August 17, 2008

Weekend Miscellany: P. D. James, Persephone Books, James Wood

Some articles and reviews of interest:

At The Times, there's an interesting interview with P. D. James, who has a new Adam Dalgleish novel coming out. James has often remarked that she sees herself working in the tradition of 19th-century domestic realism as much as the detective novel; her interest in the Victorians shows up again here, as does her conviction that writing mystery fiction frees up an author to focus on character and theme:
“There’s huge fascination in examining the human personality under the trauma of a murder investigation. All of us present a carapace to the world that conceals things we wish to keep to ourselves. In a murder investigation, these defences are often torn down.” This gives a novelist “a huge opportunity”, one particularly valued by this writer, who, besides filling notebooks with “plotting and planning”, sets store by knowing her characters intimately. “I move in with them. I sympathise with the view Trollope expressed that you have to get up with your characters and live with them all day.” (read the rest here)
Also at The Times, there's a piece on Persephone Books:

There can be little doubt that Persephone, which reprints lost or forgotten women's classics, has filled a gap left by the bigger Virago. Quieter, more interior and less obviously feminist than the latter, it celebrates its first decade as the champion of the kind of book trendy that literati like to dismiss as dull and domestic.

Virago's founder, Carmen Callil, when recently describing how her team chose whether or not to reissue a particular author, would dismiss rejects as “below the Whipple line”, referring to what she called, with withering dismissal, “a popular novelist of the 1930s and 1940s whose prose and content absolutely defeated us”. Persephone, as it happens, has Dorothy Whipple as one of its star authors, alongside Virginia Woolf, Mollie Panter-Downes and classic children's authors such as Noel Streatfeild and Richmal Crompton, whose adult novels have long been out of print.

“I think Dorothy Whipple is compulsively readable and perceptive, and the 20th-century Mrs Gaskell,” Beauman says. “I'm passionate about her work.”

So, indeed are Persephone's customers, who have fallen upon its 78 reissued novels with joy and ensure sales of between 3,000 and 10,000 a book. As the shop - which sells Persephone mugs, dressing gowns and cards behind a window dressed with a felt cloche hat and an old typewriter - suggests, being a Persephone reader is almost a lifestyle choice for intelligent women who want to settle down with what has been described as “a hot-water-bottle novel”.

Yet alongside bestselling nostalgia collections such as Kay Smallshaw's How to Run Your Home Without Help are darker tales, such as Penelope Mortimer's Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, and wholly enchanting adult fairytales such as The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

These are the kind of tremendously English books often enjoyed (and parodied) by the heroines in Nancy Mitford and Stella Gibbons. They do, however, have a serious readership, and Persephone's list of those who have written prefaces for the reissues include Penelope Fitzgerald, P.D. James and Valerie Grove. (read the whole story here)

I don't remember seeing any Persephone titles in bookstores here, but now I'll have my eyes open. And if they don't have Canadian distribution, there's always the excellent Book Depository (free international shipping!).

Better late than never: the New York Times weighs in on James Wood's How Fiction Works:
The grosser elements of fiction — story, plot and setting, as well as the powerful drive of certain authors to expand or alter perception by exalting the vernacular, absorbing the anarchic and ennobling the vulgar that has impelled such messy master­works as “Huckleberry Finn,” “On the Road” and Denis Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” — intrude not at all on Wood’s presentation, which proceeds in the steady, dark-gowned, unruffled manner of a high-court judge. Wood seems firm in his conviction that accounting for How Fiction Works needn’t involve bewildering digressions into Why Writers Write or Why Readers Read. For him, that matter seems settled. They do it to perfect the union of Wood’s vaunted “artifice and verisimilitude,” two virtues he treats as though carved on a stone tablet, and thereby to promote the cause of civilization; not, as is so frequently the case outside the leathery environs of the private library, to escape the constrictions of civilization, redraw its boundaries, decalcify its customs, or revive the writer’s or reader’s own spirits by dancing on its debris. (read the whole review here)
This review (which concludes with blog-worthy snarkiness, "there is one question this volume answers conclusively: Why Readers Nap") is not nearly as favorable as Frank Kermode's in The New Republic a little while back. How Fiction Works has certainly received a great deal of attention, in print and on blogs: here are a few more links, in case you just can't get enough criticism of criticism. You have to give the man credit for getting a lot of people talking about what makes good literary criticism.


Sarah said...

I'd missed the interview with P. D. James so thanks for the link. Reading it wll tide me over unil the new Salgliesh book is out!

NigelBeale said...

fyi I address the NY Times's snarkiness in a post entitled: How Scummy Book Reviewers Work, here: