Thumbs up for The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby. Nonfiction.
I’m just going to call this one nonfiction, no subcategory, because it’s not really lit crit, despite being about books. As Hornby tells us, he will be hauled up before his cabal of vegan but bloodthirsty editors if he says anything even remotely critical of a living author. (Their possibly correct observation is that readers can find bad reviews anywhere, therefore they shall publish only positive ones in order to set themselves apart from the crowd.) Reading a book of only positive reviews sounds to me like an onerous task, because bad reviews are so much more fun than good ones, but thankfully The Polysyllabic Spree is about Hornby’s reading habits and general thoughts on literature rather than advice on what to read. It’s riotously funny, if you like this kind of thing – or even if not, because I usually don’t. Just listen to him on the topic of “spare” writing (that pox on the face of modern literature):
Coetzee, of course, is a great novelist, so I don’t think it’s snarky to point out that he’s not the funniest writer in the world. Actually, when you think about it, not many novels in the Spare tradition are terribly cheerful. Jokes you can usually pluck out whole, by the roots, so if you’re doing some heavy-duty prose-weeding, they’re the first things to go. And there’s some stuff about the whole winnowing process that I just don’t get. Why does it always stop when the work in question has been reduced to sixty or seventy thousand words – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, the minimum length for a publishable novel? I’m sure you could get it down to twenty or thirty, if you tried hard enough. In fact, why stop at twenty or thirty? Why write at all? Why not just jot the plot and a couple of themes down on the back of an envelope and leave it at that? The truth is, there’s nothing very utilitarian about fiction or its creation, and I suspect that people are desperate to make it sound like manly, back-breaking labor because it’s such a wussy thing to do in the first place. The obsession with austerity is an attempt to compensate, to make writing resemble a real job, like farming, or logging. (It’s also why people who work in advertising put in twenty-hour days.) Go on, young writers – treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won’t mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluity. (And, conversely, the writers’ writers, the pruners and the winnowers, tend to have to live off critical approval rather than royalty checks.)
If you enjoyed this post, please share it!