When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.