Thursday, April 26, 2007

Margaret Atwood and the Defining Books of Our Era

As you might have read at The Rap Sheet, I was bowled over meeting with Margaret Atwood at The London Book Fair last week.

I dusted off my copies of The Blind Assassin, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake and re-read sections of them. It had been a little while since I had read Atwood so I was overjoyed, finding depth and insight in her use of language.

The award-winning Canadian Novelist is spending a little time in London, naturally because of The LBF and her work at her LongPen Company, so I was pleased to read about her take on writing in The Guardian.
The novels I finish -- as opposed to the sunnier, jollier ones I begin -- are always those that seem the most impossible when they first present themselves. I never tell my publishers what I’m writing, because -- being in my non-writing life an optimistic, Pollyanna sort of person -- I can anticipate the expressions of disbelief and horror that would come over their faces. “You're writing WHAT?” those expressions would say. Behind my back, they would whisper: “She's finally slipped a cog.”
She then tells of her experiences in writing Oryx and Crake:
I began writing Oryx and Crake in early 2001, while I was in northern Australia watching birds and talking about rare species, diminishing habitats, invasive animals, plants, and insects that are destroying native ecologies. In Australia it’s pigs, rats, cats, cane toads and rabbits; in New Zealand it’s rats, cats and possums; in the Great Lakes it’s zebra mussels, among others; in New Orleans -- at that time, before the floods -- it was exotic termites. The lists grow ever longer. Our ability to modify species and even create new ones would add to the effect.

The book presented itself to me as an almost-complete but distant structure -- one I needed to enter and explore. I set off to do that, paused while undergoing the twin towers trauma and the anthrax scare of September/October 2001, and resumed writing the novel, to publish it just at the moment when the Sars epidemic was splashing itself all over the papers, with one of its loci being Toronto, where I live. During the book tour, people ran for the door when I coughed. All the literature about the Black Death I'd read over the years seemed to be coming true. Happily, it didn't. Not that time.

Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake has become truer since I wrote it. I don’t relish this phenomenon. Surely people write such books in the belief that if we see where such roads lead, we won't go there. As I’ve said, I’m an optimist. Let’s hope.
Read Atwood’s take on the writing process in The Guardian here. You can download an MP3 podcast with Margaret Atwood talking about Oryx and Crake here:

I consider Atwood as a novelist whose work helps define and explain our times, so I was even more delighted when The Guardian provided us with the excellent supplement “TimeLife: 50 Books that defined their era”. Joe Ricketts introduces this very interesting supplement:
Everyone knows that sex began in 1963, “between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP.” Philip Larkin was merely confirming the way that -- thanks to a ludicrous obscenity trial 30 years after it was written -- DH Lawrence’s novel defined an era.
This is nothing new. Books are ever-present at the conception, peak and death of decades: breaking taboos, forging cultures and countercultures, making social and scientific strides. Of course, decades are also shaped by technology, war, music, and art; but books can wrap all of these together and add something extra.

Both reading and the experience of decades are also where, to borrow another 60s phrase, the personal is political. So it is a tricky task to sort through the riches of the 20th century and name 50 books that define the decades for us all. Approach this list as a talking point rather than a definitive statement; inclusion of Germaine Greer but not Simone de Beauvoir should be enough to start debate.

This is not a bid to judge the greatest books of the century, but rather those that define their eras. Breaking a literary mould is not enough for inclusion: most of these books played a role in events or shaped society's view of itself at the time. Historical fiction has been largely pushed to one side in favour of work with period furniture, or that carries a contemporary essence in its idea of the future (Brave New World, 1984).
One area is the authors that helped define the various generations. I was most pleased to see Albert Camus mentioned next to Ian Fleming, so no literary snobbery here:
The first world war also shaped the life of Albert Camus, whose father was killed on the Marne in 1914. He became a great French author, but he came from far outside French high culture. His mother was an illiterate cleaning woman and he was born and educated in Algeria, where many of his works, such as L’Étranger [The Outsider] and La Peste [The Plague] were set.
His most famous book was distinctive of its era yet took a tangent to the times. You would know nothing directly of the second world war from The Outsider, which was first published in 1942, yet its sense of the absurd is formed by that calamity. Meursault, Camus’s anti-hero, was a new modern character, unillusioned rather than disillusioned. Recognising “the benign indifference of the universe”, the only moral purpose that an individual can find is mere truthfulness about this bleak state of affairs. Meursault is a murderer, yet he dies because he is unwilling to fake the guilt required by those who sit in judgment on him.
Camus’s philosophical work of the 1940s, The Myth of Sisyphus, begins from “the one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide”. He had been a communist, but before his death in a car crash aged 46, he had fallen out with his former comrade Jean-Paul Sartre largely because of his growing political scepticism. Even politics did not give life significance.
So from French existentialism we have British Thriller writing holding onto a decaying Empire.
Some authors are true to their age by giving form to a culture’s enjoyable fantasies. This is what Ian Fleming did by creating James Bond in the 1950s. You might not think from Bond’s behaviour that its author knew anything of real spies, but in fact Fleming, after Eton and Sandhurst, had worked for naval intelligence in the war. Beginning with Casino Royale in 1953, he set out to write bestsellers, with a recipe well characterised by the then leader of the Labour party, Hugh Gaitskell. “The combination of sex, violence, and alcohol and -- at intervals -- good food was to me irresistible.” With their adaptation of the traditional adventure story to a modern age and their witty hedonism, Fleming’s novels were hugely influential.
From Russia With Love may make its thrills out of the cold war, but this is not what makes it distinctive of its epoch. It is rather its sophisticated belief in pleasure. Ruthless and gentlemanly, patriotic and amoral, Bond is a connoisseur of sensations, and the enviable, not entirely pleasant hero for an age. Fleming himself, posh but populist, penning his sophisticated entertainments at his retreat in the West Indies, seemed just the man to be producing these shiny international novels.
You can read more about authors who defined their decade here.

Of course you need to consider the role of the “bestsellers” that peppered the decades and shaped our view of the world. As a Crime/Thriller devotee I was pleased to read this:
Probably the biggest selling English language author of the 20 century, for instance, was one Mickey Spillane, an author of hard-boiled detective fiction. Estimates suggest that Spillane sold over 200 million books in his lifetime, most of them in the US, but plenty here in the UK too. He was hated by critics, derided by other writers. Hemingway loathed him. Fellow crime writer Raymond Chandler (another whose artistry the critics only recognised long after the public at large) described Spillane as a writing “gorilla” and said that “pulp writing at its worst was never as bad as this stuff”. What's more, Spillane himself had a pretty low opinion of his work, putting the success of his books down to the simple fact that “people like them”. By the later years of his long life, it seemed as if he was doomed to disappear without a trace, unloved and unlamented. Then a funny thing happened. His rough prose began to win recognition, the New York Times called him “a master”, a Pittsburgh professor wrote a companion to his novels, and publishers reissued his books with pleasant, brightly coloured pulp fiction covers. His reputation is stronger now than at any time during his life, and although he may not be selling in the same mind-blowing quantities, he seems set to last.
You can read the whole story here.

The supplement then publishes what it considers are the 50 books that defined our era and this list will provoke thought and interested controversy.

The complete list: 50 books that defined each decade as denoted by The Guardian:

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Interpreting Dreams, Sigmund Freud
Kim, Rudyard Kipling

Howards End, EM Forster
The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, ed Jon Silkin
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence
Relativity, Albert Einstein
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Waste Land, TS Eliot
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene
Right Ho, Jeeves, PG Wodehouse
The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

1984, George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl, Ann Frank
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer
The Outsider, Albert Camus

From Russia With Love, Ian Fleming
Look Back in Anger, John Osborne
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett

Ariel, Sylvia Plath
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré
Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

Carrie, Stephen King
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Persig

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
Money, Martin Amis
The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
No Logo, Naomi Klein
The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi

There is a competition for you to vote which of these books you consider is the overall winner.
The winner and winning book will be chosen at this years Hay Festival and the winner awarded £1,000 of book tokens.

Other sections include Desert Island Books, Counterculture and a word from the sponsors of the article The Pilsner Urquell brewery. Is there anything better in life than sitting out in the sun, ice cold beer in one hand and a great book in the other?

The full supplement is available here, but where’s Margaret Atwood?

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Blogger jenclair said...

What a fascinating list!

Sunday, April 29, 2007 7:12:00 AM PDT  

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