Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August/September 2018

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: August/September 2018

Nick Hornby
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  • The Female Persuasion—Meg Wolitzer
  • Conversations with Friends—Sally Rooney
  • Crudo—Olivia Laing
  • Little Fires Everywhere—Celeste Ng
  • How to Listen to Jazz—Ted Gioia


  • The New Testament—Jericho Brown
  • There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé—Morgan Parker
  • Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway
  • Revolution—Todd S. Purdum

“The culture has changed over the years,” explained former British defense secretary Michael Fallon, following his resignation from the Cabinet after repeatedly placing his hand on the knee of a female journalist. “What might have been acceptable ten years ago is clearly not acceptable now.” Fallon resigned in November 2017, so he is talking about those heady years between 2002 and 2007, years mostly lost to the mists of time, when Taylor Swift’s songs were country inflected, we watched all five seasons of The Wire, and it was perfectly acceptable for a gentleman to grope a lady without asking for permission first. “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different,” said Harvey Weinstein, whose job description and crimes need no explanation here. “That was the culture then.”

Perhaps the eagle-eyed reader will see a theme developing here: before all you women came along with your aggressive hashtags, anything went, and nobody minded. Indeed, not only did nobody mind, but everyone—men and women—was probably happier.

What enrages me about this particular line of defense is that I was born five years after Fallon and Weinstein, who were both born in 1952, and in my entire lifetime it has never been OK to behave in the way that these men have. I went to college in the 1970s, and several workplaces in the 1980s, and I knew how to behave, not because of any inmate moral sense or enlightened parenting, but because the writers and thinkers of generations before mine had done the work for me. Germaine Greer had written The Female Eunuch; Gloria Steinem was famous; Spare Rib, the influential British feminist magazine, was available in any bookshop; Virago publishing had been founded; there were Reclaim the Night marches. The Au Pairs released the single “It’s Obvious”—“You’re equal, but different, you’re equal, but different, it’s obvious”—in 1980, and everyone I knew could sing it. Michael Fallon was an English public (private) schoolboy who probably didn’t meet a woman until he had his own secretary, but Harvey Weinstein knew about all of this stuff. Feminism wasn’t some kind of arcane belief with three disciples at UC Berkeley; it was mainstream, and every man was aware of it. If you chose to remain a pig, it was because it was easier and more gratifying that way, not because you didn’t know any better.

Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion is about the #metoo generation, but it’s also about the women who schooled me. I have no idea whether Wolitzer’s young heroine Greer is any kind of a nod to the author of The Female Eunuch, but in any case the older generation is represented by Faith Frank, a Germaine-like figure whose writing and insight have influenced and inspired generations of women, and Greer turns out to be no exception: when she meets Frank after a lecture at her college, her life is changed profoundly.

The spine of the narrative is an account of the relationship between Faith and Greer over a decade. It’s about the older woman’s spell over her admirer; and disillusionment; and compromise; and where feminism is at, where it’s been, where it’s going. The novel could not be any more timely, even though its length and the completeness of its world suggest to me that it must have been conceived before the recent upheavals and protests.

So you’ll want to read it for all of the above reasons, I should think, but all of the above do not begin to convey the sweep or emotional power of The Female Persuasion. I cannot tell you how much I loved and continue to love this book. Actually, I’m going to have a go because, after all, that’s what I’m supposed to do, and if I couldn’t I wouldn’t be much use to you.

I am a huge admirer of Meg Wolitzer’s work—The Wife is one of my favorite novels of the twenty-first century—but The Female Persuasion has gone straight into my library of favorite novels ever, on a shelf next to David Copperfield, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Lonesome Dove, and Love in the Time of Cholera. (These shelves are not alphabetized. Rather, the books are just allowed to sit there, secure in the knowledge that they are loved and will always be loved. Nor are they limited by number. There will always be room for another one.) Right from the opening pages of The Female Persuasion, I could feel its world close me in, like a stadium with a retractable roof that keeps the rain off when there’s a storm; to focus merely on the theme of the book—if feminism can be said to be the theme rather than a theme—is to exclude the stuff that makes it so memorable. Wolitzer has also written a compelling and touching love story, between Greer and her childhood friend Corey, and a wonderful examination of female friendship, between Greer and her gay college friend Zee. Wolitzer’s characters are imagined from every angle, and loved by their creator, in the way that God is supposed to love us: with a steady, knowing, occasionally pained gaze.

When Greer begins to work for Faith Frank, Zee writes Faith a letter asking for a job and gives it to Greer to pass on. Greer can’t bring herself to do it, for reasons that are entirely human and, I’m ashamed to say, completely recognizable: she doesn’t want to share the relationship she has with her mentor. When Corey endures a shattering domestic tragedy, he locks himself for a very long time out of the world he had started to create for himself. Misery is hardly a fresh subject in literary fiction, but I can’t recall it ever being handled with the perspicacity that Wolitzer demonstrates here; it’s usually enough for novelists to demonstrate its existence. Very few have ideas and observations about it. And this, now that I come to think about it, is what Wolitzer does throughout this book. She wants to know what all of these things—ambition, feminism, friendship, love, idealism, cynicism, compromise—say about us. So, yes, The Female Persuasion is about the way we live now, but it’s also about how we have always lived. That’s a great novel, by my definition.

I loved The Female Persuasion with such a passion that I don’t think I’ll recommend it to everybody. I’d be too afraid that the wrong sort of person would respond in a way that demonstrated their inadequacies, as a reader and as a human being. So be warned: if we meet one day, and we talk about books, and I don’t mention this one, it’s because I think you might be an arse.

I read Conversations with Friends immediately after The Female Persuasion, and for a while I struggled with the gear change. Rooney was born in 1991, while I was writing my first book, but to my enormous credit I don’t hate her. It’s pretty hard to hate her, unfortunately, because she’s clearly brilliant, and just about every page of Conversations with Friends demonstrates that she’s in it for the long haul. She won’t always be a hot new talent, of course, but that isn’t going to matter to her, because that hot new talent is built on a very sturdy foundation.

One of the reviews quoted on the paperback describes Conversations with Friends as “a hugely enjoyable romantic comedy,” and if this was the only review Rooney had received (and it wasn’t—there are hundreds of them), she might not have found her readership. This isn’t Bridget Jones’s Diary. Frances, the book’s narrator, cuts herself, sleeps with a married man whose wife she knows well, suffers from a painful and incurable disease, exposes and hurts her closest friend and former partner through her writing. She’s terse and acerbic, and she spends a lot of the book pinching herself so that she can feel something.

This was the gear change—Wolitzer’s characters display kindness and a firm moral direction at almost every step; after all, moral purpose is embedded in the narrative. Rooney’s characters are aware of the theory—they are students, writers, artists, and they talk about cultural theories of monogamy and Gilles Deleuze (a name, I regret to confess, that is unfamiliar to me; so not only was Sally Rooney born in 1991, but she knows more than I do).

None of this, however, describes the spirit of the book. Rooney isn’t lost inside this stuff; she floats above it, with a writer’s grace and observational power, and even though the generation she writes about is profoundly different from my own, Conversations with Friends felt both true and wise. And, writer friends: it contains this very lovely description of the joy of revising one’s work: “I could see the story I had written gaining shape, unfolding itself, becoming longer and more solid.” That little phrase “unfolding itself” is so perfect: anyone who’s tried to write anything will know exactly that feeling, when ideas and narrative fragments are trapped in the fabric, and a little more room allows them to breathe. Frances, we can see, will be a writer one day; Sally Rooney could not have written those words if she wasn’t already a writer, an extremely good one. I can’t wait for her next novel.

I believe I told you in the last issue of this magazine that I was going to read novels by women, and so scrupulously have I kept my promise that I might have gone too far the other way. (Note to anyone likely to take offense: I was kidding. There’s no such thing as “too far the other way.” Even if I read only books by women for the rest of my life, I could not atone for the sins of my gender.) (Note to anyone: possibly the same people who were about to point out that there’s no such thing as “too far the other way,” who regard the previous note as some kind of confession: I plead not guilty to all of the sins of my gender. Some, but not all, and the ones I plead guilty to I regard as minor misdemeanors. But of course I would think that.) Anyway, I have read only fiction by women this month, and because I want to write about Ted Gioia, I have very little space to praise Olivia Laing and Celeste Ng.

Crudo is the third book I’ve read by Olivia Laing in the last twelve months, so she can’t complain about the space she’s been given in these pages. I praised her brilliant books of memoir-cum-criticism, The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City, to the heavens, but I didn’t overdo it, because they’re both brilliant. Crudo is her first novel, and it begins: “Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.” (You won’t see this, of course, but the first which is being queried by my in-computer grammarian, who has given it a wavy green line, while the second which hasn’t. I have no idea why.)

“Kathy” is Kathy Acker, the experimental post-punk novelist; “I” is Olivia Laing. The two are somehow welded together in ways I enjoyed but didn’t entirely understand. Laing’s experiment, and it’s a good one, is to describe the world—her world, between May 17 and September 23, 2017—as precisely as she can. FBI directors get fired, dictators with nuclear weapons make threats, London tower blocks burn, I/Kathy gets married on the day Steve Bannon resigns, as Olivia Laing did. It’s a short, entirely readable, and lovably eccentric book that may well—one day, when we, or more likely they, all want to know about that mad year as it was felt—serve its purpose precisely. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere I’m guessing you might have read already, in which case you already know that it’s beautifully written, completely charming, and extremely wise on the subject of adolescence and influence.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the one book I’ve read by a man is entitled How to Listen to Jazz. A guy giving instructions on how to do something that you either didn’t want to do or could do anyway… Need I even type out the neologism invented to describe exactly this behavior? If you do have an interest in jazz, however, please try to think of it as a book entitled Stuff You Didn’t Know about Jazz but Would Like To. I know quite a lot about jazz now, after an epiphany I described in these pages a few years ago, and I found it both inspiring and informative. Listening to Fats Waller’s “Sidewalk Blues” while reading Gioa’s breakdown of its structure, I got the kind of tingle that some nerds talk about getting when they reminisce about the teachers who changed their lives. I never had that sensation at school or at college, but it’s happening more and more in later life as I learn about the things that mean the most to me. It could, of course, be that I’m having lots of little strokes, but either way it feels good.

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