I wrote this last Saturday and have now just tidied it up and decided to post it for what it’s worth.
Reading Owen Hatherley (A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain -- architecture in cities post-1970) I think how good the writing is and how there’s plenty of good British writing around that requires -- i imagine -- no knowledge of the Authorised Version or Shakespeare or Milton to be enjoyed, so do we really have to read Eng Lit classics at school and uni? (a question that I'm aware deserves closer attention).
Though personally I wouldn’t look for it, good British writing, in fiction. Perhaps Martin Amis is good now, though he wasn’t when I tried to read Money. Just irritating. And I suppose I only say that because I don’t read much fiction -- tends to irritate me like theatre.
That was after reading the intro -- autobiog, survey, rant, most enjoyable and lively. Then I read a big chunk of the first chapter, on Southampton. Intrigued at first and held by the lively and witty writing, then after a while I'd had enough. I thought this was because I didn’t know Southampton (and the photographs are too small and grey to do the job -- a problem that I suppose reading it on an iPad might solve, I suppose, one argument for such devices that don’t much tempt me).
And then I thought that one advantage of the novel is that one doesn’t have to know its places and people in advance. It tells you all you need to know. But now again I think I don’t need to if I read a good history, either, even if it’s on a topic I've no knowledge of ... so I don’t know where this leaves me.
Except, come to think of it, I do. My education and all has meant I've spent a lot of time with history, one way and another, and that makes reading about it meaningful, not because I know the places and people but because I've become a sort of minimal connoisseur of how history goes so that new cases come to me as relevant, as fitting themselves -- in ways I have to decide and perhaps can’t help trying to decide -- in a tissue of memories of other works.
So, by analogy, if I'd been an assiduous observer of and reader about architecture and urban planning, and still more if I'd myself grappled with the confusion of post-1970 British urban scenes and groped for ways of making sense of them, then Hatherley’s efforts would interest me for the categories and characterisations he comes up with, for the light he throws on what appeared meaningless and for the insightfulness of his metaphors.
Then I have my tea, over a newspaper which has an extract from the unpublished (unfinished, reconstructed, I think) novel Pale King by David Foster Wallace who the papers insist was exceptionally good. Well, yes, it’s good -- very nice description of an unusual and interesting situation, the narrator’s father being caught in the closing doors of a Chicago subway train and hurtling to his death at the opening of the tunnel -- as are thousands of parallel passages in novels. But so it should be if he’s devoted his life to writing -- he’s a writer, dammit. In short, so what, nothing special, and no particular reason to read yet another new novel out of the impossible pile of good novels.
In any case I think I've always preferred non-fiction, mainly -- fiction once in a while, certainly, a periodic fix, as with poetry, but a little goes a long way.
This ends up a rambling as Montaigne. Does that make me a true essayist?