Brit wits

As Nick Hornby and Irvine Welsh face 50, two of Brit Lit’s standard-bearers stare down middle age in very different ways  
October 11, 2007 12:31:01 PM

Welsh (left) and Hornby (right)

Slam | by Nick Hornby | Putnam Juvenile | 304 pages | $20

If You Liked School You’ll Love Work | by Irvine Welsh | Jonathan Cape | 320 pages | $15

Nick Hornby on how he conceived of the main character in his new teen novel (mp3)

Nick Hornby on life after 50 (mp3)

Nick Hornby on the Red Sox’ World Series run, and the Farrelly Brothers’ adaptation of Fever Pitch (mp3)

Irvine Welsh, who made his name writing about Scotland, on writing about America (mp3)

Irvine Welsh on what he likes about the USA (mp3)

Nick Hornby’s new novel is about a boy. Not About a Boy. That one, published nine years ago, was written in the third-person and dealt with adult immaturity and pre-adolescent anxiety. This one, Slam (Putnam), is told in the first-person and deals with a decidedly post-adolescent problem. It’s a teen novel, published by a teen imprint, and is meant to be read by teens.

Meanwhile, Irvine Welsh’s new short story collection is filthy. Not Filth. That one, published nine years ago, dealt with a character of debased appetites and malicious mien. This one, If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work (Norton), contains many such characters. It also contains scenes of graphic, forced sex; a lightning-fast, blood-spurting decapitation; a chilling new use for the art of taxidermy; and a little dog who may or may not become dinner. It’s a book, emphatically, that is meant to be read by adults.

A decade or so ago, in the mid-’90s salad days of Blur and Blair, Welsh and Hornby were twin titans of Cool Britannia’s literary wing. Trainspotting. The Acid House. Fever Pitch. High Fidelity. Sex. Drugs. Music. Sport. Addictions. Obsessions. Welsh and Hornby were heralded as vigorous new voices, their novels as popular stateside as they were in the UK.

They come from opposite ends of the island. Hornby is from Surrey, south of London. He’d gone to Cambridge and spoke in the well-heeled tones of a BBC presenter. He’d been a teacher. Welsh is from Edinburgh. He left school at 16 to become a TV repairman. He speaks in a barely decipherable Scots burr. He’d been a druggie. Hornby is a fan of cosmopolitan Arsenal football club. Welsh supports Irish-Catholic Hibernian.

Today, as each stares down age 50, these Brit Lit standard-bearers have some things in common. Both are hugely successful. Both have had more than one book adapted into big-budget films. Both, presumably, are wealthy. Both are bald.

And when it comes to their new books, these middle-aged men, who made their bones writing about youth culture, are each bravely taking on new thematic challenges — even if their choices of subject matter could hardly be further apart.

If You Liked School, Welsh’s first short-story collection since 1994’s The Acid House, treads unfamiliar terrain. While the author’s scabrous, scatological wit is the same as ever, its five stories find him exploring characters, classes, dialects, and locales far removed from his usual Edinburgh stomping grounds.

Slam is also something new. Teen novels are usually penned by people who, well, only write teen novels. For Hornby to have a go at one is an interesting proposition — it risks alienating both his long-time fans and, if he doesn’t get the voice just right, his intended audience.

Two British writers, each entering his second half-century. Two very different books, posing formal challenges while simultaneously playing to the writers’ respective strengths. Both, more or less, successful.

To be young again
“I’m not sure that I decided to write a ‘teen novel,’ ” Hornby tells the Phoenix from his home in London. “I think I had an idea — I wanted to write about a young father, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that I wanted to write in the first person, and therefore it was, probably, a teen book.”

Slam introduces us to Sam, a 16-year-old London skate rat who, one day, after a clumsy and typically teenage courtship, discovers that his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend will, in eight-or-so months time, be holding a one-minute-old baby. With a deft touch, Hornby takes us through the ups and downs of the emotional half-pipe of a future father who, not long ago, was a baby himself.

Hornby’s been thinking about adolescents and adolescence a lot lately. “I’ve noticed that teens have been coming to readings, which interested me,” he says. “I think a lot of teens read About a Boy after seeing the movie. So I did have this young component to my readership.”

But it’s a tricky proposition for a 50-year-old man to inhabit the consciousness of a fictional 16-year-old boy and hope real-life 16-year-old boys will relate. (Actually, Slam is told by Sam as an 18-year-old, looking back over the past two years. But still.) It’s a tightrope act: one risks being deaf to the nuances of speech, or clueless about current youth-culture touchstones. Worse, there’s always the chance kids might think they’re being patronized.

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