The BBC’s year of book-related programming has begun; here is a look at two of the first documentaries.
Faulks on Fiction is a four-part BBC Two series in which Sebastian Faulks looks at the characters of the British novel. Later episodes will focus on lovers, snobs, and villains; but this first part was all about the figure of ‘the hero’. This is a term that seems fairly straightforward, until (or so I found) you actually try to define it, at which point it becomes a much more nebulous concept – after all, most novels have protagonists; what is it that distinguishes them from ‘heroes’?
The programme never gave a clear definition of its terms, with the result that, though Faulks was an engaging presenter, his journey through the heroes of British fiction seemed rather arbitrary. The following characters were discussed:
- Robinson Crusoe (1719)
- Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749)
- Becky Sharp (Vanity Fair, 1847-8)
- Sherlock Holmes (first appeared 1887)
- Stephen Wraysford (Faulks’s Birdsong, 1993)
- Winston Smith (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)
- Jim Dixon (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, 1954)
- John Self (Martin Amis’s Money, 1984)
Several questions – which, I’m afraid, I am not widely-read enough to be able to answer – spring to mind after considering both this selection and Faulks’s wider argument:
- Was this meant to be an exhaustive survey of heroes in British literary fiction?
- Why only one female character?
- Were there really no relevant examples to be drawn from outside the work of straight white men?
- Were there really no relevant examples from between the time of Conan Doyle and Orwell, so that we had instead to go on a clumsy detour into Faulks’s own work to cover the First World War?
- Is it truly the case that, as Faulks asserted, Martin Amis’s Money marked the end of the road for the hero in British literary fiction?
All these issues could have been addressed if the programme had defined its subject more clearly (though some, especially the lack of diversity amongst the authors whose works were considered, would have been hard to defend even then). All programmes of this nature must be selective, of course, but I would like to have confidence that there was a better rationale behind the selection than ‘books which have received screen adaptations from which we can show clips’ – and I don’t have that confidence.
A couple of days later, BBC Four broadcast Henry Hitchings’ Birth of the British Novel, a stand-alone documentary which examined the development of the British novel in the 18th century and the interaction between it and the wider history of the period. This felt to me a more coherent programme than Faulks’s (and Hitchings’ treatment of Crusoe and Jones seemed fuller), perhaps because it was more chronologically bounded. It also covered a considerable range of material, switching ably back and forth between consideration of authors, their works, and the historical context. More so than with Faulks’s documentary, I came away from Birth of the British Novel feeling that I had actually learnt something (not least that I really ought to read Tristram Shandy).
Hitchings’ film also found room to include a female author, Frances Burney (though its suggestion that Burney wrote a form of proto-chick lit was both inherently anachronistic and carried the implied slur that novels by women writers were frivolous from the very beginning – the whole Books On The BBC season really needs to improve its treatment of female authors). I was quite surprised to discover from one contributor (Emma Clery of Southampton University) that women novelists outnumbered their male counterparts in Britain between 1780 and 1810. What those women were writing, and what different avenues it might have taken the documentary down, I don’t know, because the programme didn’t explore it.
This also points to a wider problem with trying to tell a literary history in so confined a space: using the work of individual authors as a framework means that some will almost certainly have to be omitted; and a viewer unfamiliar with the subject matter (as I was in this case) won’t know what is missing. I have no idea what kind of shape the documentary might have had if different works had been discussed, which is why I’d welcome a clearer statement of the rationale behind selections in programmes like this.
Something else that I think Birth of the British Novel in particular could have done with was a definition of the novel. Hitchings made much of the fact that the novel emerged in Britain during this period, and that its writers were testing what the form could do; in this context, it would have been helpful to state what was new about the novel, and how it differed from existing prose forms. The question ‘What is a novel?’ was raised only once, 45 minutes into this hour-long film, when Hitchings asked it of the novelist Tom McCarthy. He laughed and replied, ‘A novel is something that contains its own negation’ – which I’m sure is an interesting idea (though no clear explanation was offered of what McCarthy meant); but it’s of no use at all as the only definition of a novel in a documentary about the emergence of the novel.
A flawed beginning, then, for Books On The BBC. Faulks on Fiction got off to a poor start, and the parameters of its format don’t give me much hope that the entire series will be much of an improvement. Birth of the British Novel was good, but had its shortcomings (though a full chronological history in the style of Hitchings’ documentary would be worth watching). Here’s hoping for more from later programmes in the season.
This review at The Arts Desk, which comes to a similar conclusion about the relative quality of the two programmes.