Faulks on Fiction – a Review of My Review, and of Episode 2.

Since my last post went live (Faulks on Fiction – an on the fly review), my blog has received an unprecedented amount of traffic: literally tens of hits in just over a week.  Eat your heart out Stephen Fry!

The majority of these hits may result from search engine enquiries for ‘Sebastian Faulks + pink shirt’, but I’m not disheartened: people are finding my blog, and if just one of them stays and reads for a while, well… that’s more audience than I expect or I deserve.  My thanks to those who have visited my blog and taken the time to read and to comment. (note: For some reason beyond the sphere of my grammatical understanding, MS Word isn’t letting me use ‘to comment’ as an intransitive verb. Fucker. I’m leaving it in.)

I didn’t intend to write a follow-up piece to Faulks on Fiction, but I’ve been encouraged to ‘give the people what they want’ (insert dirty pun of your own contriving here).  However, I’m still full of doubt about my writing, and I’m feeling laconic tonight: so what follows is going to be somewhat of a composite piece: that is, some brief comments of my own, combined with the observations of other writers that I’ve shamelessly picked up while curb-crawling the blogosphere.  Any points made by other writers will be attributed as such.

And don’t expect me to make a habit of this: my blogroll (see right) is to remain the exclusive preserve of people I know in “real life” – but bibliophile interest in Faulks on Fiction is such that I feel a pooling of critical consensus is in order.


For those of you who may be out of the loop, Faulks on Fiction is a new BBC TV series with an explicit focus on characterisation.  Mary Sackville-West, one of the producers, does a good job of summing up the project’s modus operandi in her own blog (which also includes some video clips).  Mary also goes someway to addressing my previous criticism that the show is too dependent on stock footage and film clips to beef-out its run time:

We decided to use both readings and adaptations to illustrate the text. For many people, adaptations on the small or big screen can be their first encounter with a particular character.

We wanted to harness that by reflecting some of the wonderful characters stored in the BBC’s rich archive of dramatisations.

One of the main intentions of making a television programme about novels is not to distract from the act of reading the novel itself but to complement and even encourage

Fair points: but I still believe the show is top-loaded with too much of this stuff – to a detrimental extent, as I often found myself wishing there was more of the interesting and productive dialogue between Faulks and Simon Schama and Alain de Botton et al and less of Gemma Arterton’s pouting.

 The writer of the ThoughtsonTV blog is more forgiving, and writes in defence of the merits of combining the visual with the narratorial.  For those interested, this blog can be found here.

The most significant point of contention with episode 1, however, stems from something that Martin Amis said while being interviewed by Faulks.  I admit that I glossed over this as I watched the show (I was writing at the same time: a testament, then, to my total inability to multi-task): but what Amis said was something along the lines of ‘It would take a serious brain injury for me to write Children’s books’.  (I think) what he’s getting at, is that a writer shouldn’t self-restrict in order to pander to a potential audience. 

The notion that Martin Amis is so vested in the corrupt and disturbed that he couldn’t possibly write for children without self-censoring to a detrimental degree is something I find incredibly strange and utterly laughable.  It’s an almost comically vampiric thing to say, and I find Amis’ self-mythologizing to be sickening.  As my friend Thom recently said: (I paraphrase) “the idea that anybody lives in such a bubble of high-culture is just bullshit”.  Lucy Coats at Jacketflap takes issue with Amis in more detail.

I’m wary of repeating myself at this point: so I won’t re-hash what I’ve already posted about episode 1.  My thoughts can be found below.  Mr T over at Mrt’sblog has also written a review of Faulks’ ‘hero’ episode: his thoughts chime in tune with my own: only he manages to express himself with more eloquence, and less sarcasm.


So, onto episode 2: ‘The Lover’.   I liked ‘the Lover’ episode, probably more than episode 1, if I’m honest. Though some niggles still persist. The pink shirt returns (and is comically critiqued by Nathan Briant here – a good illustrative example of Faulks’ limited and dianthus wardrobe).

Trivial matters aside, I just can’t buy into the idea that by looking at 4 or 5 novels (albeit novels separated by hundreds of years) you can demonstrate any kind of literary trend or pattern to something as enormously difficult and varying as love. Things aren’t so linear and literature isn’t so homogenised.

I don’t believe that a Darwinian progression from simple to complex can be applied to the literary treatment of lovers. If any trend exists, I imagine it’s far more nebulous and difficult to pin-down. Chaucer was writing intricate and difficult lovers waaaaay before Miss Austen showed up.  It would take a lot of evidence to convince me that the writers Faulks analyses were deliberately attempting to develop an ever advancing tradition of lovers: because I don’t think that such a tradition exists.  If study has taught me anything, it’s that literature isn’t so collective.  Faulks would have you believe that ‘The Lover’ is some kind of baton in a literary relay race: always moving forward, and being passed on from one runner to the next; neat and unbroken.  It’s an alarmingly narrow supposition.

Similarly, his choice of texts definitely lacks breadth: exclusively white, middle-class English novels thus far. I was hoping that Faulks would have the balls to discuss more difficult portrayals of love (Lolita, for example), but maybe his mandate only extends to British writers, in which case, shame on you BBC.

There were some good points about Tess of the D’urbervilles though.  I was especially struck by Simon Schama’s observations that Tess isn’t just a victim of circumstance, but a victim of her own un-wanted sensuality, and that the real tragedy of Tess is that she’s born with a body irresistible to men.  I hadn’t thought of Tess in such direct terms as a mind-body conflict before.  Gotta love Simon Schama.

But hey, I’m probably over-thinking what’s intended to be a popular-interest show. It’s great to see books discussed on TV and outside of the boardroom setting of ‘The Review Show’ etc., and without a panel of academics fatuously agreeing with each other over something small and pretentious a la newsnight review.  

I think the general consensus is that Faulks on Fiction is flawed, but valuable nonetheless.  Faulks seems to tip-toe around his terms, ‘Hero’ wasn’t sufficiently defined in episode 1, and ‘Lover’ is treated too linearly in episode 2 (eeurch, I’ve just realised what a horribly awkward adverb ‘linearly’ is; but the synonym centre of my brain appears to have shut-down for the night, so it’ll have to do). I’d rather Faulks stop being so dainty: he needs to grab these terms by the scruff of the neck and wrestle them into submission.  But that’s the trouble with labels.  Slippery buggers.

I doubt that I’ll be reviewing further episodes: for variety’s sake and because, as stated, I don’t want to find myself making the same turgid points about every individual episode.  Sorry if this post was a bit directionless and derivative.  More book reviews are in the pipe-line.

Comments welcome.


7 responses to “Faulks on Fiction – a Review of My Review, and of Episode 2.

  1. Great blog – new to this, so interesting to see other reviews of same progs.

    Re Faulks ep1 – if they hadn’t used archive in the way they did, i don’t think the series would have made it onto BBC2. Without, i guess it would have become more of a BBC4 piece and seen by a much smaller audience. i think to popularise (not my opinion, but perhaps in the minds of the commissioning editors) a series on literature, they felt it was necessary to paint the narrative with as much “familiar” archive as they did to make it more palatable to a wider audience? Am i disillusioned here? I don’t know – perhaps there was no wider audience to bring to it. Its possible the viewers consisted of only those already familiar with the books/characters and who would have watched the series whatever channel it was on – and with or without so much archive..

    • I’m never sure I understand the venom with which other people respond to critical thought about television, particularly when it’s used to examine constructively, rather than destroy. If the critique of the world’s most ubiquitous medium as educator and not mere entertainer is pompous then how much worse is it to criticise said criticism, especially online, in a forum you must have sought out?

      I’m perfectly and quite deliberately aware that F.R. Shepard (am I alone in hoping that this is a typo for the irate Fr. Shepard?) might not like this response either, so… Come and have a go, if you think you’re smart enough, you rude little plebeian.

      Tom, please feel free to delete this reply. x

    • Well how do you suppose the academics that spend their time commenting on popular culture make a living? TV shows are not JUST TV shows. That’s a pretty shallow and frankly boring attitude. Of course you can consume them as mere entertainment but it never hurts to engage in a little critical thinking, otherwise you’re just a media-slave.

  2. Ah, see I’m in between on this show. Yes, from an academic standpoint, it would do well to focus on specific subjects. For example, rather than sweep speedily over a label a vast and as variable as the literary ‘Hero’, a focus on the ways in which contemporary subjects of the 19th and 20th Century changed literature’s portrayal of [insert topic here] (lets say, morality, for instance) would have made the show much more informative.

    However, I also believe that much of the audience F on F could have while being shown of BBC2 are children, teens, and perhaps even young adults, who need encouragement to read books! For them, the show is great, it gives an engaging synopsis and just enough insight to allow them to engage with texts that they may feel are inaccessible to them, without overwhelming them with psychobabel and ‘boring’ history. The show is plays to its audience, I think.

    The other recent BBC documentary on novels, In Their Own Words, I missed out on. Was that similar to F on F? Or was it a step up (or down)?

  3. This post isn’t as directionless as you think it is!

    I enjoyed both episodes of the show and will be watching the others, I just wish they’d tone it down with the mood music and the shots of Faulks remaining stationary as the camera sweeps around him (I don’t watch a program about novels to watch his face). I reckon he could fit one or two novels more in there for good measure, just to give us something to really dig our teeth into. And you’re right, his choices did seem unnecessarily linear and safe.

    As for F R Shepherd’s opinion, I wholeheartedly agree with Thom D; just because F on F is a TV programme, it shouldn’t be critique shouldn’t be irrelevant; quite the opposite. Anyway, I really enjoy your blog. Cheers!

    • I know exactly what you mean re: the glamourising shots of Faulks. Did you notice some of the really creepy shots that were combined with stock footage of old BBC adaptations? They were edited in such a way as to make it look like Faulks was present in the scene and watching the pairs of lovers.

      There was one such shot that was contrived so that Faulks appears to be watching a couple through a bedroom window. The producers probably intended it to be intimate, as if Seb Faulks was really getting into the novel; but I just found it sinsiter and weird.

      Thanks for commenting all.

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