At last week’s Hay Festival, Alexander McCall Smith was announced winner of the 2015 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, for his book Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party. The prize is awarded ‘in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse’. I’ve enjoyed many of the previous winners and shortlisted entries, but Wodehouse fans should not to expect great similarities between Wodehouse’s writing and these examples of modern genre.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at the 2015 shortlist.
How to Build a Girl by Cailtin Moran
“My life is basically The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole.”
Described as semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, How to Build a Girl follows 1990s teenager Johanna Morrigan’s efforts to recreate herself as ‘Dolly Wilde’. Author Caitlin Moran is a well-known UK columnist and celebrity, and reviewers have found much to like in her witty narrative style. Wodehouse fans be warned that it’s also heaving with sex and ‘bad language’, so it won’t appeal to everyone.
How to Build a Girl isn’t the sort of book I normally read — as someone who reads for escapist pleasure, the parallels between this story and my life may be a little too close for comfort. The legs on the cover are even wearing my shoes! Like Morrigan/Moran I’ve come from humble beginnings and reinvented myself as Honoria Plum. Unlike Moran, success didn’t follow. I’m ‘keeping the dream alive’ as best I can, but I’d find it easier to laugh at the mistakes of my youth if I was reading from a more comfortable chair.
In contrast, one of the many things I love about Wodehouse is that he doesn’t challenge me with my own mistakes or confront me with gritty realism. When I want those things, I’ll put my book down and look in the mirror.
Losing It by Helen Lederer
It’s great to see women are writing comedy and being shortlisted for this prize. Like Moran, Lederer is well-known in the UK for her work in film and television comedy, and there are clear parallels between Lederer and Millie, the central character in Losing It . Millie is a middle aged, divorced TV star who accepts an offer to advertise diet pills to help resolve her financial difficulties.
There’s a promising Wodehousian element to Lederer’s plot. Millie owes money to loan sharks, but spends her advance from the diet pill company on a holiday. Having spent the cash, she’s committed to losing weight in three months — by whatever means she can. I could see Wodehouse using this sort of plot very well.
Wodehouse created several plus-sized, middle-aged female characters. He usually describes them as ‘handsome’ and portrays them with personality and self-assurance. The tightness of arm-chairs upon hips is mentioned as a matter-of-fact, not censure. In Wodehouse’s world, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and women are accepted just as they are. This is something former Wodehouse Prize winner, the late Sir Terry Pratchett also excelled at. Pratchett created interesting heroines for all ages, shapes and sizes.
Among modern female writers there is a tendency to create neurotic heroines consumed with aesthetic self-judgement. As a reader, this doesn’t interest me any more than modern moralising about weight and beauty interests me in ‘real-life’. I prefer the Wodehouse-Pratchett view of women as worthy of our interest (and approval) just as they are. But Helen Lederer’s novel sounds like an authentic and funny variation on an otherwise tiresome theme.
Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party by Alexander McCall Smith
This novella tells the story of wealthy American tourist, ‘Fatty’ O’Leary’s, visit to Ireland — home of his ancestors. It’s a holiday in which just about everything that could go wrong, does.
I’ve done the dutiful thing and purchased this prize-winning book, but with reservations. I didn’t enjoy the previous McCall Smith I tried — The Sunday Philosophy Club. It’s a great title, but I found the central character, Isabel Dalhousie, a terrible snob (she dislikes one character on the grounds of the university he attended and the colour of his trousers). Wodehouse also created snobbish characters for us to laugh at, but I wasn’t entirely sure whether McCall Smith’s heroine was intentionally flawed, or if her judgmental views reflected those of the author.
Putting this experience aside, I will approach Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party with an open mind, in knowledge that this book impressed the Wodehouse Prize judges. McCall Smith is certainly the most established and prolific author in the shortlist, with a large international audience (that includes my own mother). So I’m hopeful of finding much to like in Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party.
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe
Another semi-autobiographical novel from a female writer (should I be rethinking my own comic writing along similar lines?). Man at the Helm is a tale of two sisters trying to find a man for their mother. In a glowing review for The Guardian, Kate Kellaway describes Stibbe’s ‘eye and ear for the absurd’ — something very much in the Wodehouse tradition. Like everything else on the list , this isn’t something I would gravitate towards in a bookstore. I don’t tell you this to pooh-pooh the books, but rather to make you aware this isn’t a genre I’m familiar with — so you can assess my response accordingly. I am happy to read beyond my usual preferences and perhaps discover new favorites. Nina Stibbe could well prove to be one of them.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
“I was like the dog with the empty bladder that nonetheless goes from tree to tree, stopping at each one to cock his leg in vain”.
For Joseph O’Neill’s sake, I hope The Dog is not semi- autobiographical, although similarities with his previous novel Netherland might cause people to wonder. The Dog‘s unnamed narrator is a Swiss-American lawyer working in Dubai for an obscenely rich family. He’s a keen observer of social media, but his Linked In profile probably doesn’t tell you that his hobbies include frequenting prostitutes and bemoaning the failure of his last relationship. It’s a long way from Wodehouse, and definitely involves humour of another kind.
Max Liu, in a review for The Independent , says:
“He articulates a kind of business class existentialism, which is difficult to get excited about, and The Dog is composed of deliberately convoluted sentences which thwart the reader’s absorption.”
But one man’s idea of ‘convoluted’ inevitably signals ‘literary merit’ to another. The Dog was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, making it the most literary entrant in this year’s shortlist. It’s also the hardest to summarise without reading the dashed thing (which, on balance, I’m not inclined to do). Some reviewers find it eye-gougingly dull. The Times review quoted on the cover calls it ‘brutal’ and ‘witty’. Comparisons are made with Kafka, Bret Easton Ellis and Nick Hornby. Others consider O’Neill among a modern literary elite, too high for appreciation by the common reader. It may be all those things, but I’m as common as muck so I’ll be giving this one a miss.
A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh
Wodehouse famously never wrote about sex, but A Decent Ride is the third shortlisted book to come with a warning to Wodehouse fans about sexually explicit content — and I don’t mean a bit of bedroom farce. But while modern comedy writing has ‘progressed’ sexually, it seems to have also to taken a great leap backwards in quality. According to Stuart Kelly’s review in The Guardian, ‘A Decent Ride by Irvine Welsh review –poor writing and penis jokes’:
Given that it features incest, rape, grave desecration, necrophilia and one character filling a terminally ill man’s saline drip with urine and semen, it is curious that the most shocking thing about Irvine Welsh’s new novel, A Decent Ride, is that it was published at all.
I’m reasonably broadminded, and I don’t mind the judges challenging our ideas of comedy writing, but Decent Ride definitely isn’t for me.
What do you think?
It’s a thought provoking, thoroughly modern short-list. There is no escapist or comic fantasy, with the death of Terry Pratchett leaving a gaping hole in that area. As good as some of these shortlisted novels undoubtedly are, there’s nothing much to remind the modern Wodehouse reader of Wodehouse. Is the Wodehouse tradition at an end? I hope not.
If you’ve read any of the shortlisted books or, like me, have the temerity (if that’s the word I want, Jeeves) to discuss them without having bothered — I’d love to know what you think.
My reviews of Wodehouse Prize winning and shortlisted authors occasionally appear at Plumtopia. I’d be happy to share yours here too.