Tim Parks brilliantly skewers the pieties of the literary worldby Lionel Shriver / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
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…