Too much of a good thing?
A blossoming of remarkable voices was undermined by an alarming decline in editing, says Claire Allfree
It may be unsporting to begin with a big, fat criticism, but the most alarming trend in fiction this year has been the apparent decline of the red pen. When the Man Booker shortlist was announced in September, the chair of judges took authors to task for writing novels that were too long.
“We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, before adding that “the chastening pencil has a role and subtraction can be as potent as addition.”
In fact, Appiah could have gone much further. Not only have many novels outstayed their welcome, but too many have been sloppily written. My colleague on this paper admired Haruki Murakami’s
(Harvill Secker, £20) but I found the Japanese novelist’s prose so startlingly lazy, and his sentences so prone to repeating themselves, that I wondered whether any editor had actually read it. William Boyd’s
(Viking, 18.99) is a thoroughly enjoyable historical caper, but I wish someone had firmly crossed out sentences such as: “You may leave home, but home never leaves you, he thought darkly”. And I can’t imagine that anyone at Irvine Welsh’s publisher has sat down with one of his manuscripts in years – the Trainspotting author’s most recent novel is the deplorable (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).
Ironically, untidy sentences were very much the point of Anna Burns’s deserving Booker-winner
(Faber, £8.99), in which the 18-year-old narrator’s rambling, digressive speech patterns are an imaginatively conceived defence against the nightmare of sectarian violence in Belfast during the Seventies. (I still couldn’t help but think there were rather too many of them, though.)
Milkman exemplified another trend among novels in the year of #MeToo, not just for the way it foregrounds the female voice but for the manner in which it articulates the insidious forms that male abuses of power can take. As the narrator puts it, trying to explain why she feels unable to ask the eponymous milkman, who is stalking her, to stop offering her a lift home: “He didn’t seem rude, so I couldn’t be rude.”
This year’s novels were filled with the angry clamour of women’s voices: ignored, idealistic or excitingly ambivalent. Madeline Miller, having lushly retooled the Iliad as a sensual love affair between Achilles and Patroclus in her 2011 novel The Song of Achilles, reflected the mood for feminist revisionism with her lissom follow-up (Bloomsbury, £16.99), which casts the witch goddess in the Odyssey not as a bit player in a man’s epic but as the star of her own show.
A similar revolution takes place in Pat Barker’s
(Hamish Hamilton, £18.99), which offers a corrective to Churchill’s idiom that history is told by the victors in being narrated by Briseis, the slave girl and favoured bedmate of Achilles. Unlike the seamlessly written Circe, which slips down like a fine sauvignon, Barker struggles in her novel to balance heroic diction with a more earthy and sometimes sweary vernacular, perhaps because her project was to subvert the myth of Achilles as hero: “We called him the butcher,” says Briseis.
Another modern approach to ancient myths, with up-tothe-minute concerns, was Daisy Johnson’s Booker-shortlisted
(Jonathan Cape, £14.99) – an intriguing transgender Oedipus, rendered less readable than it should have been by a surfeit of ostentatiously lyrical, murky prose.
While Burns, Miller and Barker agitated against power disparities, Meg Wolitzer asked the more practical question of how to live a feminist life, in
(Chatto & Windus, £14.99), which suggests that the movement in 2018 is in danger of looking like little more than a virtuous hashtag. Told in Wolitzer’s deceptively breezy, oh-so-readable style, it offers across several decades a perceptive analysis of the achievements – and limitations – of postwar feminism through the story of Greer, a mousy student who blossoms into a feminist activist after being assaulted in college.
Sheila Heti also tackled some vexed truths and sacred cows in her deeply personal novel,
(Harvill Secker, £16.99). Tracking, over a period of several years, the vacillating thoughts of a woman called Sheila about whether to have a child, it both deftly skewers entrenched maternal taboos and embodies the worst excesses of autofiction – that modish genre in which novelists write so closely about their own lives that the traditional borders between fact and fiction are rendered almost redundant.
“A lot of time is spent thinking about whether to have a child, when the thinking is such a small part of it, and when there is little enough time to think about things that actually bring meaning. Which is what?” runs a typical passage.
Less explicit about its evident relationship to the genre of The latest of Herron’s hilarious Slough House novels finds the disgraced spies labouring to foil a plot to assassinate a populist politician. (John Murray) memoir, yet at times feeling just as indulgent, Jessie Greengrass’s
(John Murray, £14.99) also used the narrator’s initial ambivalence about pregnancy as a springboard for a wide-ranging novel about female bodies and the history of optics in beautifully freeflowing, ruminative prose.
In fact, 2018 might well mark the year that autofiction reached This riveting study explains the flaws in the political system that mean we are left with MPs who so often disappoint us. (Atlantic) its zenith, with two of its defining projects coming to an end. Karl
Ove Knausgaard finally brought down the curtain on My Struggle with (Harvill Secker, £25), the final instalment of his six-part fictional autobiography that details the minutiae of his life in such microscopic detail that readers may well have felt they knew more about his sock drawer than they
Commendatore Love is Blind Killing Dead Men’s Trousers Milkman Many novels outstayed their welcome – and plenty of them were sloppily written Circe of the Girls Everything Under Persuasion Motherhood by Mick Herron The Silence The Female Sight
We all think we know how the immune system works, roughly. This exciting and elegant book on new discoveries shows how wrong we were. (Bodley Head)
by Isabel Hardman by Daniel M Davis The End
Connolly draws on his archive conversations with the Beatles to give a superb portrait of a dissatisfied star who couldn’t stop reinventing himself. (W&N)
by Ray Connolly