Sunday 15 September 2019

Declan Lynch: 'The awfully nice world of books needs more of this unpleasantness'

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Though his words turned out to be madly controversial, I found myself identifying with much of what Colm Toibin had to say about his reading tastes: "I can't do any genre fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don't find any rhythm in it. It's blank, it's nothing, it's like watching TV," he told The Guardian.

Up until the bit about "watching TV", I felt that Toibin was only saying what you'd expect any man of his sensibilities to say - in the mind's eye, you don't see the likes of Colm Toibin racing through the latest Dan Brown.

Nor, I imagine, would an old-school man of letters such as Toibin have mused much on this, finding it self-evident, until he found himself saying it - and until he found himself receiving rebukes from writers such as Marian Keyes and Liz Nugent and Sheila O'Flanagan for the narrowness of his vision.

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It was Keyes-y who put out the most caustic tweet: "Sez the lad who wrote a Maeve Binchy pastiche and managed to persuade people it was literary fiction" - which was seen as a clear takedown of Toibin's Brooklyn.

To which one could only shake one's head sadly and say: wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?

There is this terrible niceness about the world of books, in public anyway. Marian Keyes has presumably held this opinion of Brooklyn for a long time, yet we didn't hear it until Toibin annoyed her by dissing the kind of books that she and her comrades write. We have lost a lot, as a society, by these silences.

Toibin didn't even mention anyone by name, he just touched on the idea that he finds some kinds of books better than others, for the very obvious reason that some kinds of books are in general better than others - the kind that F Scott Fitzgerald wrote is better than the kind that Dan Brown writes... because it just is. It's not really a matter of opinion, though if you want to be pedantic, you could say that the Fitzgeralds will always be better than the Browns for people who care about these things.

Which is not a lot of people, but you have to give them their due on this - Colm Toibin clearly hasn't a clue about television, but for sure, he knows and cares about books.

And I only wish he had made his views known a long time ago, just as I wish that all the authors who expressed their disappointment in him had been just as forthright in the normal run of things.

In fact, they might have counter-punched with a few lines from Will Self, who has written: "I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music; confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse."

He described creative writing programmes as "a literary set-aside scheme purpose-built to accommodate writers who can no longer make a living from their work. In these care homes, erstwhile novelists induct still more and younger writers into their own reflexive career paths. So that in time they too may become novelists who cannot make a living from their work and so become teachers of creative writing…"

Selfie, of course, was himself slaughtered for these very interesting remarks, mainly on the grounds that he is an old white man. And you could also throw Milkman at him, that stone-cold masterpiece which miraculously won the Booker Prize and which has sold by the truckload, ensuring that Anna Burns at least will never have to teach creative writing.

But again in the denunciation of Selfie for stating something that is mostly true, we saw this eruption of rage from a culture that is otherwise, well, terribly nice - a culture that of all cultures should be supportive of dissent and disruption, but that seems to be losing these instincts.

It has certainly lost whatever the likes of Norman Mailer had - when Rip Torn died recently, we were reminded of the making of a crazy film called Maidstone in the Seventies, during which Torn "improvised" a scene in which he attacked Mailer with a hammer. There followed a deranged wrestling match between the two men - during which Mailer almost bit the ear off his opponent.

It's a long way from there to Colm Toibin disrespecting the rhythms of lesser prose writers, but like Mailer, he has the advantage of being a brilliant journalist as well as a novelist. So he has written for multitudes, and not just for other connoisseurs of the construction of sentences.

Indeed, there is a literary cliche that journalists tend to be failed novelists, when often the reverse is true - Toibin is one of those rare writers who has succeeded at both.

I just hope we haven't seen the last of these ugly scenes.

Brexiters taking back control of the right to talk total cobblers

It must be great, all the same, to be a Brexiter. I have these moments when I imagine myself arguing in favour of a No Deal Brexit, and I have to say, there's something very liberating about it - it must be like this for the Trumper too, you just let yourself go.

I mean, they look happy, those "ordinary" English nationalists talking about how they survived the war that happened before they were born, describing their visions of a Britain led by "Boris", the man they love - indeed over the last three years, you could get the impression that a major social experiment has been under way, aimed at putting every pillock in Britain on TV for a few minutes, doing his bit.

Yes, I know there's an old line, that just because you have a different political point of view to me, it doesn't necessarily make you a bad person. But that's all over really.

You can see them most nights on the telly now, these bad people, wanting their Brexit.

And what do I mean by bad people?

Well, it's a mixture of things - it's the deep sense of self-satisfaction that they exude, for no reason at all; it's the inability or the refusal to imagine the world from anyone else's perspective, thus freeing them to advocate things that will be good for nobody but themselves; it's the unerring instinct they have for the least intelligent course of action, the least interesting opinion, the least humane solution.

Now I'm not one to judge, as you know, but I will judge these people all day long. Because not only are they among the least attractive people on Earth, they have now arrived at this position of tremendous power, being constantly sought out by broadcasters who are determined to put them all on TV, looking for their No Deal Brexit and loving "Boris".

I say it again… it must be great, all the same, to be one of them. In "Boris", they see their own selves writ large, a man free of Truth, free of the tyranny of the abstract concepts which hold everyone else back - free, for example, of the fear of talking total cobblers all the time.

Other people are afraid of that sort of thing, most of us indeed are bit windy on that front, feeling deep down that we can't go round calling for things like the No Deal Brexit, just because it is a bad thing. Feeling bad, about bad things.

Ah, but how much better our lives would be, if we could feel good about bad things, the way that these people do. They love the Trumper too, of course, who came out after poor Bob Mueller's seven-hour struggle with the most excruciating intricacies of the Truth, and just raved with a kind of a maniacal dishonesty about some victory which had taken place mainly in his own head.

Yet he seemed much the happier of the two men, the badness in him boosting his disgraceful energies, while Mueller just seemed drained by the demands of another day of probity, by a lifetime of it.

Bad is good.

Three cheers for the Biffo - and let the whole world know

Whatever happened to the Biffo?

Last time I checked, my old Midlands neighbours in Offaly had joyously embraced the acronym "Biffo", they had decided to "own" it - instead of it being used against them, they would be the ones using it as a weapon in their already formidable armoury.

Last weekend it was party time for the Biffos, with Shane Lowry becoming the first man to hold the Claret Jug aloft in one hand and a pint pot in the other, while singing The Fields of Athenry - yet at no time during that long weekend did commentators allude to the phenomenon of the Biffo.

Maybe it was just our natural reticence to speak freely when we're trying to behave ourselves at a golf club in front of a load of foreigners - but I have a solution to any embarrassment which may arise.

The next time Shane Lowry is pulverising the field at a major, we can let it slip to these country club Americans who run the game over there that he's a Biffo: A Big Irish Fella From Offaly.

The Yankee commentators will love saying that, and we'll love hearing it, knowing the true meaning as we do, Paddy ahead of the game once more.

Yet for Paddy, even the week we have had, refulgent with celebrations, would have a note of melancholy - as our cricketers bowled out England for 85 on day one of Ireland's first Test Match at Lord's, it was time to reflect again on one of the most terrible tragedies of nationalism - the decline of cricket as a beloved sport in this country. Never was a game more perfectly suited to our needs and desires - indeed Parnell himself did almost nothing during his 20s apart from playing cricket, which usually involved four straight days of drinking and carousing in the grounds of Avondale... oh, and maybe a bit of cricket too.

How did we let that all get away from us? What might have been?

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