Twenty questions November 20, 2017

Twenty Questions with M. John Harrison

Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing the books they most admire, nagging regrets and the occasional hidden talent

Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?

There are so many, the list would be endless. The Erasers, Alain Robbe-Grillet. A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor. The Mint, T. E. Lawrence. Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion. The House on the Borderland, William Hope Hodgson. The Spider’s House, Paul Bowles. Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf. The Madman of Freedom Square, Hassan Blasim. The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane. Fast Lanes, Jayne Anne Phillips. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson. Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys.

What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?

Smaller. A generation will have grown up repelled by the urge to fantasy that lies behind fake news, corporate branding, political misdirection, sports reporting before the event, the constant fictionalization of everything. “Story” will be a dirty word, even at the BBC and in science journalism. Realism will have set in a long way upstream of the idea of fiction itself and people will be consuming their own lives, as lived, rather than images of life designed to persuade them of something. As part of the arms race between consumer and producer, they’ll have grown out of the idea that one kind of make-believe can be an antidote to another, and be trying to reduce their vulnerability to all of this stuff. A utopian picture, certainly: but utopianism and its ironical sister are traditional features of my field.

 Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?

I don’t know.

What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?

H. E. Bates. He was perhaps overrated in the 1970s – and often rated for his least interesting work – and he’s been paying for that ever since. But he’s done his time now and should be allowed back into society.

What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?

Catch-22. The idea is great but I found the book itself an utter trudge.

If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?

Between the wars, in the UK. So much new territory to move into.

If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?

There’s more than one piece I’d like never to have written at all. I’d line-edit some of the older stuff, but it would be a mistake: novels would be longish short stories by the time I’d finished with them. You can ask the question, “Is this word/sentence/paragraph really neccessary?” too often, and anyway it’s best asked at the time, not forty years later. Graham Greene was right, you just shouldn’t publish your first three novels.

Which is your least favourite fictional character?

I loathe the majority of Roald Dahl’s characters; also Lemony Snicket’s, and most of John Updike’s. What they have in common is to reflect something broken in the author’s personality, the revelation of which, paradoxically, hides itself behind its own gleeful self-awareness: an act of toxically complex irony. But Ayn Rand will always take the trophy, for the opposite reason: her characters, such as they are, seem wholly unironic and she seems to have had no self-awareness whatsoever.

Let’s play Humiliation (see David Lodge’s Changing Places): What’s the most famous book you haven’t read?/play you haven’t seen?/album you haven’t listened to?/film you haven’t watched?

Book: Conrad, Nostromo. I managed seventy or so pages of it on two or three occasions in the 1960s, then gave up forever. At the time I couldn’t understand why I liked The Secret Agent so much and Nostromo so little; I’m sure I should try again, but at this point life seems literally too short.

Album: Pink Floyd, The Wall: the single seemed so intellectually shortsighted and emotionally manipulative that I could never face the album.

Film: When I was younger I couldn’t keep books by Robert W. Chambers, Arthur Machen or H. P. Lovecraft on my shelves. If I owned them I’d read them; if I read them I wouldn’t sleep for days. So there was no way I was going to see The Exorcist, and I never have. (On the other hand, I couldn’t get enough of True Detective.)

Do you have any hidden talents?

No. I have so few talents I have to keep them both on display.

Quick questions:

George or T. S.? T. S., despite the obvious problematics

Modernism or post-? Is it possible to have both? In superposition?

Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë? Charlotte

Camus or Sartre? Camus

Proust or Joyce? Joyce, but solely for Dubliners

Knausgaard or Ferrante? Ferrante, no contest

Jacques Derrida or Judith Butler? Butler

Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream? A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or at least the idea of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It irritates me when I see it, but later I start thinking about it again. I suspect what I actually want to do is revise it in some way

Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley? Stoker. Mary wasn’t weird enough

Tracey Emin or Jeff Koons? No one should be asked a question like that

M. John Harrison’s new collection of short stories, You Should Come With Me Now, is out this month. “The Crisis” appears in the TLS of November 24.