Saturday, February 10, 2007

Stef Penney - carbon neutral winner

Much niggly bitching in the wake of Stef Penney winning the Costa book of the year award and its £25,000 cheque for The Tenderness of Wolves. The Times' half-baked gossip writer Hugo Rifkind seems particularly narked in a Jasper Gerard sort of way - a pointless auto-moaner who's neither angry nor pleased by anything.

The central niggle is that Penney's novel successfully evokes the barren tundra of northern Canada even though she's never visited the country. Her starting point for "colour" was the library not the airport: oh woe! At least one can say that her novel is, from a mileage perspective, carbon neutral. Agoraphobia might yet be the salvation of the global environment. Think on.

Too many people are impressed by the epic research boasts of popular writers: Jilly Cooper plies her shovel for up to three years before she puts pen to paper for a nano-six months. But this kind of stupidity - that writers must only write about what they know personally - is not confined to tinny scribblers on fading papers of record.

By coincidence I bought a copy of London Magazine (Aug/Sept 1994) in a Charing Cross secondhand bookshop the other day. I was drawn to Elaine Dundy's engaging piece on Ernest Hemingway (Hem) and Tennessee Williams (Tenn), comparing and contrasting the works and personalities of "the Yang and Yin of American letters."

She recalls how Hemingway was a ruthless eviscerator of his contemporaries, and one evening in Havana, Papa H spat his green-eyed vitriol on ... Graham Greene: "He was going pretty good there for a while but now he's a whore with a crucifix over his bed." Dundy reports further: "Then he fired off another salvo at Greene for only spending 10 days in Havana before writing a book about it, getting everything wrong - mixing up all the street names and buildings ....

"The hilarious, hugely successful Our Man in Havana, was the novel in question. And the fact that it was being made into a major movie right then and there in Havana - even as we were eating our dinner - with Alec Guinness, Ernie Kovacs and Noel Coward ... may not have improved Hemingway's temper."

Let us, then, celebrate the sinew and pliability of the remote (or even cursorily familiar) creative imagination to evoke other places. After all, if literary credibility is contingent on number of air miles then why isn't Alan Whicker a celebrated novelist?


Susan Hill said...

I wrote about the young men in the trenches of the First World War, - as indeed did Pat Barker. Both our novels were well received but neither of us has been either a man or in the trenches of WW1. Well of COURSE we haven`t. So the lady has not been to the Canadian Tundra. So ?

fitzroy cyclonic said...

Completely agree. The London in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is bascially Edinburgh. Who gives a toss?

PirateDog said...

Madame, you are so right. Stef Penney's book evokes that time and place so well - it's for these feats of imagination that we read fiction rather than factual travel writing.