Thursday, 7 August 2008

Reader's block

I perhaps shouldn't admit it, working in a bookshop, but I find I like very few novels, especially contemporary literary ones. So I was pleased to see I'm not alone: Lost for words (Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian, Friday July 25 2008) writes about what he calls "reader's block", a very common British disaffection with novels. The piece comes with recommendations on how to overcome the syndrome, such as The authors' view (various writers' advice) and quotations from Professor John Sutherland's How To Read a Novel: A User's Guide (Profile, 2007, 186197986X - introduced here and here). Sutherland's view is that you should browse, aggresively: dip into a book at page 69, and don't bother with the book if that random segment doesn't appeal.

The overall advice, including that at the associated Guardian Book Blog post, comes down to experimenting with genres: if novels don't do it for you, try poetry, plays, graphic novels, non-fiction, and so on. I wouldn't disagree: the best things I've read lately aren't mainstream adult novels, but Louis Sachar's Holes (nominally for young readership), Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (a graphic novel), and AK Dewdney's The Planiverse (SF that has more in common with Dewdney's Mathematical Recreations column than a conventional novel).

I couldn't identify personally what turns me off about contemporary literary novels. It's tempting to blame the publishing industry: various factors such as quality of work being only one factor behind publication, and one perhaps subordinate to authors being able to produce follow-up books to recover the publisher's investment, and having a marketable personality, youth especially helping (see Shock news: older writers can also be quite good). There's also the problem of authors tending to come from similar middle-class backgrounds that generate samey books. As Muriel Gray and and Kathryn Hughes say of Orange Prize entrants, many supposedly worthy novels are lightly embroidered autobiographies of their authors' uninteresting lives ("rural teacher syndrome" and "suburban social worker syndrome" - see Now this is the real catfight between the Orange judges, Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, Thursday March 29 2007). In the past, there are equivalents: as Colin Wilson notes in his introduction to The Strength to Dream (see Google Books) in the early 20th century many "Little Percy" novels - as satirised by Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow - similarly reflected a characteristic mindset of a generation of male arts-educated novelists ...

Little Percy, the hero, was never good at games, but he was always clever. He passes through the usual public school and the usual university and comes to London, where he lives among the artists. He is bowed down with melancholy thought; he carries the whole weight of the universe upon his shoulders. He writes a novel of dazzling brilliance; he dabbles delicately in Amour and disappears, at the end of the book, into the luminous Future."

... and Wilson takes it further back to the 19th century and its spate of clones of Young Werther and Turgenev-style heroes. Sutherland cites Sturgeon's Law - "90 per cent of everything is crap" - and probably this has always been the case for published novels, so there's no reason for guilt about finding it hard to pick ones you like.

- Ray

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