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17 October 2010

Sonnets

An article by Don Paterson in yesterday's Guardian is a shameless plug for his new book on Shakepeare's Sonnets. An awful, awful piece of writing that took prime location in the review, it's created a flurry of comments which reverse the usual position: usually, the inarticulacy and ineptness of the commenters makes you realise how rare good writing is. Here, despite the inarticulacy and ineptness, you feel they're right: Paterson is madly wrong.

First, he raises and conclusively answers the non-question "Was Shakespeare gay?". A host of comments rightly say that this is anachronistic: the category gay is of our time, not Shakespeare's. This is damaging because he does depend on a biographical approach, and flirts with the questions of who the real people encoded in the sonnets are.

But what's worse, and which only a few comments directly refer to, is the writing. Right from the start:
The problem with reading Shakespeare's sonnets is the sonnets themselves, by which I mean their reputation.
Well, if that's what you mean, why not say so? It's just a lame attempt at a verbal trick. And if there isn't a typo in the next quote, I wish there was:
Here is not the place to elaborate, but suffice to say that the square of the sonnet exists for reasons which are almost all direct consequences of natural law, physiological and neurological imperatives, and the grain and structure of the language itself.
I suppose the "square" might be a reference to the shape of a sonnet on the page. But the rest of it, including the deathly "suffice to say", doesn't make me want to visit the place where all is elaborated.

11 October 2010

Fun with bad books

After an unexplained pause, I return to The Confession of Katherine Howard to look at how critics and theorists can find pleasure in books that aren't good for reading for pleasure, which I'm boldly calling "bad books".

I didn't much enjoy Katherine, and in some ways the fact that I did begin to analyse it critically almost as soon as I started reading it is symptomatic of that. The reasons for my lack of enjoyment are probably partly clear from what I've already written. The manipulation was too obvious, the shifting focus of the narrative made an unsatisfying whole, and there were some instances of sloppy writing/editing. There are other reasons: I don't think I've yet mentioned that the "bad mother" motif cropped up again; and I don't have the interest in historical fiction or the specific subject of this book that would grasp a reader who did.

So, two kinds of reasons for not liking it: those that seem to be inherent in the book itself, and those that depend on my background, experience and preferences as a reader. Can we classify these reasons so clearly? It goes against the grain to say that something can be inherent in the book itself but at the moment I can't find a better way to put it. On the other hand if I had been a "good reader" - ie someone disposed to like this sort of thing - I'd probably have not found the portents & omens so glaring. In this encounter (Brian v Katherine) I'm a bad reader and it's a bad book. Which suggests that, given a good reader, it could be a good book.

So, with that understood, let's agree that for the purposes of this discussion, it's a bad book. (I do feel bad about that, Suzannah, and I wish I could be bothered to find a less harsh way of putting it.) Nevertheless, it's given me a lot of enjoyment, or fun. Bad books can be fun.

First for the reviewer. I imagine many regular book reviewers must love it when they get a new book by a well-known but not very powerful writer, and find it's bad. What fun to point out the awkward sentences, the inconsistent characterisation, the factual errors! Even better if you've a score to settle. Understandable, but should be resisted. I haven't stated this openly (or indeed thought it through) but the main purpose of a review must be to give the reader enough information for them to know if they are likely to enjoy the book. That's pretty much what I tried to do with my outline review of Katherine. But it has to include some concession that the reviewer may, in this case, be a bad reader.

And then what fun for a theorist. Some months ago in this blog I covered a self-published book I had bought from the writer who was door-to-dooring it. What was striking was the absence of artifice in that narrative. It was a brilliant book for the purpose of considering what we normally expect a novel to look like. Katherine is a bit like that. Because it showed some of the construction lines, it led me to thinking about portents and omens as a way a novel controls the release of information. I may in time change that model. I certainly think I need to change the names. But it's been fun, it really has.

I suspect the real challenge for theorists is to analyse the best books - which I guess must mean the books that most people are good readers of - and to show how they achieve it. Maybe that's why a lot of theorists don't attempt it. Maybe that's why a book like The Last Man can attract so much theoretical interest.