The odds are powerfully stacked against originality — and yet: read James Wood on Samantha Harvey

Saturday, December 6, 2014

It's been a week of long and important correspondence with friends. Among the topics: How do we manage lives built (in part) of original ideas? Stories that haven't been previously told. Characters that don't come pre-packaged. Books that don't fit the cross "this famous book" with "that famous book" and you have this new easily tagged and marketed and therefore soon to be famous book.

We talk, we ponder, we encourage. We look for signs.

I found one this morning, reading James Wood (oh, bless James Wood) in The New Yorker, discussing, in an essay titled "Fly Away," the work of Samantha Harvey.

I'd like to share the opening paragraph:

The odds are powerfully stacked against Samantha Harvey's third novel, "Dear Thief" (Atavist): sometimes you feel that the author has enjoyed building a trembling wall of them. Her novel takes the form of a long letter, written by a woman in middle age, to her childhood friend, and so most of the narration languishes in the corridor of the second-person singular. The friend (the "thief" of the book's title) disappeared a decade and a half ago, and so the narrator does much reminiscing, with the danger that the novel drifts fairly often into the pressureless zones of retrospect. And the narrator's lost friend was a "character," a large personality remembered, with loathing and love, for her enigmatic singularity: so, most perilously, Harvey's novel must work to convince us that this vague "you" of the narrator's letter deserves her extravagant reputation and the time spent recalling her. The book is sometimes precious or whimsical, and can be frustratingly diaphonous. It has nerves of silk; it could probably do with more robustness, and a bit of comedy.

So it is odd, Wood tells us. So it veers. So it isn't what we "expect." And yet, the rest of this fantastic essay is devoted to the beauty and success of this novel "with no interest in conformity."

To which I say, Yes. Through which I decide, I am buying Samantha Harvey.

Thank goodness for James Wood and The New Yorker (which also celebrates the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis is in this issue). Thank goodness for publishers who believe that there are readers out here who are willing to venture into non-conformist territory. Thank goodness for editors who say, It's worth the risk. You are.

And thank goodness for my friends who believe, with me, in the odd and the new.


A.S. King said...

"Thank goodness for publishers who believe that there are readers out here who are willing to venture into non-conformist territory."

There are so many readers who crave new, inventive things and my hope is that publishers will catch up and realize that being different is not a bad thing.

Slow train.
Slow train.

Thanks for the book rec. I'm on it.

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