“A slightly shambolic dandy” is how journalist Elizabeth Grice described novelist Alexander McCall Smith in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. Shambolic works to some degree, but dandy? That’s not quite how I would describe him after tonight’s literary event in which he “conversed” with Colin Steele, retired university librarian, long-term bibliophile, and reviewer for The Canberra Times. A better description for the man we saw is, I think, “rumpled and witty literary maharaja” used by Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books blog – though, can a Scot be a maharaja?
I have by no means read all, or even nearly all, of McCall Smith’s works. In fact, I have only read the books in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It has become a family tradition to read the next book in this series during our annual week at the coast. This year’s book, therefore, will be Tea-time for the traditionally built. I am not a reader of series and indeed I can’t recollect any other books-in-series that I have read in my now rather protracted adult life. So, why have I made an exception for these books? One reason is the tradition: having a family reading tradition like this is special. But it is also about the warmth and spirit of generosity conveyed in the books. McCall Smith says that he is often criticised for his “cosy” and positive view of the world but he argues that it is “philosophically defensible” to write about positive things. There is harshness and bleakness in the world, he said, and literature “must reflect” that, but it doesn’t have to do that exclusively. Fair enough – and so, while my general preference is for more provocative reads, I do enjoy Mma Ramotswe and I admire McCall Smith for his beliefs and his commitment to putting them into practice.
One of the reasons readers like to attend literary events is to find out something about an author’s writing philosophy and/or reason for writing and/or writing process. We got some of this from McCall Smith, albeit mostly presented through humorous stories than through theoretical pontification. Take, for example, his discussion of how he started the Detective Agency books. He said he didn’t really know what business Mma Ramotswe was going to start when he began the first story. She might just as easily, for example, have started a dry-cleaning business – and he then proceeded to suggest that “the dry-cleaning novel hasn’t come into its own yet” and that here was a niche for the taking that could perhaps replace the vampire novel!
He is, you can see, a funny man. He told us many stories, but I’ll end here with just one more. He spoke in praise of women readers and bookclubs because they “are keeping fiction alive”. However, he said, bookclubs are also frightening for authors because they can be “quite severe” in their criticism, and so he concluded with the following request to bookclub members: next time, he said, that you want to criticise a book, ask yourself whether the author was suffering from gallstones when writing it, and if you think that might be the case you could be a bit charitable. Sir Walter Scott, he said, suffered from gallstones! What do you do with an author like this – except enjoy the experience and be very glad there are people like this in the world…