Middle-Aged Spread

Simon Fraser studied history at Oxford and spent twenty-odd years working in public relations and advertising in England and Sweden, before deciding to chuck it all in and try writing a novel.  He is about 80,000 words in but keeps getting pleasantly distracted by his wife, two children and dog.


In his rather excellent campus novel, Changing Places, David Lodge invents a parlour game which he calls Humiliation.  Players take turns to name a famous work of literature which they haven’t read, and score a point for each of the other players who have read it.  In the book, an American professor of English admits to not having read Hamlet.  He wins the game, but loses his job.

I am a great admirer of the English novelist John le Carré.  But until a few weeks ago I had never read his most famous book, and the one that established his reputation:  The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963).

It was le Carré’s third novel, his first two having had little impact.  It won the Somerset Maugham prize, and its commercial success enabled the author to give up his foreign-office career and do whatever he liked.  By 1977, worldwide sales exceeded 20 million copies.  (For comparison:  Last time I looked, Fifty Shades had sold 60 million, in a world that contains more than twice as many people as there were in the 1960s.)

It was a big success then, and made le Carré’s reputation.  I read it over two or three evenings this winter, and a cracking read it was.  Just 240 pages; I estimate 65,000 words.

In 1977, five books later, le Carré published The Honourable Schoolboy.  The hardback first edition is 532 pages long, and (as was the fashion of the time) the pages are bigger, containing about one-third more words.  At about 190,000 words it’s almost three times as long as The Spy who Came in from the Cold.  Le Carré’s books got even longer, but have shortened again now as he reaches old age.

Both novels have similar themes and a similar plot.  The Spy who Came in from the Cold has 26 chapters averaging 2500 words; The Honourable Schoolboy has 22 chapters averaging more than 8500 words.

What does the extra length do?  Where’s the meat to sustain what is not going to be a short read?  Is longer better or worse?

A big clue comes right at the start: a two-page foreword in which le Carré thanks those who have assisted his research.  Much of the action is set in Hong Kong, with additional scenes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as the US was finally pulling out in 1975.  From the foreword one imagines a leisurely few months flitting around the Far East, chatting to people.  And there’s a lot of travel writing in the text that follows.

In contrast, The Spy who Came in from the Cold was set in London, the Netherlands and East Germany, and there’s no real attempt (or need) to establish a sense of place.

The other clue is people.  Each scene has a chorus of minor characters tripping on and off the stage, some speaking, some just snoring delicately as they lie against the insomniac body of our hero.  Where we had dialogue before, we now have multi-party conversations.  Boy, do they love to talk.  It’s like listening to a symphony after a chamber piece.  And most of the talk is expository.

The tendency to write at increasing length is not uncommon among highly successful writers (look at the Harry Potter books).  Authorial self-confidence, however misplaced, must be one of the main causes.  It might also be a result of lighter editorial touch:  the publisher knows that the author’s brand guarantees sales, so why bother to expend the effort to trim a bloated book and risk alienating the golden goose?

One must also think of the reader, who might make a crude value-for-money calculation which will always tend to favour fat volumes (“Can I get a Venti John Grisham?”), and can at least hope for an immersive, almost Tantric, reading experience stretching over days or weeks.  Preferably on a warm and sunny beach.

So there you are, folks!   Want to write a blockbuster with literary pretensions?  Take one part taut plot, one part exotic travelogue and one part cast-of-thousands, then layer them into a Scooby snack of a size that suits.

Structuring Poetry with Jane Yeh

For poet Jane Yeh’s Advanced Critical Reading class in week 7, please read the poems listed below and consider the following question:

How do poets use elements like sentences, line breaks (enjambment), and stanzas to structure their poems? What kinds of structures (arc/movement/progression) are at play in these poems?


Finding My Bearings – Martha Kapos, My Nights in Cupid’s Palace (2003)

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota – James Wright (1927-1980), Above the River: The Complete Poems (1990)

Housekeeping – Lucie Brock-Broido, The Master Letters (1995)

[listen mother, he punched the air; I am not your son dying] – D.A. Powell, Cocktails (2004)

Freddie – Patrick Rosal, Uprock Headspin… (Persea Books, 2004)

The Captain of the 1964 Top of the Form Team – Carol Ann Duffy, Mean Time (1993)

Happy as the Day Is Long – James Tate, Worshipful Company of Fletchers (1994)

The Hummingbirds – Adam Thorpe, Nine Lessons From the Dark (2003)

The Colonel – Caroline Forche, The Country Between Us (1981)

Taking in Wash – Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah (1986)

(Stills) – 2 poems from a sequence by Kevin Young, Black Maria (2004)


Hope you’re all enjoying a very enriching reading week.

Postmodernism at the V&A / Postmodern Literature

A few weekends ago I went to the Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A. It wasn’t very good. I’d even go as far as saying that it was a bit of a let down.  This was partly due to my own overblown expectation, at last some clarity on Postmodernism, and  my own idleness. I had failed to take in the whole of the exhibition title, the V&A’s target audiences and its curatorial style.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990 could just as easily been called, Postmodernism: A bit of bad architecture, awful product design and greed gone mad. Or possibly, Postmodernism: consumerism and popular culture for cokeheads, bankers and other greedy bastards, with the odd bit of visual art ( Jenny Holzer, Laurie Anderson and Robert Rauschenberg) and a subversive musician (David Byrne of Talking Heads)  thrown in, just to remind anyone who has read any theory on postmodernism in arts and culture, that this was the very same subject, on display at the V&A.

It was good to hear again the iconic opening music of  Bladerunner’s soundtrack and to see the flying cars and futuristic-old-meets-new-cityscape (Hong Kong with flying cars in the rain, to anyone who’s been there). Though I don’t recall seeing any mention of Philip K. Dick or his novel  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

In fact there was no real mention or representation of literature in this exhibition at all, other than The Face magazine. Yawn, yawn. More popular culture aimed at teenagers. Don’t get me wrong I loved The Face (as a kid), and the last room of the exhibition;  all record sleeves,  magazines and kraftwerk,  did take me back to my brother’s bedroom, sitting listening to music on his head phones, whilst watching him put on eyeliner. But come on, has the world really gone so mad, that so much value is given to things that kids, with juvenile tastes and experiences, want to buy? – Is youth culture really where it’s at? – I guess that’s a rant for another time.

So as way of righting a wrong,  I thought it would be fun to put together my own Top Ten Postmodern Literature, Classics.. or stuff I read in the 90s, that I think should-be on display alongside The Face at the Postmodernism: Whatever, exhibition.

Not in prize order. I’m just writing them down as I think of them…

1. American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis

2. Highrise – JG Ballard

3.Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker

4. The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter

5. Virtual Light, William Gibson

6. Generation X: Tale for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland

7. Cock and Bull, Will Self

8. Life Afer God, Douglas Coupland

9. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amos

1o. The Handmaids Tale, Margaret Attwood

Please feel free to add to my list if you wish 

– Alison Gibb

week 5: The Grotesque – Patrick McGrath


THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR – seminar with Jonathan Barnes, 27.10.11



‘I want to know if men realise when they are insane.’  (‘The Doll’)


Reading Patrick McGrath’s new-gothic short novel, The Grotesque, I am startled by the uncanny resonances with Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, ‘The Doll’, as if perhaps one could have been inspired by the other.

Precise images seem to be almost exactly replicated from one story in another.


‘The Doll’ is the first person account of a macabre story of a man who meets and subsequently becomes obsessed with a talented and tormented violin virtuoso. The brief intense relationship, her secret and her loss will eventually madden him.


‘The feeling of urgent, cruelly blocked desire became almost unbearable.’ (The Grotesque)



The whole premise of The Grotesque and its story as recounted by its grossly unreliable narrator, Sir Hugo, could not be more accurately summed up than by the preamble to ‘The Doll’ in its own foreword,


‘Whether the wild improbabilities of the story are true, or whether the whole is but the hysterical product of a diseased mind, we shall never know.’


‘Human enough, damnably lifelike, with a foul, distinctive personality, but a doll.’ (‘The Doll’)


‘a pitiful, motionless, misshapen man’ with ‘a cataleptic fixity of posture,’ ‘severe masking’ and ‘a blank lizardlike stare’ (The Grotesque)

‘He was a machine – something worked by screws – he was not alive, not human – but terrible, ghastly.’ (‘The Doll’)



I am tempted to say that McGrath must surely be giving a knowing nod to Du Maurier. And yet, ‘The Doll’, though written in 1937 was lost for over 70years and very recently was published for the first time.


‘and by the time I arose the next morning, it was a mere ghost of itself, a stiff breeze’  (The Grotesque)



Has anyone else read this and also thought they bear startling similarities?






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