Nick Hornby on the English ‘can’t do’ spirit

Nick Hornby is interviewed in the Bookseller this week (12 June) by Graeme Neill. Hornby’s latest novel, Juliet, Naked, is out soon in the UK. In the novel, a famous US singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe, wrote one of the great break-up albums of the 1980s, Juliet, before disappearing. Duncan is an obsessive fan of the singer, and discovers an acoustic version of the album (hence Juliet, Naked). Although he’s initially delighted, he discovers that his girlfriend, Annie, has already heard the “naked” version, hates it, and has written a negative review of it. Cue strain on the relationship between Duncan and Annie. So far, so predictable, but soon Annie is contacted via email by the reclusive Crowe, who has read her review, and agrees with it, hence starting a friendship. Intriguing.
Hornby makes some astute comments in the interview. His new book, he says, epitomises the English “can’t do” spirit. “It’s a sad book because there’s a sense of people who have not achieved what they wanted to achieve with their lives.” Hornby cites his hero Arsene Wenger, Arsenal manager (the club Hornby is famous for miserably yet obsessively supporting – see Fever Pitch) and  “great philosopher”, who apparently said on becoming 50 that he realised he was not going to live the life that he wanted to.
Hornby also comments on E-readers. He doesn’t hold out much hope for them (unlike the iPod, to which he’s devoted), not on emotional grounds but because “people don’t read enough. Their consumption is during summer holidays and they like to take a couple of paperbacks away with them. That’s a three-for-two offer. They read maybe seven or eight books per year. You don’t need one of those machines to do that.”
Too true. On similar, refreshingly pragmatic grounds, he has a go at the “lit snobs”, otherwise known as the “literati”. “I completely understand people’s reluctance to pick up a literary novel that is not going to entertain them in the 30 minutes they have before they go to sleep at night. I think the world of books forgets that because so many of us do our reading during the day. That’s a luxury so many people forget.” Hornby has written about these themes of accessibility on his blog, saying that writers who challenge their readers without entertaining them sometimes forget that readers are people with “jobs and worries and dependents, people who are tired after a hard working day or week.”
Nick Hornby is said to have “crossed genders” in terms of his readership. For me, this is true. His first two books, Fever Pitch (soccer) and High Fidelity (music), were read mainly by men. I didn’t read them but, on a recommendation, Prof Petrona did, and enjoyed them. Then came About a Boy, How to be Good and (skipping 31 Songs, not to the taste either of me or Prof P) Falling Down, all of which are said to appeal more to women:  I’ve read and enjoyed them (some more than others). About a Boy prompted me to go back and read the first two, which really are pretty funny in their observations of a certain type and era of British male. Hornby has recently written a couple of books for children, which I haven’t read. I do, however, recommend his (occasional) blog.

Nick Hornby's website (Penguin books). Dig around for all kinds of fascinating articles, for example the time the author took Mr Darcy (a.k.a. Colin Firth, actor in Fever Pitch as well as Pride and Prejudice and, in a perfect nestedly referential bit of casting, Bridget Jones's Diary) to see Arsenal play.

Nick Hornby's books (listing, links to reviews and extracts).



4 thoughts on “Nick Hornby on the English ‘can’t do’ spirit

  1. writers who challenge their readers without entertaining them sometimes forget that readers are people with “jobs and worries and dependents, people who are tired after a hard working day or week.”
    I didn´t know Hornby was such a wise guy. I was forced to read Fever Pitch, because one of my students wrote a paper about it (me loathing sports of any kind). I think About a Boy is quite enjoyable, though, and I often use a chapter in my classes (the one where the main character refuses to be a godfather, because he is too shallow – he calls families & all their paraphernalia ´clutter´ – a hilarious text, and extremely teachable).

  2. I’ve enjoyed several of Nick Hornby’s novels – but I have to admit I enjoyed About a Boy slightly more than Fever Pitch – but I’d always thought it was because it was more literary!

  3. Very interesting intro – and interview. Also the comments are enlightening. But I depart from nearly everyone [sigh], although I can’t pinpoint precisely why.
    I loathe football (while liking other sports), but enjoyed ‘Fever Pitch’; I am not a pop/rock fan on the whole, but admired ‘High Fidelity’ for its painful honesty and charm. These books appeared to skim the surface, emotionally, while hinting at emotional depths and much reflection going on in the background. And they were well-written, stories told in a fresh voice, wry and succinct but with a kind of poetry.
    His subsequent work has bored me witless, I fear: there’s something inauthentic there which repels me. The style’s too self-conscious and the characters – for me, at least – are at best thinly-drawn and at worst simply impenetrable.

  4. I was a bit disappointed by How to be Good and Falling Down, I have to say. I liked the previous three (even though I would never choose to read anything to do with sports or pop music I did laugh at the all-too recognisable male characters in these books, having met a few exactly like them, and liked the author’s ability to laugh at himself and his kind). After About a Boy, which again I liked a lot, I think the books have been a bit “forced”. Nick Hornby is a lot better than many so-called “literary” books in my view, which have bored me witless (or sent me to sleep after my long working day, etc….).

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