A bit of a break from India for a minute, while I deal with some idiots on Amazon.
I’ve just finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It was the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and it’s been raved about ever since. Normally I avoid anything with this much hype, but I decided to take a risk on it. Also, I needed a new book, and it was one of the few literary novels stocked by the Indian bookshop, among its stacks of get-rich-quick self-help tomes and Osho tracts.
It was a good decision. The book is, quite simply, terrific. It’s one of the best things I’ve read for years, and I’d zealously recommend it to anyone.
I’ve just read some of the reviews of it on its Amazon UK page, and a lot of people are criticising it for its bad grammar.
If, for some reason, you haven’t gone away and started reading it by now, here are some of the features of its style which diverge from standard prose narrative:
- Mostly present tense, with past tense reserved for flashbacks or stream of consciousness sections – often the change of tense is the only indicator that it’s switched to one of these.
- Third person, though from the very close perspective of Thomas Cromwell, as if you’re not quite inside his head, but hovering just over his shoulder. The pronoun “he” is used extensively throughout, referring by default to Cromwell, and only to other people when it’s clear from the context. A typical example might be (I’m making this up, not quoting), “Gregory brings in his papers. He shuffles them on his desk, and sighs.” Once you’ve got used to the style, you interpret the “his” and “he” to mean Cromwell – not Gregory, as you might assume normally. The effect, powerful and presumably intended, is to give you an insight into Cromwell, a sympathy for him, but leave you with the feeling you’ve never quite got inside his head and fully understood him.
- Sometimes speech from more than one character is included in the same paragraph. Mostly speech is quoted, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes quoted and unquoted speech are combined in quick succession.
- Sentence fragments. And sentences beginning with prepositions.
True, this isn’t strictly correct grammar, especially the last two points. But get a grip, people. It’s literature, for god’s sake. I admit the style annoyed me too at first – for about a page. Then I got used to it, and was engrossed in the narrative. I went with the flow, rather than sit there steaming about the “incorrect” speech marks, and soon I was enjoying the style for the way it sweeps you along with Cromwell, his thoughts and his deeds.
There’s a difference between “bad grammar” and “experimental literary style”. If you can’t grasp that, you might as well attack Finnegans Wake for its spelling mistakes.
It seems that a lot of the negative reviewers on Amazon are English teachers. That makes a sad sort of sense: you can imagine their frustration, struggling every day to teach children how to write quoted speech (“a new paragraph each time a different person speaks”) and to form full sentences (“every sentence has a subject and a verb”), and then trying to get them to appreciate works of literature, when top literary prizes are being given to books which break all those rules.
But surely in the “appreciating literature” part of their job, the aim is to show students how, for example, a spray of sentence fragments, or a sudden burst of unquoted speech, can have an emotional effect on the reader, even though – or rather because – it’s not the way formal writing should be done.
Two very different subjects – English language and English literature – are clumped together in schools and taught by the same teachers. Sometimes their aims coincide (you learn new words by reading them in classic novels) but often they don’t. English language is about teaching a craft, the correct use of words and punctuation, their rules and limits. English literature is about aesthetic appreciation, about ideas and emotions. Why do we expect those who teach the former to be good at the latter? (Expecting those who teach the latter to be good at the former is a basic.) It’s like taking a draughtsman, who tutors his apprentices in skill and precision with compasses and rulers, and asking him to explain to them the value of a Jackson Pollock painting.
It’s a real pity though. One of the themes of the novel is the controversy over vernacular scripture, the great bloody, violent struggle to have the Bible translated into English so it could be read and understood by ordinary people. Cromwell and many others died brutal, horrendous deaths to give us the freedom we have today to use our language how we like, and spread ideas without fear. That’s a message it’s important to teach.