Too much of a good thing?

A blos­som­ing of re­mark­able voices was un­der­mined by an alarm­ing de­cline in edit­ing, says Claire All­free

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - CONTENTS -

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

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