Tom McCarthy’s ‘C’ and the rise of previosity

So I spent a week of my holidays sitting in and outside a gîte in Brittany reading Tom McCarthy’s ‘C’, which I had rushed out and bought largely on account of the amount of buzz around it on various blogs in the week or so before its emergence onto the Man Booker long list.

It occurred to me that one way in which blogs – and tweets – are changing the book world is the way that commentary around a book starts to flitter and fly, in sometimes gossipy, allusive form, before it’s even published, and reviewed in the mainstream media.

Do newspapers keep to an embargo, implicit or explicit, which bloggers are happy to ignore? Do publishers (or their marketing departments) even encourage this split in the coverage, for the way the blog- and Twitter-based content creates a kind of anticipation prior to the book’s release, and the ‘official’ verdict of the mainstream reviewers?

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just pointing out how aware I became of it over the summer, especially through the web coverage of ‘C’ (which, after all, is exactly the kind of book to appeal to readers of the more literate book blogs). It occurred to me, too, that ‘previosity’ is more and more a feature of the books world. After all, when ‘C’ and ‘Room’ were longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker, neither of them were actually published (although granted it was only a matter of days before they were).

This reminded me of when ‘Brick Lane’ and ‘Politics’ won their authors inclusion of the Granta 2003 ‘Best of Young British Novelists’ list, despite the fact that those books, too, were read by the judges in manuscript form only. Similarly, The New Yorker’s ’20 Under 40’ had Tea Obrecht, for ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ (published next Spring) and The Telegraph’s British ’20 Under 40’ had Anjali Joseph’s ‘Saraswati Park’. It seems like an awards list just isn’t an awards list, these days, unless it includes someone that the reading public can’t yet get their unwashed hands on.

It’s a bit like when you listen (or used to listen) to the radio and the DJ would play ‘the new single’ by so-and-so, which they’d then announce wouldn’t be out to buy for another four or five weeks – by which time, presumably, everyone would be heartily sick of it. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to the Radioheads and Pynchons of this world, who are quite happy to just drop new product on us announced.

Both Radiohead (in ‘Kid A’ mode) and Pynchon, of course, being perfectly good ways of returning this blog back to the subject of ‘C’, seeing as it shares with the former their glitchy intellectualism, and with the latter his paranoid sensibility, that sees everything linking to everything. The song from the musical comedy ‘The Amazonians’, excerpted on page 204, is simply the most obvious homage to Pynchon’s style:

Oh, of Thracian and Spartan,
Of suits tweed and tartan
We’ve all had our fill. (How much more can we kill?)

I enjoyed reading ‘C’, but decreasingly. Far and away the best section, I found, was the second, ‘Chute’, detailing Serge Carrefax’s exploits in the First World War. I loved McCarthy’s use of the ellipsis, as mentioned by Ben Jeffrey’s in his review in the TLS:

The predominant stylistic tic in C is Serge letting his imagination run outwards towards [the patterns of the larger, impersonal systems around him], envisioning them in rhythmic detail, before trailing off with an ellipsis.

I took to noting these down as I was reading the book, and in fact I can’t remember having made more notes for a book I wasn’t reviewing in a long time. John Self says something similar in his review on Asylum:

(I was forever scribbling in the margins of my copy, and I don’t pretend to have unpacked more than a fraction of its significance)

I made the mistake though of writing my notes in my notebook. A mistake because, as with all true paranoid systems, ‘C’ never breaks out of its own text. It’s a book that would bear endless near-re-reading, I think, and would keep giving more and more, but all that it gives, in the end of that endless reading, refers only to itself. Not, as in great novels, to the lived, experienced world.

So, enjoyably disappointed. Stimulated, but unmoved.

For a more forthright critique of ‘C’, try Aiden Cale’s Terror Fabulous blog:

Not only is the term [experimental] alienating, it’s inaccurate: ‘experimental’ implies cutting-edge, and the experiments performed in C were completed in the forties- he’s formulating general relativity when he could be discovering the Higgs-Boson.


  1. John Self

    I think there’s some truth to what you say about ‘previosity’. I try to avoid it and never put up reviews before publication date. When I started my blog I did do this occasionally, driven by a combination of excitement and vanity, but I quickly realised that there’s not much fun in talking about a book when nobody else can respond because they haven’t read it yet. As a result I sometimes hold a review for five or six months before publishing it, if the proof was sent really early and I couldn’t wait to read it.

    I do however mention books I’m reading on Twitter, and will give an occasional thumbs up or down comment (eg with my current read, the much-vaunted Freedom by Jonathan Franzen) which is a sort of pre-publication review, I suppose, but not one that many people take note of. Publishers certainly, in my experience anyway, don’t collude in ‘previosity’ – the premature blogger’s favourite argument, of “building pre-publication buzz”, doesn’t really wash with them, as they know something reviewed a month or more before publication will be forgotten a week or two later. They’re much more interested in making the book unavoidable in the week or two after publication, and would much prefer to have everyone posting reviews at around the same time. I know of at least one publisher who asked a blogger to take an early review down (which they did, presumably fearful that they wouldn’t get any early copies in future).

    Typically in fact, newspapers are quicker to break embargoes than bloggers – albeit only by a couple of weeks at most. They, I suppose, know that publishers can’t afford to cut them out of the review copy supply chain, unlike individual bloggers.

    • John Self

      Btw I clicked the link to Terror Fabulous but was unenjoyably disappointed: he doesn’t seem to offer a critique of the book but a critique of its publication, and there’s an unattractive sneering tone to the whole first paragraph.

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