there were a number of special offers available – income healthy enough to cut margins meant sales were good. He’d already bought Charlotte their third new kitchen this year, installed in their second new home – or was it their third new home? Maybe he should text Poppy or Tristan – they’d know. Anyway, time to take it easier, he told himself, rolling up the sleeves of his Boden Oxford shirt and pausing to admire his limited edition Breguet chronometer.

He pulled down the kit with the cracked willow-pattern plate design on the box. The plate might give off a hint of lingering cheese, but it also had exactly the “mismatched-plates-are-so-boho-Roger-don’t-you-think?” feel he was after. Not too chick lit – what was it Charlotte had said last night over fondue? Too much chick lit gives you spots, tee-hee? – but not too much to scare Richard and Judy either. A hint of Shoreditch for the reader without ever having to leave Highgate. And the kind of cover that meant you could get a mother to say ‘Fuck’ and it sounded … well, plausible wasn’t exactly the adjective, but it would do. We weren’t talking Sontag here, were we?

He studied the list of ingredients, although he realised he already knew the kind of thing:

·         Two struggling middle-aged couples with awkward children

·         Resentful siblings (mirrored in two generations)

·         Masturbating teenager (male)

·         Dope-smoking ‘free-spirit’ teenager (female  – adapted from the original classic recipe by Françoise Sagan)

·         Pious younger daughter

·         Religious obsession revealed as mask for dark personal secret

·         Country-house setting for ‘huis close’ effect and comedic displacement

·         Professional and emotional difficulties; infidelities (multiple)

·         Controversial sexual fantasising

·         Generous seasoning of brand names and topical references

What had grabbed his eye particularly, made him lower his 1953 Rayban Wayfarers, sourced diligently from a fascinating shop near Camden Passage, was the sticker on the back of the pack. “Special Offer: buy before September and receive a free bonus childbirth deformity story line.” It said.

He rubbed his hands. Might as well pencil the Sunday magazine interviews in now, he thought to himself. At least in third person interior monologue, only the characters get called smug if the author’s touch is light enough …

Except, of course, the ingredients are never the cake. There’s the recipe too, and the craft and skill in the application of the method. The bullet-list above are starting points, not chapter headings: it’s supposed to be a novel, not an essay or a magazine feature. The un-named example above (although I imagine you might be able to guess) tried an artful approach, head-hopping like an amphetamined Virginia Woolf, but still the underlying scaffolding poked through alarmingly. Not content with drawing the kind of character who is effectively summed up by his Boden pyjamas, the character wears them – and the narrator name-drops the brand name when they’re mentioned. I felt I knew as much about the labels inside his nightwear than I did their other contents: not a great deal, essentially. And the handling of the other … er, issues was what we might menu-ise as ‘shallow crust’ too.

At least the book didn’t have ‘Questions to discuss with your Reading Group’ at the back, as if readers are all basically 17 yrs old and need to be set tests to tease out their reasons and reactions. All those years ago, the books I read on the A Level syllabus didn’t come with discussion papers at the end, or bullet lists on the back. There would be an exam, of course: that’s kind of the point of a syllabus. But the books at least felt like they’d be chosen for syllabus after publication, rather than written for it from the outset. And what’s so wrong with books that you want to read and talk about because they’re so good, rather than merely so topical. Sorry for the four letter word but The Mail is topical …

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