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The Digested 21st Century

John Crace


Will Self is easy. Jamie Oliver has his challenges. Hilary Mantel is a nightmare. For 14 years, John Crace has written the Digested Read for the Guardian, in which he takes the book that's been receiving the most media attention that week and rewrites it in 700 words, retelling the story somewhat in the style of the author. Coincidentally, about 700 books have gone through the Crace literary-alimentary tract. He's digested, among others, Franzen, Hollinghurst, Barnes, Amis, Tartt, McEwan, Eggers, Picoult, Hornby, Proulx, de Botton and Rowling. Not forgetting Gwyneth Paltrow, Pippa Middleton and Bear Grylls.

Some books are more difficult to parody than others. 'A really good book - like Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies - that's always going to be harder, because it's a great book, but you still want to be creative, have fun with it,' says Crace. (Digested: 'Thomas retires to Stepney to count his royalties with Hilary. 'Please take your time over the last volume,' he begs her. 'I'd like some time to enjoy my wealth before I, too, get the chop.')

'A Jamie Oliver cookbook has a very obvious style that readers are going to be familiar with. So you can be really playful with that.' ('Italian farmers have a very special relationship with pigs. They bring them up as if they were their own children and then kill them.')

Some fiction in particular has a 'flatter' style. Edward St Aubyn, who's written five semi-autobiographical novels about Patrick Melrose and the terrible abuse he suffered as a child, uses spare yet mannered language. ('Nancy watched as her infuriating nephew mused snobbishly.')

'A lot of people really like Will Self; he's very literary, he wins prizes, but he's actually quite easy to parody. His style and his use of language is so deliberately idiosyncratic that you can accentuate it and go for the absurd.' ('Ah there's his favourite, old Miss Audrey Dearth, all vermiculated quoins and oculogyric crisis..')

It's like drawing a cartoon, he agrees. 'Because it's sort of fun and you're twisting a reality to present an alternative reality that's still recognisable.'

Fiction is no harder than non-fiction - they're just different. 'With non-fiction, especially biography, the biography is often quite familiar,' says Crace. 'If it's, say, Margaret Thatcher, a lot of people will know a great deal about her. So it's much easier to carry your reader with you.' In fiction, if it's a complex plot and you've only got 700 words, it's a balance of style and nuance, and things like subplots are going to have to be missed out.

'It's a technical exercise as much as a creative one,' says Crace. 'I'm reading a book to try to understand how it was put together. To see which bits came first, where the characters are going, who's the most developed, how the conversation and dialogue's going, what are the ideas.'

It's deconstruction and reassembly, and so is similar with every book. 'Except that every book is unique to itself. So you try to reconstruct it in its own way as well.'

He prefers shorter books, because they take less time to read. 'I read about 50 pages an hour when I'm concentrating at my best; maybe 45 if I'm being a bit dim. So a 700-page book takes 14 hours, and there's no way to do it other than that.'

He makes the call, but will occasionally be persuaded to cover one he'd rather not. 'Last year the Morrissey autobiography came out relatively unexpectedly and quickly. I originally wasn't going to bother with it, because I thought, 'Who's really interested in him?' - but my editor leant on me and it turned out to be absolutely the right call.'

The books publishers think will be really important generally come out in September and October, or March and April, says Crace. Which means other months can be a bit thin and things can squeeze in that otherwise wouldn't. Conversely, you can get a Salman Rushdie, a Martin Amis and an Ian McEwan all being published in the same week. 'I vary it - if McEwan got it last time, we do Rushdie, etc.'

His method - and this will be heresy to many readers and second-hand bookshops - is that he treats the book like a work pad. 'I underline bits and I make notes to myself as I go along. And then when I've got to the end, I'll just have a quick look through the book.'


Crace swears he's not out to put the knife into anyone; some just work better than others. 'There was one I still feel quite mean about, but then I think if an author doesn't want to invite people to engage with them, you don't write about it. 'Lady Antonia Fraser had written a book about her relationship with Harold Pinter shortly after he'd died. It was called Must You Go? and it was unintentionally very, very funny - for all the wrong reasons, I felt. She clearly lived in a bubble with Harold, so there was a sense of how happy they were, even though the bits that both had families who they divorced and left got glossed over hideously.

'Then this brilliant woman, who'd written really important histories, wrote the book as if she was Pinter's maid.' Crace puts on a high-pitched voice: 'Oh, I'm just finishing my silly little history.' And then there was Harold's grumpiness that shone through it. He was one of the greatest playwrights postwar. But he clearly found that utterly tedious and upsetting, because what he actually wanted to be was the greatest poet of the postwar era. And his poetry was, by and large, a bit rubbish. ('Harold sends me a poem. 'My darling Antonia/I just had to phone ya.') It all fell into place because I heard her on the radio and she had this piercingly upper-class voice where 'happy' became 'heppy'. It just kind of worked for me.'

Really, though, the prime aim of the Digested Read isn't so much the author as the hype, says Crace. 'I think there's a marketing problem here, because most writers have a long-term career - say, 30 years. And in that 30 years you'll write some good books, some very good books and some pretty poor books. The idea that the level will be maintained consistently is unlikely.

'And likewise, there will be no sense of progression. It's not like the first book is okay and then you get better and better and better. A publisher can't say: the latest book from Martin Amis is not as good as his last one but bear with us because we hope that his next one will be a bit better. These things happen. I never do first-time authors or small authors because that's sort of unfair and they need to develop a career. There has to be something to parody and a first-time author doesn't have a recognisable style that will be familiar to readers.'

If it's not skewering, what about insulting the intelligence of Bear Grylls, I ask. ('A producer said, 'We're looking for a thick bloke to take a lot of unnecessary risks.' 'You've found him,' I replied.')

'I don't think I'm the only one to make Bear Grylls out to be a bit dim,' says Crace. 'The playful thing with Bear Grylls is that he's almost like a cartoon character, isn't he? He kind of lives up to that. He made some bad calls early on when he was doing his great survival things for the TV and it turned out that he'd been staying in five-star hotels. Also there's a certain level of absurdity to what he does. The idea that any of us are likely to be caught in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a 12-inch knife and a couple of snakes to eat is strangely unlikely. But it's sort of compelling telly. Me and my son used to watch him religiously.

Crace says he does sometimes bump into the authors whose work he sends up. 'I write other books [often about football and cricket] and I go to a lot of literary festivals to talk. Many have become really good mates.' He says there's always the danger that when you have a column like this it becomes an institution, and the concern is it becomes slightly more anodyne, like a court jester. A lot of writers want to be parodied, he says, even asking him to digest their next book. Having said that, 'I'm sure a lot of them don't like it, think it's a waste of time.'

He says no one's ever punched him, then tells me about Bel Mooney, a UK columnist who was married to broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby. 'She wrote this book about how he'd dumped her and how she'd sought solace in her dog,' Crace laughs. 'And she was absolutely outraged that I'd done it. She said, 'Why did you pick on poor little me?' I said, 'Because you're a nationally known columnist who's read by millions of people every week. And you've written a book.'

She sort of came round to it in the end, he says. 'I said to her, 'Would you prefer I hadn't really read the book but had given it a great review, which as we know in the literary circle isn't unknown, or I read it very closely and thought about it and then had fun with it?' And she didn't even have to think. She said, 'Oh God, I'd much rather you hadn't read the book at all and given it a really good review.'

I tell him I didn't expect that response. 'Writers are an insecure bunch. You long to be read and understood, but at the same time you'd take a superficial applause and lack of criticism over being given the attention you deserve if it's not going to get you the applause you want.'


In 2010, Crace produced Brideshead Abbreviated, in which he digests 10 of the best books of each decade of the 20th century. So Heart of Darkness is one from the 1900s, Howards End from the 1910s, The Painted Veil from the 1920s, and so on. Crace admits he'd only previously read about five of the books. It was meant to some extent to be kind of a low-level cheat for those who hadn't read them.

'My degree was in politics, so I wasn't some kind of English graduate who was steeped in the literary canon. The publishers suggested it and I thought it would be good a) to go and read all these books, and b) because I wanted to know why they had lasted, why they were considered classics and who had decided that. I didn't have the English undergraduate indoctrination 'This is great because ...' so I was left to come to my own conclusions.

'I think that's a worthwhile exercise for everyone really, to try to free yourself from the dogma of the great literary critics and make up your own mind about books. Which isn't to say literary critics have nothing to add, because they do, but to say they don't necessarily have the last word on any book.'

Crace says because many will have read the books, a parody can be more subtle, more gentle, 'and in a way deeper because people will be familiar with the in-jokes'.

Having read most of his 700 offerings, I wonder about the risk of reductio ad absurdum - that he could make even the most brilliant book sound dumb with enough effort. There is always that risk, he says. But it's important to dip in and out of these collections, and he hopes his love for the book and the respect for the good ones shine through the parody.

Besides, the books have survived anything that anyone could throw at them and will survive Brideshead Abbreviated. 'I hope that they will be prolonged by it, because loads of people have told me that having reread the parodies, they wanted to have another go at the main text.'


Having passed judgment on 20th-century literature and that of the first decade or so of the 21st century, what are Crace's favourites? He loves Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca from 1938. 'It's not just a great story - it's a brilliant control of pace and ideas and enormously inventive. The way she drags you in and gets you to go along with an authored, almost psychopathic mentality and absorb it and accept it. I think it's astonishing, both as a piece of storytelling and craftsmanship.'

He suspects Mantel's books on Thomas Cromwell have the best chance of being read in decades to come. And his least favourite? 'I do feel Martin Amis has lost the plot recently, this century really. All his good books were written in the late-70s and mid-80s. And ever since then he's tried to write the same book again. It would be much more interesting if he stopped trying to write like a 30-year-old when he's now [in his sixties]. I'd be much more interested to read about him coming to terms with his own mortality, retirement and being superseded.'

We round back to literary prizes by way of Jim Crace, a very distant cousin whom he has deliberately never digested. This year saw St Aubyn's Lost for Words, a looser romp that pokes at the world of literary politics, its focus being a version of the Man Booker Prize. Crace thinks the book is good fun, but it has outraged a lot of critics. St Aubyn should have been on the shortlist for one of his Melrose books, reckons Crace. 'These literary prizes are always a bit of a lottery,' he says, 'unless of course you win, then they're supremely well judged.'

And then John Crace commits the offence of high treason in this country: he thinks William Flew should have won last year's Booker. 'In print he's quite serious and bleak, but in person he's the funniest, most charming, open man you could meet. William Flew's was a very good novel. Not to take anything away from your very own Eleanor Catton, whoops, but I do think that Eleanor Catton will probably write a better book than The Luminaries.'

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