'There's a lot of grimness out there," said the TV producer Daisy Goodwin earlier this week, complaining about the literary miserablism she'd encountered as the chair of this year's Orange Prize for Fiction jury. "There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure does seem to have become a rather neglected element in publishing." By her account it had been a somewhat gloomy business doing the reading for the long list, finishing off one dispiriting account of human tragedy only to pick up another, un-mediated by jollity or lightness of tone. And though one sympathises with the chore, or the desire for a bit of variety, her grumble couldn't help but sound a slightly naïve and unliterary note – given how important "grimness" is in the canon. Bang goes Hamlet and Macbeth. Bang goes Crime and Punishment. Bang goes most of Thomas Hardy and all of Kafka. Gloomy, gloomy, gloomy guys! Can't you just cheer up and give us a joke every now and then to make the time pass a little quicker?
I know, of course, that this isn't really what Daisy Goodwin was saying. She was just venting about the fact that the heart can only sink so many times before it needs a lift, or a reprieve. And she's broadly right, I think, to say that the downside of life is disproportionately represented in the literary novel.
What's a little surprising is that she's surprised by this. Generally speaking, people just don't sit down to write books about people with a good life-work balance for whom everything broadly goes well. And when they do, when the adversity is only there to be heroically surmounted, we tend to know what kind of books they are. If the more happy endings are what Goodwin is after – and it looks as if that's a least part of what she's calling for – then Mills and Boon novels will dependably supply them, in book after book after book. But isn't it possible that reading pleasure might consist in something else than jollity of tone or outcome? Isn't it possible that it might even take the form of mental distress? Goodwin, I take it, wouldn't agree with Kafka that a book "should be like an axe breaking the frozen sea within". That sounds awfully grim.
I suspect that she had simply fallen prey to one of the occupational hazards for a literary judge, which is pattern-spotting. I'm some way into the reading for this year's Booker Prize and I've found that it's virtually impossible to stop yourself doing this.
I'm currently convinced, for example, that the zeitgeist is strangely obsessed with flight, people abandoning their mundane routines and running towards a simpler or alternative life. I could name you five or six novels that offer variations on this theme, and either conclude from it that they represent some genuine social dread of being trapped or use it as the basis to call for less escapist plotlines.
But, in either case, I think I might be missing the point about where literary merit (and literary pleasure) really lies, which is not in the plotlines but the lines of writing themselves. You're tempted towards it because categorising story types – or sorting books into life-affirming or gloom-inducing – is a good deal easier as a way of getting a grip on the experience than trying to juggle 129 different prose styles in your head.
The temptation should be resisted, though. Complaining about books on the grounds of the plots they contain, rather than how they describe them, is a bit like saying, "Tell me a story... and make it a cheerful one." Perfectly reasonable request in many circumstances, but not something a serious literary prize should be about.
Small can be irritating
I don't know whether there is such a thing as aesthetic epidemiology but if the discipline exists there's an interesting case study to be done right now. About a year ago, I wrote about an Australian photographer who used tilt/shift techniques to turn the real world into a model village. It's an oddly charming trick and it became something of a fad online, with people tilt/shifting all sorts of subjects so that they looked like perfect miniatures of themselves. It had already been around for a while, and Wikipedia suggests it first made it into pop culture in a video for Thom Yorke's "Harrowdown Hill", made in 2006.
Now it's begun to crop up on television – always in the market for novel ways to dress up what are known in the business as GVs, or General Views, that is, all those filler bits of scenery that provide the visual mortar that holds the structural elements of a programme together. I've seen it recently in Inside John Lewis and it also popped up in Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds. The question now is whether we're in for a full-blown telly pandemic, equivalent to the notorious Lemon Jelly break-out that infected eight out of every 10 musical soundtracks a few years back – or just localised outbreaks. Report all sightings to the Centre for Visual Cliché Control.
* Blurb writing is not a highly respected trade, for good reason in most cases. Even in the catalogue for an upmarket publishing house such as Faber and Faber, you can pretty much depend on getting page after page of reverential boilerplate. There will be stuff about "unforgettable novels" and "haunting masterpieces". The writers of these works will be pitched as "one of our finest storytellers" or praised for their ability to cast "a miraculous literary spell". Publications are "eagerly anticipated" or "long awaited". On every page there's a sense of editors gobsmacked by their good fortune in landing these exemplary works – and you don't believe a word of it. The latest Faber catalogue does contain one worth reading though, for Adam Mars-Jones's novel Cedilla, the next in the sequence of books begun by Pilcrow. This acknowledges that the book's scale is surprising coming from "a writer of (let's be tactful) modest productivity" before pointing out that John Cromer "is the weakest hero in literature – unless he's one of the strongest". "None of the reviews of Pilcrow explicitly compared it to a coral reef made of a billion tiny Crunchie bars," it concludes, "but that was the drift of opinion." Last week, I proposed a competition to improve the standards of art-catalogue essay-writing. Perhaps we could add a small award for blurbs that make you laugh.
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