We Don’t All Climb The Same Peaks
Let’s start at base camp
When it comes to the arts, there’s a scale of achievement many of us feel we have to tackle. The base camp for books is not Mr Dan Brown, as many might think, but the novels of Joan Collins. Joan was taken to court by Random House (my publisher in the US) because she delivered a book that was not publishable. (The story was turned into an episode of Sky’s ‘Urban Myths‘)
The case ultimately came undone either because of intellectual snobbery. The editors were prepared to sully their artistic standards and accept the name of La Collins on the cover, but weren’t ready to acknowledge that there was a readership for her rudimentary word-slinging. The flaw in the their case was the dismissal of the book as trash while failing to admit that the author delivered what was asked; namely a quantity of pages containing a story.
Currently, the Paris literary intelligencia is agape with horror that YouTube influencer Léna Mahfouf, barely out of her teens, is dominating their bestseller lists with a self-help guide for teenaged girls. How dare she have high sales with such rubbish? Literary novels may make the critics swoon but they rarely generate queues. We readers evolve our own reading scale over time, easy books here, tough reads there.
What counts as a tough read?
The annual Booker Prize winner is fond of presenting its readers with a challenge. Just as Channel 4 wanted to be populist but could never resist running those Polish cartoons, so the Booker loves stream-of-consciousness novels. I finished ‘Milkman’ and ‘The Sellout’ as a penance to be completed, not because I enjoyed them. ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ had an innovative format but was horribly sentimental – a curse that has always afflicted certain American and Canadian writers (we have our own curse, the curse of class).
Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is highly readable but something of an endurance test because of its immense length. A literary high-point does not have to be long or difficult to read. Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey’ stayed with me for years, and Kafka’s slim works have been crushed beneath the vast Kafka industry that engulfed them.
The British have a peculiarly skewed mindset on this. We regard Austen and the Brontës as a peak because of their nuanced understanding of human nature, although it would also be possible to see them as elegantly crafted romantic potboilers. The shock of reading say, ‘Jane Eyre’ is realising how readable it is. If you want to throw another AustenFest tomorrow you’ll have a guaranteed audience who’ve never read anything else – although Yorkshire put on a grand festival where writer Andrew McMillan, singer/songwriter Nat Johnson and playwright Zodwa Nyoni performed pieces on literary siblings.
It can all get a bit too adulatory. At an event last year in which I participated, Sophie Hannah told our audience that Agatha Christie was the only novelist anyone needed. I reacted in horror until I remembered that our audience mainly comprised Christie fans.
Personal reading peaks would include Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, totally tackleable but requiring time and concentration, Zola, Camus, Flaubert, Goethe, Zola, not Proust (tiresome, obsessive) or Joyce (I have no interest in tackling ‘Ulysses’). When I was younger I remember being shocked that anyone could find ‘Gormenghast’ a struggle. This is not a measure of my intelligence – I’m a slow-witted reader, often missing crucial points of the text – but of one’s interest + endurance. I’ve met people who’ll apologise for not being readers but who have finished ploughing through a 14 volume cycle of treacle-thick hard SF.
Why are some books a ‘difficult read’?
Coldness of prose, over-elaborate sentence structures, multiple time frames and viewpoints, too big a cast of characters, overly complex or abstract plots? Henry James, then. Last week I recommended the extremely short and easily read ‘Piranesi’ to my agent, who gave up on it (although I agree it’s poorly edited). Clearly our personal limits are all quite different. It may be we take exception to the writers themselves. For me this is true of Mailer and Hemingway but not Steinbeck.
There are clearly writers who speak to us; I recall reading James Baldwin at an early age – at that time, one of three American books I’d read, the other two being ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Moby Dick’, a book I wish I could love. Of the three, ‘Giovanni’s Room’ was the one I remembered. I’ve just embarked on Thomas Pynchon – more readable than I’d expected – only to find that I don’t really care for his overloaded style. And I’ll certainly never tackle Cervantes because it’s too allusive to its time period.
The same problem afflicts the free-fall imaginings of ‘Tristram Shandy’. Sterne’s book stems from a time when the leisured intelligentsia could luxuriate in such diversions – the novel could be described as one huge diversion toward an outrageously silly punchline. But as a phantasmagorical experiment it’s much admired.
There are film peaks too
Once I would happily watch Indiana Jones movies as if nothing else existed. Last night I sat through a Hungarian Bela Tarr movie about doctors in an underground bunker who explain their problems in operatic verse. Somewhere between the two extremes lies a seam of films (none of them Hollywood) which touch the soul and the mind. Can a film make you think as much as a book? And does a book have to make you think at all?