I don’t think I’m old. The World Health Organisation says I’m in middle age and will be for years yet. Actually, I think I’m even quite young for my actual age, and I need to thank Sheena at Kiehl’s for that. But rather often these days I think I’m ancient because I just don’t seem to relate to things younger people like anymore. Or even things older people like. Or anybody.
With some things this is, of course, par for the course. Between 1967 and about 1979, pop music was more or less my raison d’etre. If I was to appear on ‘Mastermind’ my specialist subject would be ‘British and American Pop Music of the 60’s and 70’s’. So it’s not really a surprise that’s there’s not a thing in the charts (do they even really still have ‘charts’) that I can identify. So much sounds the same. But hey, that’s exactly what Auntie Lizzie said about the music I liked in 1969 as we listened together to a sampler called ‘Soul Direction’ for which she had coughed up 15 bob. My goodness, how could she think The Tymes sounded like Inez and Charlie Foxx? So this vast world of current music now boils down to an old man irritated on a bus by some youth playing music on his phone. Not so irritated that I would say anything – after all, he’s just me fifty years back with my transistor radio.
But books. Somewhere, quite recently, I lost the new fiction vibe. There was a time when I leapt on new writers and exciting new fiction. So it was with Ian McEwan, with ‘The Wasp Factory’, with ‘All the Pretty Horses’, with ‘The World According to Garp’, with ‘The Shipping News’ and I could go on and on. These days, though, I find the books sections of newspapers dispiriting. If I find anything I want to read it’s non-fiction and even that’s usually harping back to something past. I want to wallow in the nostalgia of the Thorpe scandal or the Kennedy assassination or just look at books with nice pictures.
I wrote before about how unpleasant I found ‘Conversations With Friends’ with its vapid nasty characters. People loved it. People also loved the TV adaptation of ‘Normal People’, which I did watch all of and this time I did really warm to both of these young people. I felt I had met them both before in real life and that I had taught them. It was real and moving but it was very long.
Then I read ‘Hamnet’; I try not to express opinions about it publicly because other people, but particularly women, then treat me as if I had personally murdered that boy with my own hands. Is it just me? I just thought it was precious and twee, and that Hamnet himself was a sketch, a sort of boy type, always running everywhere and banging into things. Apparently, it makes lots of other people cry; am I just a beast? Is it because I don’t have children? Is it because I’m a man? But worse was to come, in the shape of a book positively recommended to me by several people who assured me how much I would love it.
My mother had a rule that once she had started a book she would finish it. This even extended to the period prior to her death. Lying on the couch dying she was forcing her way through a huge book of which, when she was on page 17, she said ‘I’m not going to like this.’ Eventually I more or less wrenched it from her grasp and replaced it with ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, which my friend Esther had recommended, and which my mother loved. Still, she probably passed irked by being made not to read a further 726 pages of epic crap.
I fear I have inherited this trait, otherwise I would not have finished ‘Where The Crawdads Sing’, which has of course sold millions of copies. Its one saving grace is its setting, the swamps of North Carolina; it is full of effective and detailed description of the area’s natural history, but then the author is a bestselling naturalist; this was her first novel. What scared me about its popularity was its clangy artificial dialogue, its bizarre storyline and the one-dimensionality of almost all of its characters, particularly (again) the two young men, the choice between whom is central to the ‘swamp girl’s’ dilemma. Is it just me? Lots of other people, many of them cleverer and better read than me, have loved it.
This problem I have is probably best generally characterised as being my interest in style over substance. I’m not really all that bothered what a book’s about if (and I realise this is bound to be very subjective) it’s ‘well written’, by which broadly I mean the language is fresh and engaging, the characters are real to me and they speak like people somewhere might speak. And there are plenty of books I like. Among them recently have been ‘That Old Country Music’ by Kevin Barry, ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang, ‘Lot’ by Bryan Washington – which in terms of its content, black and ‘queer’, is pretty of the moment, and compelling in its writing – and the Scottish novel ‘Scabby Queen’ by Kirstin Innes, which I thought, by a decent interval, better than its countrymen ‘Shuggie Bain’ or ‘The Young Team’, though I liked them both too.
If there’s a point here, I suppose it’s a plea to ensure that when we’re teaching something to young people, we talk plenty about language and style and how something’s written, as well as what it’s telling us about ourselves or our times (or other times). I suppose, in essence, I think that’s what makes fiction fiction. But I may just be getting old.