Sunday, 30 January 2011

Book Groups: when it comes to reading novels, I need the smack of firm government

I stayed up till 4.30 in the morning recently in order to finish a novel. I hadn’t done that in years. The book was Stoner by John Williams. It’s the story of a socially awkward (to the point of autism) Dust-Bowler from a crushingly poor rural background who goes to college to study agricultural engineering, but ends up as a lecturer in English.

Along the way he marries a woman who turns out to be an absolute… well, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say he leads a dull life and has an undistinguished academic career. It sounds awful, I know, but it’s the most rivetting novel I’ve read for five or six years. It is that rare beast – a beautifully-written, sensitive, unsensational masterpiece which, once started, is impossible to put down.No wonder it’s a cult classic.

I also enjoyed another book group choice, Author! Author!, David Lodge’s bulky 2004 novel about various aspect of Henry James’s life – including his doomed attempts to write a successful play, his friendships with Punch cartoonist and Trilby author, George du Maurier, and the American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson. (James’s’ later years appear to have consisted of a series of professional failures – his last novels failed to sell more than 2000 apiece! At one stage, accumulated disappointment led to a full-blown nervous collapse.)

As the years advance, I’ve become increasingly useless at choosing novels and then making myself read them. I visit the local Waterstone’s and our library every fortnight or so in search of a good novel, only to find myself arriving home with a stack of non-fiction books. Part of the problem is that I feel the will to live slowly seeping out through the soles of my feet as I read the blurbs and first paragraphs of modern novels: the sort of people they deal with, the milieus they’re set in, the writing style – I just know I’m unlikely to enjoy them. But the truth is I’m going through one of those patches when I simply don’t know why I’m reading novels at all. 

I know the automatic response would be: “you read a novel to enjoy it” - but somehow, for me, that’s no longer sufficient. 

I presume that lack of clarity of purpose accounts for my increasing difficulty in finishing novels: I appear to be suffering from a form of LADD (Literary Attention Deficit Disorder). I can smash my way through the first 60 pages of almost anything and be quite enjoying it – but when I pick it up the next night, I find myself utterly uninterested in carrying on (these I put aside and generally pick up again sometime within the next year, when everything sometimes snaps back into place). Is this common – or am I weird (I know my wife never, ever fails to finish a novel, even if she hates it)?

My only conclusion is that I increasingly need my novel-reading to fit into a purposeful programme of some sort. This has worked well in the past: in my mid-Twenties, for instance, tired of reading and writing horror fiction,  I set myself the task of reading all the major works of the authors cited by F.R. Leavis as belonging to The Great Tradition. A decade later, I decided it was time for the Russians – so Dostoievsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol were doggedly consumed (with enormous pleasure). Nine years’ ago, when the BBC launched its “Big Read” initiative, I set out to read as many of the ones I’d missed out on as I could stomach (i managed around 20 – some unspeakable Sword & Sorcery tosh finally did for me). Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

And now, in order to impose some discipline on choosing and finishing books, I’ve joined a book group. Oddly, I don’t much enjoy discussing the novels – I know whether I’ve liked them or not, and why. I’m not relying on other people for blinding insights – in fact, all I tend to feel is bafflement that they haven’t enjoyed or hated a book as much as I did. I’m not expecting anytime soon to find myself leaping up mid-meeting, shouting “Eureka! I had thought this was a pile of tawdry, badly-written crap, but now I realize it’s a masterpiece!” 

No, what I want from the group is (a) a list of books to read, and (b) a deadline for finishing them.

Astonishingly, when I’ve transformed the act of reading fiction into a chore, I begin to enjoy it once more.


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