Faulks on Fiction

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Faulks on Fiction The Secret Life of the Novel by Sebastian Faulks, book reviewIt seems to me that there are (at least) two sides to Sebastian Faulks. On one hand there’s the genius writer of fantastic books like Birdsong and The Girl at the Lion d’Or which are so convincing that he tells us that readers refuse to believe he just made them up. On the other there’s the slightly stuffy chap who appears on dull but worthy Radio 4 programmes like ‘The Write Stuff’ (surely a show designed for rather smug clever people to show off how clever they are to an audience of baffled listeners) and looks like the sort of chap who probably has leather patches on his corduroy jackets. When I was offered Faulks’ latest book I was excited because he writes such fantastic fiction – but when I realised it was non-fiction, my spirits dipped a bit. I probably should have given him more credit.

Faulks on Fiction is a companion book for the BBC 2 series of the same name which starts on Saturday 5th February. I’m writing my review before seeing the show since I think any book needs to be able to stand on its own two feet especially one by a man who is first and foremost a writer. However I suspect that the TV programme probably introduces some artificial constraints that inevitably impact on the choices Faulks has had to make in selecting the books and the characters he’s analysed. When you need to make the characters fit a set of four hour-long programmes, each of which must race through seven different literary giants, it’s likely to reduce the creative freedom of the writer. I’d have preferred Faulks to have been given the freedom to pick the 28 most interesting characters regardless of having to make them fit – seven of each – into the four topics of Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villains.

In each section of the book Faulks introduces us to seven characters that he considers to be good examples of the type and which he believes have had an influence on what makes Britain the country that it is today. Faulks is attempting to get rid of the oft-held idea that characters reflect the lives of their authors and has resolutely avoided that approach. It seems to be one that he takes very personally – no doubt because he suffers from readers refusing to believe that he wasn’t really a woman airlifted into France to spy during the Second World War (like his character Charlotte Grey).

Some of Faulks’ choices are interesting – perhaps for who he leaves out as much as who he puts in. Mr Darcy makes the list but Elizabeth Bennett doesn’t – and take a guess to which category Darcy gets assigned. A sure cert for Snob, I was thinking but nope, he’s a Lover. We can probably blame Mr D for every Mills and Boon darkly-brooding stroppy hero ever written. Where would you put James Bond? I’m guessing most of us would put him into the Hero category but Faulks assigns him to Snobs on the basis of his obsession with brands. That’s a very interesting approach – a bit of Bond as Chav – and few contemporary writers know Bond better than Faulks so I’m more than willing to see his point of view.

I consider myself pretty well-read but I only recognised seventeen of the twenty eight characters featured by their names even though I’d read many of the books whose characters’ names I’d forgotten. Barbara Covett, Chanu Ahmed, Nick Guest, Maurice Bendrix – how many of those names can you instantly assign to their host-books? It’s actually not easy sometimes to identify quickly which book some of the characters come from. I had to read three pages to identify the book from which one of the lovers was taken. Perhaps that might be taking the separation of author and character just a wee bit too far.

There aren’t many women characters or too many female writers but then that’s perhaps not unusual when you consider the wide historic scope that Faulks has covered. Only one woman character makes the Hero list, three make the Lovers list, two get onto the Snobs and a single woman is represented amongst the Villains. Some very recent books make the list – Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, Brick Lane by Monica Ali and The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollingworth – and all are very much of the ‘Booker Shortlist’ genre.

“I hope that the series does well on television … to get Faulks a second volume of his ‘On Fiction’ with another set of characters.”

The level of detail into which Faulks goes varies a lot between characters. Some characters get very deep analysis and for the characters from many of the older books he seems to feel the need to offer a very extensive synopsis of the stories in which they appear whilst some of the more modern books appear with almost no plot synopsis at all and I felt that if I hadn’t already read the books I really wouldn’t have been any the wiser about the plots after reading those chapters. Perhaps it’s more difficult to do analysis of characters who’ve been done to death by centuries of literary criticism. Whilst Mr Darcy clocks up 22 pages, whilst Charles Pooter gets just 6 and Jean Brodie only 8 pages.

Some of the chapters I enjoyed a lot, others I was more ambivalent about and a small number left me absolutely cold and disinterested. I think the biggest problem I had was in just not knowing what the purpose of the book really was. I was looking for a clear sense of the impact Faulks felt that each of the characters had on British society but I sometimes struggled to get to the nub of the message. It’s more than possible that Faulks is just too darned clever for me. I can’t rule that out at all.

I totally ‘got’ the separation of author and character but struggled to know what I was supposed to remember from some of the chapters. I was resistant to the long plot summaries, unclear about whether this was a ‘dummies guide’ on how to bluff your knowledge of a novel at your next Book Group meeting. What Faulks sometimes offers is not book reviews so much as book précis and I’m not really sure for whom he’s written this book. If you’ve already read the books he features then you’ll probably think that what’s offered is a handy brief reminder, perhaps a chance to think again about your own perceptions of the books. If you haven’t read the books then you’ll find too much plot on some of them and not enough on others.

Perhaps it wasn’t surprisingly that some of the more modern books had critiques that I enjoyed more than the older ones, partly I believe because Faulks seemed to relax a little when writing these. His choice of Chanu Ahmed from Brick Lane (the heroine’s much older husband) was quite unusual although this working-class immigrant intellectual snob fitted in with Faulks’ other Snob choices which mostly avoided the haughty gentry types in favour of the snobbery of the lower and middle classes. We get manservant Jeeves, the poor boy Pip with his ‘Great Expectations’, school teacher Brodie and of course the controversial choice of James Bond. It’s almost as if you can only be a Snob if you can’t really justify looking down your nose at others. Under villains I enjoyed the chapter on Barbara Covett (the narrator of Notes on a Scandal) although I’m not sure she’d have been someone I’d have acknowledged as an obvious candidate.

I hope that the series does well on television – ideally well enough to get Faulks a second volume of his ‘On Fiction’ with another set of characters. I’d love to seem him analyse characters under groupings like Survivors, Outsiders, Best Friends and Sidekicks but I hope he can get a bit more freedom outside the constraints of fitting his writing to a television programme.

Faulks on Fiction, The Secret Life of the Novel by Sebastian Faulks
Published by Ebury Press, February 2011
Thanks to the publisher for sending us a review copy.

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Faulks on Fiction, The Secret Life of the Novel
by Sebastian Faulks

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Written by koshkha