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Who to read for a six-pack

Who to read for a six-pack

Lucy Ellmann, author of the Booker shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, is understandably a touch peeved that her novel’s length (1,030 pages) has been so frequently raised by reviewers. In a recent interview she defended its size: “Conventional narrative techniques and dutiful compression would not have suited this project,” she argued. “It had to be long. I'd prefer to talk about content.” But with the bit between her teeth she noted that “Men can take liberties; a woman writing a long book is considered audacious, if not outrageous. Our novels, like us, are supposed to be petite.” The result is not anger against so much as pity – far more withering: “So many male reviewers have complained about this book's size that I fear male upper body strength may not be all it's cracked up to be. But come on, guys, it's just a novel, not 7,000 volumes of Wikipedia.”


In case there was any doubt that Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is a very big deal, it sold 103,000 copies within a week of its launch on 10 September. That makes it, after only seven days, the biggest selling hardback fiction of the year. In an interview to mark the book’s arrival she was asked if she feels overwhelmed by her transformation into “a figure somewhere between a prophet and a literary rock star?” It is fair to say no, she doesn’t. “I think that this kind of thing could be quite ruinous for a 35-year-old, because where do you go from there? In my case, we kind of know the answer!” Atwood is 79 and overwhelmed by very little.


Salman Rushdie has been addressing the idea that satire is redundant in this day and age because some of our political and cultural (in the very broadest of senses) figures are beyond satire. But he has no truck with the idea that reality has outstripped satire. “I simply don’t agree,” he said recently. “When I watch the best satirists at work. . . I see that comedy can get deeper into the truth, and cut more sharply, than even the best reportage. It’s always worth trying to laugh at our masters, if only because they really don’t like it.” He himself is not above poking a bit of fun at Margaret Atwood. He explained that the only person on the Booker shortlist who needn’t worry about whether or not they won was Margaret Atwood: “because she’s going to sell a billion copies anyway”. In fact Rushdie and Atwood, both former Booker winners, have been emailing one another. Atwood suggested their places on the shortlist are because they are “the old codgers”, not that it matters because “we’re still not too old to have a dance”.


Elif Shafak, persona non grata in her native Turkey, moved to London some 10 years ago. Her respite from angry politics was not to last, however: “When I first came to this country I thought British people were very calm when it came to politics. I admired that. I no longer think that is true.” Fiction has proved more enduring and she has an interesting slant on how it – and hers in particular – is viewed here: “Sometimes when I look at the ways novels are being judged, we are very used to measuring them against the European classics,” she thinks. “But there are other ways of storytelling, from China, the Middle East. There is not one way of writing a novel. It is a bit like food, there are other cuisines, other traditions, no less rich and no less real.” Good fiction then, wherever it is from, is flavoursome and wholesome.