Jemisin, Leckie, Letters to Tiptree: praise ye them

a HugoThe 2016 Hugo Awards were announced last night, and I am SO PLEASED that N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the category of Best Novel. It is groundbreaking, superb, a work of utterly readable literary invention that I am proud to have reviewed, here. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy was one of the five other shortlisted novels, also reviewed by me, here.

I’m also DELIGHTED that the excellent anthology of essays and letters by and about James Tiptree jr, Letters to Tiptree won the Alfie for Best Related Work, again reviewed earlier this year with enthusiasm by me here.

An array of Alfie awards as seen on George R R Martin’s site

The Alfies were created by George R R Martin in 2015 as a way to get around the tedious and mean-spirited hijacking of the Hugos by mass block-voting from single-interest groups, rather than the democratic process the voting ought to be. The 2016 Alfies were awarded informally after the Hugo Awards last night. Since the Alfies are not, yet, official, Twitter alerted me with many squeees! that Letters to Tiptree had won an award, and Ann Leckie confirmed it, so I’ll take her testimony as the bottom line in lieu of an official list.

Leckie also sent me these further updates on the other Alfie Awards for 2016

Best Short Story – Alyssa Wong

Best Artist – Julie Dillon

Best Fan Writer – Alexandra Erin

Best Graphic Novel – Bitch Planet Vol 1

Special Award – Locus Magazine

Best Fanzine – Journey Planet

Special Award – Black Gate

Best Fancast – Tea and Jeopardy

The Golden Age of Murder

golden-ageMartin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder is a fat and heavy hardback (the paperback is due out in 2016) endorsed by Len Deighton, as a study of the British writers who created the Golden Age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s an absolute treasure chest of writers’ names and novels that have disappeared into oblivion, and a useful though patchy outline of the evolution of the detective story market between the wars. It is also a ramshackle mess, and shockingly badly written.

Martin Edwards is a former solicitor and an award-winning (so says his personal website) author of many detective novels. His lifetime of reading detective fiction has certainly formed the basis for this book, since only a true fan and a devoted reader could amass so much information. There are many nuggets: my favourite two are that A G Macdonell wrote as Neil Gordon! Edward VIII played erotic jigsaw puzzles! Unfortunately, this book also needed an editor. Edwards has skimmed the work of many biographers and critics by presenting their views with his own in an unattributed mass of statements, supported, some of the time, with a vague endnote saying that he has benefited from the work of X and Y. I am appalled that Harper Collins allowed him to get away with such sloppy non-attributions.

Monsignor Ronald Knox
Monsignor Ronald Knox

He was also in need of a fact-checker. Monsignor Ronald Knox’s sister was Lady Peck, not Lady Winifred Peck (their father was not noble), and she was the author of 25 books, not ‘several’. Naomi Mitchison and her husband Dick did not have ‘an oysters and champagne lifestyle’, nor a ‘Scottish baronial castle’ (it was just a big house). There were many ‘lady detectives’ predating Lady Molly of the Yard, in Victorian fiction magazines. St Giles in Oxford is not usually described as a ‘boulevard’. As Prince of Wales, Edward VIII was called David before his accession, not Edward, but the correct way to refer to him would be ‘the Prince’.

ScreenThe structure of the book is bizarre, as noted by Simon in his Vulpes Libris review. Book titles float in and out of time, unconnected to their date of publication, so although we can sense that the book begins sometime in the 1920s, it wanders towards the 1950s in and out of chronology, with episodes and authors’ biographies beginning in the middle of their lives, jerking back and forth without any sense that history matters when you are discussing real lives or publications. The second half of the story behind The Detection Club’s Behind The Screen is given on pp.89-90, yet the first half is finally told on pp.162-3. Perhaps Edwards was playing with an alternate theory of time in which ‘the Three Cups Hotel – a favourite of Jane Austen, Tennyson and Tolkien’ (p.217) relocates itself outside time so that all three authors could chat together.  Edwards certainly doesn’t bother to refresh his understanding of history by reading any: he cites two detective novelists’ memoirs as his only sources for the history of the 1930s.

Anthony Berkeley
Anthony Berkeley

There is a colossal imbalance between the amount of attention given to Anthony Berkeley, Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie, compared to that given to all the other authors. The life and odd habits of Anthony Berkeley in particular, clearly Edwards’ special subject, are pressed upon the reader throughout the book, like an irritating chorus. It is certainly very useful to learn so much about this author whose works have not remained in the public’s affection so much as those by Sayers and Christie. However, I was not persuaded by Edwards’ culminating theory (mostly imaginary, as he admits) that Berkeley and his great friend the novelist E M Delafield conducted a chaste but passionate affair by ‘planting clues to their mutual devotion in plain sight’ in their novels: ‘She inspired and obsessed him. Without her, he was finished as a crime writer’ (p.425). Edwards’ exposition of this theory smacks of Mr Mybug insisting that Branwell Bronte wrote his sisters’ novels because they were all drunk (see Cold Comfort Farm). Edwards then goes on to criticise a Gaylord Larsen novel about the Detection Club as ‘a masterclass in howlers so extraordinary that the reader’s initial astonishment turns to hilarity’ (p. 431). Pot: meet kettle.

Dorothy L Sayers
Dorothy L Sayers

Nor am I persuaded by Edwards’ suggestions that random lines used by Berkeley in his novels (or his initials) inspired much more famous works by Christie and Sayers. If he bothered to give evidence, or publication dates, his case might be strengthened, but without them I am not. With so much noise being made about Berkeley, Sayers and Christie, we hear very little about the works of other Detection Club authors, from the still famous such as Ngaio Marsh, or the totally forgotten, such as Newton Gale. This is a disappointment. It is definitely useful to learn so much about Helen Simpson and Clemence Dane, for example, but in The Golden Age of Murder they and their works exist in isolation. There is no integration, and no sense of assessing a body of work across authors or time, or of trying to present a coherent and balanced picture of the writers who drove the detective novel industry.

Instead, the book presses scandal and personal drama upon us. Edwards insists, over and over, that Sayers had felt perpetual shame and guilt about the existence of her illegitimate son. All the Sayers biographies have already dealt with this in a far more balanced fashion, so what is Edwards’ point? His interest in the bodies of his subjects and what they do with them is repetitive and prurient. Sayers’ and Christie’s appearance, weight and shape are brought to our attention, repeatedly, as if their waist size or choice of hairstyle influenced their writing. If any author exhibits non-standard sexual interests in their lives or fiction (particularly whippings), we are sure to be told about it. Authors who did not marry have their sexuality speculated upon as a matter of course. These are wearying preoccupations to put up with if all we want to know is how they wrote their books and what inspired them.

Throughout The Golden Age of Murder there are many, sometimes lengthy, retellings of true crimes from the past, because they apparently influenced certain novels from the period. Given that Edwards has, rightly, sought to avoid plot spoilers in his discussion, it makes no sense at all to give the true crime origins of these plots as well. But most of the time he doesn’t bother connecting the history with the novel, he just enjoys indulging this sideline of antiquarian true crime for its own sake.

My final grumble is that Edwards’ passion for using all his research produces crass, or ludicrous, non sequiturs. On P G Wodehouse’s step-daughter Leonora: Her sudden death in 1944 was a crushing blow. “I really feel that nothing matters much now.” Her widowed husband, Peter Cazalet, went on to train Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s racehorse that mysteriously collapsed fifty yards short of winning the 1956 Grand National while being ridden by Dick Francis (later, like his son Felix, as a member of the Detection Club) (pp.129-30). Why connect horse-racing with her death, except to show off about your research?

On the ‘Hay-on-Wye Poisoner’ Major Armstrong: Armstrong was found guilty. He remains the only English solicitor to have died on the scaffold. True to type, he was wearing his best tweed suit (p.136). We have to ask: did murderers, or solicitors, routinely wear tweed?

On the novelist J R Ackerley: Joe Ackerley was the illegitimate half-brother of the future Duchess of Westminster, and his fondness for sailors and guardsmen caused E M Forster to warn him to give up looking for ‘gold in coal mines’ (pp.167-8). It’s nice to know that having a lively illegitimate half-brother did not prevent a ducal marriage.

On Agatha Christie: Christie was Ackerley’s favourite detective novelist. He regarded her persistent lateness in delivering her contributions as tiresome, but found her “surprisingly good-looking”. Yet he did not rate her highly as a broadcaster (171). They were broadcasting on radio, so I can see that lateness might be tricky, but why would Christie’s looks even be relevant?

On Helen Simpson: Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that women could have it all. Convent-educated, she was a keen snuff-taker with a love of fencing and witchcraft (p.214). We need to know how the convent led her to epées and broomsticks.

It’s not a bad book, just ridiculously distracting, with all these monstrous elephants flirting in the room in front of the interesting stuff. I wish Edwards had followed his obvious urge to write Anthony Berkeley’s biography instead.

The BBC’s 100 best British novels: unpacking the numbers

ShandyThe BBC released a list on Monday 2 December called ‘The 100 Greatest British Novels’. Jane Ciabattari collated this in an imaginative way, by asking literary critics (ie people who make their living from reviewing books) from outside the UK to give their personal lists of the 10 best British novels, assigning each title points from 1 to 10, with the best of their ten receiving 10 points. A total of 228 novel titles were sent in, the points were added up, and the top 100 were published.

I haven’t looked at the online comments on that article or on others piggybacking on the story: the Guardian had 603 by Tuesday lunchtime, which put me off straight away. I assume that I’m saying here what others may have said elsewhere.

There is a major statistical error in the list as published, since seven of the ‘novels’ are actually groups of novels: Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (3 titles), the Narnia books by C S Lewis (7 titles), Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (3 titles), John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (5 titles), the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn (3 titles), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (3 titles), Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End (4 titles), and Anthony Powell’s vast A Dance to the Music of Time (12 titles). So that a big problem, since it adds 32 titles to the apparent ‘top 100’. It’s not evident why these groups of titles were conflated into one: perhaps some critics were lazy and sent them in like that; perhaps The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers or The Return of the King all polled equally (which is unlikely). Nonetheless, these titles were originally published separately, and that’s important, since that’s the apparent methodology for the selection. One rule needs to apply for all. The Narnia books, the novels of A Dance to the Music of Time and of Parade’s End, for example, are discrete, separate novels, not multi-volumed entities, and should be counted as such.

Ciabattari compounds this error in her accompanying article ‘Are Britain’s best writers women?’ by trumpeting that women authors make up half the top 20, and ‘nearly 40%’ of the top 100. Ten novels by women authors do make up half the top 20 novels, but only by six women authors, up against eight male authors; which isn’t half at all. With the novels properly counted as individual works, women writers actually make up only 27% of the top ‘100’ (now a top 132), rather than the 36% as originally counted (which is still not ‘nearly’ 40%). Numbers matter!

VilletteI also disagree that women writers are represented well enough on this list, in its original or in its revised form, for anyone to claim that they are ‘best’. Six of the top ten novels are written by women, but only by five women. ‘Best’ is not 50% representation, that’s simply ‘equal’ in this reading: there’s no need to be triumphalist over that. The six women authors in the top 20 are the six most well-known British women authors publishing within the period of 1813-1931: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte (notice that E Bronte wrote only one novel and it’s in the top 20), Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and the inevitable Virginia Woolf. So there are no surprises there, just confirmation that English literature curricula the world over have done a jolly good reinforcement job on the usual suspects. They are very, very good authors, but to call them the ‘best’ suggests a level playing field and Queensberry rules, which this list is not.

Most of the titles were published in the 20th century, with the 19th-century classics coming up next in popularity (but no Fanny Burney, sniff). The staying-power of the six 18th-century standard works by Defoe, Sterne, Richardson, Fielding and James Hogg (yay for the Justified Sinner!) is really impressive. The top ten titles were all 19th-century or 20th-century novels, and the top 20 only had one 21st-century and one 18th-century novel: McEwan’s Atonement and Richardson’s Clarissa. The representation of the centuries across the list as it approaches peak popularity is rather telling: look at this colour-coded version: 100 best british novels coloured by century

Repetition also counts towards an apparent ‘best’ or ‘greatest’. Four of Jane Austen’s six novels are in the list, compared to four of Dickens’s 20 novels and novellas. Other repeat authors are from the 18th (1), 19th (4), 20th (9), and 21st (4) centuries are: Lessing, Waugh, Trollope, Greene, Hardy, G Eliot, Conrad, V Woolf, Lawrence, Hollinghurst, Winterson, Z Smith, Defoe, Forster, C Bronte, Ishiguro, Ford and Orwell. Repeat appearances in the list certainly suggests consistent ‘greatness’ across an oeuvre, so that’s something to take seriously. However, some of this ‘greatness’ may have come from familiarity with film and TV adaptations, which complicates whether the critics who thought that The Line of Beauty was great are thinking of the novel or the TV adaptation. One will very easily be influenced by the other, and those titles which have had recent mass-media exposure will have an advantage.

gibbonsFrom my perspective as a scholar of forgotten authors, I was very happy to see that around 26 (this is very subjective) of the 20th-century authors are what I’d classify as ‘uncanonical’, ie not likely to be found in university English literature curricula, and certainly not in high school English syllabi. (I do not count 21st-century authors as admissible for canonical laurels, yet, as they haven’t been in print long enough for future generations of critics to regard them as highly as we do now.) This suggests that as well as being influenced by their literary education in how they chose authors less commonly seen on the best-seller lists than in the Worlds’ Classics, the critics polled chose from their own reading for pleasure by including more recent authors who are simply not taught at all: P G Wodehouse, Barbara Pym and Sybille Bedford epitomise this from the 20th century, as do Edward St Aubyn and Jane Gardam. These authors were undoubtedly discovered outside formal Eng lit education, which gives them an alternate route to readers’ hearts.

Children’s literature, which clutches the heart at the most impressionable age, is strongly represented, but, again, these titles are all classics, even those by Philip Pullman. The hugely popular novels about Mary Poppins and Harry Potter, for example, are not present, nor (thank goodness) Winnie the Pooh. It’d be interesting to see the rest of the list from 228 to 101, to see what was still counted, and by how much, as being ‘great’. It would also be interesting to read how each critic who contributed defined ‘great’ or ‘best’.

kazuoOther omissions are very interesting: no science fiction (other than Doris Lessing), no High Modernism (except perhaps Henry Green?), no novels in the detective, the western, the romance or the thriller genres; and with the exception of P G Wodehouse pipping in at 100 and Waugh’s Scoop, not much full-length comic genius, in which British literature is rich.

What does this list, flawed and subjective as it is, tell us? That literary education sticks in how we assess what we read. That novels we may love to bits and reread faithfully every year might not qualify for the list because, to a literary critic, ‘pleasure’ might not count as ‘great’. And that if you’re going to present data like this, you need to respect the numbers and count them properly.