Monday, February 14, 2011

Faulks on Fiction

Last weekend British author Stephen Faulks' show "Faulks on Fiction" about the British novel and its characters premiered.

One of his guests, Martin Amis, generated a lot of controversy with his comments on writing for children:

"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book,' but [here he shakes his head] the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."

As author Lucy Coats says on her blog, writing for children doesn't restrict her literary freedom: "When I write fiction, I research and plan just as (I assume) Amis does. Then I sit down and let what comes, come... We are all the amanuensis for our characters--and yes, often we do use language they never consciously would. It's not a feat of the writer's art exclusive to highbrow literary fiction. When I write, I think about language, the richness and complexity and wonder of it, and I use it to hook the reader into my story, to ensnare them in my net of words, to take them so far that they forget that what they are seeing is only print on a page of dead tree."

Though of course, to be literal about it, if we consider genre, structure, form, all writing restricts freedom in some way. Was Shakespeare restricted by his use of iambic pentameter? Or, as fellow writer and blogger Nick Cross says, "Something that Martin Amis seems unwilling to admit is that he too – consciously or unconsciously – operates under a whole set of restrictions. Such as only writing for smug, middle-aged, middle-class men."

However, I've been surprised Faulks' own sexist comments about heroism and gender haven't been getting more attention. Last weekend he was interviewed by Mariella Frostrup on the BBC's radio program "Open Book" about heroism (the theme of his TV series' first episode).

Here are some of his comments (my transcription, apologies for any slight errors):

Faulks: "When you come to someone like Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, whom we call a hero, it's quite clear that she's not a good person or a person you look up to, but for some reason she's the person you root for in the story."

MF: "She's the only woman you manage to come up with out of seven heroes. Did you find it hard to find suitable female candidates?"

Faulks: "No, not at all. But not all of them fitted the arc of the story were telling within each programme... "

MF: "But according to you, Becky can't be a heroine because she's not good enough, and it's a qualifier I'm interested to know you didn't employ on your men, Winston Smith and John Self, hardly paragons of virtue."

Faulks: "Becky is a hero, despite being morally not a good person. But the reason she's a hero, not a heroine, is because she's the focus and the words actually lose their kind of gender connotations... I think you can have a woman hero but I don't think you can have a man heroine on the other hand.... because these things are not mirror images of one another. Jane Eyre, for instance, is a heroine. I mean, she's a much better person that Becky Sharp, but she's a heroine, I think, because Charlotte Bronte suggests that Jane Eyre's journey is to find a man, whereas Thackeray suggests that Becky Sharpe's journey is to do without men."

MF: But isn't Jane Eyre emblematic of her time?" ... (the interview continues, with a few more sexist comments, then Mariella Frotsrup moves on to let Faulks talk about how he believes the hero is dead, except in genre fiction).

Faulks: "Harry Potter, I mean, he's the most famous character of the last 25 years and he is genuinely heroic."

MF: "And don't forget Lyra, Philip Pullman's female heroine, who's a girl."

Faulks: "She's a female hero I think you'll find."

Frostrup then managed to cheerfully finish the interview without strangling Faulks--though it seemed to be a close call (the whole interview, at ten minutes, is worth listening to, and available here).

Needless to say, after hearing this, I didn't rush home to watch Faulks' program. He's managed to insult writers, women. Now the show needs to say something racist, perhaps about Mexicans. Then they'll have narrowed their audience almost entirely to white, middle class men. But perhaps that was the intention all along.


  1. What an interesting post, Anne, and well written. I will have to find the time to listen to the entire interview.

    I read about the Top Gear comments that you alluded to at the end of your post. I'm used to their approach to humor, so didn't find the remarks to be out of character or particularly surprising. I *am* surprised that more people haven't focused on the BBC's response:

    "We are sorry if we have offended some people, but jokes centred on national stereotyping are a part of Top Gear’s humour, and indeed a robust part of our national humour. Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganised and over dramatic; the French being arrogant and the Germans being over organised. When we do it, we are being rude, yes, and mischievous, but there is no vindictiveness behind the comments."

    Essentially - we make fun of everybody, so that makes it ok. Um - no, actually, it doesn't. Not in my book. There are all kinds of funny things in this world that don't rely on perpetuating stereotypes. And those are the things I find funny. I never did get used to that type of humor when I lived in the UK.


  2. Thanks, Elisabeth. I hope you'll be able to get the interview outside the UK. I'm not sure. Though, honestly, if you can, Open Book is one of my favorite programs. I listen every week!

    Like you, the Top Gear comments didn't surprise me much either, so I haven't been paying the news reports much attention. So I hadn't even heard about the BBC response. You're right! That is fascinating, and bizarre, that they can justify jokes like that. Really sad coming from a national TV news network.

  3. I honestly wondered, when I read the BBC response, if someone had actually approved it for publication. It has to be one of the most myopic things I've ever read. And as for damage control, I find sincere apologies to be much more effective, personally, than justification of the offending behaviour.

    "We're not offensive. You just don't understand our humour."

    oy vey - I'll stop now ;-P


  4. Yes, yes, yes. As long as someone gives me a hearty sorry, I'm usually so much more forgiving. To just tell someone who was offended that they didn't get it... oy vey indeed. But I guess that's the very issue--they don't see or want to acknowledge that they might be wrong.

  5. "People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book,'..."

    *banging head on desk*
    Wow. I could as easily say that if I suffered a brain injury, I might write for adults because how hard is it to fill hundreds of pages of various characters rambling on and on about themselves. Or, about nothing.

    Granted, there are some books written for adults that are fabulous. But there are SO many that sound like they love to just hear themselves speak. It drives me crazy when people think writing for kids is easy when, in fact, the younger you go, the harder it is.

  6. Hah! It's shockingly awful, isn't it, Tabitha? What kind of person says such a thing on TV? Well, Martin Amis, I guess. What makes me so angry is that it's just perpetuating the children's writer stereotypes. Tempting to chain him and Faulks both up until they figure out how to write a good picture book (or give up and admit how hard it is!).

  7. Ugh, Faulks is a sexist idiot. V good post. Why is he trying to make up some ridiculous semantic difference between 'hero' and 'heroine'?? Heroine is the feminine of hero, that is all - Lyra is a fab heroine and Harry is a fab hero, it's not complicated.

    I was never a fan of his - I found Birdsong very overrated - the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker (oh, look, a woman!) are FAR better WWI novels.

  8. Thanks, GF. I've been stewing over this all weekend--so glad to share the agony! =) What really gets me is that a woman can be a hero or a heroine, but a man can't be a heroine. So apparently in Faulks' world there IS some kind of gendered difference, where "feminine" traits negate true heroism. And his condescending tone! Grrrr.

    I'll have to look up Pat Barker. I enjoyed Birdsong when I read it in high school, but recently read Charlotte Gray and found the writing fairly lazy. I have to say, after all this, I won't be picking up another Faulks anytime soon.

  9. Do look up Pat Barker! I had the most hilarious conversation with a guy once, who was convinced she was a gay man because, "Women can't write like that."

    I didn't see this -- one of the perks of not having a connected t.v. -- but I can well imagine. The whole stupid thing over the difference between heroes and heroines sets my teeth on edge. And the idea that Jane Eyre is a heroine because she 'gets a man' is insulting and stupid.

    For what it's worth, I've enjoyed Martin Amis' novels, but he's obviously the 'spew first, think later' type. Maybe a little brain damage would be just the ticket.

  10. Ohhh, TWO pat Barker recs! I just looked her up, I can get the first Regeneration book at my local library. I'll definitely give her a read!

    Just the idea that one needs to create some kind of thematic distinction between heroes and heroines baffles me. I can't see any purpose other than a political one. And every time I try to reason through Faulks' twisted logic I get madder and madder. I think it's the idea of using intellectualism to justify bias that really upsets me.

    Yeah, I've gotten that sense about Amis. Spew first, think later, exactly.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.