Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: Literature

ThePageBoy Reviews – ‘Discordia’ by Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple

Laurie penny and Molly crabapple

Laurie penny and Molly crabapple

Words by Laurie Penny

Art by Molly Crabapple

Publishers: Random House

‘Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official.’ –  George Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature

It’s easy to see why some people get irritated by Laurie Penny. The shock of red hair, the abashedly strident feminism, the radical politics, the tea, the cigarettes and the sheer bloody minded refusal to act and talk like middle class white women are supposed to. She’s an anomaly in modern British political commentary – someone who has built her name as a journalist by working hard, writing well and putting her principals above her copy. The response from traditional journalists has been disdain; lucky white men sniffily call her a privileged girl, she can be self-righteous and didactic. These sneers and put downs clash incongruously with her editing The New Review, The New Statesman and regularly contributing to the Independent (amongst others) and reveal that all the vacuous epithets they fling disguise an impotent rage at a reporter who is truly distinctive. If the traditional media critics veil their disapproval behind patronising language Laurie Penny has provoked naked hatred from some of the darker recesses of the political web. Streams of vile abuse, comment threads of death threats and even stalkers have given this gifted writer plenty of reasons to give it all up.

Instead she’s produced this – not a book so much but somewhere between an extended essay on everything from geo-politics, liberalism, austerity and the power of art and a series of snap-shots of a specific historical moment. I first came across her name on Twitter a couple of years ago as she tweet- reported from the front lines of the student protests. To be blunt she was a shock to the system. I didn’t know writers could do this. I didn’t know then, that this was what journalism could become; I didn’t know that journalism and activism weren’t mutually exclusive and that to report and change the world around you all you needed was the desire to say something and the courage to do something.

After the protests and simmering violence of London she went out of the country and landed in New York during the summer of Occupy Wall Street. There she filed her copy from the frontline of what people believed could be this generations revolution. New York must have been a surreal place to be that summer, full of writers and activists, rebels and dreamers and artists. It was there that Laurie Penny met Molly Crabapple, (yes, really) and once the summer of idealism faded the two of them jumped on a plane and came to Greece. The two of them are a radical odd couple, one very English, the other with New York engrained in her DNA. Penny is the wordsmith and Crabapple the illustrator. Both unashamedly radical in their own ways, talented and deeply political; charmingly the two have a deep affection for one another that at times border on the fangirlish (Laurie at one point sweetly claiming she wanted to follow her friend and make her coffee)

It’s here that this book? Essay? Memoir? kicks off, as these two unlikely friends pitch up in Athens to find out what makes the dogs of Athens howl in the night as it is slightly pretentiously phrased. What follows is a beguiling cast of characters, ordinary people – often doing quite extraordinary things in a nation that seems to have forgotten what normal really is. Journalism is, as much of society and culture is, an exercise in power and how it works. These interviews are with the powerless, the disenfranchised, normal people suffering an economic death by a thousand cuts. Instead of painting them in the usual narrative of journalistic interviews, (you know, that ‘these people are suffering’ brand of miserablia) here, the people get drunk, and angry, talk about their life and dance to blow off some steam. Rather than follow the rote of how these things should go, the people met seem human and more real than any ‘normal’ journalistic interview.

The book manages to strike a good balance between these human moments and the liberal politics of the two authors. Occasionally the tone does stray into the kind of thing heard around liberal students drinking late at night but what sticks out from the prose are the snapshots of singular moments. The stray dogs running from riot police. The explosion of tear gas. The scrawl of graffiti. It’s things like this that grounds the book in a tangible reality which when coupled with the beautifully emotive art and sketches from Molly make this a fascinating and compelling read. The art is perhaps what makes this book so distinctive – the prose alone would be too bleak to hold together or hold the interest, but the sketches and drawings serve as a natural binding and holding together of this series of snapshots. She might be new to many but Molly’s art is just beautiful to look at, capturing the desolation, the emotion and the damage done to the people written about.

For those seeking a comprehensive history of Greece’s financial woes look elsewhere, this isn’t emotionally uninvolved writing pretending to impartiality either. The historical debris hasn’t settled yet for this to be that. What it is, is something very different and thrilling – the images and prose are the scrawled attempts of two artists to capture history happening around them. So, to sum up – a book for anyone who wanted to know what it’s like to be there whilst the young attempt to make a new and better world. It’s infuriating to read what these people have been through and inspiring to see them survive. It’s people like Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple who help show the humanity of a kind of politics that all too often can degenerate into schism over semantics and ideology. The young, the angry and the desperate of Greece deserved a chance to have someone listen to their struggle, and Discordia documents it in all of its imperfection and anger. It’s strange to think that we were in the same country at roughly the same time and I’m just glad to get to join in with what they saw. Great stuff.

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High Hopes, or This is a pun, promise.


Well it’s that time of year where all civilised folk retreat back homewards towards family and the TV schedules becomes the equivalent of cultural comfort food. You know, reassuring stories that we’ve all seen before, but the kind of thing that everyone really like and makes you feel good about yourself. If this sounds like I’m being unfairly harsh to the Christmas TV line up I should point out that Christmas TV also has another facet to it. As it’s a time where audiences are guaranteed to be at a yearly high it’s become a place where films become classics. Sometimes undeservedly, but most of the time the ‘classic’ films that get shown really deserve the status they garner and it’s one these classic films I’m looking at today.

Yes, I know – but it is Christmas so I fancied doing something that was actually good. Actually, scratch that, when you look at the filmography of this film’s director, this film is better than good. Because this is Sir David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations.’ Now for those of you who don’t know, allow me to provide a brief rundown of some of Lean’s achievements in British cinema:

–           Bridge on the River Kwai

–          Doctor Zhivago

–          Oliver Twist

–          A Passage To India

–          Brief Encounter (Possibly the finest English romance ever made)

And if those film’s weren’t enough he’s also been voted as one of the top 10 film directors of all  time AND of the top 11 greatest films ever, four of them were directed by him. He is one of the greats of the movie making world and has been named as an influence by people like Spielberg and Kubrick. He had a talent for bringing epic English literature to the big screen with a sense of poise, emotional restraint and just sheer class that is the hallmark of good movie making. So, which of the great man’s oeuvre will we be looking at? Well, considering the reputation that Lean made it would have to be a film based on one of the very best of English writing. Something good…no no no, something…GREAT.

In 1946 Lean directed his 2nd celebrated Dickens adaptation with Great Expectations and as per usual I’ll give a brief rundown of the plot without major spoilers, though if you’ve managed to come this far without ever hearing ANYTHING about either the film or the book that’s a level of cultural ignorance that is almost impressive. The novel, as with many of Dickens’, was serialized and first appeared as a whole in 1861. Amazingly this is Dickens’s THIRTEENTH novel, yet it only the 2nd one (after David Copperfield) to feature first person narration. To give it its technical description this novel is a Bildungsroman, or a coming of age story told retrospectively by the main character Pip. Pip is raised in the marshes of Kent and later makes his way to London. After a terrifying encounter with the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, Pip leaves his rural life and makes his way to London. Sponsored by a mysterious benefactor the book follows his life as he finds his place in society, and eventually falls in love. As per usual with Dickens the cast of characters is just superb – Estelle, Pip’s love, the mysterious and bitter Miss Havisham, Joe Blacksmith, Mr Jaggers and Uncle Pumblechook have all become well established in the pantheon of his creations. If you’ve never read the novel you may feel I’ve been parsimonious with the detail but the fun of Dickens is all in the characters. He was never a writer as some of the Victorians were, with an obsession for realism but rather he was a man bursting with imagination. The novel is truly ‘Great’, thematically, linguistically and representationally and is probably Dickens at his best. To sum up the novel in the lovely phrase from GK Chesterton, the novel is Dickens in the afternoon of his life and glory and I really recommend you take the time to explore the book.

The film is also considered a classic and it is not hard to see why. If anything Lean as a director has an exquisite eye for detail and everything about this movie feels like an authentic attempt to do justice to the source material. The overly verbose Dickens is slimmed down and the cast of characters is all given room to shine. Of particular note, (though only praising some of the cast seems deeply unfair) is John Mills as the grown up Pip and Valerie Hobson as the frosty Estelle. Alec Guinness is sublime as Pip’s friend Herbert Pocket and it is not hard to see why Lean called him ‘my good luck charm’ as he steals every scene he is in.

The film deservedly won Oscars for it’s wonderful cinematography and set design and even today watching the film you cannot help but be struck by the time and effort that went into creating Pip’s world. What’s so successful about the film is it doesn’t do something the more modern version does, namely focusing on the romance between Pip and Estelle. It’s easy to want to do that as it provides audiences with familiarity and a coherent thread but the book itself is not really a romance novel. That isn’t to say that there isn’t romance in it, but it’s there because Pip’s life had romance in it and the organic nature of Lean’s film reflects this much better than the more modern re-make.

What more can I say? One of the finest English novelists finest books turned into one of the finest films of one of the finest ever directors. What a treat. And what could be more Christmassy than that?

Merry Christmas everybody and thank you so much for making this first year of ThePageBoy one to remember. Here’s hoping you all have a great Christmas time and I’ll see you all on the other side in 2013.



Doubled Barelled Shotgun – Goodreads and Art Criticism


I’ll be honest, this was not a blog post that I wanted to write and when I detail what I’m talking about I think why I’m reticent to write about this will become clear. Firstly though, a little background will be necessary for those of you who don’t follow scandals in the intersecting worlds of authorship and internet life.

The website is pretty much a mainstay of the literary part of the web and has been beloved by readers as a great way of sharing with their friends what they think of novels, find new ones to enjoy and even keep up with news and announcements from their favourite authors. As a site it combines social networking, forum discussion and literary interests in a way that makes it invaluable as a website if you have even a passing interest in the world of writing. Goodreads also has another aspect – it is an incredible tool for authors, amateur or professional, to publish new writing, whether that is short stories or full novels and receive feedback and criticism on their work. In a way this part of the site reminds me of Myspace a few years back when it was in its prime – it seemed there was a time when a band could become huge simply through that site rather than through the more industry controlled traditional routes. What happened with Myspace is that the music industry, agents, labels etc. moved in and used the site as a way of spotting the next big thing. Goodreads seems, to me as an outsider anyway, to operate in a similar way. Authors can use the site to get spotted by publishers and literary agents. Now for those of you keeping up that combination of the possibility of commercial success and the opportunity for criticism has potential to make people very unhappy indeed.

Unsurprisingly something like this has been trundling away on Goodreads for a while now as several authors and their work have come under criticism that, (to put this mildly) goes further and more personal than constructive artistic criticism should. This criticism has often come in waves, with similar people jumping up and down on an author’s work in large groups. Naturally, some authors and members of the site have taken this rather badly and labelled these critical voices as bullies – even going so far as to set up a website called Stop The Goodreads Bullies to voice their concerns and push back against what they see as personal, damaging attacks.

Already I hope you can see why I didn’t want to write this, so let me make this bit as clear as I possibly can – this is not a debate I want to get involved in. There are others who have written more eloquently and passionately about the rights and wrongs of this situation than I ever would be able to and you can look them up if you feel the need to go through the dirty laundry of this particular part of geek/internet culture. Secondly, as someone who doesn’t have a huge knowledge of the genre involved, mostly from what I can tell YA novels, I feel it would be disingenuous at best to weigh in here. However, this whole debate does raise some wider questions about the act of criticism in the internet age that I think bear some consideration.

The first thing I think anyone interested in cultural criticism can learn from this is the fundamental flaw with the star ratings system. As the internet has grown in size and complexity it is only natural that we as internet users seek quick and easy summaries of opinion. As with amazon, and many other sites goodreads operates on a star rating system for books – and some of the books attacked were given wave after wave of low star reviews. Which as the authors of the books in question rightly pointed out, this was going to be the thing that stuck with readers, agents and publishers when their book was searched for. Let me put this as simply as I can – star ratings suck. As a way of criticizing work, as a way of checking the quality of the work, they just suck. Yes, I understand why they happen but the by-product of their existence is that criticism stops being an expression of engagement with a work – in all of its nuance, complexity, contradiction and ambiguity and instead becomes a way of the reader of the review justifying their opinion. I have literally lost count of the number of times I’ve seen comments on reviews that said something along the lines of, ‘you don’t get…you aren’t a fan of this…you don’t understand what you are saying,’ and so forth – usually with a lot more caps lock than that. The problem seems to be not that the reviewer has disliked the work – but that their dislike conflicts with the commenters own.  This is important, because it reflects an important misunderstanding. Reviewers and critics – me included – are not here to tell you if a particular book, movie or artwork is any good but rather to tell you what our experience of it was, with some measure of our own critical faculties and standards thrown in. This shouldn’t invalidate anyone else’s opinion but should instead be a catalyst for your own critical and intellectual engagement. If you disagree with a review, a good reviewer will have made you think WHY you think differently, and to water that down to five stars or one star rating is intellectually demeaning for all concerned – the artist, the critic and the people who encounter both.

This problem is very much of the internet age – but the goodreads debate also ties into a critical strand of literary work. Like never before the gap between artist and art fan has been reduced to something more like a hyper-fluid membrane. Speaking personally, here as the PageBoy I am a critic and reviewer, but like many on I am also a writer and creator. The internet makes it possible for people to move seamlessly between these two spheres – between being a viewer and being an artist. This comes with a side effect though, and one that the whole goodreads uproar highlights nicely – as artists have become more and more closely identifies as critics, so it has become more and more difficult to separate artists from their art. It is indeed difficult to engage with a challenging text, if the text’s creator is there to tell you in the comment section what their story ‘really’ means. Some may think, almost instinctively that this is a great thing and something that goodreads has been able to encourage – now no longer will authors have to deal with readers who don’t understand the text, confused readers can just ask the author and the author can supply the meaning. Seen in this way the writers who feel themselves ‘bullied’ by certain people on goodreads are merely correcting an interpretative bias by readers blind to what their work is actually about.

(I will leave aside the slightly more sordid details of leaking people’s personal information online and some of the more egregious personal attacks that have taken place on both sides – if you want to read it about that, just google it because that isn’t something I want to get into here)

This method of critical reading is certainly nice and tidy, and it gives the authority to the creators of the art, in this case the authors of the works in question. However, this presupposes that authors themselves have the right to decide how people view and respond to their work.  The act of reading is composed of a triumvirate – the reader, the writer and the text. The above model gives all authority of meaning to the author who passes that meaning via the text through to the reader. And that model is just plain wrong.

If that sounds harsh, then sadly it must do – literary academics have been playing around with this idea for a while and as usual with advanced cultural theory the progenitors of the idea are French.  In 1967 the noted critic Roland Barthes published an essay, now famous in the right circles, called ‘The Death of the Author,’ in it he argued that to impose the idea of a unique authorial message to a text not only limited its power as art but was a form of interpretative tyranny – denying readers the chance to wrestle with a text themselves and come to their own conclusions. Do authors have the right to challenge the interpretations of critics – not if they claim that their view is the only correct one. To quote Barthes,

‘We know that a text does not consist of a line of words, releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of the Author-God), but is a space of many dimensions, in which are wedded and contested various kinds of writing, no one of which is original: the text is a tissue of citations…’

The point is this – once what is written is out, available to the world (easier than in Barthes time) then the writer of those words ceases to exist, (the ‘death’ in the title of the essay.) This is the problem that has brought back into the critical sphere – the author now can refuse to play dead. To adjust Barthes point perhaps now in the internet age the dead author has become something different – we can see a new kind of digital ‘zombie author’, able to obtain anonymity and next to impossible to exclude from the critical debate. For authors the reluctance to stay ‘dead’ is surely understandable -the creation of art involves risk and in a sense, the exposure of an intimate part of who you are and when attacked the instinct to defend yourself is incredibly powerful.

Let me finish by restating – personally attacking an author, leaking the details of their life is shameful and the act of a coward. However, authors have no real right to stifle or dictate how I respond to what they put out in the world because if they do, then what happened on will only be the beginning and this idea of being told what a book or story ‘means’ will start to spread. Readers and critics and authors have to reassert the right of art to provoke debate, as the very act of writing is complex and often paradoxical, resorting to simplistic notions of right and wrong will mean that everyone loses – authors, critics and most vitally the readers themselves.



PS I am well aware that seeing as I’ve written this you can all be as mean as you like about my writing  in the comment section…but that is by no means me laying down a challenge so please be nice…

Classics Month I, or, Well of course this is good!


Well here it is people! The second theme month from myself and for the next few weeks it’s all about classic literature; now for some of you that may have produced tears of boredom as this was a realm of literature full of books that you should have read when you were in school, never got round to, and now really have no need to try to plow your way through. I get it, I do – classics, for some, are a sort of literary Chinese water torture, both in the attempt to get through them in the first place and the nagging feeling that this is SOMETHING YOU SHOULD HAVE READ and, if you haven’t, you are somehow a literary Luddite. All in all, I’m beginning to think that my choice may have been a little more problematic than I originally thought, as on top of all of these problems there is a new issue tied up in the act of reviewing.

You see,  most  of the things that have come under scrutiny here have had to address the question of whether or not they are actually any good and on what  basis ‘good’ is achieved or missed. With classics though, that question has usually been answered by the labelling of it, as well, classic! Even if the book isn’t that good it seems that the fact it appears in the swanky black jacket, or in the classics section of your local bookstore, it is usually pretty hard to argue with the idea that these books are being given cultural weight by a force bigger than just me. In short, trying to argue that these books were anything but good would be kind of impossible.

But still, I have chosen this month’s theme and a combination of stubbornness and being too lazy to think of a different one right now means that Classics Month is going to be a little different. So instead of trying to decide what books and what film versions are good and which ones are bad, this is going to be my attempt to try to de-mystify and explain classics a little better. If you go away thinking that maybe, just maybe, these books might be worth checking out again then I’ll have done Classics Month proud. If on the other hand, you go away convinced to never enter another book shop again, a small blog series was never really going to change things for you. So with that in mind, let’s turn to the first in Classics Month – Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

First published in 1891 in serial form in the now defunct paper The Graphic, it met with decidedly mixed reviews, even though today it is considered with pretty much universal acclaim as its themes of lost love, bad men, a good woman, rape and finally murder were considered scandalous for good writing to deal with. The key to the novel rests in the alternative title that Hardy gave it of ‘A Pure Woman.’ The main character of Tess is unmistakably a good woman, even by the somewhat hypocritical standards and mores of the time, she is a good person who systematically gets screwed over by the people and the systems that seek to control her.

For any interested parties I’ll try to give a run down on the plot that avoids any major spoilers. Set in rural Wessex during a long recession the story follows the impoverished Durbeyville family and focuses on the young daughter Tess, famed for her beauty. As her only hope of escaping the grinding existence of rural poverty is through marriage and here is where the book’s plot really starts to move things forward.

Men, by and large, do not come off well in this novel, the two main male characters coming off as either a rapacious pain in the ass or as someone utterly well-meaning but also completely useless. The characters are all so well drawn, balancing both dramatic twists and consistency of character that at various times in the novel, you find yourself utterly enraged and frustrated at the way that Tess is treated but it all flows seamlessly from the novels presentation of reality. The plot of the novel is based around Tess and her interactions and doomed loved with the good hearted Angel St Clare and the rakish Alec d’Urbeville and how these two men loose and love the titular character.

The treatment that Tess goes through leads horrifically to her downfall but throughout all the novel the emphasis on her moral integrity and basic human decency shows the reasoning as to why Tess has become such a literary archetype.

As with most adaptations this novel has been through several different versions and as brevity and time means I can only do one, I eventually settled on the 1979 film Tess, directed by Roman Polanski. Surprisingly this is a relatively ‘straight’ adaptation, changing only a few plots points and perhaps giving more emphasis to elements in the book that the morality of the time meant that the author was forced to play down. The action is based in Dorset, the Durbeyville noble connection is a historical curiosity and the supposed nobility of the character of Alec is made out to be even more tenuous. Simply put this is a very good adaptation and if the book was too heavy going or you don’t fancy making the cognitive effort to really engage with the book then this is a great film version.

However, for those of you who have read the book and wanted a little more depth to this weeks blog, then you may want to read on. Firstly, in keeping with the somewhat tragic themes of the novel there is a little story here that directly links this film adaptation to the cult leader and murderer, Charles Manson. The clue is at the beginning of the film in the simple dedication ‘For Sharon.’ For anyone who doesn’t have the time to spend two minutes on Google, the Sharon in question is Polanski’s former wife, the actress Sharon Tate and the most famous of Manson’s victims. The last thing that Polanski received from his wife before she was murdered was a copy of the classic tale of doomed romance, Tess of the D’Urbeville’s. Now, this isn’t meant as a lurid little side-note as I feel it adds another layer of pathos to the way that Polanski chooses to tell the story here. Not only is Tess as a character the one we empathise with, but this contextual knowledge bears some resemblance to the story. I won’t dwell anymore on this aspect of the film’s existence because it could well get a little macabre and frankly, Manson doesn’t deserve it.

Reviews of the time were a little mixed, with some rather really nastily drawing attention to the element of seduction of a younger woman by an older man and drawing some parallels between the plot and it’s director, but, frankly, let’s not be surprised by the levels that some in the press will sink to and say this in conclusion…

This is an essentially Victorian England story, one of power, class, fate and the power of society to destroy good people. Considering the rest of Polanski’s work this film is really quite unique as at many moments the film reminds me of the great British cinema produced by directors like David Lean, (if you haven’t seen Brief Encounter you cannot call yourself a film fan!) and that is really impressive.

So there you go, it’s the first one of Classics Month and I hope I’ve whetted your appetite and maybe made the book seem a little more approachable. If you have a suggestion, feedback or your own point-of-view tweet me @jgreenaway3 with the hashtag #ClassicMonth.

Or, you could always use the comment section below….



What do you want from me? or, This one might be a little gloomy.


Well, last week’s column certainly raised a few eyebrows amongst those who thought I was trying to have my cake and eat it, (I’ve always thought that was an odd expression) so today I’ve decided to review something for this week that is a little more straightforward. Now, don’t worry and don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to play it safe – this would be an incredibly dull blog if that were the case…

Still, a few people have mentioned through various means and in different ways that I have yet to find a book and an adaptation that I was equally fond of, or that I thought were equally good. Whilst I have found adaptations I’ve hated – don’t worry, I’m not going slam Ben Affleck again, and those I’ve really loved, (oh, Christopher Nolan, don’t ever change) I haven’t found a book that I liked just as much as the film. Untill now, anyway.

So, today I think I’ve found one that fits the bill, an outstanding novel that was fluently and classily adapted in to a highly successful film, (well, in a critical sense at the very least – I haven’t yet looked up what the box office looked like…one sec…)

Yes, it was critical success, and though the box office returns weren’t necessarily all that impressive thanks to what is a tense and bleak plot the film is still incredible and probably deserved more success at the end of year party where all the film critics give out the awards. Alright, enough being coy, lets talk about The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Firstly though, I hope you’ll allow me a small digression. Those who were reading the blog back in the mists of time when I reviewed Atonement by Ian McEwan may remember that I spent some time listing the many achievements and accolades that the author had been lavished with. McCarthy? Yeah, he’s a won few too and to make sure I get across the quality of the book under review today, taker a look at this list. In his career McCarthy has amassed the following…

The Faulkner prize for a first novel for The Orchard Keeper, the Traveling Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative writing, a MacArthur Fellowship, the National Book Award for fiction, the national Book Critics Circle Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, the Believer Book Award, a little known award called the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fictionfor a career whose writing “possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career which place him or her in the highest rank of American literature.”

And if this wasn’t enough, the novel of The Road was declared by Entertainment Weekly to be the best book of the last 25 years and the most important environmental book ever written. There isn’t anyone currently in the world of fiction who can really match him, in terms of talent, poise, and literary merit. Which is why many who come to The Road for the first time may have felt a little disappointed. Instead of being a literary firework that immediately rewards your attention, The Road is one of the sparest and simplistic books I’ve ever read. For those of you who haven’t already clicked over to Wikipedia allow me to offer a brief summary of the important details.

At some point in the future something happens. A cataclysmic event has completely destroyed the environment and society has fallen into ruin. An unnamed man and his son are making their way from an unknown place, to somewhere further south for warmth. On the way through the utterly devastated landscape they have to keep warm, find food and survive others who, in this dark dystopian world have turned to cannibalism to keep themselves alive.

That’s pretty much all I can say with regards to the plot, but the true beauty of the book is in the artistry of its construction. Prose is bleak and simple, reminiscent of Hemingway in its minimalism and the lack of any punctuation to separate the dialogue, narration and description seems like a simple stylistic trick but proves to be an incredibly immersive device that sucks you in to massive effect. I read this on a bright and sunny day in St Andrews and I could not tear myself away from the world the book creates, horrifying but possessed of a bleak and elegant kind of beauty. If you haven’t read the book, find it, but make sure you don’t have any plans for a day because you will struggle to put it down. It is THAT good – by no means easy to read, but not in the same way as American Psycho; the book is difficult to deal with rather than being graphic and violent, The Road documents the end of the civilised age, and it is simply entrancing.

Since the book was such a huge success it took only three years to turn the book into a film, directed by John Hillcoat, best known for the gritty Western The Proposistion and his latest film has been chosen to compete for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. He chose Viggo Mortensen to take the role of the Man and the film crew discovered the young Kodi Smit-McPhee  to play the boy.

Let me be utterly straight-forward about this, this film is utterly superb. Mortensen is as usual completely lost in the character, all layers of clothes, encrusted filth and dirt and a desperation in his eyes to keep his son safe. The complete new-comer Kodi Smit-McPhee is just heartbreakingly good, the moral centre of the film and a tragic innocent in a world that has completely lost all traces of the humanity and vulnerability that the boy embodies.

The production design and the cinematography are also pitch perfect, filmed in places across the mid-West of the States deliberately using the ruined towns and environments of the old rust belt to perfectly evoke the film’s world. In short everything about this works, and to highlight my point there is one brief sequence worth highlighting.

At one point the man and the boy skirt round a group of bandits and find an empty house. Desperate for food the two take the chance and break into the house. In the space of a couple of sentences the book creates a scene of incredible power as the man and the boy find in the cellar dozens of people, kept as food for the others.

The film takes exactly the same approach – the moment is kept, brief and sudden and the horror is all kept implied. The film doesn’t feel the need to explain why what we’ve just seen is horrifying, the look in Viggo Mortensen’s eyes in the brief moment we see the shapes in the gloom of the cellar is enough, and the subtle hints of cannibalism throughout the film means that the sense of menace is preserved throughout rather than degenerating into cheap cinematic tricks and jump cuts.

Another moment, as this is what the film and book essential boils down to, is one that the films takes from the original source, and loads with a huge amount of pathos. Finding a derilict house, the two go to look for food. As they pass the open door to the bedroom the boy sees a dried out corpse lying on the bed, and freezes in fear as you would expect. Viggo Mortensen simply turns and mutters the heart-breaking line that this is ‘nothing you haven’t seen before’, a line not only depressed but resigned to his own inability to protect his son.

Now, I could keep going on about this I really could, but I shouldn’t as this blog should probably be under 15,000 words long and I’m already quite tired. So I sign off with this, the way that this brilliant book is written, so minimal, so sparse and so elegant translates so well to film it has to be seen to be believed. Now, this isn’t a fun film to watch; if the article hasn’t given it away, the film and the book are often hard to read and hard to watch – but great art really should be.

Watch it.

Read it.

And then let me know what you think, it’s what this whole thing is here for.



Now this is crazy, or, I’m not going to recommend this


Well, this is a new one for me, it really is. As someone who adores the written word, I’ve never found myself in the position on this blog that I find myself in here today. This is a book that I cannot, in all honestly, recommend to people if they haven’t read it. If you haven’t read it – don’t. Now, this isn’t to say the book isn’t possessed of any literary merit whatever, in fact quite the opposite as it may well be one of the best decade books ever written.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you to go out and buy this. Because this is American Psycho.

American Psycho is the only book that I’ve ever read that I couldn’t finish it one sitting. It is compulsively readable and impeccably written but this is the only book that despite the amount I was enjoying it I had to put down and walk away from it. It is the only book I have read – EVER – that made me feel physically sick, in a stomach churning sequence involving a woman, a rat and some cheese.

Allow me to provide a brief synopsis for those who haven’t read the novel. Set in the boom years of the 1980s the book focuses on the life of the twenty-six year old Patrick Bateman, a massively succesful yuppie who works on Wall Street alongside his friends and spends his time in exclusive restaurants and clubs. Bateman is obsessed with details such as cloths labels, restaurant menus and pop music. The conversation is banal and vapid and Bateman is riddled with existential ennui and angst as the materialistic world of that he exists in is so vacant of real substance that he often mistakes people he knows for others.

Well, that doesn’t sound too bad, surely? How can it can be something that I wouldn’t recommend?

Here’s why. Patrick Bateman is the most chilling and violent sociopath ever put into writing. A man who indulges in the darkest fantasies of torture, rape and some painfully hard to read murder scenes all described with a chilling amount of detail and frightening lack of affect. As the novel progresses everything slowly ramps up – his digressions on pop music and clothes stretch over pages and the attention to details and products becomes obsessive. Terrifyingly, the line that the book walks between reality and Bateman’s fragile grip on reality starts to blur. Then, he snaps entirely. The prose disintegrates into psychotic episodes as Bateman, and thusly, the books narrator, totally loses his grip on sanity. The genius of the book is that the whole thing is played so straight in its presentation but so graphic and unhinged in the events that the reader can never really be sure what happened, happened. The whole thing is completely ambiguous and deeply, deeply creepy.

The book was an overnight smash and immediately condemned as pornography designed to incite violence towards woman, and though the inevitable backlash got Bret Easton Ellis dropped by his publishers it also made him a literary mega star. Even now, it’s become one of the most analysed and talked about books by modern academics and critics desperate to explore and explain the transgressive and post modern aspects of the text. Or, if you prefer, it’s a cultural oddity that the guardians of taste are desperate to explain and in some ways legitimise the violence and transgression that the text contains, (if I can be pretentious with my language for a second…)

Ellis himself plays around with this idea with his own relationship with the media. Doing my reading into the background, this quote highlights the tensions within the author’s mind and the aims of the book;

‘[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumeristkind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street… Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level…’

In short Bret Easton Ellis succeeds but in a way that many (myself included) found and still find really hard to stomach. So onto the film and how does it compare?

Firstly the book was written in 1991 and the film didn’t come out untill 2000. Given that there were certain areas of the world that had a less than enlightened attitude to the book, selling it as pornography the decade between the two events is actually fairly impressive. As it went through various rumours many big stars were attached to either star or direct with eventually Christian Bale coming on as Bateman and the cult director Mary Harron running the whole show.

Let’s do the positives first – Christian Bale and the cast are just pitch-perfect. Bale in particular showing the method acting obsession in his character building that will eventually lead to him being Batman and starring in Werner Herzog movies. His Bateman is terrifyingly good, all dead eyed stares and explosive levels of violence and the dead eyed charm works well throughout the film, particularly in the amazing ‘business card scene’. It turns out that Bale spent a lot of time (up to three hours per day) working out alone to get into character and bulk up. As for his inspiration for the personality? Bale himself is on the record as being inspired by the dead behind the eyes friendliness of a little known actor called Tom Cruise and when you see the film the comparison makes a strange kind of sense.

The rest of the cast is very good indeed, especially Reese Witherspoon as Bateman’s vacuous fiance and Jared Leto as the business rival who makes the mistake of getting in Patrick Bateman’s way. The rest of the film follows the plot of the novel really very closely and manages to capture the tone and aesthetic of the book perfectly and most of the lines, especially Bateman’s voice-over, are lifted verbatim from the original novel.

So, this must be another great adaptation then?

No. But in this case, I think that this has to be a good thing.

Let me be utterly clear. To directly re-create the book into a film format is not possible. It just isn’t. The violence, sexism and brutal, tense prose could not translate to a film that anyone would want to see. Bateman, in that version, would be an unwatchable monster and some of the scenes that the book details just wouldn’t be possible to re-create on the big screen, or if they were I’m not sure whether you would want to see it, (the aforementioned rat scene springs to mind here.)

So, if I can call the adaptive process here a failure it would have to be on these grounds. The book is simply that far outside the norm of the horror/serial killer genre that the film could not be made when it was if it tried to copy the film. Yes it may be harsh to call it not a good adaptation but the Batman in the film is actually a well constructed character rather than the amoral void that Ellis creates. The book shows the utter degeneration that serious psychosis brings, Bateman looses all traces of his humanity and seems truly alien. Christian Bale’s Bateman is a monster, that much is true but seems much identifiable in the line of cinema serial killers.

So, no. This isn’t a great adaptation. But in all honesty? That is nothing but a good thing – it allows the film to be one of the finest cult horror thrillers of the last twenty years rather than something that would get you a ten stretch inside for owning and some serious psychological damage for viewing. There were some rumblings some Ellis’s Twitter feed about a month ago that he was looking at the possibility of a sequel and to be honest I’m none too sure – Bateman seems like such a product of the vapidity of the 1980s that I can’t imagine him walking around today – though maybe that says more about me than him.

There’s my two cents then ladies and gents and I hope I haven’t put you off the film as it is well done and really worth watching. And for those who still haven’t been dissuaded from seeking out the book, nothing more I could say would make any difference, but one final piece of information. One of the first lines from the book is a famous quote from Dante’s inferno; ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’

So read it if you must, but remember – you were warned.



One Day at a Time, or, Oh…Anne Hathaway…


There are certain books that you just see gain the critical and cultural momentum that makes a film adaptation usually have an air of inevitability about it. Certain books just seem to move via cultural osmosis becoming THAT book. You know, the one that all of your friends have read, the book that gets passed around reading groups, Twitter friends and Facebook, makes its way into the weekend supplements and discussed over Sunday morning coffee. In short, certain books that make it, become utterly inescapable and the world just has to put up with it.

So come with me on a mystical journey through time to the mythical period of ancient history – the year 2009! When a certain David Nicholls published a book called ‘One Day.’ Following the lives of its two protagonists, each chapter covers the same day over the course of twenty years going from graduation from university to middle age, detailing the travails of work, love and the friendship they share with each other.There’s Dexter, the upper middle class wealthy playboy and Emma, the chippy northerner burdened by middle class guilt and slightly too much intelligence, whilst this has moments of romance the book also manges to deal with the struggles of living through the recent history of the England 1988-2008.

In short, One Day was a huge success managing to combine the literary power of romantic fiction with a critical acceptance that the genre doesn’t usually garner. The broadsheet’s loved it, with John O’Connell  claiming that the book, ‘For, in spite of its comic gloss, One Day is really about loneliness and the casual savagery of fate; the tragic gap between youthful aspiration and the compromises that we end up tolerating. Not for nothing has Nicholls said that it was inspired by Thomas Hardy.’

If the quote from the The Time’s literary reviewer doesn’t give it away, I think the cultural door-keepers of society did what they normally do in these circumstances; finding something that is generic but very good at being generic and then attaching huge cultural significance to it, as if here was the crucial moment when something popular became something worthy of some sort of literary merit. Frankly I think that most of the literary reviewers over-stated the books importance and if there is any literary worth it is going to take a little more historical distance for that to emerge.

But let’s get one thing straight, the book is very good. Dominated by the conceit of having all of the action take place on St Swithin’s day I don’t think it really allows David Nicholls to show off just how good a writer he is, huge swathes and massively important events in the lives of our two lead characters are skipped out and at times it can feel frustrating. The book is very good, often very funny and manages to swing into some truly heart-breaking pathos at moments. However, the characters are somewhat broad, and thus hugely identifiable with no matter who you are. If you haven’t read it, and want something easy but emotionally rewarding then I really suggest you check out the book.

Interestingly, David Nicholls was closely involved in the adaptation process and worked on the screenplay that was being directed by Lone Scherfig who was looking to follow-up on the smash hit An Education. After struggling with the casting the film came  out in 2011, with Jim Sturgess playing Dexter and Anne Hathaway playing Emma.

Given the brief gap between the book and the film it was geared towards making as much money as possible and on paper it seemed that this was going to be a smash hit. The director was on form and their last film had been critically adored. Anne Hathaway was, (and still is) one of the most recognisable actresses working in cinema and Jim Sturgess looked to be a star in the making. Despite all of this the film was not considered a great success, and many who loved the book, just didn’t love the film.

What went wrong?

Well, let’s look at each elements briefly and see if it can be worked out. The director? No, I have no real problems, she has a great eye for shot composition and the period detailing of the film is often painfully on the money. The two leads have a good chemistry and the supporting cast are really solid. The dialogue is fresh and keeps enough of the good lines from the source material to ensure that nobody is dull to listen to.

And the end result is just a little…meh…

Yes I could pick holes – Hathaway’s accent is not necessarily the best and given that regional identity is such strong part of Emma’s character it seems strange that the casting directors couldn’t find a good English actress but this and other minor niggles are not really things that make the whole thing so disappointing – though by the end of the movie you’ll be glad you never have to hear the sound effect of calendar pages turning again.

But despite all of this, this should be a great film so we return to the issue of how did this fail to convert the emotional heart of the book to the film? Firstly, a failure of representation – the point of Emma and Dexter’s relationship is that neither one of the communicates properly with the other, but readers know why because of the access to consciousness that the form grants. The  method that the film chooses to get round this is via the medium of distanced communication – things like phone calls, missed letters and diary entries. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this as a device it neglects an important rule of story-telling – namely, that the closer to the psyche you are the more emotionally invested you are going to feel. As a result, whilst all the relevant information is communicated necessary for a plot, the film feels much more emotionally flat.

A good example of how the transfer affects the relationship between Dexter and his mother. The book gives this much more depth, though still not a great deal, as we see how Dexter’s insecurities and relationships with women have been shaped by this glamorous woman who taught him how to make martinis. In the book this emotional weight gives some real depth to the scene where he turns up drunk to his mother’s house to see her whilst she is critically ill. His mother’s whiplash diagnosis of loving him but sometimes thinking that he isn’t very nice cuts him to the core. The resulting meltdown it gives way to feels consistent and develops Dexter’s character arc. In the film, not so much – due to time and plot constraints Dexter’s mother barely fits into the plot.

The film isn’t bad, in fact far from it and the execution is done, for the most part, very well indeed. But here’s the thing – so many people on Twitter, on blogs and in conversation said that this wasn’t what they had pictured. They had gotten it WRONG! Whilst some of this can be chalked up to the fanboys getting all protective I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Audiences couldn’t connect to this screen couple as we didn’t have the chance to get to know them. Twenty years compressed down into less than two hours just doesn’t have the same immersive factor that the book did and this is what left people feeling so emotionally disappointed.

An alternative path to have taken is one that could have been more interesting, the book as 20 episodes of a TV show could have given the story and the characters the necessary time to unfold and develop and allow the audience to feel like they could get to know Dexter and Emma. Yes, some would still have complained about it but there would have been more of a chance for us to care.

So, a good adaptation? Well, I suppose this one has been a bit of both, something that ended up limiting itself through its form in a way that didn’t allow accurate transposition across from the original. The film succeeded on all of the most basic levels, but on the level of soul – the often abstract quality that you know when you see this film version just didn’t have what it took.

Again, if you haven’t read the book go ahead and seek it out – it isn’t long and if you have an afternoon spare you will find you get through it really quite quickly. The book also nicely proves an important point, that just because something is popular doesn’t make it bad and, even for me, it is nice to see that quality writing can be popular. So, read the book first and if you feel compelled to, do take the time to seek out the film, though if you end up feeling that this wasn’t how you thought Emma and Dexter would be then I’ll be gracious enough to avoid saying I told you so.




P.S It would be borderline negligent for me not to heap some praise on Jim Sturgess as Dexter. A young actor, this could have been a break out role for him if the film had been the big success that everyone thought it would be. As it is, it is a sophisticated and gently tragic rendering of the character that really shows his talent. So…there we go….Next time I will try to do something I like, if only to stop myself getting too grouchy.