Fully booked: fans queue outside Waterstones on Piccadilly for a book-signing. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Eyes on the prize: a brilliant satire of the Booker set

A novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough.

Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author 
Paul Ewen
Galley Beggar Press, 297pp, £11

The role of novelists has changed immeasurably. They once existed to provide truth and insight into human existence, but the actual writing part now appears secondary. Instead, today’s writer is expected to be a plugged-in social networker, a raconteur who can put middle-class posteriors on folding seats at festivals and win entirely arbitrary prizes funded by investment and communications companies. Often they are paid solely in cheap, warm wine and tiny morsels of food.

New independent publisher Galley Beggar Press understands the absurdity of basing a business on personalities and trend-guessing, having achieved unexpected success recently with Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, an experimental novel previously rejected by major publishing houses. Perhaps this is what has drawn Galley Beggar to Francis Plug, Paul Ewen’s hilarious account of the lonely lives of authors. It is a novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough; those who insist on “following Mickey Mouse back to the changing rooms to smell the sweat of the red-faced puppeteer”.

If you have ever spent a summer directing furtive punters to the towering pile of 50 Shades of Grey – not because you work in a bookshop but because you are doing signings of your own – then you’ll know how soul-destroying such promotional obligations can be. So I’ve been told.

With the deliberately dull title of London Pub Reviews, the London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen’s debut novel was a collection of outlandish vignettes by a totally unreliable narrator. In the new book Ewen cranks up his deadpan satirical style through one Francis Plug, and catches a vast array of contemporary Booker prizewinners in his firing line. Plug is a memorable and disturbing comic creation, a perpetually drunk and deluded gardener with zero social skills. He lives alone; he loves whisky. Sometimes he carries with him excrement collected from the Mall (“special delivery from the Queen’s horses”) to use as fertiliser. He is a wonderful host.

Plug’s commitment to his own literary career is perversely admirable: rather than waste his time writing, he trawls book signings and festivals to glean tips from a cast of “real” Booker winners on how to be “a public author” for a book that he is clearly never going to complete. However, he does contemplate inserting a singing squid into his non-fiction text so that it can sit next to Plath and Poe in the fiction section.

Ewen actually went to these events, in character as Plug, and has the signed books to prove it. That he survived this picaresque autograph-hunt through bookshop back rooms, bars and Hay-on-Wye tents without being incarcerated, sectioned or severely beaten was lucky. For Plug is the carrier-bag-toting fan that all writers fear; and his banal, Pooteresque eye for detail and ear for scathing one-liners are memorably poetic.

A S Byatt’s face, we are told, resembles “an illustrated personification of the wind”. Howard Jacobson has “big frizzy hair, as if his head were a cushion and the stuffing has been pulled out of a tear in his scalp”. And V S Naipaul, who “says some really crazy things, and yet is still held up in esteem”, has “lightly oiled hair that resembles a glistening fish pulled from the sea and caught beneath the dazzling sun”. In a particularly fanciful episode, Julian Barnes ends a tedious theatre talk by ascending to the rafters by wires, his elbows pistoning “like chicken wings” before his head falls off, and then “out of his neck protrudes a fountain of confetti, and the crowd erupts in applause”.

Suffice it to say that Plug is a cipher for an utterly surreal critique of the Booker Prize. Novelists certainly have form in satirising the world they reluctantly inhabit. Earlier this year, Edward St Aubyn explored the machinations behind a major literary prize in Lost for Words – but this was a book for those au fait with the circuit. Plug is for the genuine outsiders and he pricks the pompous literary bubble with aplomb.

What Ewen’s subjects will make of these imagined meetings is anyone’s guess. Will Peter Carey, for one, remember the man who turned up at his reading wearing a Camden street bin in homage to Ned Kelly’s armour? As the novel concludes with a near-literal cliffhanger in the belly of the beast – the London Book Fair – Ewen’s dissection of literary life becomes almost too painful to watch. And as a result this might just be a modern comic masterpiece.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” is published by Bluemoose Books (£12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.