Review: Faulks on Fiction

On paper, Sebastian Faulks is the ideal guide to take us through the British novel in Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and The Secret Life of the Novel (BBC Books, 2011). His writing encompasses so many different genres and styles that he can’t easily be pigeon-holed, having attempted, amongst others, contemporary satire (A Week in December), politico-historical fiction (On Green Dolphin Street), a war novel (Birdsong), a psychological thriller (Engleby), and a pseudo-Bond spy thriller (Devil May Care). Sadly, in life, as in literature, a great CV does not guarantee the right person for the job.

In his London-based social satire, A Week in December (Vintage, 2010), Faulks sets himself as the scourge of present day evils, such as, greedy hedge-fund managers and pompous book reviewers. One of his most cutting satirical creations is Ralph Tranter, or, ‘RT’; who reads the Sunday fiction reviews ‘with the eye of a fund manager scanning market prices’, and who delights most in writing scathing reviews: 

‘his own speciality was the facetious, come-off-it review which invited the reader to share his opinion that the writer’s career had been a sustained con trick at the expense of the gullible book-buyer’. (p. 21)

 Tranter

 “moderates” the book-club discussions of a group of posh housewives in North Park. […] most of the women had university degrees in arts subjects, but they had no basic understanding of how a book worked. Even the vocabulary that Tranter had been taught at the age of sixteen was mysterious to them; they didn’t know the difference between “style” and “tone”. […] After he had made a few observations on the book in question, they generally cut him out of the loop. What they wanted to talk about was whether the incidents in the book were “based on” events in the author’s own life and to what extent his version of them tallied with their own experiences of such things. Tranter tried to suggest that there were more fruitful ways of approaching a novel, a work of invention that aspired, albeit pathetically, to be a work of “art”; but although they listened patiently, they seemed not to believe him. (A Week in December, p. 25)

Faulks’s satire is repeated with fresh impetus in the introduction to Faulks on Fiction where he complains at length about the kind of reductive biographical criticism Tranter describes and he admits that, while not ‘a work of literary criticism, still less of scholarship’, he hopes that FoF will ‘prove to be a touch on the brake of the runaway truck of biographical reductionism and an encouragement to others to think on these lines.’ He returns to the imagined book group as an example of the kind of wrong-reading that prompted the BBC Series and accompanying book and explains,

 ‘There are monthly book groups that meet to discuss a novel but end up talking about only two things: the extent to which the contents are drawn from the author’s life and the extent to which these in turn tally with the readers’ own experience of such matters.’ (p. 6)

Faulks on Fiction, then, is Faulks’s opportunity to set things right in book-group-land. We are led to believe that he is fed up with lazy readers who refuse to see anything beyond the author or their own lives reflected in the novels. He wants to tell us, desperately, how to read ‘the British novel’. But, as the book is prompted by a TV series, the criteria for selection ‘was restricted to books that the viewing public might reasonably have been expected to have heard of, if not actually read.’ The angle of vision is mediated through the male gaze, via a screen interpretation or translation of the novel. Despite this, Faulks does not dwell or comment too much on the screen adaptations but concentrates on the novels for which he claims to offer a fresh approach.

Faulks’s thesis is that writing is pure fiction created by the writer. It is not about the writer. Hang on, haven’t we been here before? About forty years before, with Barthes and the Death of the Author, or, even further back to Flaubert whom Faulks quotes in the epigraph:

‘L’homme n’est rien, l’oeuvre tout’

[‘The Author’s life is nothing; it’s the work that matters’] Flaubert’s letter to George Sand of December 1875 [epigraph, Faulks on Fiction]

For Faulks, contrary to his imagined book-group women readers, fiction doesn’t reflect life it’s the other way around: fiction teaches us how to live. While he claims to sweep aside centuries of literary criticism from Aristotle to Eagleton, and to debunk the idea that the novel reflects life, what he actually does is to insist on a very old kind of literary theory, it’s called Romanticism. Faulks puts forward, as his own idea, the early nineteenth-century belief that the artist figure, including the writer or poet, projects an ideal world in order to motivate the reader to new or different [and hopefully higher] values or ways of thinking.

More than that (as if this isn’t enough), unfortunately, infuriatingly, Faulks undermines his own argument. In his new reading of Maurice Bendrix, the ‘lover’ in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, he includes a lengthy footnote, of about half a page, to discuss some ‘sound evidence’ that the character of Sarah is ‘based on’ a real person. While ‘the problem’ of Greene’s Catholicism spoils the book. ‘What ‘Fate’ is to Hardy, Roman Catholicism is to Graham Greene – a loud gatecrasher at a muted family gathering’ (p. 171), and it affects the ending, so that,

[t]he action appears voulu – stuck on by the Catholic author, not generated organically, so that sufferings of the characters seem to have been piled on by their creator rather than springing from their interior worlds, which are in any case inadequately rendered. (p. 179)

Throughout, Faulks adopts a conspiratorial, cosy tone which insists that ‘we’ share his readings and opinions. For example, ‘the unexpected charm of Barbara [Covett, in Notes on a Scandal] lies in the way that we identify so much with her […] Life, we feel, needs more Barbaras’ (p. 366).

FoF is divided into four different character types: Heroes, Lovers, Snobs, Villains, from 27 novels, ranging from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.  Faulks provides detailed close-readings of the plots and picks out those characters who most clearly reflect his different type. So that, Heathcliff is a ‘lover’; ‘Becky Sharp’ is a hero; Pip is a ‘snob’; Jack Merridew is a ‘villain’. Although academics, such as Janet Todd, have highlighted places in FoF where Faulks is inaccurate and incorrect or is faulty in his readings, most agree, as John Sutherland does, that his close reading is enjoyable and will encourage reading.

Writers too will find much to enjoy. FoF provides a master class on how to create believable characters, plausible plot twists and exciting storylines. Here is Faulks on Fagan:

Dickens’s usual way with villains was to present them as long-distance plotters who deceive the upright characters. He elicits our moral condemnation by first mobilising our anger.

Fagin is not like that. His opening words constitute the first civility ever shown to Oliver Twist – “We are very glad to see you” – and, still better, his first actions are to provide Oliver with sausages, hot gin and coffee. He is also the first person in the child’s life actually to play with him, and, while it’s only a game of steal-the-handkerchief, it’s hard to overstate how touching this scene is. By its presence, it suggests a previous world of absence: the workhouse full of children with no games, ever.

The reason Fagin works so well for Dickens is that he is unstable and unpredictable. There is something warm in him – he, not the “good” characters, is the only provider of real laughter in Oliver’s life – but he is a coward.

The evidence mounts against Fagin. He gives a sly kick to the sleeping Sikes. He has a plan to “own” Oliver – “Once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief, and he’s ours – ours for his life!”

[link to the full extract on The Telegraph website – 5 February 2011]

Enjoyable as this is, it isn’t enough to save the book from its many flaws.

The main problem with Faulks on Fiction is that there is just too much Faulks. He pours his scorn of wrong-reading book groups into a project that is both misguided and badly worked out. As a companion book it gives out mixed messages and doesn’t give equal weight to a consideration of how the novel is mediated via the lens, or Faulks himself. Faulks undermines his thesis by discussing how a character is ‘based’ on a real person and by insisting that the author’s religion gets in the way of his writing. He is self-indulgent and arrogant in his belief that ‘we’ must share his readings of the novels, and in his zeal to teach us how to read the novel properly he is so blinkered that he cannot see that he reads through a faulty Romantic lens.

And let’s not probe too deeply into what constitutes a ‘British novel’ because that really would be asking too much.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Faulks on Fiction

    1. Thanks, Marilyn. I think it was such a missed opportunity. What I didn’t overplay was that in the UK this is a PBS-like venture, so in essence, my license fee paid for Faulks to jaunt across the globe in his pink shirt [he wears the same pink cotton shirt in every episode] to give fifteen seconds worth of shot on a beach or in a field and then to make wide-sweeping generalisation about ‘the novel’. At least he was successful in generating attention to his book and the series – but not what he planned, I don’t think.

  1. Luci

    There was an interesting bit on Open Book, a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Mariella Frostrup argued with him about his book for a while, though it was partly about neglect of female authors and protagonists in his book.

    1. Yes, I heard it. Mariella wouldn’t let go of her point that Becky Sharp isn’t the ‘hero’ of Vanity Fair – but Faulks changed tack and we didn’t get quite the dialogue about feminist lit. or female in lit. that I think she was probing for.

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