Sunday, March 02, 2008

How We Read

An article on Alan Sillitoe by DJ Taylor in The Guardian Review has set me thinking about the ways we read and about how far a consciousness of this affects the way we write. The comment of Taylor's which interests me was that Sillitoe's early depictions of working-class life were originally received by critics as anthropological insights, and as a result their artistry was overlooked or ignored.

My first reaction was surprise since it was Sillitoe's artistry which so forcibly struck me as a working-class but educated teenager (and which now, as Taylor says, strikes the critics) - and which indeed fuelled my desire to write. A moment's reflection, though, and it's not surprising at all, given that the literary establishment of the time was middle to upper class and if we accept that one of the main things that people want from books, rightly or wrongly and whether or not they are aware of it, is a sense of identification or inclusion.

Regular readers of this blog will know very well that I frequently rail against the lowest-common-denominator effects of a literary culture which panders too much to this impulse in readers, and argue with James Wood for the encouragement of a more mature reading of fiction, but I have to say that as a writer I take a different tack: I want to lure readers, and I can't assume they are my Ideal Readers, they're only human after all, and it's only human to want to identify with the characters and situations in books.

As a writer you simply can't afford to sneer as James Wood does at the 'book clubs up and down the country' where 'novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn't find any characters to identify with", or "didn't think that any of the characters 'grow" ' (my italics). It is as if for Wood these readers are not the real readers, but every writer knows that they are, and as for the literati and the critics, well those fifties critics of Sillitoe were hardly exempt from the 'sin'. For me evidence of the need to identify is everywhere, from my own feelings of exclusion as a teenager from the ethos and mentality of some middle-class novels to Sarfraz Manzoor's recent statement at a reading that he felt excluded from the biographies about 'non-ordinary' lives which he read as a teenager (an exclusion which indeed propelled him write his own memoir as redress). And the trouble is, as Taylor indicates, if you're stuck on that, on non-identification, as indeed were those fifties critics of Sillitoe, you can't easily get past to appreciate or enjoy the other elements of a novel, the artistry, the writing.

The prior experience of the reader ultimately determines - or at least inevitably affects - the reading. At present I'm reading Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky for my reading group and it struck me to wonder how much less vivid the descriptions of the North African landscape and villages (vivid as they are) would have been for me before I had travelled myself. There's another thing we read for besides identification (I'm sure Pierre Bayard must say it in his book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read but I haven't read it - hah!). This is for an extension of our experience - it's what I think most children read for, and why as an aspirational teenager I did gobble up other middle-class books. But when as a nineteen-year-old steeped in images from The Odyssey and Euripedes I made my first trip to Greece, I was still shocked by the reality: so that's what the smell of eucalyptus trees is like! So that's what it's like to be buffeted in the face by a hot wind! So that's why it's called the wine-dark sea! And my re-readings afterwards were incomparably richer.

Which is why I have been known to state that ultimately any piece of fiction is necessarily what a reader makes of it. But that shouldn't stop us as writers trying to draw in as many readers as possible. The most obvious way to do this is to make readers 'like' characters, although this isn't always possible or desirable (and I suppose it's the insistence on this emotionally easy formula which Wood is attacking) but some means must be found to cause the reader to make an emotional investment in at least some of the apparatus of a story or novel - an investment which goes beyond mere anthropological interest if that is not yours as the writer. The point is to get the reader to share with you the emotional heart of the novel, wherever it lies for you as the author, and to do this you must create a spell.

One of the ways I try to do this - probably a result of my background as a teacher - is to follow Orwell's advice and 'never use a long word when a short one will do.' This is not to patronize readers but to strive to make every word immediately lucid in order not to spoil the flow for any reader and break the fictive spell. But then another thing I know is that some people like books with long, abstract or foreign words precisely because they read to have their egos flattered and feel clever...
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