P. D. James, Time to Be in Earnest

It’s Reading Week here, which means a slight break from the day-to-day pressures of the term. Still, one’s pedagogical conscience is never easy, so I’ve been balancing work and relaxation by reviewing P. D. James’s memoir, Time to Be in Earnest, with an eye to teaching An Unsuitable Job for a Woman again in a week or two. James’s subtitle is “A Fragment of an Autobiography,” which rightly suggests a work that is neither tightly crafted nor expansive; it is an uneven but ultimately, I think, engaging mix of simple diary entries (her success has made her a very busy woman, we learn), recollections of her earlier life, and reflections on subjects of interest to her, from the history of crime fiction (of course) to current events such as the death of Princess Diana (the memoir begins in August 1997) or her experience serving on the jury for the Booker Prize, about which she is certainly frank (“Our final choice of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger was only arrived at after a long argument which nearly made us late for the Guildhall dinner, and the choice was not unanimous”). (For what it’s worth, Moon Tiger is one of my favourite books, and would probably have gotten my vote!) Throughout, her strong, if slightly crotchety, personality provides the unifying thread; she is opinionated and decisive, especially in her literary judgments (on The God of Small Things, for instance, she remarks that “it seems to me somewhat lush and overwritten, a beginner’s attempt at a Naipaul or a Rushdie”), impatient with pretense and show, and unapologetic about her own chosen form:

I love structure in a novel and the detective story is probably the most structured of popular fiction. Some would say that it is the most artificial, but then all fiction is artificial, a careful rearrangement by selection of the writer’s internal life in a form designed to make it accessible and attractive to a reader. The construction of a detective story might be formulaic; the writing need not be. And I was setting out, I remember, with high artistic ambitions. I didn’t expect to make a fortune, but I did hope one day to be regarded as a good and serious novelist. It seemed to me, as it has to others, that there can be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action. And I may have needed to write detective fiction for the same reasons as aficionados enjoy the genre: the catharsis of carefully controlled terror, the bringing of order out of disorder, the reassurance that we live in a comprehensible and moral universe and that, although we may not achieve justice, we can at least achieve an explanation and a solution. (12-13)

She talks often, actually, about the particular importance of setting in her novels; this is a topic we will address at length in class as we work on Unsuitable Job, in which the beauty of Cambridge provides a particularly poignant (as well as thematically significant) backdrop for the horrors of the story. An expert on the history of her own genre, James is also widely read in Victorian and contemporary fiction, though she is generally more enthusiastic about the former than the latter. Here, in a passage that exemplifies the bookish, even erudite, yet somewhat meandering or incidental quality of the book, she quotes one of my own favourite lines about the novel, Henry James writing on Trollope (an unlikely alliance, perhaps?) then finds herself meditating on the changing role of fiction in society:

One quotation I would most like to see in any revised edition [of the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations, which she was reviewing for the Sunday Times] are the words of Henry James, writing of Anthony Trollope, “We trust to novels to maintain us in the practice of great indignations and great generosities.” It is an elevanted ideal of fiction, but, thinking it over, I am not sure that it is any longer true. Dickens could write a novel which would move his readers to pity or outrage and act as a spur to action, but surely today it is television which, sometimes powerfully, sometimes superficially, examines for us the dilemmas and concerns of our age, reflects our lives and opens us to the lives of others. . . .

In particular, the so-called literary novel too often seems removed from the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people. The very description ‘literary novel’ is, for many readers, an indication that the work is not intended for them. With some notable exceptions–David Lodge is one–the worlds of industry and commerce, the very means by which society gains the wealth which supports our art and literature, are alien to the modern novelist, perhaps because they are worlds few of us have experienced. Have we a responsibility to break free from our cabined preoccupations, our fascination with history and our literary exploitations of the evils of the past and address ourselves to more contemporary themes? Is there a novelist today who could write–or would try to write–War and Peace or Trollope’s The Way We Live Now with its brilliant portrayal of the financier Melmotte, the nineteenth-century Robert Maxwell?

Unless the novel, particularly the so-called literary novel, can reach the hearts and minds of ordinary people, reading will increasingly become a minority interest. . . It would be futile, and indeed silly, to suggest that novelists today can recover the hierarchical and moral certainties of Victorian England. Some writers would argue that we can no longer comfortably write in the tradition of social realism because we no longer know what we mean by reality. I suppose the extremes of literary experimentation are some novelists’ ways of explaining the arbitrariness and chaos of human existence, an attempt to express the inexpressible. Thomas Hardy wrote that the secret of fiction lies in the adjustment of things uneven to things eternal and universal. But what adjustment can a writer make if, in a world governed for him by chance and chaos, he is no longer able to believe in things eternal and universal? (77-78)

On that note, it’s interesting to note that James herself is a devoted, but not pious, Anglican, meaning she appreciates and participates in religious ritual but finds that compatible with what seems a fairly loose commitment to specific doctrines.

There’s much more of interest in the book, especially for fans of her novels or of detective fiction more generally. I’ll end here with some of the rules she provides, first for reviewers, and second for those adapting books for television. First, from her advice for reviewers:

  1. Always read the whole of the book before you write your review.
  2. Don’t undertake to review a book if it is written in a genre you particularly dislike.
  3. Review the book the author has written, not the one you think he/she should have written.
  4. If you have prejudices–and you’re entitled to them–face them frankly and, if appropriate, acknowledge them.

And some sage words for TV people:

  1. [her #6] Must we always have a car chase? Men may like them (although I can’t think why); most women find them boring in the extreme. And if you must have a car chase, must it go on for so long? It need last only as long as it takes us to go and make the tea.

The book itself ends with her engaging address to the Jane Austen Society of North America on “Emma Considered as a Detective Story,” well worth reading. Finally, if you want to listen to James speak for herself, try this excellent lecture on “The Craft of the Mystery Story,” which she gave at the Smithsonian in 1995.

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