Friday, September 30, 2011

Thinking about Alexander McCall Smith

The other day I heard someone in an extremely influential literary job describe the writing of Alexander McCall Smith, in passing and almost subvocally, as 'Shit.'

Fascinating, I thought, that someone for whom 'shit' is an acceptable judgement of anything should be so sure of her own literary judgement and so dismissive of someone almost preternaturally articulate, someone who has taken to Twitter like a duck to the proverbial and has elevated the Tweet to a new poetic form with an emphasis on the the way that meaning can be clarified and nuance introduced by means of punctuation. Not just fascinating, but remarkable, that such a judgement should have been formed and expressed. How nice to be so sure of one's place in the world.

Of course, I'm partisan: I love Alexander McCall Smith to death, and I think it's partly because I read his books for what they are, rather than judging them against the output of some more or less pretentious heavyweight or other of the contemporary literary world, or feeling that I must demonstrate how down I am with Great Literature by trashing someone who has never pretended to be writing it but who is nonetheless, in his own way, a great writer.

And if you doubt me, read this paragraph from The Forgotten Affairs of Youth. If anyone has ever seen this problem put this clearly and inescapably before then I would very much like to know where, and by whom.
'Yet you say that we need religious belief?'

Isabel did not answer immediately. The problem for her was the divisiveness of religion; its magical thinking; its frequent sheer nastiness. Yet all of that existed side by side with exactly that spirituality that she felt we could not do without; that feeling of awe, of immanence, which she knew was very real, and which enriched and sustained our lives so vitally.


Mindy said...

Give me a list of 'Great Literature' writers and if I've read them there is a better than equal chance that they are on the 'failed to finish' pile. Unless you count Patrick White. I quite like his stuff.

I really like AMcS. He is just so easy to read. Almost like a palate cleanser after reading something long and involved like Wolf Hall. I certainly do not agree that he is 'shit'. Some professional jealousy perhaps?

On the spirituality - I find I get that when gazing at the stars, remembering how tiny we are in our obsure little corner of the universe and much of an accident it was that we are here at all. Just imagining the vastness of the universe full of things I can't possibly imagine does it for me. No religion required, just the capacity for awe.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I think perhaps in the mind of this woman, 'easy to read' = 'shit', which is telling in itself. But if one asks oneself why McCall Smith is easy to read, it certainly isn't anything to do with simple ideas, short words or non-complex sentence structure. Quite the reverse in each case. Maybe he's easy to read because he cares about whether his readers enjoy his books or not.

Mindy said...

Yes, exactly.

ruthless said...

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency was my first AMS and remains my favourite. I remember at the time reading a review in the Spectator which commented that if he were a Japanese writer, he would have been nominated for a major literary prize. His wit and lightness of touch charm but his emotional nuance, his deftly drawn characters and his deep moral core are what continue to resonate even when you put the books down.

I like what Mma Ramotswe says "My mission is to help people with the problems in their lives". What could be simpler?

I suspect the detractor believes that someone who manages to be so prolific must also be shallow. Nothing could be further from the truth.

PS thanks for pointing him out on twitter. What a delight.

Elephant's Child said...

I too am a big fan of AMS. Yes he is easy to read; but it strikes me as a huge mistake to assume that easy to read is equally easy to write.
And my spirituality is in the small things - the fresh colours of newly emerging willow foliage, and, like Mindy, the sheer depth of the sky, and uncountable numbers of stars.

Frances said...

I have wondered whether some critics were able to appreciate the skill involved in writing with simplicity and nuance.
I have hoped that this year's Booker emphasising "enjoyable" and "readable" might cause some rethinks.

Mind you, I do think that Isabel corrects her younger partner too often and too readily.

TimT said...

I remember some years ago Robert Hughes dismissal of 'The Phantom Menace' - "This film is a turd". No-one could accuse him of being inarticulate. The scatological has its place in literature and criticism but ought to, of course, be deployed tastefully.... (I can't quite believe I typed that).

PC, your frequent defence of Alexander McCall Smith makes me quite ashamed that I have not read any of his books yet. Every quotation of his I have read, I have liked. I must elevate him to the top of my reading pile immediately!

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

TimT, I think his particular brand of whimsy, verbal and other, would appeal to you very much. The mistake many people make is in thinking that whimsy is all it is. I recomment beginning with the first in the Precious Ramotswe series, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...



skepticlawyer said...

AMS is one of the lecturers here at the University of Edinburgh law school. He is a serious scholar of Scots criminal law and has also written books on Botswana's legal system. His legal writing is as clear and well organised as his fiction, and he is also very pleasant in person.

This is his staff profile:

As a writer-lawyer, I am aware of the common association of my profession with prolixity and lack of clarity. That is why I strive (along with other writer-lawyers like AMS) to be clear, to be brief, and (if possible) to be witty.

Maybe other professions require the now constant requirement from judges that pleadings always be clear.

Fred said...

AMS was interviewed on Lateline last night for about 15 minutes. The interview begins at 18:50 from the start of the program.

Bernadette said...

Please don't "love him to death" though..."love him to needing a good lie down" would be fine but we want him around for a good long while yet.

I feel sorry for that person who thought his writing "shit" as they're missing out on one of life's real pleasures...the joy of a well constructed sentence.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

'Love him to needing a good lie down' is a vast improvement, yes.

Anonymous said...

I've never read a book by AMS and yet have no doubt at all that he's as fine a writer as you say. Anyone who calls something "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" has in my view already won the war prior to setting out. It's the proverbial "you had me at Hello." I don't even need to read his stuff to know it's just splendid, but maybe now I'll go on and read some anyway. It's like having the ear to call your chief villain Darth Vader, or your kindly old advisor Dumbledore: dude, as Sonic Youth would say, "You've got it!"

I think the quoted para about spirituality puts the question wrong and is thereby not much of a proof of particular insight on that score, but then again nobody is able to do everything all on their own, which is exactly why we have a world.

The artist formerly known as jpain_pinthe_zarse