Hell in Contemporary Literature

J.C., who writes the N.B. column on the back page of the TLS, is renowned for his wicked, witty and acerbic sense of humour. So it was with some suspicion that, in reading through back issues of the supplement recently, I approached his coverage of 'the Nicholas Mosley Award for the most inadvisable book title of 2007-08'. Sure enough, Googling its title only brings up another blogger's speculation as to the award's existence, which looks almost certainly to be one of J.C.'s inventions. What's best about the whole thing, however, is the seemingly unlikely titles of the award's shortlisted contenders, including Foreskin's Lament: A memoir by Shalom Auslander, Shut Up He Explained by John Metcalf, and Random Deaths and Custard by Catrin Dafydd, with previous winners including How To Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer and Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn.

Too ridiculous to believe? Well, though the award may not, all of these books do actually exist. No, seriously. Go and check for yourself. Foreskin's Lament is a real - and assumedly quite gritty - memoir, recounting a boy's upbringing in an 'ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York' and, in adult life, his deliberating as to whether or not he should have his son circumcised. Random Deaths and Custard, on the other hand, is a much more lighthearted affair: a novel that centres around a young woman who lives in Wales, works for a custard factory which is, you guessed it, imaginatively called Custard's, and whom everyone thinks is a lesbian. Oh yes. You can't make this stuff up. Although, at least in the latter case, apparently you can.

For me though, the icing on the thoroughly bizarre cake was J.C.'s mention of a little textbook called Hell in Contemporary Literature, an entry that, along with Steve Penfold's The Donut: A Canadian History, was unfortunately 'considered by the judges but fell at the last hurdle'. As it goes, Hell in Contemporary Literature, a book which 'addresses the subject of 'Hell' as a trope problematically deployed in contemporary reportage of terrorism and acts of war', is in fact by a former university lecturer of mine, Rachel Falconer. Whilst an undoubtedly interesting textbook, then, it just goes to show that becoming enveloped in any writerly project to the detriment of obtaining good critical distance can often produce, if nothing else, some hilarious results.


BarbaraS said...

I always seem to be saying two maxims: 'you can't make these things up,' and 'it's a very small world.'

I guess you've filed this under 'strange, but true,' as well ;)

Matt Merritt said...

That How To Shit In The Woods title has just reminded me - while browsing one of the many bookstalls at the Birdfair over the weekend, I came across a book with the splendid title Who Shat That? It's a (deadly serious) guide to animal droppings. I've asked them to send it to me for review.

Matt Merritt said...

Sorry, that should have been What Shat That, which is obviously even better!

assassin437 said...

A friend very recently bought me both Foreskin's Lament and 'Beware of God', which is a selection of short stories by Auslander. It's the Jewish thing - I'm a Jew, he's a Jew, therefore (somehow), we're identical qua literary inclinations. I didn't press the issue - free books are free books.

Currently mired in a fairly extensive (yet impressively almost content-free) fantasy series, I haven't been able to muster the energy to attack the Lament yet. I did, however, read Beware of God over an evening or two, and would heartily recommend it. One of the stories (very slightly edited) is online here:


It loses a little in web formatting, but is still very much worth a read. The rest of the collection is always intriguing and entertaining. Most enjoyably though, it offered up more than one gentle insight into the conflicts thrown up by rebellion against such a deeply ingrained way of life as religious orthodoxy. Even when the moral of the story seemed almost invidious, there was always something more behind it than simple bitterness or acerbity. Highly recommended.

(By me, admittedly, which I know isn't saying much. But highly recommended nonethless.)

Ms Baroqur said...

Not sure I like this "most inadvisable" thing. Surely these books titles were chosen for their humorous qualities? Shalom Auslander is a humourist, a very funny writer; the whole category sounds a bit patronising, as if he hadn;t realised what his title sounded like. It's clearly a play on Portnoy's Complaint.

Most of the titles listed are long-established jokes (Shut Up He Explained) or plays on words. Heaven forfend someone should make a funny title for their book.

Eh, I don't know!

Ben Wilkinson said...

Thanks for your comments, Ms Baroque.

First off - I should say that I wasn't aware that Auslander was a humourist. I also hadn't noticed the riff on the Roth. Looking back, I agree that Shut Up He Explained isn't half bad either. And I've nothing against funny books (Do Ants Have Arseholes sits on my desk as I write this). Clearly, then, J.C. hadn't done his research, and shame on me for trusting that he would have...

However, I think some of these titles are unintentionally hilarious. Hell in Contemporary Literature, for example, is a heavy-going and serious enough academic text book. Also, though I haven't read Random Deaths and Custard, the synopsis on Amazon makes it sound like its plot is trying so hard to be funny it can't possibly be. Not an ill-advised title, then, but an ill-advised concept from its very beginnings (I could be totally wrong here, but it really does sound quite cringeworthy...) As for How to Shit in Woods, well... that just seems like a book that really didn't need to be written. Unless there's a whole load to crapping outdoors that I'm blissfully unaware of...



Ben Wilkinson said...

Matt - What Shat That is priceless. Love it.

Sam - good to see you wandering about these parts.