Off-the-peg opinions not sold here

Continuum Contemporaries

五月 31, 2002

Continuum Contemporaries are tricky little books. They tread a telling - and knowing - line between student textbooks and introductory guides for the general reader. One eye is focused on markets on the fringe of formal education and the other is trained on courses in higher and further education. The latter are most likely to be in English and literary studies with film, media or communications dimensions. For, almost without exception, all the books and authors featured are prizewinners, bestsellers, and further known through film or TV adaptation. This makes for risks as well as opportunities. Weighing in at about 90 pages each and keenly priced, the series is obviously angling for a very wide range of readers. Many of these volumes will probably catch them.

But the advance publicity looks over-optimistic. Repeated on the back cover of every book (where sadly nothing is said about each of them individually), it makes a gesture at being all things to everyone:

"Will be a wonderful source of ideas and inspiration for members of book clubs and reading groups, as well as for students of contemporary literature at school, college and university". Surely, this is to cast the net impossibly wide. It threatens to cover everything from coffee-table chit-chat to mind-numbing exam-crammer. In fact, though, the series comes as near to squaring various circles - popular/academic, "good read"/"classic Lit.", novel/film of the book - as any I know. And at best it goes a fair way towards reshuffling those categories and redrawing the boundaries. With the first volume, I was relieved. After two or three, I was hooked.

The series format is robust but not rigid. All books have the same five-part structure: 1. the novelist; 2. the novel; 3. the novel's reception; 4. the novel's performance (information on sales and prizes and comparison with the screen adaptation); and 5. further reading and discussion questions. But this is variously handled in each case, so the overall effect is unified rather than uniform.

The novelist . This section consists of a critical as well as biographical overview. Together with an introduction to the life of the writer, there is a review of her or his works other than the main novel featured: E. Annie Proulx's Postcards and Accordion Crimes , for example, to go with The Shipping News . This offsets the potentially skewed emphasis on "one-writer-one-novel". It also issues some genuinely enticing invitations to read more widely. With Haruki Murakami, for instance, supporting the very welcome featuring of his The Wind-up Bird Chronicle , there is a good review of influences from Japanese popular film and American paperback fiction, and engaging insight into his free-bootingly "non-literary" manner. With Donna Tartt, however, you cannot escape the feeling that, like Richard Papen, the narrator of The Secret History , she seems "fated to have only one story to tell", though the author does a good job of suggesting it is more than a catchy college thriller.

The novel . The refreshing thing about this section is that each text is treated on its own terms, and (within fairly generous limits) writers are left to develop their own approach. Toni Morrison's Paradise is framed chiefly in terms of varieties of voice and point of view; Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres features topics such as "The land and the body" and "Incest and King Lear ", while Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible gets a steady book-by-book account, but with a clear pointing of (post)colonial and ecological issues and narrative complexities. What we do not get, mercifully, is a dutiful trudge through the usual study-guide categories of "Plot", "Themes", "Characters" and "Style". (Only the work on Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries approaches this, while that on Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting , though it has a skeleton of "Structure", "Setting" and "Language", fleshes it out with such vigour that it moves with an energy of its own.) Nor is there much sign of neatly pre-packaged "quotable quotes" and off-the-peg opinions - so tempting for hard-pressed students and so destructive of their real development.

The novel's reception . These parts of the books are invaluable for gathering out-of-the-way or ephemeral comment from TV and radio interviews and the web as well as from literary reviews as such. Oprah Winfrey's "Bookshelf" slot clearly has more popular clout in the US than articles in the New York Times Book Review , for example, as the responses to Morrison's, Kingsolver's and others' books attest. When it comes to reviewing prize-winning books, it is also pretty clear that British reviewers tend to be less adulatory - and generous - than their American counterparts. Given the inevitable lack of extensive critical and scholarly study of many contemporary writers, this section supplies invaluable leads and cues for future work.

The novel's performance/adaptation . This section is another refreshingly upfront and up-to-date aspect of these books. While for the most part remaining properly guarded about the reliability of commercial sources and sensitive to the self-fulfiling prophesies of media hype (an extreme instance being the Harry Potter books - here carrying the encouraging disclaimer "This publication has not been authorised by J. K. Rowling or Warner Bros"), most volumes supply full figures on publishing and media history: rejections, commissionings, print runs, sales, editions, prizes and adaptations for radio, TV and film. You can thus learn who else apart from Penguin turned down Harry Potter ; why Vintage picked up Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho when it was dropped for fear of scandal by Simon and Schuster; and that A. S. Byatt was asked to cut much of the poetry and make her main character "a sexier guy" for the Random House US publication of Possession (she fenced cannily on the latter). Meanwhile, there are informed advance notices of the films of the latter and of Graham Swift's Last Orders . Indeed, given the space, there are remarkably balanced film/novel comparisons of the most well-known examples: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient , Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day , Pat Barker's Regeneration and Welsh's Trainspotting .

Further reading and discussion questions . Though obviously the most "textbooky" part of these guides, here individual writers have wisely been given their heads rather than reined in too tightly. There is also, for the most part, discreet avoidance of the naked "essay" question format, and very few bland injunctions to "compare and contrast" or "discuss". Instead there are either straight questions that put you on the spot ("Is the violence in the novel misogynistic?" - American Psycho - my answer is "Yes") or more indirect invitations to engage creatively as well as critically, commercially as well as academically ("If you were the publisher of her next novel, how would you market Barbara Kingsolver?"). An important feature is the fully referenced bibliographies, including reviews and copious website addresses - the latter ranging from fanzines and authors' and publishers' own sites to academic discussion lists and online journals.

In method as in subject matter, these guides move freely on the interface between print culture and multimedia. Highly finished and pleasantly handleable as books in their own right, they gesture accommodatingly to both words and worlds beyond. Taking the series as a whole, it also confirms two things: that narrative nowadays is generically highly hybrid and increasingly cross-media; and that an understanding of the processes of writing and reading "contemporary classic" (or at least "currently famous") fiction cannot be separated - yet must be distinguished - from the processes of making and marketing books and films. Whether as teachers or learners, readers or viewers - and we are all in some sense all of these - we do well to recognise both the appeals and perils of this highly complex and contentious state of affairs. These tricky little books help us do just that.

Rob Pope is professor of English, Oxford Brookes University.


  • Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Remains of the Day' By Adam Parkes ISBN 0 8264 5231 0
  •   J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels By Philip Nel ISBN 0 8264 5232 9
  • Carol Shields's 'The Stone Diaries' By Abby Werlock ISBN 0 8264 5249 3
  • Barbara Kingsolver's 'The Poisonwood Bible' By Linda Wagner-Martin ISBN 0 8264 5234 5
  • Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' By Karin Westman ISBN 0 8264 5230 2
  • Toni Morrison's 'Paradise' By Kelly Reames ISBN 0 8264 5319 8
  • Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' By Tracy Hargreaves ISBN 0 8264 5320 1
  • Irvine Welsh's 'Trainspotting' By Robert Morace ISBN 0 8264 5237 X
  • Jane Smiley's 'A Thousand Acres' By Susan Farrell ISBN 0 8264 5235 3
  • Annie Proulx's 'The Shipping News' By Aliki Varvogli ISBN 0 8264 5233 7
  • Haruki Murakami's 'The Wind-up Bird Chronicle' By Matthew Strecher ISBN 0 8264 5239 6
  • Bret Easton Ellis's 'American Psycho' By Julian Murphet ISBN 0 8264 5245 0
  • Cormac McCarthy's 'All the Pretty Horses' By Stephen Tatum ISBN 0 8264 5246 9
  • Graham Swift's 'Last Orders' By Pamela Cooper ISBN 0 8264 5242 6
  • A. S. Byatt's 'Possession' By Catherine Burgass ISBN 0 8264 5248 5
  • Michael Ondaatje's 'The English Patient' By John Bolland ISBN 0 8264 5243 4
  • Ian Rankin's 'Black and Blue' By Gill Plain ISBN 0 8264 5244 2
  • Don DeLillo's 'Underworld' By John Duvall ISBN 0 8264 5241 8

Continuum Contemporaries

ISBN - 0 8264 5--- -
Publisher - Continuum
Price - £5.00
Pages - 84-96



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