14 March, 2011Issue 15.5FictionLiterature

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Novel People

Paul Sweeten

Faulks on FictionSebastian Faulks
Faulks on Fiction: The Secret Life of the Novel
BBC Books, 2011
384 Pages
ISBN 978-1846079597

It has been more than a century since A.C. Bradley asked us to remember, when considering the first scene of King Lear, that Cordelia “grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters”. Contemplating the lives of characters before their first speech and beyond their last was common in the Victorian era, though no critic acquired quite the reputation for treating literary figures as though they were real people as Bradley. Adopting the moralistic approach of 19th-century novels, Bradley’s imaginative portraits earned him the ridicule of many critics, among them L.C. Knights, who titled a 1933 essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” by way of illustrating the irrelevancies of such questions. Since then, psychoanalysis has returned to literary criticism, though it is no longer directed at fictional characters. The new subject, despite the efforts of Barthes and Foucault, is the author. Critics tend to ask biographical (or “based on” questions, as Sebastian Faulks calls them) more than any other. It is on this question of emphasis that Faulks on Fiction proceeds to adjudicate:

How did we come to this? It’s not, after all, the natural state of affairs. A child first marvels at the invention of a story; he doesn’t ask who Rumpelstiltskin was modeled on.

Faulks on Fiction, which accompanies a BBC television series of the same name, returns to a Bradlean form of criticism, one that invites us to consider, for example, that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith “at thirty-nine, must have been born in 1945” and that Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice would be “happy with her children” in later life. Indeed, Faulks makes no attempt to disguise the unfashionable nature of his approach: “I have looked at all these characters as though they were real people and tried to make them work without reference to their authors’ lives.”

Faulks’s evocation of a child’s appreciation of literature goes some way to explain why Bradley’s approach faced so much opposition in the reign of New Criticism. Held against the skeptical intellectualism of modernists, character-construct theories were seen as reductive, superficial, and wholly unsophisticated, just as if a child had conceived them. The damage seems so lasting that Faulks’s attempt to reintroduce the method, if only for a general readership, must come on bended knee. “This book does not purport to be a work of literary criticism,” he writes, “still less of scholarship”. Nevertheless, the approach here is highly methodical. Faulks expends two thirds of any discussion summarising his subject’s arc—or, if we may, his subject’s life—marshaling the events of a classic story to suit his purpose before offering a somewhat novel interpretation on its “hero”, “lover”, “snob”, or “villain”. His Lizzie Bennet has her heart set on a life with Jane more than one with Mr Darcy, while his James Bond is a brand-name snob in the league of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.

To impose the possessive pronoun on these assessments is slightly mischievous (it does not fairly acknowledge Faulks’s objectivity), yet they are occasionally presented not in the light of the human condition, but according to the personal circumstances in which Faulks formed his opinions. He begins his points with “The first thing I noticed…” and “Once I had decided…”. Referring to the acknowledgements, one finds that Faulks “was encouraged to include” such personal touches. “Some readers”, he adds, “may prefer to skip these bits.” Loathe though one is to consider a writer’s intentions in a book wishing to reaffirm the “Death of the Author” principle, one cannot help but wonder whether Faulks was goaded by his publishers to make the most of his notoriety. The result, at times, amounts to something like a reader’s biography. That reader is Sebastian Faulks, Author, and he doesn’t let us forget it.

The anecdotal approach begins in good humour:

When I went round the country doing readings after my fourth novel Birdsong came out in 1993, most people could not conceal their disappointment. They had expected me to be 105 years old, French and—in some way—female.

Faulks’s incessant point is that our appreciation of literature is suffering because of a preoccupation with the biography of writers. It is therefore strange that we must find out that he “pretended to have read Tom Jones at the age of seventeen”, “first read Orwell at the age of fourteen”, “first read Nineteen Eighty-Four while learning to speak French in Paris as a student” (during which time he was “presented with a bill so large [he] couldn’t eat lunch for ten days”), and “had not read Wuthering Heights since 1969 until forty years after [he] opened an old second-hand Penguin on a flight back from New York”. All this before the chapter on James Bond, in which Faulks recounts in detail the creative process which led him to write Devil May Care (2008). He “wanted settings that had a fearful or unsettling ring” and “didn’t want to lose the expected broad-brush grostesquerie of Ian Fleming’s villains”. So while insisting that we leave Kingsley Amis out of Jim Dixon and Monica Ali out of Chanu Ahmed, Faulks is not prepared to follow his own lead and allow us to leave him out of Faulks on Fiction.

Faulks’s other distraction, besides talking about himself, is ranking things—writers, novels—in terms of their greatness. This too is in the Bradlean model. During one of his lectures, Bradley invites four characters to the highest tier of Shakespearean roles: Hamlet, Iago, Cleopatra, and Falstaff. Similarly, Faulks provides us with a list (top ten, no less) of what he considers to be the best Sherlock Holmes stories. Elsewhere, we are reminded that “Orwell was not a novelist of the talent or skill of his contemporaries Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green”; Wuthering Heights is “Shakespearean at moments, but garish and clumsy in others”; and Thomas Hardy “had a moral and philosophical agenda, but he didn’t have the scientific or historical detachment to prove his point”. Mighty swings: these judgments stem from Faulks’s rejection of relativism, the “logic beyond reason” that sought to remove “better than” considerations in the 1970s and 80s. It survives today, much to his annoyance:

I remember, with intense embarrassment, hearing people with the rare privilege of a good education arguing on Radio Four that you could never suppose that the Divinia Commedia was in any way superior to the lyrics of Girls Aloud…

Embarrassing indeed, yet Faulks’s judgments occasionally reflect an antithetical “logic beyond reason”. He addresses questions of similar ridiculousness to that with which L.C. Knights intended to lampoon A.C. Bradley. “How many children had Lady Macbeth?” is silly, but was never posed by anyone in seriousness. The same cannot be said of “What is the ninth best Sherlock Holmes story?”

At their most elegant, aesthetic consideration and character criticism shirk the exploration of contextual perspectives in favour of articulating the passions of the reading experience; they are attempts not to know the material as a geologist knows rocks, but to comprehend its human power, that which may be felt as strongly by the casual reader as by the literary scholar. This universality of feeling is at the heart of the aesthetic response; it requires that the critic involve his audience in any reaction to literature. Why is it that we are patient with Darcy, side with Jim Dixon, and feel such sympathy for Tess Durbeyfield? Because of this universality, the aesthetic approach is suited to the cultivation of public understanding like no other model of criticism.

What is often overlooked by deriders of Bradley, and what should be borne in mind by those of Faulks, is that their efforts were intended to enlighten a general readership. In this endeavor, and for the courage to extend an outmoded response to literature, Faulks should be praised. Yet in the delivery of this response, Faulks’s persistent evocation of the critic’s personality only reinforces the culture of authorial celebrity that he rightly claims is detrimental to our appreciation of literature. That culture, as Faulks himself reminds us, is a relatively new phenomenon. The idea of taking a novel on the road, of talking about one’s writing in public, would have been obscure to E. M. Forster and John Steinbeck if not P. G. Wodehouse and Virginia Wolff. Gladly we welcome a return to language, a return to story, yet a book containing a celebrity author’s confessional interpretations of classic fiction proves an unwieldy vehicle for that return. In its acknowledgements, one senses that there may have been one or two “artistic differences” between Faulks and his publishers on this matter. The title, we learn, was not Faulks’s choice, but that of “a high person at the BBC” (the author’s preference was for “Novel People”). And so perhaps it was “high up” television executives who could not resist spotlighting their host, yet in leaving the rest of us in the shade, Faulks on Fiction forgoes the regular employment of one word whose implication to the universality of art is essential to the aesthetic approach. Compare Bradley’s portrait of Macbeth to Faulks on Mr Darcy:

So long as Macbeth’s imagination is active, we watch him fascinated; we feel suspense, horror, awe; in which we are latent, also, admiration and sympathy … we feel much pity as well as anxiety in the scene where [Lady Macbeth] overcomes his opposition to the murder; and we feel it (though his imagination is not specially active) because this scene shows us how little he understands himself. (A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy)

As for Mr Darcy, I was not much bothered by his reserve and his rudeness. I think I sensed from the title and the way the author wrote of him that there was some inevitable momentum in his favour, and that it might be foolish to resist…My indignation at Wickham’s lying and trechery made me so passionate in Darcy’s cause that I was able, like Elizabeth, to allow that emotion to sweep away the other, more well-founded, reservations about Mr Darcy. (Sebastian Faulks, Faulks on Fiction)

That word, present only in the former, is “we”.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.