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Polyglot Sensibilities

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Poor Stuart Evers, his article on Jonathan Lethem’s eclecticism has been burdened by the subs with a heading which I’m sure he wouldn’t agree with: “Jonathan Lethem’s output is impressively diverse, but it’s not going to win him a dedicated readership”. I would argue that Lethem’s diverse output is exactly what has won him a dedicated readership. I’m sure Evers would be sympathetic to that view but he doesn’t do himself any favours:

When asked at last week’s reading at the London Review Bookshop about the wildly different nature of his work, and whether this was a help or a hindrance to his work, Lethem was wholly positive about his polyglot sensibilities… Creatively speaking, his argument was both logical and sure-footed: after all, no one would deny writers the absolute right to choose the subject and style of their work. But such diversity is not perhaps the best way to endear yourself to a readership, or to receive a consistent critical reception.

He doesn’t provide much evidence for this, apart from the mixed reception to You Don’t Love Me Yet. Also, although I’m pleased he is drawing attention to authors who plough their own furrow, I’m not sure it is that rare or noteworthy. Lethem’s progression from science fiction novelist to receiving widespread acclaim outside the genre is certainly unusual but moving between genres and styles is not. Consider Peter Carey: in the last ten years we have had a pastiche of Dickens, a retelling of the story of Ned Kelly in dialect, a fictional take on the Ern Malley hoax, a volume of travel writing on Japan, a Transpacific love story set in the modern art world and a look at Sixities counterculture politics. This is not atypical (although I will admit that I am an atypical reader in that I am particularly drawn to this sort of writer).

Evers talks about a publishing industry “obsessed with creating brands” but Lethem is his own brand and the same is true of other major literary writers like Carey. I would suggest it is unlikely that when they turn in their latest offering that there is “some grumbling from the sales department eager to sell in another fantasy-crime novel featuring a returning character”. They are different products for different markets. Evers view only makes sense from within a narrow slice of comercial publishing. It is easy to internalise some of the bad news messages of the industry but I think things are a lot more positive than people sometimes make out. In the oppostie direction, Evers overstates his case for the uniqueness of the books the writers he champions produce:

And while for the vast majority these are thematically, geographically, stylistically or generically linked to each other, for the few – the brilliant, yet perpetually overlooked Chris Paling and the incredible but under-championed Nicholson Baker for example – such similarities are much harder to tease out.

I’ve not read Paling but it isn’t that hard to see similarities in Baker’s work; between The Mezzanine and Room Temperature or between Vox and Checkpoint. Similarly I’ve recently been reading Lethem’s ‘Hardened Criminals’ (1996) and there are clear links to his later novels like Motherless Brooklyn (1999) and The Fortress of Solitude (2003). In fact, part of the joy with an eclectic writer is finding the links.

Despite quibbling with Evers about the number of Lethem-like authors who already exist I would still like to see more of them, particularly coming – like him – from within science fiction. Regardless of current gloom about the publishing industry I retain a naive optimism that the good will out and, given the increased permeability between science fiction and mainstream literature in the last decade, I do think we will be seeing more of these sort of writers in the future.

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Written by Martin

15 January 2010 at 13:06

Posted in books

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