Why feel-good books make me feel bad

Personally, I rather like swearing in a novel - it can add a jet-charge of truth, emotion or humour
Click to follow

It was one of those rare, heart-warming stories which now and then emerge from the chilly wastes of the literary landscape like snowdrops in winter. A Scottish writer of no particular renown had been writing books for many years in his spare time when, in 1999, he became an international star. A series of detective stories set in Botswana caught the attention of independent booksellers in the UK, then quickly built a cult following in America.

These days Alexander McCall Smith, who in the real, grown-up world is a professor of medical law, is also a celebrity. His books have had reading clubs clucking with pleasure, and Anthony Minghella, the man who adapted The English Patient and Cold Mountain for the screen, is said to be stalking the first in the series, The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. In an age of manufactured success, this late-flowering literary success story has given much pleasure, particularly to late flowers.

The stories themselves are also said to be full of the feel-good factor. The many fans of McCall Smith's novels speak of his sense of generosity towards his characters, the amiability of the world he presents. You are in safe hands here, apparently: nothing untoward depressing or inappropriate will happen. Hard-eyed cynicism and gloom may be all around, but here is a daringly old-fashioned celebration of the business of being alive.

I have found myself delaying the pleasure of reading one of these books. Perversely perhaps, there is something about the feel-good factor which gets under my skin, makes me feel bad. I love reading about Africa - Naipaul's In a Free State, Theroux's grumpily perceptive Dark Star Safari, Paul Micou's savagely funny The Music Programme - but, as soon as I am told that this series of detective stories offer a much-needed upbeat view of Africa life, my interest begins to wane.

Until now, I have felt sheepish about my curmudgeonly reading habits, but this week Professor McCall Smith himself has come to my rescue. In an interview for a South African newspaper, he has revealed a briskly dismissive attitude towards authors whose view of the world is less gentle and positive than his own. In fact, he appears to believe that they should not be published at all.

Writing is a moral act, he says quite rightly, but then goes on to argue that "those who portray an aggressive, vulgar, debased attitude towards life are conniving in that life, and I think publishers should reject them."

Here, in black and white, is the reason why nice people - at least those who write for publication - should not be trusted. It is not enough for them to articulate their own mellow perspective; anyone who does not share it is somehow their moral inferior and should not be encouraged in their dyspeptic views by publication.

It matters when a successful author expresses this kind of opinion. Book publishing, both here and in America, has become a brutally market-led business. While editors have little trouble in getting the right, warm-hearted manuscripts through meetings - there is always a market for books that reassure readers - those that kick against the trend, that indeed are aggressive and vulgar in tone, are frequently dismissed as being too difficult or depressing to be worth the bother.

It almost goes without saying that very often it is precisely those books which provide a moral view. By accusing his fellow Scot Irvine Welsh, the author of Trainspotting and Porno, of portraying "a notion of Scottish miserabilism", Professor McCall Smith points up the weakness of his argument. Welsh's best fiction resonates with a sense of right and wrong; to suggest that, by writing about Edinburgh squatters and junkies, he is colluding with the debasement of his characters is weirdly simple-minded.

The professor is also in something of a tizzy about bad language in fiction, and takes to task DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little for its liberal inclusion of rude words. Swearing, he says, is "an act of verbal permissiveness and sexual aggression". Again, the knee-jerk reaction is absurdly wrong-headed. While Vernon Little is undeniably foul-mouthed - an enthusiast has counted 555 mentions of the narrator's favourite word, "fucken" - the idea that a scared, lost teenager swearing is an act of sexual aggression is such a hilarious misreading of the novel that one can only assume that it was removed from McCall Smith's reading list on grounds of profanity.

As for verbal permissiveness, is that not precisely what a writer strives for? Personally, I rather like swearing in a novel - it makes me feel at home and reassures me that the author is treating me like a grown-up. Like any literary device, it can be misused but, when deployed delicately - by Pierre or Roth or Martin Amis, say - it can add a jet-charge of truth, emotion or humour to a scene.

There is art and there is life; in this age of the author-celebrity, the two tend to get confused in the minds of readers, but an experienced writer should know the difference. Oafish vulgarity may be depressing and demeaning in a football crowd, or on an ITV pseudo-documentary about shagging in Ibiza, or on They Think It's All Over, but a book, film or play that looks it in the face with a clear gaze has a feel-good factor of its own.

Terblacker@aol.com

Comments