Paul Broks talks fiction, football and cultural value with the godfather of lad-litby Paul Broks / August 27, 2009 / Leave a comment
It’s 6am and I’m surrounded by cardboard boxes. The day after tomorrow I’ll be moving to a house I hadn’t even set eyes on when I went up to London last month to meet Nick Hornby. I mention this because in front of me, open at page two, is Hornby’s book, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (2006), a collection of columns he wrote for the Believer, the US literary magazine. I’ve underlined the following: “At the beginning of my writing career I reviewed a lot of fiction, but I had to pretend, as reviewers do, that I had read the books outside of space, time and self—in other words, I had to pretend that I hadn’t read them when I was tired and grumpy, or drunk, that I wasn’t envious of the author, that I had no agenda, no personal aesthetic or personal taste or personal problems.”
I have no inclination to break the boundaries of space, time and self, so let me explain that, tired, grumpy and a shade hung over, I’m cobbling this together in the process of dismantling my study, book by book, file by file, paper by yellowing paper. I’m writing for an hour, I’m packing for an hour. I’m listening to music and sometimes, to refresh my memory, I’m listening to Nick Hornby and me having a chat. The recording is playing at three-quarter speed so we both sound a bit spaced out. I have never reviewed fiction, and although Nick and I discussed his latest novel, Juliet, Naked, and new film, An Education this is not so much a review of those works as a conversational saunter around them.
I’d found us a quiet corner at the Royal Society of Medicine on Wimpole Street, where I stay sometimes. Members are free to discuss whatever they like with whomever they choose, but talking fiction and football with Nick Hornby for two hours in the temple of medical science had an agreeable tinge of misappropriation. There was some figuring out on the faces of passers-by as they sampled the conversation (“Jeffrey Archer? Well, he’s a can of Coke”). I confessed from the start that I don’t read many novels—just two this year, so far. The truth is I don’t finish many. I’ll give a book 50 pages or a hundred if it’s one I feel I really should have a crack at, a Booker winner, say, or a Philip Roth. But mostly I’m disappointed and mostly it’s contemporary literary fiction that disappoints. Here’s something else from The Complete Polysyllabic Spree: “I would never dissuade anyone from reading a book, but please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a TV programme.”
“You don’t have much truck with literary fiction, either, do you?” I say. No, he doesn’t. “It’s a very good way of marginalising writing.”
Hornby is a man of many writing parts. Gifted with a prose style both erudite and easy on the inner ear, he is probably still best known for the original and hugely influential memoir, Fever Pitch (1992), which chronicles his lifelong obsession with Arsenal football club. If he didn’t actually spark the early 1990s “middle-class revolution” in English football he was, for good or ill, unquestionably in the vanguard. His five novels have been critically acclaimed bestsellers, with the sixth destined for similar. He is also an astute columnist and essayist, writing for the New Yorker and voguish American publications such as McSweeney’s and its sister magazine the Believer. Then there’s the screenwriting, first for the British adaptation of Fever Pitch (there was a second, Americanised, version with the Boston Red Sox supplanting Arsenal) and now for An Education.
The film, which opens here in October, is an exquisitely crafted coming-of-age fable drawn from a memoir by Lynn Barber and directed by Lone Scherfig. One rainy afternoon in the dead water days of 1962, a Bristol 405 glides shark-like through the suburbs. The driver spots his prey, 16-year-old Jenny, bright-eyed, dripping wet, at the gates of her posh school and pulls up. “I’m a music lover,” he says, “and I’m worried about your cello. Jump in.” David is more than twice Jenny’s age but she falls for his charm, which is a strange mix of oil and innocence. So, improbably, do her parents and they collude dimwittedly, and ultimately self-destructively, in their daughter’s seduction. Well and good for Jenny (played by Carey Mulligan) to set her sights for Oxford, but David (Peter Sarsgaard) is an altogether more material alternative—a cultured man of means, a cut above suburbia, and a potential suitor—even if he is vague about what he does for a living (con- man property developer).
This is the first Hornby screenplay based on someone else’s work and I think that gave him licence to gaze less self-consciously at his own preoccupations. When, deep into a whirl of concerts and clubs, of champagne, cigarettes and sex, Jenny says, “I’m still trying to figure out what makes good things good,” it’s Hornby’s voice I hear.
Juliet, Naked, out in September from Viking, also interrogates value in life and art, but through a contemporary tale of popular music, obsessive fandom and a moribund thirtysomething relationship—distinct echoes of his first novel, High Fidelity (1995). The story opens with a wilting English couple, Duncan and Annie, taking pictures in a men’s toilet at a rock club in Minneapolis. It’s a pilgrimage site for fans of the reclusive musician, Tucker Crowe, on whom Duncan is fixated. This was where, according to legend, something mysterious befell Tucker, a vision of God perhaps, or an overdose-induced near-death experience. The toilet was the portal to 22 years of silence—a void endlessly but fruitlessly probed by Tucker cultists. Then, out of the void comes a new album, Juliet, Naked, a denuded demo version of Tucker’s masterpiece, Juliet. Duncan is in awe but Annie hates it and so, it turns out, does Tucker who materialises from the ether with a response to Annie’s harsh internet critique of his work. But who’s to say what’s good?
“So, if Jeffrey Archer’s a can of Coke,” I say, “What does that make Ian McEwan? Something on the wine list presumably.”
“Yes. But if you’re thirsty you don’t want a bottle of Château Lafite.”
I wondered what drink he might compare himself to but didn’t ask. Having read the new novel on holiday in Spain it’s a cool bottle of San Miguel that sprung to mind.
As well as taste, I suggest, Juliet, Naked and An Education are both explorations of time: time lost, time redeemed, time running out. Nick’s not so sure about that, but acknowledges taste—the discernment of artistic quality—as a core concern. “A lot of the things I’ve been thinking about over the last few years, about the value of art and taste and so on, I hadn’t really thought about when I wrote High Fidelity. So this was a good receptacle.” I mention John Carey’s What Good Are the Arts? “It’s been my biggest single influence in the past five years,” he says. Carey considered the question “What is a work of art?” and concluded that a work of art is anything that anyone has ever considered a work of art, though it may be a work of art only for that one person.
“I’d been working towards that in my own mind.” The distinction between “high” and “low” culture, he thinks, is unsustainable. And more than anything he despises the cultural snobbery that seeks to sustain it—still all too prevalent in “this bloody country” (a phrase used in both the new novel and the film). If taste is about the appreciation of depth and complexity (the Château Lafite, the McEwan) that’s fine, but if it also means to disdain more primitive pleasures (the Coke, the Archer) it’s a retreat to a stifling elitism. Hornby’s own work—engaging stories, beautifully written, with camouflaged complexities—transcends the high/low distinction. Jazz, I suggest, is a good musical example of the fusion of “high” and “low” culture. It has primitive roots that go back to the “blue note” of the Neanderthal bone flute, yet can be as rich and “difficult” as anything in the classical idiom. Sadly, Nick hates jazz.
I was surprised to learn that the music and the nerdy, list-making obsessions of Rob Fleming, the confessional narrator of High Fidelity, were something of an afterthought. “Right at the end of thinking about the novel, I thought: what’s this guy going to do for a living? So, I thought, I know about music—he can work in a second-hand record shop. It came that way round. The shape of the book was the relationship—splitting up in the first act, getting back together in the last act, and a sort of wilderness in between.”
“You’re not a precision plotter, then?”
“Not at all. I have a very rough beginning, a middle, and an end. But most of the books are written in kind of set pieces, so one generates the next.” His brother-in-law, the writer Robert Harris, intimidates him with his plot cards all over the place.
The music I’m listening to as I’m writing this and dismantling my study is mostly not the kind of stuff I’d usually play. It’s a selection of songs that Hornby “either loves or has loved,” a soundtrack to his life, if you believe the blurb for 31 Songs (2003), his book on popular music. I’m streaming them from the internet: Nelly Furtado, Aimee Mann, Paul Westerberg, among others—predominantly American and singer-songwriterish. What I’ve been getting so far is not so much the blurb’s promise of “the personal and the passionate” as the personal and the sweet, mid-tempo melancholic. It’s pleasant enough—and I’ve heard Hornby’s novels dismissed in similar terms. But wait. Here comes “Frankie Teardrop” by a band I’ve never heard of called Suicide —it tells the story of a man who can’t take the slings and arrows any more so kills his wife and children, shoots himself and ends up in Hell.
“But the time thing, yeah, I suppose there is an interest.” Nick confesses he’s a chronic waster of time. It makes him sick with himself. “I think: I’m getting older and I’ve done nothing. I piss around on the internet all day. And yet, you know, there’s the new novel, the film, the radio series…” (a comedy, The Richest Man in Britain, co-written with Giles Smith and to be broadcast on Radio 4 later this year) “and the album…” (which he is working on with the American singer-songwriter Ben Folds). He seems genuinely perplexed. “I can’t seem to square the two things up.” As well as music, obsessionality, and an American singer-songwriter, High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked both feature a final act deus ex machina involving death (or its prospect), but the new novel has the richer, more poignant reflections on mortality. Has he become more acutely aware of his own mortality? “Oh, God, yeah,” he says, and we each reflect on the displeasures of turning 50. “It was quite big for me,” he says, “You know, when you’re 30 you say, God, I’m getting old and everybody laughs. Same when you’re 40. Then you’re 50, and it’s not funny anymore. You just are.” But it must be funny otherwise we wouldn’t be laughing.
“You get to a certain age,” he adds, and you’re looking back and thinking I could have achieved a lot more.” But what about the opposite, I wonder, not wasting time. Or rather, not finding time to waste. I mention a former colleague, a brilliant and extraordinarily productive scientist who worked robotically long hours, day in, day out. He was a tetchy, unsmiling character driven self-confessedly by a craving for a posthumous niche in the history of brain science. He wasn’t going to be happy until he was dead. “Ah, posterity…” says Nick, “Yes, well, it seems to me that one of the curses of literature, actually, is that you can see writers writing for posterity. They won’t put anything in that dates the book, and you think, well, it’s fine but if no one’s reading you now they’re not going to be reading you in 50 years’ time. The battle is now.” It matters to him that books are actually read and he wants fiction to play a part in the cultural conversation of the country, “but when I try to talk about it people think I’m being chippy, you know, about being a popular writer. A few months ago I saw some writer slagging me off and saying no one will be reading my books in 20 years’ time and I thought, well, no one’s reading you now, pal!” He names no names. That’s the Hornby way. Thou shalt not slag anybody off. “So, you know, you can only do what you do.”
A problem with contemporary literary fiction, he reckons, is that it too often “denies the pleasures of superfluity.” In one of his Believer columns, devoted mostly to extolling the joys of Dickens (“long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy”) he has a go at the current obsession with stylistic austerity. Anyone taking a creative writing class knows the secret of good writing: “cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress.” You can’t read a review of a Coetzee book without coming across the word “spare.” To prove his point he Googles “J.M. Coetzee + spare” and gets 907 hits. I’ve done the same, five years on, and got 14,900. Spare is good, as is humourless. “Go on,” he urges young writers, “treat yourself to a joke or an adverb!” Or an exclamation mark. And thank God Dickens didn’t go to writing classes. This is not to deny that Coetzee is a formidable novelist. “But,” he says, “too many writers these days refuse to recognise the pleasure of narrative. People want to lose themselves in fiction.
And in football. Sport and art have that in common. “The anxiety and the anger, you know, all the conversational stuff that goes on. I think there’s a lack of self-consciousness in that—because people behave as if it really matters, and they don’t feel self-conscious about it.” Storytellers may have seven basic plots to work with but football fans have a more restricted set. At football matches, “Every conversation is a version of: ‘We need a goal; we need not to let in a goal,’ and that’s pretty much all it is but there are endless elaborations.” He recalls a conversation with a friend at Arsenal’s title-clinching match with Everton at Highbury in 1998. “‘Everton need the points’ my friend says, ‘they could go down.’ So, we get an early goal and he relaxes for five minutes. ‘I’d really like to see another one go in before half-time,’ he says. We get another. He’s worried. ‘If it goes to 2-1,’ he says, ‘we’ll get panicky.’ So we score a third and he says, ‘be nice to get a fourth to wrap it up.’ And the moment the fourth one goes in he says, ‘If we don’t get two new centre halves next season we’re in trouble.’” The perfect, egoless, moment of transcendence is when the ball hits the back of the net, as long as your team has put it there of course, but the moment soon expires and it’s back to the universal story. And there, crystallised, are the two dimensions of selfhood, the self of the present moment—GOAAAL!!—and the extended self, the narrative thread of subjective experience that gives us our sense of unity and continuity—our identity: We need a goal; we need not to let in a goal.
“It’s amazing how little time it all lasts when things are going well,” Nick says.
“Yes, especially if you’re a Wolves fan,” I add.
When we go for a cigarette break I see Nick has left his BlackBerry behind. No problem, he says. It’ll be safe enough in the Royal Society of Medicine. (Katie, the GP in his third novel, How to Be Good (2001), has a habit of affirming her moral status by reference to her profession: “I’m a good person, I’m a doctor.”) It’s still there when we return but his faith in the rectitude of the medical profession is surely tested a little when he gets himself a coffee. There’s a sign on the machine requesting members kindly not to use pennies—which apparently work just as well—instead of pounds.
Hornby is often portrayed as the godfather of lad-lit and he set out with a male readership in mind: “My first two books, Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, I wrote about men, for men.” But female writers have most inspired him, in particular the American novelist, Anne Tyler. “She made me want to write… no man had made me want to write books.”
If, as he believes, women now form the bulk of his readership that’s probably because men don’t read much fiction, he says, but what’s interesting about Hornby, I think, is the androgyny of his writing. With High Fidelity, “the aim was to write basically a male domestic novel. I was always slightly repelled by butch writing. I don’t want to write about wars. I wanted to represent and reflect the lives that, it seemed to me, most of my male friends were living—reasonable, quiet, domestic lives. They had their music, they had their things but most of life is lived at home.” In the introduction to the recently published extended version of her memoir, Lynn Barber says of Hornby’s screenplay, “I found it odd (still find it odd) that this pre-eminently ‘boy’ writer should so completely understand what it felt like to be a 16-year-old schoolgirl who was on the one hand very bright but on the other very ignorant about the world but, miraculously, he did.” Perhaps brightness and bafflement—common traits in Hornby characters—are the core elements. He tells me that making An Education was a hard struggle. He might have given up on it but there was something intrinsic to the material that made him persevere. It finally dawned that it was another version of Fever Pitch. “It’s that sort of dead, suburban thing. Fearing that you’re going to miss out and finding a shortcut into something that’s urban and alive.” I tell him I hadn’t picked up on that. “Nor did I when I was writing it,” he says. “But you realise there are lots of versions of that story in England. I think it’s the story of the Rolling Stones, you know, just bright Dartford boys, but then they discovered the blues.”
As a general rule, women tend to read novels written by women whereas men, to the extent that they read fiction at all, prefer novels by male authors. Hornby is one of the few contemporary novelists who bridge the gender divide. My wife happens to be a fan, and I once asked her to explain his appeal. She said it wasn’t just his insight into the deficiencies of the male mind, but his capacity to make them endearing. So, it’s not that he writes like a woman? I’d said.
I put a similarly ill-conceived, similarly ill-phrased question to the man himself: “Would you say you write in a female style?” He’s not quite sure what I mean and neither, frankly, am I but it gets us into a discussion about the purported differences between the male and female brain, girls supposedly having the better equipment for empathy, boys being more predisposed to “systemising”—analysis, synthesis, ordering, categorisation (Rob in High Fidelity; Duncan in Juliet, Naked). Hornby has an autistic son, Danny, and is bombarded by publishers with books about autism, so he’s familiar with the theory of Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, that it is an expression of the “extreme male brain.” But he’s not convinced it’s relevant to Danny, whose condition is complicated by brain injuries sustained at birth. I get the impression he’s not interested in the science, but he says it’s more that it makes him nervous. “My relationship with autism is a complicated one.” Complicated but passionate. He is a co-founder of TreeHouse, the national charity for autism education, and he bristles at glib assessments of his personal experience of the condition. “There was an article in the Independent. The woman said, well, it’s no surprise Nick Hornby had an autistic son because look at his books… and, you know, I was incredibly angry with that in ways that I can’t fully comprehend.”
I’ve found a plastic bag full of restaurant receipts, postcards, travel itineraries and other miscellaneous memorabilia. There are tickets for the Louvre and the Uffizi; there’s a Plymouth Argyle football programme, and a boarding pass for a Qantas flight from Sydney to Auckland. There are receipts for traffic fines in Spain (parking offence, €125) and, way back this one, speeding in Austria (32kph in a 30kph zone; 100 schillings). There’s a very old wallet, and in it a very old photograph, taken in a booth, of me hugging my wife. I’ve been getting sentimental sifting these scraps of memory and when I get to the picture my eyes prick. It’s my right eye that moistens first, which is an observation I don’t think I would have made had I not read something similar in Juliet, Naked. Someone makes an ill-judged remark about Annie’s love life. A tear forms in her right eye. “Why the right? Was it one of those things where the right tear-duct was connected to the left side of the brain, and was it the left side of the brain that processed emotional trauma? She had no idea, but trying to work it out helped.” It’s a lovely observation. She’s probably wrong about the functional neuroanatomy of the matter. Brain-tear duct connections are (I think) ipsilateral—same side—rather than contralateral, and it would most likely be the right hemisphere doing the emotional processing. But, novelistically, it’s an exquisite speculation—and one I don’t think I’ve ever come across in a scientific context. Science has very little to say about laughing and crying.
I’m piling books up to pack, to dump and to take to the Oxfam shop. It’s amazing the number of forgotten friends that show up. One is the Penguin edition of John Mortimer’s In Character, a collection of interviews with “some of the most remarkable and influential men and women of our time”—Mick Jagger, Michael Foot and Malcolm Muggeridge, among others. Sandwiched between Tony Benn and Enoch Powell is the novelist Angela Carter. Mortimer asks her, “Is it very boring to be called a ‘woman writer’?” “Unendurable!” she replies. And he says, “It seems to me that women writers aren’t necessarily women, I mean…” “I know! Dostoyevsky was the complete woman writer.” “And Flaubert?” “Flaubert was a drag queen.” Had she lived to read his work, I think she might have said the same about “this pre-eminently ‘boy’ writer,” Nick Hornby.
Nick goes home to take care of Danny, who’s off school today. I go back to Plymouth to view a house.