Monday, September 26, 2011

It's easier to make up a baddie because we're all baddies inside

I read a very good piece by novelist William Nicholson in The Guardian. He was wondering why book publishers have such a resistance to commissioning serious fiction with a hero who is middle class. After all, publishing is the most middle class of industries and its products are bought by almost exclusively middle class customers. Nicholson thinks they're in a life-long denial of who they are.

This coincides with my reading of this year's Man Booker Prize Short List. I've done four so far. The two I've enjoyed, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, are written from the point of view of middle-class males who are not wildly removed from the books' authors. In fact the latter almost reads like a magazine feature about life for a single male British lawyer in Putin's Russia.

I've got on less well with the other two. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is told by a young male urchin engaged by a Victorian collector of animals. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is told by an elderly black American jazz player who spent the years between the wars in Berlin. I didn't actually believe in either of them. And it's not helped by the fact that I know neither author can ever have had anything like the life experiences they describe.

I don't think this is anything to do with the fact that their authors are women. Hilary Mantel certainly made me believe in Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. But maybe that worked because he was such a sinister character. It seems that's what you have to do to make people convincing. One of the reasons Randy Newman ventriloquises so well is that his protagonists are often weak, lustful, grasping and sometimes outright malign. He's perfectly comfortable with admitting that elements of those people are inside us all.

The men (do we still call them heroes?) in the first two Booker books are averagely horny and certainly easily-led. In both cases they don't see what's happening to them. In creating them the authors seem to have revealed plenty about themselves.  That's why I preferred them to the other two where the authors don't.

1 comment:

  1. Authors and songwriters are often faced with the same dilemmas: go down the (disguised) autobiographical route or just invent your characters wholesale. Nick Lowe often says he doesn't set his diary to music, but he knows the people in his songs well.