Faulks on Fiction and We Had It So Good

The fundamental aspect of telling stories.

Faulks on Fiction, Sebastian Faulks
BBC Books, 384pp, £20

We Had It So Good, Linda Grant
Virago, 352pp, £14.99

There have been all kinds of demands made on the novel, in terms of what it should be ("the one bright book of life") and do ("lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness"). But such demands always have a point of origin (both of those come from D H Lawrence). Saying what the novel should do is merely a formal way of saying what we would like it to do. We must justify our preferences if they are to become principles.

Sebastian Faulks wants to say that the novel thrives on creating characters from thin air, and so he kicks off his new book - a TV tie-in - with a spirited if not exactly eloquent attack on biographical criticism. He believes that the New Criticism, the anti-Romantic approach on which he was "raised", offered an "essentially sound way of approaching a novel". In the best-known New Critical statement, "The Intentional Fallacy", the American literary critic William K Wimsatt and the philosopher Monroe C Beardsley argued that "the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art". They did not say the success and meaning, but they intended to (whoops!). Wimsatt and Beardsley say that "it would seem to pertain little" to "Kubla Khan" to know that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had read an account of the American South by the naturalist William Bartram: "There is an action of the mind which . . . melts away context."

Sixty years on, with New Criticism long dead, biographical criticism is apparently in its "terminal stage", with "speculation and gossip" the "default mode" of newspaper reviews and book clubs. Faulks is here to kill it off - and some other things, too. He jumps from promoting anti-biographical criticism to dismissing "the semi-autobiographical fictions of the 1960s and 1970s", the authors of which neglected "the novelist's ability to invent".

He also fails to distinguish between finding the real-life roots for details in novels and bringing to bear on the reading of novels useful pieces of biographical information - connecting, say, the knowledge that Muriel Spark studied précis-writing and the fact that her novels (including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which Faulks discusses) contain a great deal of précis.

I'm not sure how Faulks squares his polemic with such formulations as (in the chapter on Notes on a Scandal) "Zoë Heller told me . . ." - or with his decision to include characters based on Damien Hirst and D J Taylor in his own most recent novel. Faulks frequently commits another crime against "objective criticism", the "affective fallacy", whereby the reader's passionate response obscures or contorts the work itself. But contradiction between theory and practice is the least of this book's flaws.

It might even be considered a strength, given the faiblesse - as Faulks might put it - of the theory. Faulks says he will discuss characters "as if they were real people" and "without reference to their authors' lives". But if you approach created characters as if they were real people, it is not authors' lives you are ignoring: it is their books. Instead, what Faulks on Fiction offers is 27 personal and often informative synopses of novels in terms of a character (Jim Dixon, Mr Darcy, Jeeves, Fagin) who represents an English archetype (hero, lover, snob, villain). It is rare to complain that a reading of a novel is not as blinkered as you would have liked, but Faulks's chapters do contain a lot of bloggish rambling.

Most of the time, Faulks mixes shot-in-the-dark literary history with unsubstantiated critical comment. So Great Expectations "probably comes as close as anyone in Britain contrived in the 19th century to the perfect novel", while Emma (1815) "comes as close" to perfection "as any novel in English". The most frequent sight in the book is of an author out of his depth. "After a period of absence from the serious novel," Faulks writes, "the hero re-emerged in 1949 - or rather, in Nineteen Eighty-Four." Both Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson remind him of Philip Roth. In a bewildering digression about narrative in the 20th-century novel, he uses "story" and "plot" interchangeably; even Forster, in his prelapsarian Aspects of the Novel, managed to make a distinction (plotted events are causal and not just chronological). Of literary fashion, Faulks claims that it "is right about as often as it is wrong". What could he possibly mean by "right"?

And here he is, writing about modernism after 1918: "Some postwar 'stream-of-consciousness' novels look with hindsight like a desperate attempt to locate value internally, because to claim significance in one's outer life was to overlook, or worse, dishonour, the fact that whole factory floors, football elevens and years of college freshmen were buried entire, side by side, in the mud." How this "outer" fact didn't affect people internally, Faulks doesn't say.

When Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, the prince replies: "Words, words, words." And he is not just being impudent. But Faulks dwells on "language" only when writing about a "stylist", such as Martin Amis - as if other novelists got by perfectly well without the stuff. Faulks is good on etymology, but he has no feeling for nuance, ambiguity or wordplay. He recognises that the title of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty refers to aesthetics (Hogarth's "ogee curve") and the male body (the curve of a man's back), but not to the book's other central concerns - drugs (a line of cocaine) and literature (an elegant sentence).

He seems to think that the revised ending of Great Expectations is a mistake: "by no means a disaster . . . but true lovers of this book will,
I think, always prefer Dickens's own first instincts". Those first instincts resulted in a "perfect . . . sad . . . merciless and unyielding" ending, in which Pip bumps into Estella on Piccadilly and, "very glad" to have had the encounter, reflects afterwards that her face, voice and touch "gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be". This was changed, in response to his friend Bulwer-Lytton's dissatisfaction, to a meeting between Pip and Estella at Satis House, and as they leave the "ruined place" Pip says: "I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

Yet the ending is not really so happy, merciful or yielding an alternative. The use of "ruined" - literally, fallen - alludes to the Garden of Eden, and Pip and Estella's departure recalls Adam and Eve making their "solitary way" at the end of Paradise Lost, which is hardly auspicious. Throughout the book, Pip mediates between his younger perspective and his wisdom at the time of writing, and he encodes, within a happy-ever-after ending, fears of Miss Havisham's continuing influence on Estella which the earlier ending unequivocally denied.

It doesn't help Faulks's reading that he uses the 1861 wording, "I saw the shadow of no parting from her", rather than the more commonly printed 1862 wording, in which "another parting from her" means "a further break-up" and "the memory and influence of another person - Miss Havisham - leaving Estella for good". Say what you like about gossip, but context is always illuminating.

It is words that fail Linda Grant, or she that fails words, in her novel We Had It So Good. (At least Faulks expresses embarrassment over his BBC-enforced title.) The book has a great deal in common with the two noisiest literary books of last year, Amis's The Pregnant Widow and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and two bestselling books from the previous year, David Nicholls's One Day and Faulks's A Week in December. It is a baby-boomer saga that travels from the age of LSD and the Beatles through the Clinton years and stops just before the fall of Bernie Madoff.

Those last two characters feature in the book, one in a cameo role as the charming young man "Clinton of Univ", the other as an offstage, not-yet-discredited investor ("it was hard to get into his fund"), sure to keep a supporting character rich into old age: "he has had perpetual good fortune - he always will, with his man in New York". Grant also exploits her advantage of hindsight to give her protagonist foresight - and the reader a nudge. In the early 1970s, Stephen Newman, a Californian Jew, feels "convinced that Britain would eventually become a coffee-drinking nation". Stephen, being American, thinks only about the future.

"The past is bullshit, believe me. That's what's wrong with this whole damned place."
“No, Europe."

The novel acquiesces in this view of things.

It is also a carnival of solecisms - irrational grammar and punctuation, mismatches of singular and plural, failures of tone and point of view, sound clashes, image pile-ups. How can a street be an archipelago? How can baking be both alchemy and voodoo? How can "long-dried-up tears" form a river? When Grant writes "the words you could use with anyone but a lover", she means words that you don't use only with a lover (sex-words); when she writes, in an Oxford scene, that Stephen would turn his head "at a sight so bizarre, even in California", she means a sight that would be bizarre even in California, the conditional thought missing that rather important conditional verb.

Occasionally Grant achieves the perfect solecism, whereby the resulting meaning is the exact opposite of the intended meaning: "In the kitchen Stephen failed to develop an interest in baking, as his father had feared." Then there is this, from the point of view of the father, Si: "His own parents, he said, had been turned back from Ellis Island, diseased with tuberculosis, the chalk cross on their backs crucifying them . . . He never saw his mother and father again, or spoke of them. Stephen grew up knowing all this." If Si "never spoke of" his parents again, then how did Stephen grow up knowing all this? And why does the first sentence begin "His own parents, he said"? As for the nonsensical crucifixion image, this is apparently the work of a writer "from whom", one reviewer says, "no metaphor ever feels forced".
As a piece of narration, the book is scrappy and unfocused. As a novel of ideas, it is ham-fisted:

What does the past matter? Stephen thought . . .
"She's stayed true to the Sixties, I suppose."
“It's a shame the Sixties didn't stay true to us."

By way of a historical narrative, it is tricked out with every possible gimmick, as well as such sentences as: "She found an advertisement in the Guardian for researchers to work on BBC science documentaries for the Open University." And what about Faulks's chosen aspect of the novel? Well, Grant's characters exist to embody decades or continents, and their outsider perspectives - the American man abroad, the Englishwoman abroad - are described in the most superficial, unfamiliar-cuisine terms.

Yet the book is gripping. Grant throws in just enough improbable turns (Stephen's wife becomes shrink to everyone), proleptic hints (we know a leading character will die) and soapy subplots (Bosnia, the 7 July attacks) to help us through the sludgy prose. Telling a story is another thing the novel does: Forster called it "the fundamental aspect". And, whatever her other shortcomings, Linda Grant has the knack.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.