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The Literary Year: 05 January

Umberto Eco would have reached a decent 89 today had he not died in 2016. Thinking about his 1980 novel, The Name of the Rose, the first adjective that sprung to mind was 'literary'. That gave me pause - what on earth did I mean by that?


As I often do for this sort of thing, I asked my Dearest Partner of Greatness, who isn't just wise but has a degree in publishing, experience working as a copy editor for OUP, and an unnerving habit of cutting me down to size whenever I need it.

'Snobbery' was only her second answer ...

The first was a technical one - there's a difference in book size between literary and 'trade' paperbacks - you probably have a few of these over-sized volumes on your shelves. In fact, she told me about a time when a book was 'downgraded' to trade size because it was so popular; the larger size was less profitable.

Then she accused me of snobbery. And to an extent, that's a fair cop, although I do read plenty of 'trade'.

That out of the way, we had a pretty good discussion. Whilst we discussed style, vocabulary, even length, and tested various texts against those measures, a lot of our decisions boiled down to what I'll call 'interiority'. Literary texts - like The Name of the Rose - spend a lot of time inside the thoughts and emotions of their various protagonists, and seem less focussed on an action-driven plot. That's not to say that nothing much happens in Eco's novel (no-one could describe a series of murders in a monastery as 'nothing much'), but it's rich in the narrator, Adso's, inner experiences even as monks are brutally dying and the very nature of truth and the guardianship of knowledge are fought over around him.

I'm a fan of the 1986 Jeane-Jacques Annaud film, starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater, but oddly, found the recent Giacomo Battiato-directed TV mini-series lacked pace. What did you make of them?


Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955) - the controversial subject matter is countered by Nabakov's dreamy prose, and a thorough exposition of the protagonist's interior life.

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach (2007) - this is short, hardly anything happens, and yet it's devastating. I can't recommend this enough.

As usual, here's a PDF of the resource for anyone interested.

Calendar 0105 U_Eco
Download PDF • 109KB

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