Commentary - The rise of the literary jukebox

Need a title for a new book? Look no further than your record collection. ByGraham Bendel

Nowadays, if a young writer really wants to make waves, he'll need more than just a pen. The market requires that little bit more - a large record collection, for instance. Music and literature have always enjoyed a symmetry, right back to the days when Paul McCartney sang about his wish to become a paperback writer. But more than ever, as the boundaries of popular culture merge, and art becomes increasingly homogeneous, bookshelves are beginning to resemble literary jukeboxes, if the titles of many recent books are anything to go by.

For a start, we've had Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero, originally a song by Elvis Costello, and Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, also borrowed from an Elvis Costello song. (Incidentally, Hornby's About a Boy is an alteration of the Nirvana track "About a Girl".) The Canadian Douglas Coupland called one of his novels Girlfriend in a Coma, originally a song by The Smiths; and, with Generation X, did Coupland invent another canny media soundbite, or was he merely toasting the singer Billy Idol's first band? William Sutcliffe's Are You Experienced is certainly more than a nod and a wink to the eponymous Hendrix track. More recently, Mike Gayle's My Legendary Girlfriend took its title from a Pulp song. Then there was Martin Amis's Dead Babies, a classic dirge by Alice Cooper.

As publishers compete for ever-shorter attention spans, eagerly attempting to charm a new breed of semi-literates, pop references are an obvious ploy. They work as long as you choose something that is not terminally uncool, such as anything by, say, George Formby or Acker Bilk, which can only damage the reputation of a young, cutting-edge writer. Backpacking in Thailand, leery gangsters and full-scale incest call for something a bit more dynamic than "When I'm Cleaning Windows".

The twisted American writer Dennis Cooper and the playwright Patrick Marber both hit the right note, it seems, by appropriating the title of Joy Division's revered second album, Closer, for their own work. A cheek? Well, Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide aged 24, was himself an avid reader, and his work was rich in literary allusion. His song "Atrocity Exhibition" was just as much an acknowledgement of the darkness of J G Ballard's novel of the same name as it was a symptom of his own implacable depths.

None of this is new. For decades, bands have selected their names and songs through the library process. Soft Machine, the 1960s experimental band, came to us courtesy of a William Burroughs novel; Genesis via . . . well, the Old Testament. Naturally, Steppenwolf was "Born to be Wild" because of Herman Hesse; The Fall's name came from Camus (just as Nicholas Blincoe and Matt Thorne named their recent short-story collection, All Hail the New Puritans, after a record by The Fall); and Manhattan Transfer sung of love surely after reading the famous John Dos Passos work. It goes on. Nirvana paid homage to Patrick Suskind's hugely popular Perfume with their tribute "Scentless Apprentice"; and, at the tail-end of the 1970s, The Cure gave us an inkling about their reading habits with "Killing an Arab", a song describing a key scene in Camus's The Outsider.

All this means that the only trouble with naming your novel after a pop song, as I see it, is the possibility that it is already a tribute to a book; so, ultimately, it appears that you have borrowed, rather unimaginatively, the title of an already regarded classic. Having noticed how the crime-writer Ian Rankin uses song and album titles as the inspiration for his books (examples include "The Hanging Garden", a song by The Cure, and Let it Bleed, an album by the Stones), I believe he has named his recent novel, Dead Souls, as another tribute to Joy Division, perhaps forgetting that their song of the same name is already a eulogy to Gogol's masterpiece. Was Rankin aware of this? Intentionally or not, I wouldn't have thought it was a good idea to nick the title of a masterwork. If I were to call my baby Einstein - or if it were a girl, Vorderman - I would only be heightening impossible expectations of that child, and committing it to a lifetime of bullying.

Still, is it such a crime to pay a compliment to another artist? As Charles Dickens remarked in David Copperfield: "What a lovely work that was of yours."

Graham Bendel works for the New Statesman

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis