Although I like to think of my blog as being reasonably eclectic I have never ventured in to literary criticism. For one thing I don’t read that many novels. But, hey, Christmas is a time to be playful, and a pattern in my recent reading has prompted some questions.
Here are four books I have read in the last year or so:
Solar by Ian McEwan
The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
I know this is a slightly random list and a reasonable question is why these particular books have fallen into my hands. Two were presents, one was a recommendation and I bought the McEwan because I've enjoyed his other work. The list probably says something about the kinds of stuff that interests me, or that people assume will interest me – namely, middle age men facing existential calamity.
It's hardly a surprise that each novel focuses on someone having a crisis, whether of faith, career and money, addiction or sexuality. After all, if the life of a book’s protagonist were happy and ordinary, there wouldn’t be much to write about. My question is why all these books feature such unattractive heroes?
It’s a while since I read the McEwan and Julian Treslove does have some funny lines in the Jacobson, but generally speaking all the books feature characters you would not want to find yourself sitting next to at a dinner party. It’s not just that they are all miserable. None of them are very interesting or wise; their complete self-absorption is only matched by their almost total lack of insight into their true damaged and unappealing character.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed getting to know the central characters in these books (although I thought Solar was well below McEwan’s usual high standard). As a grumpy middle aged man with my own life crises and intellectual insecurities it was great to be able to feel superior. Did the authors get the same pleasure from making the characters up I wondered.
As I say, I am not a literary critic and it may be that I am simply being too superficial in my reading, but together the books leave me with three questions.
First (and if the answer to this is ‘yes’ I guess it invalidates a lot of the post) is it just coincidence that I have read four books by men featuring such unappealing male heroes? Or is this a more common phenomenon?
Second, why is it necessary for the protagonists to be so inadequate as well as so troubled? Don’t intelligent, generous people – even middle aged men - have dramatic life crises? One explanation is that two of the books are explicitly comic and McEwan has created a caricature. But can’t clever people be funny too?
Third, and here my ignorance is even more exposed, are there female equivalents of these works? Before anyone answers ‘chick lit’, isn’t this generally about a younger age group and also a less literary genre?
I asked my PA Barbara this question and she suggested Anita Brookner, but when I pushed her she had to admit that, although Brookner’s protagonists were often sad and lonely, they weren’t generally stupid, self-obsessed or inept.
I have now passed the point of feeling reassured that I am less of a loser than characters like Maxwell Sim or Michael Beard and started to move into despair about men of my age. So just to add some balance and give me a change of literary scenery at Christmas I am looking for a recommendation: a book by a highly rated woman author featuring a middle aged, middle class woman who is not only beset by crisis but is also boorish, inadequate and thick.
Or would such a work simply lack any credibility?