Here, there is no hand-wringing about the death of the book

A Little History of Literature and How to Read a Novelist.

A Little History of Literature
John Sutherland
Yale, 288pp, £14.99

How to Read a Novelist
John Freeman
Corsair, 384pp, £8.99

A Little History of Literature, which begins with Beowulf and ends with bestsellers, is primarily a guide for teenagers, and John Sutherland brings to the vast and unruly subject some order, clarity and commonsense. Like Dr Johnson, he enjoys the chance to “concur with the common reader”, and the common reader – addressed as though he or she were a bright-eyed Candide rather than a dead-eyed nihilist – will doubtless concur with Sutherland’s views on the joys of genre fiction, the value of what Orwell called “good-bad books”, the analogy between Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and the lyrical ballads of Bob Dylan, and the virtue of good film adaptations, such as the 1992 version of The Last of the Mohicans, which “complicates our response to the original novel”.

There is no hand-wringing about the death of the book; Sutherland remains optimistic –“and with good reason” – about the place of ebooks and the future of reading. Nor does he bewail the popularity of the fan-fiction websites that gave us Fifty Shades of Grey, and where Harry Potter and Jane Austen obsessives share their own spin-off tales. These forums for the common writer revive a form of storytelling that, like the Odyssey, “is not commissioned, nor is it paid for, nor is it ‘reviewed’, nor is it bought. It is not, as the term is usually applied, ‘published’.”

“Fanfic” is part of an evolving online republic in which writing is not a commodity but a “conversation”, and Sutherland himself adopts an easy conversational gait as he leads the nation’s youngsters, Pied Piper-like, away from their iPhones and into a written world from which he hopes they will never return. There are some good jokes along the way: Oepidus kills Laius at the crossroads in a fit of “road-rage”, the muse is a “mean employer” who provides “inspiration but no cash”, and religion in the age of Shakespeare was “literally a burning topic”.

There are two million volumes of so-called literature in the vaults of the British Library and Sutherland’s problem is the same as the one he ascribes to Laurence Sterne with Tristram Shandy: how to pack everything necessary for the journey that the book is about to take, when you have ten times more clothes than suitcases. Some essentials have to be left behind. First in go myth, epic and tragedy; comedy is excluded but then Sutherland finds humour in everything. Instead of sensation novels, such as Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, there are enjoyable discussions of “proto novels” – like Cervantes’s Don Quixote – where we “feel a novel trying to get out”, and of “novels about novels” – such as Tristram Shandy –which make it hard for the reader to get in.

Wisely perhaps, Sutherland does not allow sex on this particular trip, which might explain the absence of D H Lawrence. Nor does he bring along Freud’s “discovery” of the unconscious; but then, as Freud himself conceded, the writers had got there first.

Singled out for special attention are Johnson, Jane Austen, Dickens and Hardy rather than Trollope, George Eliot, Henry James or James Joyce. Space is given to Romanticism (but not the Gothic), modernism (but not postmodernism), to literature of the absurd, confessional and war poetry, as well as magical realism. Digressions into copyright law, the history of the book, prize culture and colonialism (Sutherland suggests that only “great” nations produce “great” literature) give the book an extra dimension.

Critically speaking, Sutherland is old-fashioned but schools of criticism are not mentioned here; apart from Dr Johnson, the nation’s schoolmaster, the most significant critic referred to is “our English teacher in the classroom”. Despite his respect for the words-on-the-page approach, Sutherland goes for potted biographies and plot summaries rather than close readings. “Great literature never makes things simpler” he reminds us, and if I have a gripe with his laudably democratic approach it is that he makes reading seem too simple.

He quotes Sartre’s contention that novels “are machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world”, and it would be good to see more of these meanings unlocked and to watch Sutherland demonstrate the difference between a meaning and a spurious meaning, or a line of good poetry and a line of “crud”. At the same time as he warns us that literature “gives no easy answers to difficult questions”, he makes reading seem as easy as a soak in the bath.

That reading can be a high-risk activity becomes apparent in How to Read a Novelist, conversations between the former Granta editor John Freeman and 55 (mostly American) writers, from Toni Morrison to Jonathan Franzen. For Freeman, reading is “a challenge but there is pleasure in the challenge”, while “the best writing is always difficult to do”. In his introduction, “U and Me: the Hard Lessons of Idolising John Updike”, he describes how his own reading lesson began with Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Before long, Updike had become less a pleasure than a mania. Freeman “traced” his own life over Updike’s, leaving New York, as Updike had done, to live with his girlfriend in a clapboard house in New England, where he found his “relationship immolation” repeating those of Updike’s characters. He worried that the shelves loaded with Updike editions might collapse and smother him in his sleep; he then sold the collection to pay for a wedding ring. The marriage failed and on the day his divorce was finalised Freeman found himself interviewing the great man himself and confiding in him about the break-up.

Why not? Updike had, after all, been a part of the relationship. Freeman’s assumption of intimacy apparently made Updike unhappy: “John”, his publicist explained, was “old school”. There is, Freeman learned, a wrong way to read: literature does not provide “vicariously learned solutions” to our own personal problems.

Sound familiar, common reader? Nicholson Baker covered similar ground in “U & I”, his own account of the neurosis induced by Updike idolatry. Freeman doesn’t mention Baker’s essay but the homage is there in the title of his chapter. Is this a version of fanfic – or have I misread it?

Frances Wilson’s books include “The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth” (Faber, £10.99)

"Great literature never makes things simpler". Image: Getty Images.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

BBC/ ITV Cradle Ltd/Matt Squire
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses