Tuesday 12 December 2017

Sutherland not so well read on Irish

John Sutherland has produced a guide to 500 great novels
John Sutherland has produced a guide to 500 great novels

The title of John Sutherland's latest chatty tome is How to be Well Read, and its subtitle runs: 'A Guide to 500 Great Novels'. However, among these 500 "great" novels, all discussed alphabetically and each given a few hundred words, you'll find only 13 Irish writers.

Yes, Ulysses is included, along with Joyce's great short story, The Dead, and you'll also come across Gulliver's Travels, Tristram Shandy, The Vicar of Wakefield and Dracula, along with such contemporary choices as Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn, John Banville's The Sea and John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun - here listed under its American title, By the Lake.

Yet while space is found in its encyclopaedic 1,003 pages for most of the fashionable contemporary English, American and European novelists, as well as for some very tawdry international bestsellers (Fifty Shades of Grey, Hollywood Wives, etc), you'll encounter nothing by William Trevor, Brian Moore, Edna O'Brien, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, Sebastian Barry or some other distinguished Irish fiction writers of our time.

This was also true of Sutherland's previous opus, Lives of the Novelists (2011), a similarly gossipy volume from this most quirky of academics but which managed to find room for only a handful of Irish writers - indeed, in a book that chronicled the lives of 294 writers, Edna O'Brien was the only Irish novelist of the last 60 years deemed worth of an entry, and then mainly because of her reputed love affairs.

But Sutherland's always fun to read and you'll find much in both of these hefty guides that will divert you. And in a recent newspaper article he singled out 10 books that he thought especially underrated. Not all of them, he conceded, were necessarily great novels, "but they are, I guarantee, great reads. And what more do you want from a work of fiction?"

A lot more, some critics would say, but I champion his inclusion of American crime writer Charles Willeford, though I'd have opted for the marvellous The Way We Die Now rather than his preferred choice of Cockfighter.

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