Thursday, May 7, 2009

Alexander McCall Smith in Time

Last week's Sunday Standard repeated excerpts from Alexander McCall Smith's lovely interview in Time. There are so many people with so many opinions about Alexander McCall Smith. I think he's lovely. I think he's done wonderful things for Botswana and Batswana writers and other people in the arts. People complain that his books are too happy, that his settings and plots are simplistic and portray Batswana as simpletons. I don't know. Do Mr. Bean and Adrian Mole mean that all British people are silly, self-centred idiots? I don't think so. Fiction, people- isn't this why we all love it? We can make the world we want.

In the interview when McCall Smith is asked about this he says:

"Fiction is able to encompass books that are bleak and which dwell on the manifold and terrible problems of our times. But I don't think that all books need to have that particular focus. If you look at music, do we expect all composers to write dirges? The answer surely is no. There are many other emotions and moods which music can deal with or engage with. And similarly with art. With painting one would expect that there are some which are dark and gloomy and threatening and other paintings that are filed with light and optimism.

But when it comes to literature, there's this curious argument put forth by an extraordinary amount of people that fiction must always dwell on difficulties, and if you write about a situation without dealing with all the difficulties that are attendant on the particular time or place you're writing about, that you're somehow not doing your job as a writer. That seems to me to be an extraordinary argument. My Botswana books are positive, and I've never really sought to deny that. They are positive. They present a very positive picture of the country. And I think that that is perfectly defensible given that there is so much written about Africa which is entirely negative."

I never knew Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, I only learned it in this article. It makes me think a bit about Bessie Head. South Africa claims her as their own since she was born there and we claim her as ours since she wrote here. I wonder why Zimbabwe never tries to claim McCall Smith, or perhaps I've just never heard about it.

I was astounded to also learn that he writes four to five books a year. I also write quickly and often wonder if I'm not giving my writing the attention is deserves since I hear of people who take years to write a single novel that I could finish in less than six months. McCall Smith's take on his speedy writing?

"I use an analogy of which I have no actual knowledge — namely tightrope walking. I have never walked on a tightrope, and indeed know nothing about it. But I imagine that tightrope walkers don't actually look down while they're doing their thing, they look ahead, which is the sort of approach I take. If you look at what my commitments are, I'm doing either four or five books a year, which is breaking all the rules of publishing. And If I stop to think, "Well my goodness me, what am I going to do," I would fall off the rope."


Helen Ginger said...

There clearly are people who think a book must be heavy and sad or long and sweeping in order to be considered "good." But there are plenty of people who read light and happy or dark and scary. And there are also plenty who read both or all.


Angela said...

I just love his style and his books, also the ones about Scotland. He has such an old-fashioned sense of "goodness" and respect and humour, and I prefer such books that lift me up so much to those other "worthy" ones that make me feel desperate. Why should I not believe for a while that the world is a nice, happy place? it IS, at times, isn`t it?

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I have not read Alexander McCall Smith. Thank you for introducing this author to me. I like the analogy of the tightrope walker and the speedy writer, very interesting. I am sick to death of the fascination with writers that mire themselves in despair and melancholy as if that is the singular human experience. We are multi-dimensional and so are our tastes in what we choose to entertain ourselves with.

I am a huge fan of Pat Conroy, the author of "The Prince of Tides", "The Great Santini", and "Beach Music", among many other critically acclaimed novels. His subject matter tends to be quite intense, his prose is beautiful. Anyway, he's married to another writer. (I am not a big fan of her work & I apologize for not being able to remember her name), but I read in an interview that he sits in his office and listens to her giggle and have the best of times when she writes. But for him writing is grueling. He suffers when he pens a novel. So, it is a very different process for him than it is for his wife. Interesting.

I will check out Alexander McCall Smith's work.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think he is a lovely man and a brilliant writer and if his writing has in any way highlighted life in Botswana that can only be a good thing.

Those critics who want their novels a little more bleak should be reading someone like James Patterson, paying particular attention to the cynicism of his writing process.

That last post really got me going, Lauri.

Viva Mr. McCall Smith. You are an absolute darling!

Unknown said...

Hi Lauri! Loved this post even though I am not familiar with Alexander McCall Smith. His words resonated well with me.

Thanks for dropping by at my blog and for your kind words. Hope all is well!


Lauri said...

Helen- You are exaclty right, this is why McCall Smith's books are so popular. Not everyone needs to like you- I think we all had to learn that by the time we reached first grade or else life becomes a real slog.

Angela- I'm with you. That is what fiction is all about- taking us away for awhile. We don't always want to be taken away to misery, though I have to admit sometimes I like to go there.

Elizabeth- Fascinating story! I don't think I fit the wife or the husband, somewhere in the middle I think.

Selma- I still haven't decided how I feel about James Patterson. The whole world wants writing to be about the marketing -except us the writers. He is possibley doing what they want.

JD- I was quite impressed with your blog actually. I adore the ocean and I think that picture is lovely. I might hang out just to look at the photo. Also I think it's clever how you've made the picture stay and the words move. I'm a severe technoidiot so am impressed by such things.

AND you are really 'doing the business' (as my giant teenagers would say) by highlighting African writing. Yeah for Mr. Dibia! Please folks, take a stop over there if you want to lean more about what's happening in African literature!

Onedia Hayes Sylvest said...

I have only read the #1 Ladies series and I am such a fan (and of the HBO series as well) The humanity and gracious spirits found in these characters are of much more interest than whodunit. These characters are wise and witty and demonstrate the types of fears and insecurities that most of us face. They also demonstrate courage and compassion that we should all have.

Sometimes the beauty and wisdom of a book is in the apparent simplicity and when the pain and dark sides of life are used as condiments rather than the main course.