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recently i put my name, if that doesn't sound too grand a statement, to the campaign, inspired by the booker's controversial swerve towards 'readability', to establish 'the literature prize' which would be awarded to novels which were simply great literature irrespective of their accessibility, an idea of which i wholly approve, partly because i enjoy being challenged and stretched by novels and partly because 'readabie' novels are well served by other prizes. but even at the time i found myself slightly at a loss to find many good examples of good, challenging, contemporary literary novels which might compete for the prize and be excluded by other prizes. no names, no pack dril, but even those recently published novels touted as 'experimental' didn't seem to make great demands on the reader. if that sounds snobbish, bear with me...
last week i took part in a talk, organised by the reading agency and based around the publication of stop what you're doing and read this (see the entry stop... below). the last essay in the book (which i disagreed with for various reasons, but don't get me started) sang the praises of 'deep reading' and raised the possibility that we were, as a society, in danger of losing this precious ability.
then i found myself reading middlemarch (again) and dombey and son (for the first time), and it struck me that, if anything, we have already lost, or simply fail to exercise, the ability to 'read deeply'. like many other popular victorian novels, they are (in many passages) more syntactically complex, have a wider vocabulary and are peppered with more arcane cultural references than pretty much any popular, contemporary, literary novels. i'm serching for counter-examples here but having trouble. david foster wallace, perhaps, though he was always rather niche. toni morrison, in parts?
of course, all of this also applies to many popular novels written before the nineteenth century. it also applies to poetry (try reading the ring and the book, all 21,000 lines of it, browning's best-selling work). it also applies to much theatre. not just shakespeare, but even victorian melodrama, the east enders of its day.
it's easy enough to find reasons why contemporary writers may not write in this way: a reaction against the supposed elitism of high modernism (though i've never really been swayed by this argument), the smaller proportion of time we are able to devote to reading (though some very thick books are incredibly popular and summer holidays are both more common and more devoted to lounging), the influence of the school of carver (though that influence was never universal)... more mysterious, to me at least, is the seeming difference in the reading experience. we now live in a culture with wider education and in which many more books are published and read. were nineteenth century readers more intelligent than us? surely not. did the habit of reading aloud (many of dickens' novels would have been heard, rather than read, by a large part of their audience) make challenging language more accessible? were readers satisifed by not comprehending every part of a text, and willing to persevere in spite of this? i'm still waiting to find the academic who can explain this to me, though i suspect that some of the mystery will remain, simply because the subjective experience of being a reader 150 years ago is largely irrecoverable.
two conclusions... one, i do wish critics, educators and defenders of the fine art of reading would stop patting themselves (and us) on the back quite so much and put the modern reading experience in a slightly more humble historical perspective. two, i would like to see a genunely literary prize established, but i'd like to see more novels competing for it by pushing the boundaries of 'readability'.
and one final thought, which is some small compensation, if compensation is needed. despite my lack of knowledge about the history of science, i suspect that, throughout the nineteenth century, most educated readers would have been able to understand most scientific papers, apart perhaps from those in mathematics and the more mathematical areas of physics. that's not true now, of course. but... the rise in popular science books in recent years has been astonishing. and whilst julian barnes might not stretch you intellectually (that's a fact, not a value judgement, and i'm choosing him only becaue the sense of an ending won the booker) you don't have to walk more than a few steps in waterstones to find books about particle physics, cosmology, biology or neuroscience which will make your head hurt. i don't think it's an exaggerration to say stephen hawking's a brief history of time or the emperor's new mind by roger penrose would make the ring and the book seem accessible to most readers.
perhaps 'deep reading' has simply moved to the other end of the bookshop...
i really wanted to like this. i love hockney's early drawings, etchings and paintings. i love his photographs. I love his writing about photography and i am indebted forever to his book on the uses of lenses and mirrors in art which completely changed the way i look at many paintings. i love his eagerness, his breadth, his hunger for experiment, even his avuncular curmudgeonliness. but the works here are bland and facile, sunday-painterly in places. in many places, actually. precisely how and why is highlighted by a small gallery of earlier handscapes works. adrian searle, writing in the guardian was right in saying that the mark-marking in the new pictures is monotonous and dauby (i quote from memory). and the ipad drawings / paintings seem a logical extension of this new work because even the paintings have a flatness of surface which looks not greatly different in reproduction. but the mark-marking in the early landscapes is varied and energetic and the surfaces, consequently, much more alive. in fact, the exhibition reminded me that it is the mark-making which has always been the best thing about his pictures. look at the early ecthings - the brothers grimm, a rake's progress - and you'll see that he can draw as well as picasso when the wind is in the right direction. the sheer zest of his early royal college paintings (a vew of switzerland and rocky mountains with tired indians - i may have got the titles wrong; it's the only exhibition i've gone to in a long time for which i haven't wanted to buy the catalogue). even the mullholland drive pictures where different sections are all painted using different techniques. this section also contains three photographic joiners, two of the grand canyon and pearlblossom highway which were, for me, the best things in the exhibition.
i was going to paste an image here. then i clicked onto david hockney's 'authorised' website, the front page of which insists that you tick a box to confirm that you agree to the statement: this site and contents are copyright david hockney and may not be reproduced anywhere at any time in any form, which must be the sourest, least generous and most unwelcome welcome to a multi-millionaire's website i have ever seen.
so here's a picture of a fantastic self portrait by marlene dumas (het kwaad is banaal, evil is banal, 1984) which is better than everything in the hockney exhibition put together.
i am constantly amazed by our ability to become rapidly blase about technological near-miracles which would have seemed mind-bendingly inconceivable a few years previously. yesterday i watched puss in boots with my son and a friend of his (it was, by the by, rather good and i iaughed out loud on several occasions). there was utterly convincing fur. lots of it. there was an utterly convincing bowl of milk hurled onto the floor in close-up. there were utterly convincing mouths of which we saw the utterly convincing interiors. there was 3d which was not so convincing in my case because i have eccentric fixation in one eye, but i still have to buy and wear those bloody glasses to stop the screen looking fuzzy, but there was 3d nevertheless. these things were impossible only a few years ago. in 2004 i wrote a tv adaptation of raymond briggs's fungus the bogeyman and the whole project was, frankly, hobbled by the impossibility of doing any kind of liquid in cgi, and unpleasant liquids of all kinds are an essential part of the whole bogey world. but now...? for brief periods i sat watching the film godsmacked by what i was seeing. seconds later, of course, i returned to a passive mindless state of blase acceptance.
later in the evening i played, or rather attempted to play, my first xbox game. l a noire (this mostly involved failing to steer a police car). again, brief periods of gobsmackedness, followed seconds later by another dead pedestrian. i remember playing asteroids as a student on those glass pub-tables-come-games-consoles. white lines on a lack background. irregular polygons moving around and getting broken up. period
(in my defence i would like to say that i also read a few chapters of middlemarch and made some bread this morning).
which is perhaps why sci-fi is different now. there's simply no mileage in suggesting how thrilling the future might be, because we know that when we invent matter tranport we'll be using it to get instantaneous deliveries of green beans from kenya and whining about the fact that a coiuple of them are a bit brown.
second serving (see gaylord draxo below; and apologies to speakers of any language in which any of these are acceptable and humdrum names and therefore not funny at all):
byrom gorner, derrin dorrit, ramon babcock, farlay peebles, fransisco hee-sub, christof pup, ginger dupree, bordy nora, baird olvin, anurag moose, humus grub, flavius shu, grubbs homan, pollock dusty, lalo mundeep, cinderella clementina...
the cultural highlights (in my immediate vicinity anyway):