By Stuart Sharp
Since this month is such an enjoyment of knowledge in all its written forms, this seemed like a good moment to celebrate sheer, unadulterated cleverness. In a world of books increasingly dominated by dumbed down nonsense thrown together to tie in with big names and film releases, it’s nice to know that there are still some writers out there unashamed to be unfeasibly brainy. It might have got them bullied at school, but here it nets them respect, not to mention the opportunity to feel slightly smug. So, with that in mind, I present to you my Literary Brainbox Awards. You’ll just have to trust that I’m wearing a suitably spangly jacket.
The ‘And They Still Find Time to Write’ Award
There are, of course, those such as J.K. Rowling who’ve managed to come out with books while struggling along with life, kids, jobs and who knows what else. Those efforts should certainly be recognised, but probably have more to do with good time management and commitment than out and out cleverness.
What we’re looking for instead is a good, old fashioned polymath. Someone who manages to excel in other fields while still finding time, not just to write, but to write with the sort of underlying cleverness that seems almost designed to invite envy. Since it’s me doing the choosing, there’s really only ever going to be one winner of this. Step forward Stephen Fry- Comedian, Actor, Presenter, and also the author, not just of great non-fiction like his Incomplete and Utter History of Classical Music and The Ode Less Travelled, but also wonderful works of literary fiction such as The Liar, Making History, and The Hippopotamus. Envious, me? Well, maybe a bit.
The ‘Inexplicable Maximization of Polysyllabic Linguistics’ Award
Otherwise known as throwing in obscure words for the sake of it. There’s a case for just sticking a pin in a pile of poetry books and calling whatever it comes out with the winner. However, that sort of approach might be seen as an attack on the sort of love of language that should be at the heart of good poetry, and is also contrary to the spirit of celebrating cleverness that I’m looking for here. Besides, the only pile of poetry books close at hand is out from the library, and I doubt they’d appreciate pinholes in them.
That means this one’s going to have to go to another of my favourite writers, Gideon Haigh. From The Big Ship to The Summer Game, his exquisitely researched pieces float along nicely before suddenly presenting the sort of word that leaves even those of us who’ve read the poetry books reaching for a dictionary. And then for a bigger dictionary, because the word in question isn’t in the Collins Gem one nearby. The best bit is that this is not a man showing off, or rubbing in the fact that he knows something you don’t. Rather, the occasional baffler comes completely naturally, with the apparently sincere belief that everyone will know exactly what he means.
The ‘You’re Going to Learn About This Whether You Want to or Not’ Award
Of course, there are some writers who know that you can’t possibly know exactly what they mean, because their books are on such obscure areas of knowledge. As such, they know that they’re going to have to enlighten you.
I’m not talking about non-fiction here, though it’s easy enough to find books things that the average person hasn’t even heard of with even a brief searches. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on those authors whose fiction pulls in obscure areas of knowledge, and who then have to find ways of explaining them while still treating them as completely normal areas of the background. Historical fiction is an obvious example, since the author can’t necessarily rely on you knowing all about their favourite period, while crime fiction is another. Consequently, I’m calling this one as a draw between Paul Dougherty and Kathy Reichs.
In books like Murder’s Immortal Mask, Dougherty’s depictions of ancient civilizations make full use of his training as an historian to complete the background to his mysteries, while thanks to Reichs I now know rather more about the decomposition of the human body than I ever really wanted to. Since I’m also an historian, Dougherty would have just shaded this one except for him being a little less subtle in the explanations, particularly with his annoying habit of stalling sentences to reddere verbum Latinus, or translate Latin words. Annoying, isn’t it? As it is, a tie seems fair.
The ‘Strange Allusions’ Award
While there’s a temptation to go for Shakespeare at this point, or possibly Byron, I’d like to think that there have been writers a little closer to our own time who have managed to cram their work full of clever references. The obvious candidate is Terry Pratchett, with so many twisted variations on elements from our own world in his Discworld that he has on occasion had to remind people that not everything in his books is supposed to be one. There is, however, a writer who goes even further. I mean, of course, Jasper Fforde, who has managed to build his books around parodies of literature, legend and nursery rhyme while still producing clever, inventive mysteries. Since novels like the Eyre Affair and The Fourth Bear are crammed with exactly the sort of references that might have been designed with the readers of this zine in mind, it seems only natural to make him the winner.
The ‘Smartening Up’ Award
Which leaves us with only one more to pick, and in some ways it’s the most important category, because it’s the one that fights most directly against the tide of dumbing down so prevalent in modern literature.
There are, undoubtedly, a lot of very clever writers out there, demanding a lot of their audiences, but for this ‘Smartening Up’ award, I’m looking for something slightly different. I’m looking for someone who has taken an undemanding, relatively simple story and re-written it with more social commentary, more politics, deeper characterisation, and a more complex plot.
I’m looking, in short, for Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, which has taken the frankly two dimensional world of the Wizard of Oz and turned it into something nuanced, layered, and deeply relevant. That seems, to me at least, like a very clever thing to do indeed.