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

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era