Thursday, 30 May 2013

What can readers bring to the table?

     Harry Wallop, reporting from the UK’s most prestigious literary gathering, wrote in the Telegraph: "Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize winning novelist, had said that readers are too often ‘not intelligent’ enough to understand books.
     Speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival, he (Jacobson) said: Sometimes readers are quick to blame the novel that they, the reader, is not enjoying, whereas you have to ask yourself whether the reason that you don’t like the book is that you are just not good enough.
‘You have to be intelligent to like a book. The author has an obligation to please the reader, but the reader has an obligation to be intelligent.’"
     Jacobson was commenting on the humiliation and frustration of being a writer, the focus of his recent and amusing prize winning novel, Zoo Time.
It may sound more than a little smug and self delusional to blame the reader for not connecting with your novel, but for me, what he was really asking is, can writers expect readers to bring something to the table.
     Rather than ‘intelligence’ per se, it’s the difference between active and passive reading. Although we read for different reasons and purposes, passive readers seek instant gratification in the way of the quick sound bite. What they do read they fail to engage intellectually with so the extent of their understanding is limited to the sentence being read, rather than thinking beyond the text. Is that what Jacobson meant? If there’s no explicit language and action, the passive reader becomes bored.
Visitors to Hay Festival, The Guardian
     Active readers engage with the content and see reading as an ongoing process in which they make plentiful connections. They have the patience to wait for the pay-off instead of demanding to be entertained right now! For the passive reader, each book becomes a blind alley whereas the active reader sees an invitation.
     Is it down to intelligence? Maybe, maybe not. But at the very least, writers hope readers will not just sit at the table waiting to be fed. Rather, they will bring a willingness (and ability?) to participate in the feast.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Are fiction writers just dirty little liars?

     When do readers expect fiction to be “true”? OK that’s a contradiction in terms. Fiction is about imaginary events and people; invented or fabricated as opposed to fact. So why do we sometimes want to hold writers to account and complain their description of a certain place is inaccurate or an event does not ring true?
     I came to this subject through Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, which I read on first publication in 1986/7. It is not clear which year it first came out. I enjoyed this novel and admired Chatwin. On the Black Hill ranks as an all time favourite. Set in Wales, it evokes rural farm life and the small surrounding community. Chatwin amalgamated real places and people into his storyline but I didn’t think for a moment the story was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
     Why then did I feel such disappointment when I read in an interview with Chatwin at the time of Songlines’ publication, that he had never visited Australia. In the novel he describes a trip through the Australian Outback in which he researches Aboriginal song and its influence on nomadic travel. His convincing descriptions led me to believe he was writing from personal experience. Yet he was actually writing from thorough research. Shouldn’t I have been happy that his research was so impressive and detailed it gave flight to the first half of the book.
     Over many years it kept niggling whenever I saw the book on my shelves. How could someone write with authenticity about the Outback and Aboriginal culture, without having first-hand experience. Well, writers do that all the time. But perhaps because Chatwin was using Aboriginal culture in his novel the idea he was working purely from research didn’t sit well with me. In 1987, post publication, Chatwin seems to have made a hastily arranged visit to the area north of Adelaide, but so many years after the event, it is hard to verify the actual facts. Does it matter anyway? On reflection, I think I was taking the book too personally. Here was an outsider writing about my country. Just like friends and family who recognise elements of themselves in novels and take umbrage at perceived inaccuracies, I felt there must be something false in Chatwin’s work.
     The truth is, out of necessity and creative drive, writers invent, imagine and create. Sadly, not many of us are that interesting, nor do we enjoy lots of interesting encounters or experiences. Many are saddled with dull personalities lacking in intellect etc. You get the picture. So in order to present interesting characters and plots, writers combine a snip from here and a snip from there, shaping their stories through the real and the imagined. Readers need only be concerned if something untrue is intentionally represented as true. It’s fine to fabricate, as long as it’s fiction. Though there have been plenty of non-fiction fabrications too.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Howard Jacobson gives a monkey's about writing

     Reviews of Howard Jacobson’s, Zoo Time were not universally good, but I found it to be one of his most entertaining books and actually snorted with laughter a few times. His comments on Henry Miller, whom he appears to hold up as a role-model, were very funny if offensive to many, I dare say. Yes, it was typical Jacobson me me me, but it included a fair amount of self-criticism (more me me me) and at least he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
     What I really like about Jacobson is his easy style and mastery of language. His is prose stripped bare, lacking flowery pretension; clearly he just loves to write. OK, he’s a bit of a smart arse and cretinously patronising at times, but he is colourful, entertaining and literary, if not profound.
     Reading and the demise of books is one of his themes and the main character, Jewish novelist Guy Ableman (me me me) despairs fiction might be dead as his book sales dwindle.
In fact, in the UK we are actually reading more. Book sales have gone up and though e-readers are increasing, they have not detracted from book store sales. So that ought to give hope to all the writers out there despairing at low returns or lack of a publishing deal – people are still interested in reading.
     The story or plot isn’t the point here. Jacobson is a writer writing about writing and he has a lot to say about both writing and reading in Zoo Time, perhaps best summed up by the following self enlightening moment after his wife (Guy Ableman’s) publishes her own novel: “Now she was just another practitioner. One of thousands, millions even. Hush and you can hear them; listen, on a quiet night anywhere on the planet, and you can hear the scratch of their pens or the dead click of their keyboards, as innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.”

1 May 2013 
British publishers have reported record sales for 2012, despite the recession and the rise of e-readers.
Total spending on printed and digital books rose 4% to £3.3bn last year, the Publishers Association said.
The digital revolution really took hold in 2012 with sales up 66% to £411m, and fiction e-reading growing even faster, up 149%.
Rory Cellan-Jones reports.