Faulks on Fiction – An on-the-fly Review.

This town, is coming like a ghost town.  And by town, I mean blog.  There are numerous reasons (read: excuses) for my recent dearth of posts – including, but not limited to,: work, sickness, canine interruptions (i.e. playing with my sister’s pet dog Oliver) and cavalier dentistry: the horrific  combination of  pain and humiliation.

The most significant obstacle to my output, however, is the abject fear I am now subject to every time I sit down to write something.  It contracts my stomach, dizzies my head and blurs my vision until productivity is utterly impossible, and I’m left curled in the corner of the red room in a knee-hugging and pathetic ball of crippled self-doubt.

I don’t know what’s responsible for my recent inability to put pen to paper (this phrase used because it’s more romantic and pleasingly alliterative than ‘to put fingertip to keyboard’ – despite the latter being more accurate), but I’m determined to get out of this lull, even if it means crawling out on my hands and knees.

So I’m going to use this post to jump-start my blogging life.  The proverbial kick-up-the-arse that is so clearly needed.  Inspired by an old article by my friend Thom (hi Thom!), this is an on-the-fly review of Faulks on Fiction, a new BBC documentary about that most important tenet of fiction – characterisation.  The programme is just beginning on BBC 2, and I am writing this post in-tandem with its broadcast. 

This is about as close as I can get to blogging live, and will hopefully force me to fucking well WRITE something.  So, to hell with fear, self-doubt and writer’s block: and brace yourselves for some ad-hoc and improvisatory analysis as I cast the generously-spaced net of my critical faculties into the roiling sea that is the tellybox, to see what I can drag up.


And here’s Sebastian Faulks, looking every bit the literary Mick Huknall that he is (he’s popular with Mums, right?).  He gets off the starting block with a firm assertion of his critical mandate: he wants to talk about characters, not writers.  Today’s ‘character archetype’ (my phrasing, not his) is, “the hero”.

I’m instantly suspicious: Faulks posits that all significant literary characters fit into one of four categories: ‘heroes, lovers, snobs, villains’ (his phrasing, not mine).  I’m going to take some convincing.

In an ill-advised hot-pink shirt (that does nothing to quash the Huknall resemblance), Faulks walks a tropical beach (much to the delight of license-fee payers.  I imagine) to discuss Robinson Crusoe.  He reads from the book (enunciating very well, I might add), and makes some fairly trite critical observations that Crusoe’s most significant struggle is with himself, not the island on which he is stranded. 

But it’s not all simplistic: Faulks concludes his analysis of Robinson Crusoe with an (almost modernist) declaration that the book’s salient point is to highlight the significance of an individual life, intellect and spirituality in an increasingly industrial/metropolitan/homogenised world.  It’s a nice sentiment, I think, even if total isolation and loneliness is a rather heavy-handed and extreme way of expressing it.

Now he’s talking about Tom Jones; which I haven’t read; so I have to take his points here on faith.  Thus far, however, Faulks hasn’t gone very far to defining what he means by ‘hero’, or to demonstrate any universal traits to the archetype.  Let’s hope the label ‘hero’ doesn’t turn out to be an irritating catch-all excuse to talk about his favourite books in one documentary.

Next up, Vanity Fair: “there is a hero and… she’s a woman!”  remarks Faulks, accompanied by stock footage of the 90s BBC adaptation.  But, thankfully, we’re getting closer to defining ‘hero’ – ostensibly somebody who cares for other people in an otherwise grotesque and self-indulgent society.

“The standards we apply to people in books are different” – I suppose it’s true.  I’m currently reading (well, grinding) through Infinite Jest, and I am loving the self-centred and immoral Michael Pemulis, despite the fact that I’d probably hate him in “real life”.  Does this make him a hero….?  I still need some convincing.

[As a side note: the now-mandatory (it seems) dramatic recreations of the books Faulks is discussing is beginning to grate.  I understand that TV is a visual medium, but all I’m really noticing is the poor production values and graininess of the some of the stock footage – it’s a little distracting.  Is reading in such a bad state that it needs glamorising with the visual?]


Faulks ditches Vanity Fair (and, mercifully, the pink shirt) in favour of Sherlock Holmes now.  “The first Super Hero”.  Here, the hero is identified by his ability to flood the darkness with the light of reason and science.  Simon Schama is interviewed (too briefly) and makes the most interesting point of the documentary so far: the hero’s role is to unmask the evils that surround him – and it’s all the more interesting if he’s enduring an internal struggle simultaneously: in Holmes’ case: a battle between logic and madness. Conan Doyle is shown describing Holmes as a ‘monstrous growth’ – to me this offers an ulterior philosophy to Barthe’s post-structuralist idea of the ‘death of the author’ only here, it’s the character that has overcome and destroyed the author, not the reader.

Now: how World War I altered the concept of the individual as ‘hero’ in the face of vast, nebulous, ungraspable numbers of dead.  Faulks gives Birdsong a bit of a vanity plug; but I’ll allow him this, as it’s pretty damn good.

Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty Four) expresses his heroism in the act of writing a diary (I suppose this is as corollary to expressing your heroism intellectually or physically).  Faulks pitches Winston Smith as a new kind of hero: the hero defeated.  This seems too easy to take issue with.  Maybe he’s not read Othello or Jude the Obscure or Oedipus Rex etc. etc….

Lucky Jim’s turn for analysis now: the hero as everyman.  A mop-haired psychoanalyst I don’t recognise talks to Faulks about heroism being an act of self-discovery; overcoming inhibitions and being true to the self, even if this means flying in the face of a society’s prescriptions.  Heroism as liberation of the self seems to be what he’s mostly getting at.

Finally (I think), is Money by Martin Amis, famous for its “post-moral”, slobbish (and snobbish), vain, materialistic “hero” John Self.  It’s suggested that John Self is likable because we all, secretly, wish we had the balls to be more like him.  I admit that letting out the non-disclosed arsehole within has appeal: but constantly throwing the word ‘hero’ around here is something even Faulks seems to find uncomfortable.

Ah: Faulks makes good points: that the narrator (Martin Amis) exposes John Self as a fictional creation is the final nail in the coffin of the idea of ‘hero’.  “The hero is dead: end of story”.

I’m not convinced that all these novels are riffing off (either subverting or upholding) the concept of a ‘hero’ – especially as Faulks never manages to pin-down exactly what he means by this.

Overall though: I thought the programme was pretty good.  It’s nice to see literature discussed canonically, and with a bit more flair than the (let’s face it) incredibly staid and uninspiring seminar-room setting of The Culture Show or Newsnight Review.  I find it encouraging that a show about literature has had some money thrown at it (the constant dramatic recreations were tiring, but the stock-footage of author interviews broke up the show nicely, and without disrupting the flow of things).

Clearly my most severe criticism is with this ill-defined notion of ‘hero’.  It all seemed a bit wishy-washy to me, as Faulks failed to identify any essential traits that linked all of the characters he discussed.  I can’t quite fathom what the selection criteria were – obviously the televisual medium severely limits the number of characters up for review: and it’d be fruitless of me to list those I consider to have been overlooked by the programme.  But randomly selecting a collection of protagonists under the blanket moniker ‘heroes’ and then going on to discuss how none of them are at all alike, seems a little self-defeating to me.  I can’t help but feel that if Faulks had made some comment about the problems of defining the hero, then the show would have been a lot stronger and a lot more cohesive for it.

Faulks on Fiction also glossed some interesting points without, I think, drawing enough attention to them: that the ‘hero’ figure has transgressed from being somebody who upholds a society’s values to a figure who struggles against its tyrannies is alarmingly overlooked by Faulks in his narration. 

Similarly, the readers’ subjective response to character is entirely disregarded by the show.  Faulks doesn’t pick up on a fact that is, seemingly, staring him directly in the face: I found it interesting that historian Simon Schama focused on the political moral facets of character in order to define ‘hero’, whereas the psychoanalyst (whose name, I admit, I didn’t note) discussed heroism in purely self-involving terms. 

Right… so there’s my two-cents on tonight’s episode of Faulks on Fiction.  I enjoyed it, and was surprised by how natural and confident a television presenter Sebastian Faulks makes.  Mostly my criticisms are niggles with his terms rather than his choice of texts, and the majority of the points he made were good ones.  And I am sure that, given more time, Faulks would have addressed more of the issues I raised.  Great to see this sort of thing on TV: but damn it one hour just wasn’t enough.

I may or may not write an article like this again.  More book reviews soon (promise).  I apologise if this sucked: but hey, I’ve forced myself to write something for the first time in over a month.  That’s a good thing… right?…