Saturday, 24 September 2011

Putting the Cont into Controversial

06:11:00 Posted by Ashley Lister 6 comments

By Ashley Lister

I hold several opinions which people deem controversial. This is their polite way of saying I am wrong and they are right. Here are some examples.

Tolkien is overrated. CS Lewis (or maybe even Hugo Dyson) read Tolkien and famously said, “By God, not another bloody elf!” Personally I wasn’t troubled by the number of elves. I just thought there was too much description and an offensive absence of anything interesting. I’ve never bothered with the movies. If you seriously want to argue about this let’s just say that Tolkien can’t write an opening that engages this reader’s enthusiasm.

Monty Python are not particularly funny. Some of their stuff made me smile. Twenty years ago. Nowadays it’s flat. There’s funnier contemporary material out there. There was funnier stuff going when Monty Python were at the height of their success.

Jeffrey Archer is a good writer. This also goes for Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer and the majority of those writers currently working for Harlequin Mills and Boon. Many people slate these authors for possessing a perceived inability to write. But, too often, the people criticising the Archers, Browns and Meyers etc have never read those writers. I’ve read them. They’re good storytellers.

Prize-winning books are showcased as though being dull is something of literary merit. Glancing through the synopses of the Booker archives I found this blurb for J G Farrell’s Troubles:

Major Brendan Archer travels to Ireland - to the Majestic Hotel and to the fiancĂ©e he acquired on a rash afternoon’s leave three years ago. Despite her many letters, the lady herself proves elusive, and the Major’s engagement is short-lived. But he is unable to detach himself from the alluring discomforts of the crumbling hotel. Ensconced in the dim and shabby splendour of the Palm Court, surrounded by gently decaying old ladies and proliferating cats, the Major passes the summer. So hypnotic are the faded charms of the Majestic, the Major is almost unaware of the gathering storm. But this is Ireland in 1919 - and the struggle for independence is about to explode with brutal force.

In other words, this is a book about a man staying in a hotel. WTF? Travelodge the novel? The purpose of the blurb is to make the book sound sufficiently intriguing, so a potential reader will part with the cover price before it’s discounted heavily and dumped in the remainder bin. I hope to God the book is more interesting than the blurb suggests because this genuinely makes it sound like the dictionary definition of watching paint dry.

Or take this blurb from Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 winner Remains of the Day:

A compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world in postwar England. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving “a great gentleman.” But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington’s “greatness” and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he has served.

Honestly, if I wanted to read about a butler serving Nazi-sympathisers, I’d pick up one of Paul Burrell’s autobiographies. I only sat through the movie because I thought Sir Anthony Hopkins was going to eat Lord Darlington’s liver served with fava beans and a glass of Chianti.

But these are just some of my controversial opinions. Doubtless there are many people who will tell me that Tolkien is not overrated, Monty Python sketches are still funny, Archer et al are not particularly noteworthy and stories of butlers and hotels do make for page-turning reads.

And, doubtless I’ll fall back to my usual stance about the controversy of conflicting opinions and quote Lindsay from yesterday: Opinions are like ****holes. Everyone’s got one – and everybody else’s stinks.



Ste said...

'Honestly, if I wanted to read about a butler serving Nazi-sympathisers, I’d pick up one of Paul Burrell’s autobiographies.' That actually did make me laugh out loud! Can't agree with everything though - I've read LOTR and The Silmarillian over 20 times each and it's actually the book that got me into reading. It's not so much the story - it's the concept behind it - take it as one big metaphor and it's much more enjoyable (CS Lewis sucks the big one tho). Love Monty Python (though only seen the films) couldn't agree more with the Booker stuff though (although Midnight's Children by Rushdie is one of my all time faves) Great post to wake up to :)

vicky ellis said...

Calling your opinion controversial is akin to saying it's wrong. Don't you just hate words that have subtle insults hidden in their delivery? Another one I really don't like is the word cathartic. To be told that your writing is cathartic is like comapring your writing to basket weaving at Parkwood. Sometimes I write about issues that have bugged me but the writing is crafted. I'm not spilling my emotions on to the page in order to work through my problems. That's what is really meant by 'cathartic', but that's another week's debate I think :)

I agree that the premises of 'great' books seem to be dull as ditchwater. That said, Remains of the Day is a beautiful book. Tolkien is crap. Archer is good. But Python are funny and Graham Chapman was hot.

As Steve said, great post to wake up to :)

Lindsay said...

Tolkien is indeed overated long-winded shite. But although Dan Brown can write a damn good story I threw his book across the room in irritation at his condescending and annoying writing style. I'm not even particularly snobby about literature either, I'll read Jodi Picoult ffs. He writes like he thinks an author should write, and it was bloody annoying and the story will always be overshadowed with annoyance for me. Stephenie Meyer may be a great writer, but twinkly moody softarse vampires don't appeal, and make me take the piss.

Monty Python are good, not necessarily belly laugh funny but entertaining.

Re: Award-winning literary novels, sometimes yes, it really is a case of the emperors new clothes isn't it? I KNOW they are mean't to be character focused but does it really mean we have to have no plot?

Cathartic = basket weaving at Parkwood, that had me laughing loudly here Vicky.

Barbara Tolkein said...

Well I think you're all talking shite! There's only one way to sort this out, I'll see you next week at the reunion and we'll have a fight. - Harry Hill's a good writer!

Ashley R Lister said...


The books that get us into reading are usually the ones that cause the most controversy. I grew up reading Enid Blyton - not the most politically correct author in the library.

But it's our collective differences that make this blog so much richer.


Cathartic writing is a great term. I might start to use it students who've written stuff I don't like: "That must have been quite cathartic getting those words on the paper..." It has a nice ring to it.


I taught a young girl who had read the Twilight books and related to them in a way that adults relate to Shakespeare or Booker-prize winners. I feel the same as you about vampires. Spike was the best and toughest vampire ever and he didn't sparkle. But those books had helped that young girl cope with an otherwise troubled life so I think they're worth every word. Also - I know you can be damned funny when you're taking the piss, so it's more grist for the mill.

Barbara Tolkein,
At first I was worried you might be related to the writer of the Hobbit books. Then I realised your surname is spelled differently :-)

See you next Friday.


Barbara said...

Well spotted Ashley! See you next week, looking forward to it x