Books On The BBC: World Book Night

Yesterday was World Book Night, an event organised by Jamie Byng (publisher of Canongate Books), in which 20,000 people across the UK and Ireland gave out 48 specially-printed copies of a favourite book – a million books in total. BBC Two devoted two-and-a-half hours of its programming last night to Culture Show specials on books, beginning with A Million Books For Free, a half-hour documentary about World Book Night itself; later in the evening, there were five-minute-long live visits to World Book Night events in Glasgow, Manchester and London. These programmes showed us people with lots of enthusiasm for books, and some pretty inspiring stories of what particular books meant to different people.

I knew that the evening was also going to include a film about popular fiction, and one about the Culture Show’s list of twelve new literary novelists, so I was expecting that there’d be some sort of “populist vs literary” tone to proceedings. What we got, though, was something stranger: three programmes which presented three very different, almost completely separate, views of the book world.

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The Books We Really Read was an odd, disjointed documentary which didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be, or what it wanted to argue. The one-line pitch of it would go something like this: lifelong reader of literary fiction Sue Perkins set out to investigate bestselling fiction, with a particular focus on crime, romance and thrillers; and certainly, from the title and the opening commentary (“I’m here [at an airport bookshop] to unearth a dirty secret”), I was anticipating a snobbish, let’s-laugh-at-this-stuff-and-the-people-who-read-it kind of film. And there was an element of that, but there was also a genuine enthusiasm for bestselling fiction; the trouble was, the programme couldn’t let go of either of those approaches.

There were contradictions in the programme from the start, of which it didn’t seem aware: Perkins didn’t have much experience of reading bestselling fiction, and wanted to be able to understand what made it so popular – yet she liked Agatha Christie (whose work was treated at some length), and explained eloquently what it was that she liked so much, which was not all that different from what other contributors said about other bestselling authors. The highbrow world of judging the Booker Prize was (it was implied) far removed from bestsellerdom; yet there, clearly visible on the bestseller shelves, was Wolf Hall, the very novel to which Perkins and her fellow judges had given the Booker in 2009. To my mind, this points to a rather more complex picture than the programme was prepared to contemplate.

The actual treatment of the three genres was awkward, with each one being surveyed in a different way; and the reading of novel extracts in an arch tone of voice sat rather at odds with the positive tone which the programme sought to take towards bestsellers as it went along. Some of the comments made by the authors interviewed made me wince (such as Felix Francis talking about continuing his father Dick’s legacy of horse-racing thrillers, and implying that writing fiction was something anyone could do, because “you make it all up”); but there were also some useful contributions – Ian Rankin made one of the most interesting when he suggested that crime fiction  was good at examining society, and that it had not done itself any favours by taking a detour into amatueur-sleuth territory; there was no time to examine these thoughts any further, though.

What makes a bestseller, then? In the end, the film did not seem to get much further than “a compelling plot”. (What came across to me in the interviews with readers was that the actual book seemed less important to them than what the book facilitated, whether that’s escape, or the chance to solve a puzzle, or whatever.) Perkins ended the programme by suggesting that it would be good if literary and genre fiction borrowed more from each other’s toolkits (another thought that needed expanding: Perkins said that most of the novels she read for the Booker didn’t have a plot – I don’t recognise that in most of the literary fiction I read). First of all, the content of the documentary didn’t seem to me to lead up to that conclusion; second, this already happens – in both directions.

The Books We Really Read couldn’t seem able to decide whether to celebrate or mock its subject, and ended up doing both at times, but wasn’t terribly convincing at doing either. It hinted at a more complex and fluid (and more interesting!) literary landscape than the one it painted, and wound up frustratingly short of being truly insightful.

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On to the final programme of the night, New Novelists: 12 of the Best, in which John Mullan introduces the list of twelve British debut novelists he and and a panel of fellow-judges selected from 57 submissions made by literary publishers. This enterprise has already caused something of a stir in the corner of the internet to which I pay most attention, partly because the list itself is somewhat lacking in diversity (see here for my own take on that issue), and partly because of a specious article on literary fiction published by Mullan in the Guardian last week (see Maureen Kincaid Speller’s posts here and here for a good overview of this).

The film did not have the tiresome snobbery of Mullan’s article, but what it really lacked was proper context. Segments on the twelve chosen authors were interspersed with a history of… well, not so much literary fiction as of lists of literary novelists. Mullan concentrated on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists lists, but said precious little about how they were received by general readers; of course the evening’s films were made in isolation but, given that we had just seen a  documentary founded on the assumption that literary fiction and bestseller status were pretty much mutually exclusive, one could be forgiven for asking how the landscape presented by Mullan related to the one presented by Perkins.

Mullan also touched on the rise of creative writing courses, noting that a third of the submissions he had received were by creative writing graduates. What effect this might have had on the novels themselves was, however left largely unexamined, aside from a comment made by one of the judges at the very end that many felt similar (in what ways, and whether this was truly detrimental, remained unsaid). Neither was it explored whether this situation was really all that different from the likes of Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Kazuo Ishiguro being creative writing graduates twenty or thirty years ago.

The programme was on better form when dealing with the individual novelists and their books (the writers chosen were David Abbott, Jenn Ashworth, Ned Beauman, Deborah Kay Davies, Samantha Harvey, Adam Haslett, Rebecca Hunt, Stephen Kelman, Jim Powell, Anna Richards, Eleanor Thom and Evie Wyld). The film was at its most engaging when the judges were discussing the books, and the author interviews were, by and large, also interesting. As for my opinion of the books on the list: I’ve read three, found one excellent, one good, and the other left me cold – but that’s the way with such lists; there are certainly other books on there that I want to read.

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For all its flaws, New Novelists was a rare chance for debut writers to get some coverage on television; but the way it was presented made it seem closed off from the wider literary world. There was a passion for what bestselling books could offer somewhere in The Books We Really Read, but it was buried so far under the gimmicks of the format that it became hard to see clearly, and again there was a sense of disconnection. I’d rather take the view of the literary landscape shown by the material about World Book Night itself, the one where all kinds of people read all kinds of books, and the enthusiasm of a reader – who may be a learned academic, or a person who’s never read a book before in their life, or someone in between – for a book they love is what counts the most.

Books On The BBC: Faulks on Fiction and Birth of the British Novel

The BBC’s year of book-related programming has begun; here is a look at two of the first documentaries.

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Faulks on Fiction is a four-part BBC Two series in which Sebastian Faulks looks at the characters of the British novel. Later episodes will focus on lovers, snobs, and villains; but this first part was all about the figure of ‘the hero’. This is a term that seems fairly straightforward, until (or so I found) you actually try to define it, at which point it becomes a much more nebulous concept – after all, most novels have protagonists; what is it that distinguishes them from ‘heroes’?

The programme never gave a clear definition of its terms, with the result that, though Faulks was an engaging presenter, his journey through the heroes of British fiction seemed rather arbitrary. The following characters were discussed:

  • Robinson Crusoe (1719)
  • Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749)
  • Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, 1847-8)
  • Sherlock Holmes (first appeared 1887)
  • Stephen Wraysford (Faulks’s Birdsong, 1993)
  • Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
  • Jim Dixon (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, 1954)
  • John Self (Martin Amis’s Money, 1984)

Several questions – which, I’m afraid, I am not widely-read enough to be able to answer – spring to mind after considering both this selection and Faulks’s wider argument:

  • Was this meant to be an exhaustive survey of heroes in British literary fiction?
  • Why only one female character?
  • Were there really no relevant examples to be drawn from outside the work of straight white men?
  • Were there really no relevant examples from between the time of Conan Doyle and Orwell, so that we had instead to go on a clumsy detour into Faulks’s own work to cover the First World War?
  • Is it truly the case that, as Faulks asserted, Martin Amis’s Money marked the end of the road for the hero in British literary fiction?

All these issues could have been addressed if the programme had defined its subject more clearly (though some, especially the lack of diversity amongst the authors whose works were considered, would have been hard to defend even then). All programmes of this nature must be selective, of course, but I would like to have confidence that there was a better rationale behind the selection than ‘books which have received screen adaptations from which we can show clips’ – and I don’t have that confidence.

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A couple of days later, BBC Four broadcast Henry Hitchings’ Birth of the British Novel, a stand-alone documentary which examined the development of the British novel in the 18th century and the interaction between it and the wider history of the period. This felt to me a more coherent programme than Faulks’s (and Hitchings’ treatment of Crusoe and Jones seemed fuller), perhaps because it was more chronologically bounded. It also covered a considerable range of material, switching ably back and forth between consideration of authors, their works, and the historical context. More so than with Faulks’s documentary, I came away from Birth of the British Novel feeling that I had actually learnt something (not least that I really ought to read Tristram Shandy).

Hitchings’ film also found room to include a female author, Frances Burney (though its suggestion that Burney wrote a form of proto-chick lit was both inherently anachronistic and carried the implied slur that novels by women writers were frivolous from the very beginning – the whole Books On The BBC season really needs to improve its treatment of female authors). I was quite surprised to discover from one contributor (Emma Clery of Southampton University) that women novelists outnumbered their male counterparts in Britain between 1780 and 1810. What those women were writing, and what different avenues it might have taken the documentary down, I don’t know, because the programme didn’t explore it.

This also points to a wider problem with trying to tell a literary history in so confined a space: using the work of individual authors as a framework means that some will almost certainly have to be omitted; and a viewer unfamiliar with the subject matter (as I was in this case) won’t know what is missing. I have no idea what kind of shape the documentary might have had if different works had been discussed, which is why I’d welcome a clearer statement of the rationale behind selections in programmes like this.

Something else that I think Birth of the British Novel in particular could have done with was a definition of the novel. Hitchings made much of the fact that the novel emerged in Britain during this period, and that its writers were testing what the form could do; in this context, it would have been helpful to state what was new about the novel, and how it differed from existing prose forms. The question ‘What is a novel?’ was raised only once, 45 minutes into this hour-long film, when Hitchings asked it of the novelist Tom McCarthy. He laughed and replied, ‘A novel is something that contains its own negation’ – which I’m sure is an interesting idea (though no clear explanation was offered of what McCarthy meant); but it’s of no use at all as the only definition of a novel in a documentary about the emergence of the novel.

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A flawed beginning, then, for Books On The BBC. Faulks on Fiction got off to a poor start, and the parameters of its format don’t give me much hope that the entire series will be much of an improvement. Birth of the British Novel was good, but had its shortcomings (though a full chronological history in the style of Hitchings’ documentary would be worth watching). Here’s hoping for more from later programmes in the season.

See also
This review at The Arts Desk, which comes to a similar conclusion about the relative quality of the two programmes.

Books On The BBC

Today, the BBC announced a year of book-related programming, and has a rather extensive website detailing what’s going to be included. Naturally, I’m very pleased to see this, as we really don’t get enough book-related television in this country; and there are some interesting programmes lined up, from Sebastian Faulks on the characters in British fiction to a series on books as artefacts. I’m sure I will find plenty to watch.

And yet… I have a nagging sense that “Books On The BBC” may not be all that it could be. On the basis of the website, it seems to me that there could have been more diversity in terms of the presenters and books covered in the documentaries, and the works chosen for dramatic adaptation.

It also feels that too much of the discussion about new books is being tucked away on the radio, or in late-night television strands like The Review Show, which won’t give it such a high profile. I’m pleased to see there’ll be a Culture Show special on “Britain’s Best New Novelists”, but the most prominent new programme in the schedules is likely to be My Life in Books, essentially a bookish version of Desert Island Discs (hosted by Anne Robinson, who was quoted yesterday as saying that contemporary fiction was not her reading material of choice), a format which will inevitably focus on older books.

Those are my initial reservations, then, though of course I recognise that I’m talking about a season of programmes that hasn’t even begun. I do look forward to that season, and I hope it heralds a prominent place for book-related programming in this country.