Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between


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Based on a true story

This tiger is real and would probably bite you.

A real tiger (not CGI)

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen. Continue reading


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Franzen, a correction

An old typewriter

Not so good for producing e-books

Oh dear, according to Jonathan Franzen we are imperilled by ebooksHe is not the first to fret about Kindles, and won’t be the last. It’s not a great surprise that most of the internet appears to disagree with him: presumably those who do agree have followed his example of sealing up their ethernet ports.

It is entirely Franzen’s own business to not like ebooks, and as a recent Kindle-purchaser I can see that both formats have pros and cons. But just as in science we should run at great speed away from arguments of personal incredulity, when highly esteemed writer types make pronouncements we should remember, as Christopher Hitchens would have it, that they too are mammals. The problem with Franzen’s utterances is not that he dislikes ebooks, but more a sort of misunderstanding of what an ebook is and how it behaves in the wild. Continue reading


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No face like Holmes

Sidney Paget’s Holmes (1904)

Adaptations of iconic literary characters tread a fine line – too loyal and they seem staid and pointless, too radical and you lose the ‘fanbase’ (as they wouldn’t have said in 1886). If you want to be a purist, you can turn off the telly and get all the books essentially free on Kindle – and you’ll find that even Conan Doyle had trouble on occasion keeping up with his own continuity. And Holmes soaks up the spirit of the age and the preoccupations of his interpreters. After all, Basil Rathbone, one of the best known Holmes, spent a lot of his time fighting Nazis. Continue reading