Silas Woodlock moves to Seaford with his wife, Ethel, leaving their undertaking business in the hands of their son. The couple find the town a bit too elderly for their tastes; in time Ethel proposes they join a local writing course as a way to keep busy. By the end of the course an initially reluctant Silas has written a short story about birds; by accident it’s left in the local pub, not to be found again… until Silas spots it in an anthology. He goes to confront the plagiarist, one Nicholas Royle. Meanwhile a minor literary critic, Stephen Osmer, is struggling to make his mark but gains a pinch of notoriety interrupting and later reporting on an event held by two writers of the same name, the novelist Nicholas Royle and the literary theorist Nicholas Royle.
An English Guide To Birdwatching is the highly meta second novel/non-fiction mash-up from literary theorist Nicholas Royle, not to be confused with the novelist Nicholas Royle, writer of In Camera and Salt Publishing’s short story anthologies, though both men are included on the page. On the surface and, in fact, in some ways once the surface is scratched, it’s as confusing as it has likely been so far in this review – expect a lot of commentary.
This is a novel of a sort not often seen. It’s a novel that pushes deep into and past what’s not often seen to become something incredibly literary, requiring all of the reader’s attention but to great reward. Many descriptions are possible; Robert Macfarlane’s thoughts, featured on the back cover, sum it up well: “a curiously compelling investigation of the nature of writing and the writing of nature”. Royle takes the concept of literary criticism, spins it around, scrunches it up and creates something new from it. There is a story included; it’s not the most important part, but then it’s not unimportant either.
Near the start of the novel we read a fictional report of a factual event, a conversation type evening in which the two writers named Nicholas Royle spoke of their discovery of the other. Speaking of real world happenings here, the novelist Nicholas Royle (published by Salt) sent for consideration to a literary magazine a short story. Literary theorist Nicholas Royle (author of the book you’re currently reading a review of) did the same. Both stories were rejected and both rejections sent to critic Nicholas – the editor of the magazine thought they were both novelist Nicholas. Theorist Nicolas contacted novelist Nicholas about the mix up and they have since become friends. One day fairly recently they spoke together at an event about their respective work, which is the event theorist Nicholas refers to in this book currently being reviewed. Theorist Nicholas is now also a novelist as evidenced by this and one previous book.
If you’re still with me, you may appreciate the following quotation, which is taken from a scene after the event in which the two Nicholas Royles are discussing the evening and which effectively describes the book you are currently reading a review of (ellipses mine):
‘I’d like to write a novel that would try to do justice to the reality of birds… but also to observe the novel itself, a kind of screened-off or embedded space within a novel in which it would be possible to explore the relations between birds and words, birdwatching and wordwatching… It wouldn’t be subtext, though. It’s not a matter of providing the real or underlying meaning… It wouldn’t be a commentary either… a new way of thinking about surveillance, including self-surveillance…’
So Royle, theorist now novelist, who for the rest of this review will be referred to as the author, makes himself a major part of his work. As himself. As the author. As an idea. Through the fictional character of Stephen Osmer, the author has fun with his own success:
‘…not long ago published his tenth book of literary criticism, variously praised as “extraordinary’, “fascinating” and “exuberant”; as a “book that shows the way forward for literary studies”. I should straight away add that these accolades are, as so often, grossly exaggerated’.
He also plays with the idea of fact and fiction, for example by the inclusion of a sex scene that could be seen as an admission of something… interesting, if not for this:
‘He could think, at times, of no better way of describing it than that he was “living in the pages of a novel”.’
It is through this scene and those related to it that are included later, that Royle looks back on his fictional Stephen Osmer, his own critic, his fiction-real-life troll, and looks at the idea of an author’s reaction to reactions of their work. It’s exaggerated for effect – both literal effect and in order to explain the literary concepts the author is going for – but achieves the whole looking-at-literature-and-the-theory-and-everything-surrounding-it that he’s going for. (On this note, which might be considered a spoiler but which in the circumstances seems appropriate to include, is the author’s rather boldly killing off his own self for both fictional hilarity and as another look at the nature of writing.)
In view of the absolute fiction of the novel – the story of Silas and his wife – this comes to an abrupt halt about two thirds of the way through. If you were particularly enjoying it for its fiction you may be disappointed but the halt does fit neatly alongside – same spoiler as above incoming – the occurrence of the author’s fictional death.
It comes to a halt so that the author can move on to something else – prioritising the ‘birdwatching’ aspect of the book which up to now has been prevalent but somewhat obscured. This section of the book is composed of a series of chapters labelled ‘Hide X’ (where X corresponds to its number in the proceedings). In these sections the author analyses the word and concept of ‘bird’ and ‘birdwatching’, looking meticulously at a vast variety of meanings and possibilities. Could some of it be considered over-thinking? Most definitely, but that appears to be part of the point. Illustrated by artist Natalia Gasson’s beautiful drawings, it effectively provides you with a guide to ideas, which just happens to involve information about said bird hides, different species, and habitations as well as birds in various mediums – Du Maurier and Hitchcock; Thomas Hardy; ornithologists; battery hens; the military and the relationship with novelist Nicholas Royle’s work; Twitter.
Included in this is the drip-by-drip explanation of what the author was looking to achieve some chapters back. It’s not written as such; it’s more a series of ‘ah ha!’ moments you will have – unless, perhaps, you have a good knowledge of birds, this is the time when you find out that some of the things you thought were included just for fun were in fact a big part of the literary exploration. This is where the genius of the work really shines, the superb summit of all the other summits so far experienced.
The book is mostly written in the third person, and the narrative looks at things both from a regular point of past view and a retelling of events long gone. As part of the studious, analytical, process, the author gives a nod to Dickens, and there afterwards you find yourself reading reams of streams of consciousness which, as with everything else, is for a specific reason.
To review this book is only to add to all of what has been discussed, to be meta in one’s own right; to use a word preferred by Stephen Osmer, it’s almost ‘absurd’, effectively tacking something onto the end of the book, becoming a tertiary source – a real life Stephen Osmer, just without the vitriol.
This is a book that will bring delight to anyone who likes the idea of a novel in a novel in a novel, studying the already studied, the extremely experimental. In terms of attention required it’s incredibly needy – not one for bedtime reading, and desirous of a certain mood.
An English Guide To Birdwatching is a fantastic work of literary fiction, non-fiction, and academia, breaking boundaries and fourth walls to become something unique and highly enjoyable, particularly on a literary level.