Authors and Critics

The extracts below are some random examples of the wonderful variety of comments made by authors and critics about fiction.  – JWG


Margaret Atwood on ideology

“I don’t have a doctrinaire set of ideas. It’s very annoying to some people. I don’t think you can be a novelist and have a doctrinaire set of ideas. You are just going to write propaganda.”

From: Nick Bryant, 2019. The Age,Authors and Critics February 16th, 2019.

“Sean Penn’s debut novel – repellent and stupid on so many levels” 

Sian Cain, 29 March, 2018, The Guardian

“The Oscar-winning actor’s first foray into fiction, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, has met with derision online. But how bad can it be?… Penn doesn’t just swing and miss with his ambitious vocabulary; he swings and cracks a hole in reality as we know it, leaving us all unsure of the concept of a good sentence, how a novel should be structured and generally what makes sense any more… ”

Excerpts from “What the Cult of Knausgaard Tells Us About Critical Bias” 

by Becca Rothfeld, 28 April, 2015

“[Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle] … the book is worse than dull — it’s also insultingly self-indulgent… I suspect that so many critics have worshipped at the altar of Knausgaard because there’s something very enviable about his unshakable belief in his own value…

…the privilege of writing about oneself — of passing one’s vanity off as profundity — is reserved almost exclusively for male authors. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: the likes of Knausgaard and Henry Miller get to prance around with cigarettes dangling out of their mouths, looking tortured and feeling congratulatory, because they’re men, and male sentimentality is “honest” and “vulnerable,” never whiny and egotistical…

… the very format of My Struggle remains a testament to his unshakable faith in his own significance.”

Read the whole article by Becca Rothfeld here

“Insults, barbs and put downs, all in a day’s work for a book reviewer”

by D.J. Taylor, 14 December, 2016

“For the critic, even the critic of the latest B-plus-level novel, has two audiences: readers who want something to entertain them for the next couple of evenings, and that much more exacting long-term judge, posterity. It was Orwell, again, who pointed out that to do their job properly book reviewers need a spring balance simultaneously capable of weighing an elephant and a flea: some delicate mechanism that will enable them to advertise the true merits of a work that may capture the public imagination for a fortnight and gesture at the row of timeless classics that lie on the shelf behind it.”


Some Comments on “The Stolen Bicycle”, by Wu Ming-Yi

sbicycleThe opening line to Wu Ming-Yi’s novel “The Stolen Bicycle” reads: “I must describe that morning for you, because every time something is described anew it becomes meaningful anew.”

Finding new meaning is exactly what the novel sets out to do, and not only through “description”, but by exploring the lives of the protagonist’s family and friends, from childhood onwards. Wu then unveils aspects of the culture of his homeland as his characters are embroiled in events in Taiwan’s turbulent history, such as occupation by the Japanese.

The stories at the heart of the novel are allowed to emerge through observation of the many lives encountered by the protagonist in his manic search for classic bicycles, in particular a bike that once belonged to his father, who disappeared many years ago. While searching for bicycles may sound pedestrian, somehow it is a theme that leads to all sorts of adventures of discovery and encounters with a large cast of eccentrics.

The tone of the writing is both intimate and sweeping in scope, and the overall effect is deeply satisfying.

(First published by Rye Field Publishing Co., Taipei, in 2015. Published in English in 2017 by The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. Translated by Darryl Sterk)

“Arthur and George” – an exotic novel by Julian Barnes

“Arthur and George” (published in 2005) is an example of what could be called Julian Arthur&George-newLBarnes’ “exotic” novels, as against his “suburban” ones.

His exotic novels, like “The Noise of Time” (about the famous Russian composer Shostakovich trying to survive as an artist in Soviet Russia) and “Flaubert’s Parrot” (an English doctor in France searching for a stuffed parrot supposedly once owned by Flaubert), seem more inspired and intense than the ones I would label “suburban”.

The “exotic-ness” in the three novels mentioned is derived from a foreign character (that is, a protagonist who is not Anglo-Saxon), and/or a setting somewhere abroad that is not England, and has some element of fame attached to it. For example, a famous author, a famous composer, a famous legal case.

By “suburban” I mean that novels like “Metroland”, “Before She Met Me”, and “The Sense of an Ending” feel weighed down by the tedium of suburbia experienced by the protagonists, a feeling that saturates the point of view of the narrator. Suburbia is something that you escape from, with a bit of luck, or at least manage to view from a distance, as if through the wrong end of a telescope.

And so “Arthur and George”,  although on the face of it an historical novel set in  nineteenth century rural England, is in fact a psychological study of a notorious criminal case in which George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian lawyer, is wrongfully imprisoned. George is assisted by Arthur to obtain justice in the face of racial prejudice and police corruption. The identity of Arthur is only revealed well into the book, and he turns out to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes novels.

The two characters stand in opposition to each other. George is a highly intelligent but eccentric and isolated man, a victim of racism. Arthur is rich and famous, with Sherlock Holmes one of the best known characters in English fiction.

Foreignness and fame both abound in this novel, and although it is set in England, it is quite “exotic” in the sense I have suggested.

The personalities of the two protagonists are finely etched, with irony and humour. And Julian Barnes allows both protagonists equal exposure, not relying on Arthur Conan Doyle’s fame to drive the narrative. In fact, Arthur is given a warts-and-all portrait in the novel, while George’s experience as a member of a racial minority who is raised in England, and regards himself as English, is tellingly depicted.

Overall, “Arthur and George” is an engrossing and disturbing account of racism causing severe injustice. The novel also manages to be witty and entertaining, despite the grim realities of the story. It was televised in 2015 in the UK, with Arsher Ali and Martin Clunes in the main roles.