We know each other well enough by now that I think I can share a secret with you. It’s dark and disgusting and it’s taken me some time to be brave enough to say it out loud, but here it is:
I have a love-hate relationship with books.
That’s an outrageous thing to admit. I mean, if you’re a writer, you’re supposed to love books and everything about them. There was a time when that was true for me but over the years something happened.
One of my earliest memories is of sitting on the floor in our flat in north London in the midst of a fort I’d built with books. I was two.
In this cocoon I was safe. That probably tells you something about my childhood. I mean, why would a child of that age need to hide in a fort made of books?
I started reading at a very early age and by the time I was five I’d ploughed through most of the children’s classics. I loved Hans Anderson but not the Brothers Grimm. I liked Alice in Wonderland but not Through the Looking Glass. Peter Pan was cool. Water Babies were wet.
Money was tight so my books came from the library on Euston Road or from one of the second hand stalls in Charing Cross Road. My grandmother, bless her, always arrived with a bag full of treasure. Agatha Christie for mum; Enid Blyton for me.
Later came the new books. Pristine. They had that smell – yes, you know the one I mean. It was the smell of anticipation. Then, too, there was the smoothness of the paper, and the heft of the cover. I wasn’t concealing myself in a literal fort of books by then, but I was still hiding in the stories.
By the age of twelve I was onto the Russians and had a crush on Dostoyevsky like other girls had on Elvis. Then came Kafka and Camus, Hesse and Gide. Basically anyone who came in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
Flash forward to today.
Some years ago, I graduated from Dublin City University with a degree in Humanities. Thanks to my splendid tutors I can discuss Joyce with the best of them. I can engage with you about Samuel Beckett and I can analyse the meta out of Flann O’Brien.
That is to say, I can understand it. But I don’t love it. At least, not the way I used to. Reading now is all about critical analysis. Once you’ve immersed yourself in those literary theory waters you continue to drip Barthes or Greenberg all over the text. You don’t want to. You can’t help yourself. It’s the ruination of immersive reading.
And the books themselves have changed. Now you can download your beloved Dostoyevsky onto an electronic gizmo and carry him in your pocket. He won’t be lonely, either, for he’ll have his mates Tolstoy and Chekhov and Turgenev keeping him company.
The problem with a university education is it makes you a snob. You have to read the right books and listen to the right music. But what if you prefer The Monkees to Mozart? What if you’d rather spend a few hours with PG Wodehouse than Samuel Beckett? Only you can’t read Wodehouse any more because you’ve been exposed to his flaws and his questionable politics. And you don’t want to read Beckett because… Well, just because. I should add that I quite like Samuel Beckett, but I like him the way I like playing chess. It’s all about the patterns and the intellectual exercise. Characters and heart? Not so much.
This situation is the literary equivalent to being a young teen: Too old for toys, too young for boys. Just substitute WE Johns for the toys and Nabakov for the boys.
So what does this mean for a writer? In my case, it means going back to the things I loved in the first place, before New Historicism rotted my brain. I’m reading my old favourites again and I’m remembering why I loved them, even though some of them would never make it onto any of those ‘greatest novels’ lists.
There is a snobbery in writing circles. If you don’t write ‘literature’ (ie, something that stands up to analysis), you’re just a hack. If you will never win the Man Booker Prize or a Pulitzer then you can be sure the literati will sneer at your puny efforts.
I write the sort of books I always loved to read. Ones that have strong characters and engaging plots. OK, I may sneak a little literary stuff in there, too, but here’s the thing: the literary stuff never gets in the way of the story.
Remember the story?
We all of us began reading for the story.
When did we stop caring about the tale and decide it was more important to be deemed clever? When did the focus shift from entertaining the reader to dazzling them with our literary pyrotechnics?
The writer’s first reader is always him or herself. That’s fine. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Just don’t forget that you are writing for other people, too. If you care only about pleasing yourself and you’re not interested in others, well, you’re the very definition of a wanker, aren’t you?
I don’t hate books. I mean, how could I? But I don’t love them all equally. And there are some writers who just get right up my left nostril. You know?
Be clever. Be dazzling. Just don’t forget to engage your reader, too. Otherwise what’s the point?