Tim Parks brilliantly skewers the pieties of the literary world. © Alex Macnaughton/REX

Novels are luxuries, not necessities

Tim Parks brilliantly skewers the pieties of the literary world
October 15, 2014
Where I'm Reading From: the Changing World of Books, by Tim Parks (Harvill Secker, £12.99)

Tim Parks appears to possess the ideal sensibility for discussing the state of contemporary literature: he spurns authorial pretension, yet also takes books seriously. Originally published in the New York Review of Books, the 37 essays in Where I’m Reading From still manage to coalesce into a worldview. First, Parks aims to explode the gaseous grandiosity of the literary establishment. Second, he sees “globalisation” as applying beyond Apple’s production of iPhones in China. A rapidly expanding market for works written in English and sold in translation has fostered the “global novel.” For Parks, the increasing dominance of the international literary blockbuster entails a host of sacrifices, set against gains that are marginal at best.

Aptly, one of Tim Parks’s favourite words is “provocation.” Thus he targets various pieties of his profession, among them that the human race “needs” stories. He pillories the notion that providers of a luxury—the long, involved tale in which we may immerse ourselves on summer afternoons with our feet up—are instead purveying a primitive necessity without which the species would flounder. He concedes, “Personally, I’m too enmired in narrative and self-narrative to bail out now. I love an engaging novel, I love a complex novel; but I am quite sure I don’t need it.”

In deriding the exalted claims made on behalf of the novel, Parks naturally faults the novelists who advance them. He nurtures a particular hostility toward Jonathan Franzen and Salman Rushdie, both of whom promote storytelling as on a par with bread and water. “There is an enormous need,” Franzen has declared, “for long, elaborate, complex stories, such as can only be written by an author concentrating alone, free from the deafening chatter of Twitter.” Parks objects that Franzen “appears to get all his energy, all his identity, from simultaneously evoking and disdaining America, explaining it (its gaucheness, mostly) and rejecting it.” This assumption of “superiority and distance” makes Parks uncomfortable, as does the broader literary community’s inclination toward outsize self-regard. As for Rushdie, he was “so spectacularly out of touch with the nation he was supposedly presenting to the west that the violent reaction to his Satanic Verses after its publication in India caught him entirely by surprise.”

A novelist himself, as well as a fine nonfiction writer and essayist, Parks debunks the vanities of his occupation with what lawyers would call “admission against interest.” It is a refreshing approach, perhaps especially for unpublished authors who feel shut out. Curious how rarely it’s observed that the distinction we bestow on the published author, in contrast to the ignominy that attends the dread wannabe, is absurdly arbitrary. Yet overnight the hanger-on is transformed into the revered talent. What effect does this sudden adulation have on writers? It’s only human: they make haste to disassociate themselves from the wannabes (that is, their friends). Another under-examined subject that Parks addresses is the effect of higher incomes on writers—as people, of course, but also on their work. Big advances, especially early in a career, can apply a destructive pressure to produce, since publishers want their money back. “Does Money Make Us Write Better?” was one essay I wished were longer. For income influences not merely emotional but intellectual and political disposition, and therefore the content of an author’s work. Bestselling writers live in very different worlds than embittered obscurities, and surely write very different books.

Not that Parks elides literary content. In a nod to the transcendental meditation that he describes in his engaging book on surmounting prostate pain, Teach Us to Sit Still, more than one essay despairs that so many fiction writers fill their books with forensic dissection of a self-induced misery. In “The Chattering Mind,” he notes “how obsessively the mind seeks to construct self-narrative, how ready it is to take interest in its own pain, to congratulate itself on the fertility of its reflection.” Parks identifies a particular brand of hero that emerged in the 20th century, one characterised by paralysis and gratuitous suffering. The protagonist’s consolation: “at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatised the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.” In questioning the value of “chattering” text that ruminates on interior afflictions, Parks dares to impugn a massive proportion of modern literature—including his own.

Parks charges that the abstruse criticism spooling from university English departments (which almost no one reads) is “impenetrable,” a view with which most jobbing book reviewers would concur. He also takes issue with the predominant notion among academics that the work must be considered separately from the author’s life. While writers at literary festivals complain about being asked petty personal questions, Parks comes to the audience’s defence. Readers attend these events with no expectation of a productive discussion of your latest book. They want to know who you are. And what is wrong with that? (Personally, I would never assert that the all-hallowed “work” has no connection to the author’s life—whom the writer has loved, where the writer has lived, etc. I just don’t happen to care about the connection. I’m mercantile: I want the product.)

At this point it will come as no surprise that Parks dislikes creative writing courses and distrusts literary prizes. As for the latter, the vast majority of scribblers who have never won a Nobel might take comfort in the impossibility of the jury’s having read the thousands of books published annually in English alone, much less every author’s entire backlist. The Swedes must often resort to political bias, if only as a shortcut—rewarding Eastern European dissidents or anti-apartheid activists.

A more interesting heresy is Parks’ assertion that, even when the book is good, you don’t have to finish it. Endings, he believes, are overrated, “a deplorable closure of so much possibility.” Fiction writers might cling to this low bar: “The best we can hope from the end of a good plot is that it not ruin what came before.” While I’m all for granting readers permission to do whatever they like with a book (so long as it is procured through legal means), there is an art to endings, the best of which are profoundly satisfying, as well as crucial to a novel’s larger intent. Anyone who has not read the mercifully restorative final chapters of my own, otherwise despairing We Need to Talk About Kevin or So Much for That has not read the book and has not got the point.

Along with his desire to lay bare the writing trade and all its attendant froufrou, Parks’ second big subject is more admission against interest: the epidemic of books translated from English, from which he and I have both generously benefited. British-born but a long time Italian resident (thus becoming by sheer accident, as he says himself, “Mr Italy”), Parks teaches translation, has translated numerous Italian works into English, and has had his own books published in foreign languages. The popularity of translations works appallingly in one direction. About half the novels published in Germany are foreign translations, which constitute only 3 to 4 per cent of American fiction lists. Just as English-speaking tourists luck out when travelling abroad, where so many natives have studied English as a second language, authors who write in English are privileged internationally. Apparently in Italy you haven’t arrived literarily unless your work has been published in New York, and Parks believes that the very cadence of the English language has infected the ears of Italian writers and Englishified their syntax. Worst of all, translations from English are crowding out local work.

With ambitions to reach a global audience, some writers in English such as Kazuo Ishiguro tailor their novels for ease of translation, which can entail eliminating idiom, wordplay, insider allusion, and geographic and cultural specificity, thereby surely risking a dumbing down of the prose. Parks worries that novelists are, to some extent, “being asked to contribute to building a vast and for the moment largely imaginary global culture.” In the food world, localism is all the rage. But in literature, authors increasingly strive to break the bonds to their communities, the better to access an international readership. Yet Parks believes fiction, and meaning in general, thrives in the exquisitely particular.

Where I’m Reading From portrays the growth of the global literary blockbuster as a “commercial convenience.” With this model, publishers have to pay only one writer, and then can capitalise on economies of scale. As a result, we’ve the irony of an ever-growing world population, yet an ever-shrinking number of spots for successful novelists, who are therefore understandably less consumed with art than with winning. By the late 20th century, the job took on the characteristics of a lottery, in which “a precious few authors sold vast numbers of books while vast numbers of writers sold precious few books.” Thus successful novelists are now entangled in a corporate machine. Given that the author is encouraged to cultivate an image of the maverick, the critic outside the system, “This is an incitement to hypocrisy.”

The problem is greater than reduction of opportunity. When novels are sold en masse in dozens of languages, one of the casualties is style. Parks observes, “In translation, stripped of its style, Gatsby really doesn’t seem a very remarkable performance.” In comparing original and translated passages of classics, Parks demonstrates that the distinguishing linguistic oddities, the slight strangeness of expression that will set a paragraph in DH Lawrence apart for an English reader, is often eliminated entirely in foreign editions. In translation, the poetic devices that contribute to the distinctive sound of a writer’s prose can readily vanish: assonance, internal rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, onomatopoeia.

Since these are devices I use both consciously and instinctively in my own books, Parks reminded me of my gratitude that, being hopelessly monolingual, I cannot read the translations of my novels. If I could, with all due credit to hardworking translators, I would certainly be horrified. I’m touchy about the arc and the land of a line. The sound of prose and what it means are intertwined. For me, the loss of style is the loss of, well, everything. (Take the three section headings of my last novel: “Up,” “Down,” and “Out.” How were the sections titled in my French translation? “Up,” “Down,” and “Fragile.” Excuse me—what doesn’t belong in this picture? But apparently my French translator struggled to find a perfect parallel to the English preposition “out.” To call the solution inelegant is an understatement.) Because translation “disturbs the relationship between sound and semantics,” Parks warns, it will “deceive you less, and charm you less” (which makes me realise that, like most of my brethren, I may care more about charming than telling the truth). Parks is a fitting advocate for the importance of style, since his own is droll, concise, and crisp.

In “The Writer’s Job,” Parks makes what is perhaps this volume’s most discouraging assertion. Traditionally, any serious novelist’s most driving aspiration is finally to graduate to “the canon”—peopled by the likes of William Faulkner and Gustave Flaubert, the very authors who inspire successors to take up the craft. “But in the publishing culture we have today,” Parks laments, “any idea that a process of slow sifting might produce a credible canon such as those we inherited from the distant past is nonsense. Whatever in the future masquerades as a canon for our own time will largely be the result of good marketing, self-promotion and pure chance.”

Regarding the technological tumult in modern publishing, these essays address neither the rise of self-publishing—even if Parks clearly fears a future where everyone writes and no one reads—nor the cannibalising behemoth of Amazon, though he does laud e-books as expressions of cerebral purity. (Cleansed of distracting packaging—covers, overcooked blurbs—e-books are text alone, which redeems itself exclusively on the strength of the work.) Unfortunately, I question his sanguinity over the safety of authorial copyright in the digital age.

It is a rare nonfiction book that I have this heavily underscored or with which I feel in such accord. Parks’s undermining of his profession’s pretensions comes as a relief, and by contrast serves to highlight the painful pomposity of so many of our colleagues. This collection will especially appeal to other writers—although if we include the unpublished, that’s a large audience. And doubtless just about everybody will welcome an author writing about literature who isn’t full of shit.