Wednesday, January 28, 2009

thick herberts - DJ Taylor on Football Fiction

DJ Taylor is a critic, novelist, biographer and most recent hero of thesimplestgame. He received the 2003 Whitbread Biography Award for his work on George Orwell and contributes to The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, New Statesman and The Spectator among others. Importantly he’s published a football fiction novel called English Settlement(1996), a non-fiction work called On The Corinthian Spirit: The Decline of Amateurism In Sport(2006) which is ‘mostly’ about football and penned a rather significant essay about football fiction. Like I say, he’s made a heroic contribution to my PhD without even realizing it. (thanks David). He was even good enough to answer a few questions.

tsg: The Encyclopedia of British Football notes your observation on what it calls ‘the predicament of football writing’. Apparently serious writers avoid the topic of football literature (fiction anyway) because of the often patronising or negative response given to books that try to reverse the trend. Did you know they’d mentioned you? Did you really make such a statement? And could you elaborate on what you meant?

David Taylor: I didn't know about the reference in the Encyclopaedia. I think it refers to an essay I wrote in a short-lived (but very good) book-length soccer biannual called Perfect Pitch (four issues, 1997-8) published in the UK by Headline Review. (tsg will be discussing the essay soon) The piece appeared in the first number (1997) and is called '"Rally round you Havens!": Soccer and the Literary Imagination' and the quote, about why it's so difficult to write convincingly about football, runs:
"Another drawback might be the characteristic inarticulacy of the game's participants, which in fictional terms is the eternal problem of equating the sensibility of the artefact with that of the characters the author has chosen to populate it. Perhaps in the last report this is just a way of saying that novels about soccer tend to be written by educated gentlefolks who have observed the game from afar while the cast of such works will necessarily be thick herberts, and that a certain amount of patronage, or rather distance between writer and raw material, inevitable."

tsg: What motivated you to write English Settlement? Was it a response to your observations about the market?
DT: I wanted to write a satirical state of the nation novel about England in around 1990 and I thought football was a wonderfully symbolic arena to set it in. Also a good background for the plot - an accountant friend once explained that there's no better place to launder money than a big soccer club.

tsg: Ian Plenderleith said good writing about sport avoids action on the field of play as much as possible. Nick Hornby said there's enough drama in football as it is without people needing to make up stories about it. Do you agree with either of them?
DT: Plenderleith not necessarily (see a brilliant novel which is, inter alia, about soccer called From Scenes Like These (1969) by Gordon Williams). Hornby - no with emphasis. There are no off-limits for novelists.

tsg: One of English Settlement’s real strengths lies in how much it allows you to say about England at that time (Thatcher out, Major in). The football seems to provide a window to look at the country. Was this a deliberate ploy? Was it because there were things you had to say? Or did you find that the football wasn’t enough on its own?
DT: If I could boringly quote from the essay mentioned in 1:
“On the face of it, football...ought to provide a perfect subject for fiction. There are several reasons for this, but one of the more obvious is that it involves at least 22 people spending 90 minutes in the same place, leaving aside the pre- and post-match socialising. Another is the game's centrality (along with boxing, pop music and organised crime) to the whole notion of working-class self-advancement, a social phenomenon in which the twentieth-century English novel has occasionally shown some mild interest. Then there is the agreeable, if sometimes faintly insidious, way in which soccer can transform itself into a moral exercise - the rock-like defender humbled by the jinking imp, the non-League club that brings down the Premiership's finest, that whole motivational dynamic of doing one's best against insuperable odds. Finally, and in some ways uniting the previous explanations into a single point of focus, there is the fact that soccer is essentially a romantic activity.”

tsg: You’ve also written about The Corinthians. What do you think it is about football that appeals to you as an author?
DT: I think that this is more or less answered by my response to 2. This was just the time when money was coming into the game in huge amounts - Sky etc, first inklings of the Premiership. Although English Settlement is probably more nostalgic for the old megalomaniac chairman for whom the club is a kind of private fiefdom - Walham is based on the pre-Al-Fayed Fulham, whom I used to watch in the '80s.

tsg: There seems to be a general belief that men prefer reading non-fiction over fiction – it’s been put forward as one of the reasons for the dearth of football fiction. Another theory is that footballers are better at expressing themselves with a ball than a pen, why do you think there is so little fiction about a sport that is so popular?
DT: see the essay again, which is a 20 page discussion of exactly this.

tsg: Do you think (or did you think when you wrote English Settlement that) there’s a defined market for football fiction?
DT: No and (probably) no. English Settlement was the least successful novel I've ever written (though, oddly, it was translated into Italian and won a prize there). I thought the 'literary' audience would take it as a novel, but they were puzzled by the football stuff. I think the football audience was puzzled by the literary stuff.

thesimplestgame would like to thank DJ Taylor for his time, efforts, answers and generosity. We’re particularly grateful for his contribution to the field - academic, non-fiction and literary. It’s about as good as it gets as far as my PhD is concerned.

Unfortunately English Settlement is out of print, but you can still get a copy if you’re lucky. We’ll review it here in the next couple of weeks. It’s worth a look.

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