Speaking at this week’s Bath Literature Festival, David Nicholls gave an interesting response to a cheeky question about chick lit, commercial vs literary writing and whether some women novelists miss out on critical acclaim. Here’s the transcript of that part of the conversation:
Me: I want to ask you a slightly mean question. It’s a question about your work which really has nothing to do with you. But I’m very interested to know your views on it. And it’s this: There are a lot of women novelists who feel very overlooked and would love to have your success and who think that if you were “Davina Nicholls” you would not have had the success that you’ve had.
So I’m not sure how you’re supposed to answer that. But I wonder… Seeing that Us was Booker-longlisted and I was very sorry that it didn’t make the Booker shortlist and I felt strongly that it should have done… There are a lot of women writers who would say that there is no way that if a love story like that had been written by a woman that it would be on the Booker longlist. And it would be called chick lit.
DAVID NICHOLLS: I’m torn. The first thing to say is to say that Karen Joy Fowler was shortlisted for the Booker and that is a family drama. But at the same time I don’t want to disagree that there’s a kind of snobbery about books that are about love and relationships and family. I mean, I think that is absolutely the case. I think there are exceptions like Anne Tyler who writes about family relationships and is absolutely critically acclaimed. And AM Homes or Lorrie Moore. They are all writing books that are about relationships and family…
Me: They are all American…
DN: Yes, that’s true. I suppose the distinction is between literary and popular and where you fall on that scale. I suppose the reason… I mean, I haven’t dodged this issue… But I’m perhaps not the best person to answer this because I’m not the best judge of where I fall on that scale. And I think it’s very unhealthy for writers to try and place themselves on that scale.
I certainly think there are a lot of great authors. I mean, the writing of Marian Keyes… If you read the books — which I have — they’re absolutely tough. About mental illness and depression and drug abuse. Or someone like Jojo Moyes — a brilliant writer and books that are discreetly but absolutely political. So I would be inclined to agree [that women are overlooked].
But for me this gets difficult. Because I have read articles that seem to say that I am fantastically over-rated. [Extensive audience laughter]. Which might be true. But it’s not necessarily something that I want to be told. [More laughter.]
I just want to say that, yes, they have a point [that women can be overlooked].
Me: I think that’s a very sensible answer.
DN: I don’t think I have answered it. But I wanted to try and answer it because I think there’s a lot to be said. But it involves classifying and rating myself in a way that would be ridiculous.
Me: It’s not your fight.
DN: No. But a lot of the writers we’re talking about are friends of mine so I’m trying to be bold.
More on this exchange here.
I reviewed two fantastically readable new biographies about Alexander McQueen and John Galliano for the Telegraph. One, Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin by Andrew Wilson, looks at the truth behind all the myth-making around McQueen. And the other, Gods and Kings by Dana Thomas, contrasts their two lives — and credits them both with establishing (and then killing off) an influential era for fashion. Two great reads — equal to something I reviewed a few months ago on McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Kate Moss: Champagne Supernovas. Also worth a look.
I am not the best person to answer the question. Because I have not read War and Peace. (YES. I KNOW. THE SHAME.*) But I’m a good person to put the question because I’m a fluent Russian speaker, I have lived in Russia and known many Russians. And I have not read War and Peace. And I have not suffered as a result.
Or so it seemed to me until this year. Here’s the trouble: this is the year of War and Peace. It’s the 145th anniversary of the novel’s publication in 1869. There’s a BBC Radio 4 jamboree celebrating the 1,400-page saga currently on air. And this autumn there’s a huge BBC 1 adaptation, produced by Harvey Weinstein and starring Adrian Edmondson, Greta Scacchi, Downton Abbey’s Lily James, screenplay by (of course) Andrew “Pride and Prejudice” Davies. So if there was ever a time to read War and Peace, this is it.
The good news? Andrew Marr loves it so much he has read it 15 times. And Anna Karenina is a lifelong favourite novel and truly not a difficult read. So how different can War and Peace be? Right? Right. The bad news? It’s 1,400 pages. And has some bad Amazon reviews (see below for an extract from the worst-reviewed Amazon classics): “Highly disappointed and utterly disgusted.”
Verdict: it must be read and this is achievable by autumn. Also recommended: Tolstoy’s “secrets to a happy life” and this very funny exploration of who has and hasn’t read War and Peace by Tanya Gold from 2005.
* I feel no shame. Read what you want not what you feel you should.
Pic: Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in the 1955 film of War and Peace.
Writing in today’s Guardian on habit, resolutions and Gretchen Rubin’s fantastic new book Better Than Before (published in the UK in March). It’s about the psychology of habit and is an addictive and pleasing read (even for someone who is in the habit of reading a lot of such books about, er, changing habits). Rubin argues that resolutions are all very well, but establishing them is virtually impossible unless you have thought through your own attitudes towards habit and how you approach things. I strongly recommend it if you are looking to make some permanent changes in your life. (Warning: it is not a quick fix.) Her website is a fantastic resource: www.gretchenrubin.com. (So much so that it appears to have crashed on New Year’s Day — that’s a pretty good recommendation of how seriously people take her life advice.)
What I didn’t have room to talk about in the Guardian piece is her assessment of the four personality types: Upholder (someone who enforces rules very easily, never breaks resolutions, enjoys regulation), Questioner (can keep rules and resolutions but only if there is sound logic behind them), Obliger (good at keeping resolutions made to others — ie. “I will be there at 7pm” — but cannot keep a promise to the self — ie. “I will go running at 7pm”), Rebel (contrary, does the opposite of what they’re told, hates rules, celebrates freedom). By working out which type you most resemble, you stand a better chance of finding ways to make changes stick.
Unfortunately, the one I “get” the most is Rebel. (Yes, I know. I am wild and crazy.) I don’t like being told what to do and I am only good at following rules and goals if I have set them myself. Having read the book, it’s the category Rubin finds the most difficult to advise because if you are a Rebel you will only do the opposite of what she advises anyway. I just need to get a message from her telling me to eat loads of doughnuts. I eagerly await this message.
My other hat tip for life changing advice in 2015 is to subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog or check out his new book, Your Turn. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes inspiring, always original. Happy New Year!
Now booking for next year: Leicester Comedy Festival (left) — my new show Say Sorry to the Lady — Sunday Feb 15:
Meanwhile… Just a few shows left to go before Christmas… I’m at Scotch Egg impro with People People on Wed 10 Dec at The Alma in Stoke Newington. On Sun 14 Dec see People People at City Impro at The Water Poet at 5.30pm and at the Free Association at The De Beauvoir Arms in N1 from 8pm.
The last Dead Parrot Society is on Fri Dec 19 at The Anglers in Teddington from 8pm with a fantastic bill, including Joe Jacobs. He was just in the finals of JW3’s Jewish Comedian of the Year which I was judging last weekend and I like him a lot.
Here’s my list of the top 10 books of 2014 from the Observer. I plump for The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton as the Read of the Year, a wonderful debut novel. As suggested, I’m not saying that The Miniaturist is perfect. It has been a controversial book in some ways, which is what worries me slightly about debut novels becoming massive: they get over-hyped and over-scrutinised and then when people eventually get round to reading it, they’re disappointed because it’s not the greatest thing they ever read in the history of the world ever ever. (Which it can’t be because it’s a debut.) It’s a tricky situation because in order to get anyone interested in debut novels at all, publishers really do have to pull out all the stops and they did on this book. Still, it is the book of the year for its immense success – and it’s an enjoyable read. Indeed.
God help me, I am reviewing Downton Abbey for the FIFTH SERIES, starting tomorrow. If you want to catch up on the last thing we saw (Christmas special 2013), the review is here — warning: spoilers. Secondary warning; it was the one where we saw Carson’s ankles. Remember? Yes, we would all rather forget. Not that he didn’t have lovely ankles. He did. It was just a very weak and disappointing episode. As so many of them are.
Regular readers will know that I have come to love to hate this strange phenomenon, which has recently morphed into what I described this week in the Guardian as “the UK’s most toxic cultural export.” The new series starts tomorrow night and the review of the first episode goes up as soon as the credits roll. Pass the petits fours.
One person who seems to have escaped at the right time at least is Dan Stevens: I interviewed him about his roles in The Guest and A Walk Among the Tombstones this autumn and his new life in Brooklyn, where he couldn’t be further away from the life of Matthew Crawley if he tried. And where he eats a lot of vegan food and has a military-style fitness regime. I don’t feel Dame Maggie would approve.
I’m working on a couple of new show ideas at the moment so I’m doing new material gigs and impro nights. Some of these are under the radar. (And you would know why if you came to them.) Sometimes they’re on my Twitter feed or Facebook page. I’m performing the last outing of I Laughed, I Cried: The Edinburgh Show at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival on Sunday 19 October, 7.30pm. More news soon of Comedy Royale, a new gig celebrating the best of London’s impro scene, coming to St James’ Theatre on Thurs Nov 27 – save the date! And I can be found every other Friday at Teddington’s rockin’ Dead Parrot Society in our new riverside home, The Anglers (between Teddington Lock and Teddington Studios).
Aaaaargh. 33 shows in 12 days. Highlights: Hanging out in the Green Room at the BBC with Arlene Phillips and Pamela Stephenson ahead of Radio 4’s Front Row. MCing for Zoe Lyons (below), Mrs Barbara Nice and a host of amazing acts at Mary Bourke’s brilliant group show Funny for a Grrrl at Stand in the Square. MCing in a packed 300-seater Spiegeltent (below) at the Book Festival. (Everyone flooded straight out of George R R Martin into our show.) Doing battle with the Tattoo every night in Freestival’s Cowgatehead during my show I Laughed, I Cried: about 15 minutes of it was dominated by the deafening sound of fireworks. (Weapons for fightback, dispersed to audience: balloons, party poppers and Hobnobs.) Loved North Berwick on my day off (below). And became obsessed with the moo yang (sticky pork) at Ting Thai Caravan (Teviot Place).