Pan Books – paperback kings of the second half of the twentieth century (basically Penguin for people who fuck, ammaright?) – did the fucking dirty on Alan Sillitoe here by ending his fucking triumphant and fucking glorious short story collection, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, with a 45 page narrative poem he also wrote called ‘The Rats’, which is a catastrophic failure of a piece of writing and sullies sullies sullies what is, until that point, a borderline flawless book.
Yes, the famous short story collection is good. Sillitoe deals with disability and prejudice, with mental illness and poverty, with education and bigotry, with corrupt judicial systems, with the institutionalisation of working class youths, with post traumatic stress disorder, with intimate partner violence, with sexual abuse, with panic around sexual abuse, with inequality, with in-work poverty, with childhood, with ageing, with illness, with suicide, with state hypocrisy, with policing, with brutality, with-
Yeah, the famous short story collection is good. It is full of quickly but deeply evoked characters and situations. It is about class and change, about ambition and its false promise, about exploration and education and humanity and hope and hopelessness, about bad marriages and about violence, about the possibilities of love and romance and-
Yup, the famous short stories in the famous short story collection are excellent. An evocative and powerful journey through working class life in Nottingham (and probably similar places) bang in the centre of the 20th century and-
And then Pan – a business that I think no longer exists and probably because of foolish decisions like this one that essentially dicks over a working class writer of great talent – chooses to follow this tight 150 pages of brilliant and engaging, emotive, rich prose with – and I hate to say it – one of the worst – and longest – poems I’ve ever read.
Why is that poem there? To pad out the volume, yes, obviously, of course, but is it also there to undercut and to mock the writer? Was the editor who made this decision genuinely ignorant about how boring and vacuous this failed attempt at a more working class The Wasteland is, this English mistranslation of a sexually and politically repressed Howl (for Carl Solomon)? Did the fellahs behind Pan genuinely think this was good? Did everyone in 1960s literary circles think this was good? Is it secretly good and I’m actually not enjoying it because I’m ignorant? Am I the fool for not feeling engaged by this plinky plonky rhyming couplets pretentious cod-political meandering meaninglessness?
Was the editor who made this decision genuinely ignorant about how boring and vacuous this failed attempt at a more working class The Wasteland is, this English mistranslation of a sexually and politically repressed Howl (for Carl Solomon)? Did the fellahs behind Pan genuinely think this was good? Did everyone in 1960s literary circles think this was good? Is it secretly good and I’m actually not enjoying it because I’m ignorant? Am I the fool for not feeling engaged by this plinky plonky rhyming couplets pretentious cod-political meandering meaninglessness?No, I don’t think so.
No, I don’t think so.
I think Sillitoe – clearly a very gifted prose stylist whose skill originates and sits in his blunt and direct clarity and clear directness – wasn’t a great poet. Lots of people aren’t great poets (as I often say, one of the best things about being a poet is that it’s the easiest act in the world to find a poet who is (or, at least, who you are able to consider) worse at being a poet than you), and lots of great prose writers write terrible poets, just as great poets often write mediocre novels (I’m sure there’s an example of a great poet writing shit prose, but I’m yet to read it) and mediocre poets write mediocre novels, but but but but but but but often, usually, almost always, these tracts are kept separate.
You can pretend, believe, enjoy, the idea that the writer you’re enjoying never overreached (or, perhaps, underreached(?)) because you rarely have two disparate styles from disparate creative streams in the same place.
But here you do. And it makes you reassess the whole rest of the book you read, by having it at the end.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is fucking brilliant, but the 50 page epic poem The Rats is – for want of a better, tidier, clearer, phrase – fucking shit, and if Sillitoe was half the writer I’d thought he was based off of his short stories and his one novel I’ve read, then he would have banned the republication of The Rats and he would have, I dunno, offered Pan something else to help them hit their minimum page count. Or maybe they could have just increased the font size …
The short stories here: perfect. Essential part of the English canon and I should have read them sooner. The poem here: oh my fucking god it’s shit.
Definitely – if you haven’t – do do do do do read The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. But don’t – I implore you – ever read The Rats.
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I loved “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” in high school, and loved reading my “report” to my teachers and unsettlingly clean, shiny cohorts – but oh, dear. The copy I had, a mass-market paperback that DEFINITELY was not printed on acid-free paper (the pages almost burned while you read them) mercifully did not contain “The Rats.” Of course, I was so unskilled at reading poetry then that I might have actually liked it. Yikes.
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I think maybe if I’d read The Rats earlier in my life I wouldn’t have felt so confident dismissing it! Maybe it is good and I am that philistine!!!