Hell in Contemporary Literature

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Thursday, 14 August 2008

J.C., who writes the N.B. column on the back page of the TLS, is renowned for his wicked, witty and acerbic sense of humour. So it was with some suspicion that, in reading through back issues of the supplement recently, I approached his coverage of 'the Nicholas Mosley Award for the most inadvisable book title of 2007-08'. Sure enough, Googling its title only brings up another blogger's speculation as to the award's existence, which looks almost certainly to be one of J.C.'s inventions. What's best about the whole thing, however, is the seemingly unlikely titles of the award's shortlisted contenders, including Foreskin's Lament: A memoir by Shalom Auslander, Shut Up He Explained by John Metcalf, and Random Deaths and Custard by Catrin Dafydd, with previous winners including How To Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer and Pox Americana by Elizabeth Fenn.

Too ridiculous to believe? Well, though the award may not, all of these books do actually exist. No, seriously. Go and check for yourself. Foreskin's Lament is a real - and assumedly quite gritty - memoir, recounting a boy's upbringing in an 'ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New York' and, in adult life, his deliberating as to whether or not he should have his son circumcised. Random Deaths and Custard, on the other hand, is a much more lighthearted affair: a novel that centres around a young woman who lives in Wales, works for a custard factory which is, you guessed it, imaginatively called Custard's, and whom everyone thinks is a lesbian. Oh yes. You can't make this stuff up. Although, at least in the latter case, apparently you can.

For me though, the icing on the thoroughly bizarre cake was J.C.'s mention of a little textbook called Hell in Contemporary Literature, an entry that, along with Steve Penfold's The Donut: A Canadian History, was unfortunately 'considered by the judges but fell at the last hurdle'. As it goes, Hell in Contemporary Literature, a book which 'addresses the subject of 'Hell' as a trope problematically deployed in contemporary reportage of terrorism and acts of war', is in fact by a former university lecturer of mine, Rachel Falconer. Whilst an undoubtedly interesting textbook, then, it just goes to show that becoming enveloped in any writerly project to the detriment of obtaining good critical distance can often produce, if nothing else, some hilarious results.