Sunday, 24 July 2011

A true journalist

Having written not long ago about my difficulties with non-fiction, it’s only fair to point out that I recently read a factual book all the way through, and was riveted throughout. Matt Potter’s Outlaws Inc. tells the story of the former Soviet airmen who make a perilous living flying cargo around the world in giant, but rickety, superplanes – everything from humanitarian aid to illegal drugs, often at the same time. It’s unlike any story I’ve ever read, and throws a whole new light on the way the world works.

I should say that I only knew about it at all because Matt is a friend. A few years ago we worked together at a publishing company, and I’d always assumed he was just another desk-bound hack like me. Little did I know that in his spare time he was hitching rides on these cargo planes, gathering material for this book – and risking death and disease in some of the world’s most dangerous cities, places like Kabul and Mogadishu.

Years ago, when I was studying journalism, one of my tutors made a useful distinction between writers and journalists. A journalist, she said, was someone for whom the story came first: they lived for the next lead, loved chasing down the details, and regarded writing it all up afterwards as a bit of a nuisance, frankly. Whereas a writer was someone who loved words above all, and it didn’t much matter what they were writing about as long as they could indulge in the art of composing sentences, paragraphs and pages that flowed in a pleasing manner.

I’ve always known that I’m a writer. In my professional life, I’ve never had the slightest desire to chase stories, let alone don a flak jacket and report from a war zone. Fiction is the natural home for whatever talents I possess. But Matt is a true journalist, and I salute him.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A bad week in December

I wrote a while ago about the benefits for a writer of reading bad books. I wouldn’t say A Week In December, the most recent novel by Sebastian Faulks, is a bad book exactly, but it has some serious flaws which got me thinking.

I should start by saying that I’m a fan of Faulks’ novels, all but one of which I’ve read and enjoyed. But they were all set in the past – various parts of the 20th century – whereas A Week In December is that most self-concious of literary forms, a State of the Nation Novel.

During the course of the week in question (the year isn’t specified, but the book was published in 2009), we follow the progress of a number of characters in London. Most notably, there is a ruthless, amoral hedge fund manager and a would-be Muslim suicide bomber, and the main question at the heart of the novel is which of them is going to cause the most damage. Then there’s a down-at-heel but sympathic barrister, a female tube train driver, a Polish Premiership footballer, the hedge fund manager’s pot-addled teenage son, a cynical literary critic, an ambitious politician’s wife, an Asian businessman who’s made a fortune from chutney...

The list goes on and on, to such an extent that Faulks has provided a sort of key to them all in the first chapter, under the pretext that most of them are being invited to a dinner party that takes place on the final day of the week in question. A friend suggested that the publishers must have insisted on this list being added to help the poor, confused reader, and I suspect he may be right. I certainly found myself referring back to it at regular intervals.

Using a large number of characters isn’t a literary crime in itself, of course, though in a novel of fewer than 400 pages, it’s not particularly reader-friendly. The contrivance of the dinner party is clumsy, too – pretty much the only major character who isn’t invited, children aside, is Jenni the tube driver, and you sense that Faulks would have sent here there as well if he could just have contrived to make her one of the other characters’ long-lost niece or some such. And don’t get me started on the caricatures, most notably the critic, R Tranter (Art Ranter – geddit?), whose entire characterisation smacks of revenge.

No, what I really wanted to write about was the hedge fund manager, John Veals. Clearly, any State of the Nation Novel written towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century is going to have to deal with the financial markets, and Veals is a folk devil, the personification of everything that led to the financial crisis whose effects we’re still feeling. The trouble is that, in order to explain why Veals is so evil, Faulks has to go into detail about what he does and how it works. Thus, approximately 80% of the long sections of the novel in which Veals features are devoted to meticulous explanations of how various aspects of international finance operate.

Many years ago, I read a book about how to write fiction. I don’t remember much of the advice it contained, but one phrase stuck in my mind: “Don’t let your research show.” Large parts of A Week In December feel like they consist of nothing but research, and for me at least, they spoiled the experience of reading the novel. It felt like homework: rather than engaging with the characters, I was spending my time trying (and failing, it has to be said) to understand the complex financial world they inhabited.

There is a counter-argument, of course: that this is important stuff, and that unless we all understand how a few clever, greedy, amoral people brought the global financial system to its knees, we can’t begin to have a chance of preventing them doing the same thing again in the future. Maybe the novel is a good medium for that kind of education. But on the basis of A Week In December, I don’t think so. I suspect many readers will simply tire of the economics lesson, put the book down and read something else entirely. And I wouldn’t blame them.