Pound for pound, Where I’m Reading From is probably the most provocative book of contemporary literary criticism I read this year. This book presents a series of very concentrated meditations/arguments that were originally blog posts Tim Parks wrote for the NYR Blog. Arranged into groupings and laid out in a particular order, the posts cumulate very methodically and show clear evidence of a great deal of forethought. There are about 5 major lines of argument in this book, and they all collect around some of the major developments occurring with the novel form today.
Here Parks is arguing about the issues that are at the forefront of the novel’s development: what’s happening to it internationally, how the emerging international economy of literature is affecting its shape, the ongoing evolution of art and commerce in tandem, what the ultimate purpose of the novel form is, and if it’s worn out yet. Befitting blog posts, these essays are short and taut, but they manage to pack in quite a lot of detailed information, and the arguments presented here are precise and very interesting. There’s really no fat at all in this book.
I don’t necessarily agree with all of Parks’s answers, but I do think he’s asking the right questions. And even when I do disagree with him, his discussion of the questions is always illuminating and a spur to my own thought. If you’re at all concerned with questions surrounding the novel as a contemporary genre of writing and how it will be viable in the future, this is a book you need to read.
For a more in-depth discussion of this book, see my interview with Tim Parks.
SE What about international prizes, which of course have their role in this global economy of literary value? In terms of the good or the bad they can do, do you feel like they have certain nontrivial benefits, either to the writer or the audience, above and beyond their utility to the literary economy?
TP Let me say, right away, that I’d love to win a major literary prize. Why not? Money and prestige. The knowledge that people noticed and appreciated what you are doing, etc. However, in general I’ve long been convinced that prizes as they are functioning now are, for the most part, damaging. Books are not about winning and losing. There is no best book or best writer, though there are better books and worse books. Prizes like the Booker and the Pulitzer create the wrong kind of hype. Perhaps they increase sales here, but reduce them there. They encourage a certain public to constantly buy the kinds of books that win prizes, and I believe it is truly difficult for a genuinely innovative and controversial book to win a major prize. The only prizes I think have serious value are those for unpublished manuscripts. They give a chance to writers who otherwise might not have their work read. But I would say that. The first novel I published, the seventh I had written, won such a prize after rejection from more than twenty publishers, including the publisher who took it on through the prize. It went on to win other prizes and to be published in a dozen countries. It is still in print. But the prize that got it there has been ditched, because there is not sufficient glamour (winning/losing polarity) for prizes for first-time authors.