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.


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?…

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

Some thoughts on narrator, structure, etc:

The omniscient narrator is an incongruous figure in the landscape of the modern novel.  In recent decades he has taken a spectacular fall from grace.  Once the best friend and narratorial staple of the literary novelist, he is now a wildly out-of-fashion vagabond, occupying a no-man’s-land of narratology; thrown aside in favour of the more populist first-person narrator and the (seemingly ubiquitous) free-indirect discourse of the sympathetic third-person.

The recent onset and dominance of new narrative forms has shifted the omniscient narrator to the marginalia of literary significance: post-modernism, psychological realism, modern gothic – they all eschew the omniscient narrator as perverse and lacking in responsibility; his all-knowing position as a neutral observer seems somewhat…embarrassing.  Indeed, when this narrator does find brief employment (for example, in a single, mid-novel chapter of Enduring Love, or the ending of Hilary Mantel’s Fludd), he is dismissed as merely “ironic”; a frivolous indulgence.

Birdsong, however, defies modern convention by exclusively employing this out-of-fashion itinerant of the book world to tell its harrowing story.  It must have been a long time since I last read a novel told by an omniscient narrator (third-person objective singular past-tense, if you want to be pretentious about it… which I do), because I felt strangely uncomfortable and voyeuristic as I read the first hundred pages.  Penetrating into the deepest thoughts, pasts and even, in some cases, futures of every single character seemed unnervingly invasive of me; but once I’d re-accustomed myself to the style, I found such an all-encompassing narratorial rubric to complement perfectly the difficult subject matter.

And Birdsong is difficult.  Posited as historical fiction, it’s a World War I novel with an explicit focus on trench warfare; that most horrifying and unimaginable of all wartime terrors.  While the public conscious may have a vague notion of the awfulness, the sheer horror of trench warfare, a true understanding remains forever ungraspable to the individual.

They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away.

This is one of the reasons why Faulks’ chosen narratology works so well; the lack of narratorial subjectivity creates a fiction that’s told from a distance; with no patronising pretentions to understanding what trench war was really like.  The fact of the matter is, the likes of you and me will never know: a concept given further poignancy by the recent death of Harry Patch: the last surviving soldier of the First World War.

Birdsong has a tripartite plot structure, which I’ve decided to write about in three separate paragraphs.  This may be shockingly linear of me, but I’ve tried (and failed) several times to write about all three parts of the novel simultaneously: I find myself lacking.

1)      The novel begins with a long pre-war love story.  Faulks’ intentions in doing this are obvious and multiple: put simply, this section serves to humanize the characters we are soon to see committing horrific acts of brutal killing and to drive home to the reader what’s at stake.  There’s also more-than-a-little dramatic irony working here: the reader knows what’s coming, and as much as we want to yell a warning to the characters through the pages and ink of the novel, we’re powerless.

Stylistically this is also the most colourful part of the book.  The writing here is metaphor-heavy, plentiful with adjectives and parenthetic digressions.  There’s also an irritating linguistic fetishism for French street names.

This first part of the novel is full of sex – it’s copious and highly stylized.  Sebastian Faulks is often described as a master of visual and physical description, and after reading Birdsong I can see why.  There’s an explicit focus on the synaesthesia of sex: tactile and visceral descriptions of flesh, bodily fluids, smells and tastes abound.  It’s easy to cynically label these scenes as soft-porn under the guise of literary eroticism; but to do so is to miss the point.

2)      And the point is conflict.  The second part offers the ‘meat’ of the novel.  A jump-cut to mid-war trench life carries with it a drastic change in Faulks’ linguistic register.  The synaesthesia of sex is replaced with that of war: now there’s blood, iron, mud and agony. There’re no more metaphors, few adjectives, many more concrete nouns and a focus on active verbs.  The contrast with the first part of the book is abrasive and sudden – here there is no artificiality of language.  While I usually argue that metaphors aid rather than hinder clarity of understanding and observation, their absence here just seems…appropriate.

The war-time passages are almost entirely without ‘plot’ – which makes for some heavy reading as they occupy 400 of this novel’s 600 pages.   In a clever narratorial reflection of the true ambivalence and unbiased nature of war, major characters are killed off with a single line of un-glamorous prose, whereas some minor figures are given slow, ostensibly more heroic deaths that stretch over several paragraphs.  It’s shocking, moving and unusual.

3)      Unfortunately, after the brilliant contrasts, moving characterisation and sheer grit of the first two parts, Faulks feels a need to add a third: another jump-cut, this time to a modern-day setting.  The characters that occupy this part of the novel are almost terminally dull and muted.  If the only point of this third section is to create a dual sense of history and continuation, then I think the novel could have done without it.

I found the modern-day segments interfering; they break up the momentum of the war passages in an annoying and pointless way.

 I don’t want to say that I ‘enjoyed’ Birdsong – it seems the wrong verb to use.  It’s certainly gripping, interesting and very readable – but it’s also disturbing, upsetting and alienating.  I suppose then, that the novel is successful.  It’s let down by the ‘modern day’ segments, and I imagine that the majority of readers will find these sections more irritating than enlightening.  But despite this minor flaw, Birdsong offers a unique reading experience.  It’s a very mature war novel, with no pretences to hope, heroics or glamourisation.

I have more to say about this book, but this review is already nearing the 1000 word mark, and I don’t want to waffle on and on with every minor observation and technical analysis that springs to mind.  So, I think I’ll finish by quoting one of the novel’s more memorable passages – a letter written home by one of the infantrymen and, apparently, based on a series of real-life letters kept in the Imperial War Museum.  I think this passage perfectly demonstrates Sebastian Faulks’ narrative intentions, as well as highlighting the limited ability of words to articulate the reality of war:

No child or future generation will ever know what this was like.  They will never understand.  When it is over we will go quietly among the living, and we will not tell them.  We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.