In the Critics this Week

An American writing special with Elif Batuman, Dave Eggers and Jonathan Derbyshire on David Foster W

In the critics' section of this week's New Statesman, culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire reviews David Foster Wallace's final novel, The Pale King, admiring one of the few novelists to "have taken as seriously ... to obligation to write truthfully about the way in which we live today". This "unfinished, uneven" novel is, both Derbyshire and the late Wallace's editor Michael Pietsch agree, "spectacular". Sophie Elmhirst interviews Dave Eggers and finds him a man whose "resistance to accepting credit is perhaps the sign of someone who feels he has been over-praised ... singled out because of his writerly fame at the expense of unsung grafters". This week's critic-at-large, Elif Batuman, recalls her short-lived experience of creative writing courses, and wonders whether they have "damaged America's literary imagination".

Olivia Laing reviews A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ("an audacious, surprisingly affecting novel-in-pieces"), and David Herman hails a younger generation of Jewish-American writers - work which is "neither pious nor solemn". Our film critic, Ryan Gilbey considers Meek's Cutoff, a film which, directed by Kelly Reichardt, offers a "predominantly female slant on the Western"; whilst TV critic Rachel Cooke writes on The Kennedys, currently showing on the History channel. Confused by its "schlocky terribleness" she wonders why it's so "alluringly awful" - "the writers have piled in every bit of scandal", and this "lust for tabloid completion crowds out nuance, not to mention good writing".

Elsewhere, Andrew Billen visits the Lyttelton Theatre to watch "an overly grand production" of Rocket to the Moon by Clifford Odet. Directed by Angus Jackson, the production is "leisurely", though both plot and characters "struggle to fill" a "beautiful set reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting". Sanjoy Roy watches the Pet Shop Boys' foray into ballet ("a publicist's dream"), which rapidly reveals itself to be "a profusion of styles and cultural references": "it is, in truth, all rather too much", and "choreography seems to largely chase itself around the set". On the radio, Antonia Quirke listens to Bahamas on More 94 FM, concluding that the only entity that can be deemed "incredible" by a Bahamian deacon who "knows that there is very little on earth that defies credibility" is Rihanna.

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How the radio stations reacted to Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize

For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat.

Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature inspired a bewildering gamut of radio responses. At first, proof of his talent was abundantly forthcoming, Andy Kershaw yelling down the line for World at One from a motorway services on the M6 within ­moments of the announcement. (“I can’t understand why they didn’t give this to him 41 years ago!”)

However, a full six days after Talk Radio excitedly reported the event on its home page (“a pivotal part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s”), the online feature has yet to attract a single comment. That’s zero talk. For its part, Radio 1 was too absorbed by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards to mention the proclamation on Newsbeat, though Heart FM firmly quoted the chair of the English faculty at Oxford (“The Tennyson of our time”), and pencil-suckingly dissected lyrics (“Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/ Up the road . . .”).

Is it poetry? Is it literature? You could tell it was doing everybody’s head in. But when, on Radio 4’s Front Row, Billy Bragg praised Dylan for “bringing a literary and poetic thread into pop music”, the argument sounded terribly old.

The whole battle about Dylan being as great a poet as Tennyson is a hangover from an ancient battle, from a time when it actually had to be pointed out that this pop-music stuff can be brilliant and clever. A time when boring people battled for respect and prestige for an obvious genius. Over on Radio 2, Mark Goodier cheerfully played “Tangled Up in Blue” (“Major, major prize for Bob today. If that isn’t a decent excuse to play a song, I don’t know what is”). But by Sunday, on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, the gloves were off and guests were declaring that they couldn’t stand Dylan’s voice (cliché, pathetic).

By Monday Simon Armitage was saying that Dylan’s lyrics had no more sophistication than something composed by a child. Is it poetry? Is it literature? Well, it kind of is. But it kind of isn’t. And it doesn’t matter very much, except to the likes of Dylan – and only a long, long time ago. Now he hardly requires the approbation. The Nobel Committee has given the prize to the one writer in the world who doesn’t need it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood