Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

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Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

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Category: Reference
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Author Sebastian Faulks gets to the heart of the British novel through its characters exploring the heroes, lovers, snobs and villains in classics such as Robinson Crusoe, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Lord Of The Flies and The End Of The Affair. This book accompanies a soon to be aired four part TV documentary.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 384 Date: January 2011
Publisher: BBC Books
ISBN: 978-1846079597

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Faulks on Fiction is effectively the book of the TV show of the book. Even more confusingly, it's a book of reviews of works of British fiction so this is really a review of a book of reviews. The TV show has, at the time of writing, yet to air, but the concept is to talk, not so much about the books themselves, but of the characters within them, separated into four distinct character types; heros, lovers, snobs and villains. Even ignoring the fact that characters often don't fit wholly into these descriptions and that the concept might prove a use for those strange Venn diagrams you learnt about at school and have never found a use for, and the inevitable quibbles about which books and characters could also have been included that is the problem with lists, the result is strangely uneven. I was left wondering if this might indeed work better as a TV series, but as a stand alone book, it is more one to be dipped into than read cover to cover.

In terms of coverage, it is impressively broad, featuring Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Thackeray, Jane Austen (twice), Emily Bronte, Hardy and Dickens right up to Martin Amis, Zoe Heller and Monica Ali.

Faulks is one of my very favourite writers and his knowledge and research are evident from his own works of fiction. Indeed, I can think of few people with whom I would relish discussing literature more. So this should have worked well. It feels though that he has been constrained by the format and the concept and that this unfortunately prevents the book rising to much more than a series of book reports on some of the great works of British fiction as well as some more surprising choices.

In fact, the first thing I did on finishing this book was to return to the Introduction in an attempt to deduce what Faulks was aiming to achieve - hardly a good sign. If you ever have the urge to annoy one of the greatest of modern British fiction writers, it seems that there is nothing so guaranteed to raise his ire than to ask him who his characters are based on. It's a fair cause of irritation, and Faulks is keen to reclaim the authors' imagination as the source of genius. He cites a couple of examples of readers of his own works, including Vince Cable, who have fallen fowl of this trap, though while amusing, these are less disturbing than the readers who sought Wilkie Collins' source for Marian in The Woman in White as a kind of literary dating agency.

The problem is that it's not difficult to defend the role of imagination. You can see why it would be particularly irritating for a predominantly historical novelist, and although admittedly outside of the novel genre, the nonsense spouted by those who should know better in determining Shakespeare's life from his fictional characters is not suggested. However, it remains likely (we can say no more) that some authors do base their characters, or at least parts of them, on their experiences and perhaps this is why Faulks steers clear of Charlotte Bronte here.

The relatively lengthy Acknowledgements chapter is interesting and perhaps illuminating. Faulks notes that he would rather the book had been called Novel People, taking himself out of the title. He also reports that the TV series has him jetting off to interesting locations and hosts a list of eminent novelists who have contributed to the exercise (as well as long list of unpaid interns who have read through the books for the author). There's little evidence of this in the book though. What's more, the author's mixed views about his own name in the title is indicative of the problem. As a book, I wanted more of him and less of the format that perhaps the exercise has forced him into.

Each character type presents examples chronologically and after occasional interesting context in world literature, he jumps right into plot descriptions. While this will be manna from heaven to students struggling with book reviews, it doesn't inspire you to explore classics that you might have missed because he always tells you the ending. Neither is there any sense of development despite the chronological nature of the ordering. Instead we get different types of snobs, lovers or whatever. It's a bit like reading a guide to a gallery of fine art. It doesn't add much in the way of value to our appreciation though. What I wanted was more Faulks. What impact did these books have on him? To be fair there is some of that, but not enough.

The one shining exception to the sporadic insights that do genuinely provide enlightenment, is the excellent chapter on James Bond - here listed as a snob. Why is this so excellent? Well, Faulks took on the task of adding to the genre by writing his own Bond book and the insight is fascinating because it's the only chapter that you really feel you are benefiting from the writer's own views and experience. In fact, it would have been interesting if he had also included one of his own characters in the analysis.

So where does this leave us? I suspect that the four part TV series will be interesting and would urge book-lovers to seek it out in Spring 2011. As a book though, I was disappointed and it is something more to dip into when it was an opportunity to be so much more. I felt, perhaps unfairly, that the author had been too restricted by the confines of the formula and this is to the detriment of the book.

Our thanks to the people at BBC Books for inviting The Bookbag to review this edition.

Why not explore the originals for more on these characters. Where to start? How about Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte whose Heathcliff is profiled under 'lover' or if you prefer more recent fiction, Brick Lane by Monica Ali whose Chanu Ahmed is one of Faulks' 'snobs'.

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Buy Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks at Amazon.com.


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