I take it all back. Philip Roth may have a point.
In his “Best quotes for 2005” list for the Sunday Times, John Dugdale ferrets out those lines in or about books that have made most readers squirm this year (beside the Bad Sex Awards, although Marlon Brando appears in both lists).
His gong for Most exciting academic project was awarded to this extract from the programme for Birkbeck College’s Dickens Weekend:
“A panel will suggest new ways of reading Great Expectations, using gendered contemporary discourses of dementia to propose an understanding of Miss Havisham as menopausal, deploying theories of memory and nostalgia to explore childhood in the novel, and interrogating the text’s various forms of bodily care, including homoerotic nursing.”
So sorry I missed that.
My personal favourite is the quote from a TV interview with Jonathan Coe which gets the Worst timing award:
Q. If you could abolish one thing in the book world, what would it be?
A. Literary prizes — they wrongly encourage seeing literature as a contest or a news story. They’ve got to go.
You may agree with him on this, but not longer after Coe’s biography of BS Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, won the £30,000 Samuel Johnson prize. I haven’t heard whether he gave the money back in protest at being part of a contest or news story.
Coe, funnily enough, has lectured at Birkbeck, so he’s obviously a hilarious chap. Sue Tyley once wrote (in Birkbeck’s journal), admiringly, that “Coe livens up his fiction as much for his own sake as for the reader’s: he has confessed to getting bored easily while writing, to changing voices frequently because of losing confidence in them, and to breaking out of a conventional narrative line into email, letter or unpunctuated dialogue as much because he can’t bear to do another chapter in the third person as because the subject matter requires it.”
The Sunday Times list makes excruciating reading, except for the fact that most of the writers quoted are in deadly earnest, and you know perfectly well that within each of us beats the impulse to spout nonsense – hence the popularity of blogging.
Post script: I’ve just started reading Roth’s Shop Talk, a book of interviews with fellow authors such as Primo Levi, Milan Kundera, and Edna O’Brien. They’re more like discussions, since sometimes the questions take up a couple of pages. Still, I can’t help thinking he must have forgotten writing it when he called for a moratorium on discussing books. It’s hard to sound normal when you’re discussing ideas and writing. It’s not like talking about the weather.