Brian Viner: I share Fay Weldon's bafflement

Is the literary analysis industry made out of blancmange?
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The splendid Fay Weldon was a guest on the Radio 4 programme Book Club yesterday, talking about her 1989 novel The Cloning of Joanna May. Or rather, others were talking, while Weldon rather bemusedly listened.

Why hadn't her scientist, who seemed to have such a high opinion of himself, cloned himself rather than the flawed Joanna, one woman asked. Weldon ermed and erred. Because she hadn't really thought of that, she said. Then a man came to her rescue. It was because the scientists' parents were both quite mad, he said, and he didn't want to perpetuate this genetic frailty.

There you are, Weldon said to the first questioner, she had answered her question in the book. Another woman asked whether she thought of the novel as a strong feminist tract. Well, perhaps at one time it was. Oh, but don't you think it still is? Erm, er...

These exchanges made me feel more than ever like the little boy who dared to point out that the emperor was wearing no clothes, or in this case that the literary analysis industry is built out of blancmange. Faced with such zealous admirers of her work, Fay Weldon came across like the one member of the book club who hasn't quite got round to reading the damned thing. Never mind the fact that she wrote it, they understood it much better than she did.

Except, of course, that they didn't. They only thought they did. Imagine if Shakespeare or Milton or Donne were to stand at the back of a university English tutorial, listening to what this reference symbolised, or what that metaphor conveyed. A ghostly utterance of "bollocks" would surely waft across the room.

Obviously, this doesn't mean that English literature is not worth studying. The human condition is much enhanced by an appreciation of great verse and prose. But Weldon's turn on Book Club showed how fraught with misapprehension the whole business is. As he would be the first to remind us, Shakespeare, like Weldon and for that matter Jeffrey Archer, was only telling stories.

All that said, I once lambasted a friend of mine, at the time a fashion writer on Vogue, for conspiring in pulling wool, or perhaps cashmere, over people's eyes. How could she possibly write solemnly about a model sashaying down the catwalk with one breast showing, on platform heels four inches high, and what looked like the love child of a squirrel and an orchid balanced on her head?

And how could the fools in the audience applaud? When was any sentient being going to walk down any high street dressed like that? My friend heard me out, and then put me right. The point of that kind of haute couture was not that it should be copied, she said, but that it should filter down to the high street in greatly diluted form. It was merely the promotion of an idea, open to interpretation.

I suppose the same is true of literature. Fay Weldon's achievement was to write a book that almost 20 years later still has the power to provoke debate, even if the debate flew mostly over her own head. If yesterday's edition of Book Club proved anything, it was that once the word is committed to the page, it is owned by the reader as much as, if not more than, the writer.