Posts from the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category

The Ten Best 100 Best Novel Lists List

In this post I’m going to reveal how many of the books on each list I’ve read and then, by averaging them, come up with a figure for how well read I am.

1. Time – 10

2. The Modern Library – 6

3. The Modern Library – Reader’s List – 19

4. The Modern Library – Radcliffe Rival 100 Best Novels – 14

5. The Best 100 Lists – 28

6. BBC – The Big Read – 24

7. The Guardian/Observer – 11

8. Goodreads – 28

9. The Telegraph – 100 novels everyone should read – 17

10. This Recording – Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels – 29

Total: 186. Divide by 10: 18.6

Therefore I am 18.6% well read. What about you?

Conclusions: I actually own a lot more of the books on these lists than I have actually read – so I need to get around to reading them (Moby Dick, for instance). There’s plenty of others that I don’t own and haven’t read. But I can take some comfort from the fact that I don’t appear to be a complete ignoramus. My score on the sf and fantasy list is a little low – so there’s work there to be done, for sure.

The ‘Jewish Jane Austen’ wins Booker

Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

The Page 99 Test

Apparently, the author Ford Maddox Ford favoured the idea of judging a book that one might read by reading page 99 first. The logic being that it won’t that it will be a good example of the general standard of writing in the book. An article in the Guardian says that there is a web site starting up on which authors and readers will submit page 99s of novels for public perusal.

Page 99 is a completely arbitrary point at which to test the literary waters, but it is an easy number to remember (if choosing a number is too difficult for the prospective reader). It’s also not too far into most books. The Guardian piece says it will be a quarter to a third of the way through most books – make that a fifth to a tenth of the way through a fantasy novel.

Words, words, words, as Hamlet said

On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail:

Covers for the UK edition of Against All Things Ending

I asked Stephen R Donaldson this question:

You’ve answered a couple of questions lately about the cover art of the upcoming US edition of Against All Things Ending, but I was wondering what your thoughts on the UK edition were. It seems to me it’s not as mysterious as the previous two – it’s too clean – almost happy. But I do like the continuation of the elemental theme – forest, mountain, sea. And I much prefer the less representative, more oblique approach of the UK covers.

What do you think?

He answered:

In general, I prefer the UK approach rather than the US one. And in general, I don’t think that the UK “Against All Things Ending” is up to the standard of the previous two books. But have you seen the “revised” UK cover? I’m told that the unrevised version (before both my agent and I screamed) is still floating around on the web somewhere. It makes the book look like a box of laundry detergent. By *that* standard, the revised cover is a huge improvement.

I’d only seen one UK edition cover – the blue one:

I think the laundry detergent cover he referred to was this:

For comparison, the US edition looks like this:

People wouldn’t bully me if I could turn into the Hulk.

This is from an interview with comics legend Alan Moore. I read an excerpt from an interview with him in the latest edition of Ansible. The full paragraph is an interesting critique of the current obsession with superheroes:

I’m interested in the superhero in real life, but not the comic book version. I’ve had some distancing thoughts about them recently. I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be — in their current incarnation, at least — is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth’s lower gravity. That’s not what superheroes meant to me when I was a kid. To me, they represented a wellspring of the imagination. Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about. But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn’t bully me if I could turn into the Hulk.

Source: The Stool Pigeon.

Robert Jordan

James Oliver Rigney, Jr, better known as Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series, died on Sunday 16 September.

Whenever I get on the internet I generally look at three author websites, in this order: stephenrdonaldson.com, georgerrmartin.com, and dragonmount.com/RobertJordan. The two or three times I’ve tried to visit this last site while I’ve been here in Canada – and maybe back in Britain, too, I can’t remember – it hasn’t loaded – and this’ll be why: it’s been far too busy. I was surprised and saddened to see the news, but also annoyed that I hadn’t come across it earlier.

The Wheel of Time is, up to a point, the best post-Tolkien fantasy series. It has an epic storyline of exactly the sort that makes high fantasy high fantasy, the world-building is pretty much second-to-none, and, while Jordan’s character’s aren’t the most diverse or striking, the protagonists have lived on in my mind for the last decade and a half.

Jordan was working on the twelfth and final book when he became ill with amyloidosis and was a long way from completing it. To be fair, the series had gone on too long. The first three books are generally agreed to be the stand-out volumes, but the second three books are a little different (longer, more detailed) but just as good in their own way; book six, Lord of Chaos, is my favourite. After that they started to go downhill. For me, books seven to nine are worth reading, but volume ten, Crossroads of Twilight, was abysmal. The most recent book, Knife of Dreams, was better, but I didn’t much enjoy it – the spark had definitely gone.

Even so, I was still intending to read the concluding volume, A Memory of Light, when it eventually came out. Not just for the sake of completion and not just because of a kind of dogged loyalty to the series, but TWoT still has a place in my affections, and for all the flaws in the latter part of the series it remains one of the best contemporary fantasies.

I don’t doubt that A Memory of Light will see the light of day before too long has passed. David Gemmell’s last book came out recently – a year or so after his death – and Jordan was apparently dictating plotlines during his illness in case of exactly this eventuality. More of a loss, perhaps, is the books he would have written once TWoT was done and dusted. Whether they would have been as good as the early TWoT volumes is another matter, but would have been interesting to find out. We’ll never know. Unless, of course, he rises from the dead to continue his career Virginia Andrews-like, and become not so much an author as a franchise. Probably best if that doesn’t happen.

It’s a real shame that Robert Jordan has died, and also a shame that his reputation as a writer was tarnished by the continuation of his seemingly never-ending story. All stories must end sometime, I suppose – and that’s not just inevitable, it’s completely natural.