I’ve Just Joined a Book-Burning Group

That’s it.

It’s over.

I’ve seen the worst article on books in the history of the world.

I don’t have much to say. I want to quote sections, but it’s symphonically bad. We meet an ex-lit student who lazed through his course, but has miraculously reformed:

Martin has been reading his old modern-literature course books ó James Kelman, Katherine Dunn and Irvine Welsh among them ó and passing them on to the other members of his book group in the fashionable London enclave of Hoxton. ìItís my new favourite club,î he says, with the kind of enthusiasm he might once have reserved for a night at Fabric or Nag Nag Nag.

We all see how this is bad: Hoxton isn’t a good sign (I’m willing to apologise for writing this from Brick Lane), and then those club references. Ick. Trying too hard. But as this theme is introduced, the next (we’ll call it ‘straw men and unsubstantiated assumptions’) enters as an elegant counterpoint:

Martin isnít alone. In the past couple of years, the once fusty and elitist world of literature has undergone a makeover: books have not only become a little less bookish, they have actually become hip. For a jaded generation of late twenty- and early thirtysomethings, literature is filling the slot once occupied by nightclubs, records, trucker caps and magazines. These neoliterati are just like any dudes and dudettes slouching on the Tube, wearing Converse All Stars, with scuffed hair and bulging pupils ó only theyíre more likely to be engrossed in the first-edition Anthony Burgess paperback they found on eBay than the latest issue of Dazed & Confused.

You see? The ‘straw man’ theme enters with ‘elitist and fusty’, but then we return to ‘iffy signifiers of hipness’ (and as a side issue, if anyone wants to send a diagram illustrating the shape of a slot for holding ‘nightclubs, records, trucker caps and magazines’, I’d be grateful. But I guess if you’ve got a slot in which a nightclub can be accommodated, the other elements shouldn’t be a squeeze).

But I can’t stop quoting, because then the author introduces a third strain of badness, even absent ‘neoliterati’. This we shall call ‘perverse, ill-informed and confusing illustration’. Why are they reading a first edition? A first-edition paperback? What does that mean? Is it valuable? If so, why are they reading it on the tube? Wouldn’t a normal reading copy make more sense? Which Anthony Burgess novel?

I can’t quote anymore. It’s depressing me.

O.K. One more bit. Here’s the ‘straw man’ theme with third party backing:

ìReaders and publishers have undergone a seismic shift over the last few years,î says the hot literary agent Johnny Geller. ìA new generation of authors like David Mitchell, Hari Kunzru and Zadie have become the sort of people that readers could see themselves going out for a drink with.

i) ‘hot’
ii) Yup. It’s a radical change from the bad old days when writers stood distant upon Parnassus, unapproachable by us mortals. I’m thinking here of the frigid majesty of Nick Hornby, Amis (pere and fils), and so many others…

WHAT DO YOU MEAN? ‘Author you could go for a drink with’ is pretty much the definition of the sales-succesful post-war white male English novelist. (and it’s arguably a bad thing – the English tendency to veer away from the experimental is wrapped up with this good-naturedness. Don’t confuse it with soho-itis)

A predictable disclaimer: I like a lot of the writers mentioned in this piece (second to none in my admiration for Mitchell); most of the rest I don’t know about. I maybe shouldn’t be so hard on PR, but it feels a long way from everything that’s terrific about British writing at the moment. Has this author ever read a book?