Developing Your Reading Tastes

Reading & Writing


There’s so little free space in newspapers now available to literary criticism that we tend not to write about books we don’t personally get on with. Instead, we use that space to champion books that may not have come to the attention of readers.

However, any writer who has also written criticism will tell you that they have ‘problem authors’. After his first early novels I found myself unable to read novels by Stephen King, because they seemed rudimentary and undisciplined, full of folksy verbosity – although I’ve always enjoyed his more controlled short fiction. His recent move into noir crime has defeated me even further.

I recognise that this is purely my problem and millions of others like his writing. For me, King’s curse (and occasionally, in his nostalgic tales, his strength) is his determination that redemption will be reached and order will be restored. In the world of noir, this makes no sense.

When I was asked to review ‘Dreamcatcher’, an immense, bloated mess of a novel, Private Eye pointed out that I was the only one of seventeen UK reviewers to take him to task over the lazy prose. When a writer achieves the extreme upper echelon of popularity, everything s/he writes is reviewed and new authors get pushed out.

There’s a downside to this. Criticise a famous writer in print and you lose any chance of reciprocal praise. But to my mind, if you go down that route you’re not reviewing anymore, you’re networking. I know a couple of authors who regard this as more important than their writing.

My greatest failure is any appreciation of Henry James, whose bizarre sentence structures make for punishing reading. All that punctuation and interpolation feels like bricks left in the road – and then there’s his peculiar HABIT of RANDOMLY capitalising dialogue. His plots are powerful, but remain obscured by his style.

It’s clearly not just about readability – after all, King is highly digestible, as is Dan Brown. Sometimes it feels as if a single author is plucked from a larger group of equally good writers and canonised. Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ was lauded over Jim Shepherd’s equally impressive ‘Project X’, perhaps because it told the story from a mother’s point of view rather than the child’s, and the market is heavily female-skewed.

I can only think that the same effect brought success to ‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn. It’s a passably enjoyable read, with a twist you can see coming from deep space and a fudged ending that the editor should have been shot for allowing through, but it clicked with its female audience. Many writers pen rushed endings – I certainly have . It’s the editor’s job to point out when this happens, and Ms Flynn caught the zeitgeist with her plot, but needed help with the closing chapters, which she clearly didn’t get.

Zeitgeist – catching the spirit of the times – may be responsible for certain hit novels, but paradoxically zeitgeist books rarely survive the decades. In the 1980s I wrote four zeitgeist novels, two of which caused a flurry at the time. These are now entirely forgotten. Perhaps in years to come ‘American Psycho’ will be remembered for catching the spirit of the 80s.

The point is that not everyone has to enjoy every book. When prices are high, readers want to be assured that they will enjoy what they buy – this is why Broadway shows are now testing every minute of their running time by giving audiences dials to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ scenes. But writing is not consensus – it requires a singular point of view.

With the reduction of the price of classics as e-books, there’s no loss in downloading the complete works of Henry James, say, and dipping in to see if you like them. This is how we refine our tastes, and learn to recognise good and bad books.

When I was a child, I visited London theatres alone, paying next to nothing to watch rehearsals or stand at the back, so that by the time I was 20 I had seen most of Shakespeare. I could soon tell a good Hamlet from a bad one. The more we read, the more we refine our tastes. Everybody has to start somewhere but one of the pleasures is seeing an author grow and develop in styling. The trick lies in not losing your core audience as you do so.

17 comments on “Developing Your Reading Tastes”

  1. Gareth Reeve says:

    Wow, Chris that last paragraph says it all really:)

  2. Gareth Reeve says:

    Sorry I mean the last sentence

  3. mark says:

    Not that I am proud to say it, but I always struggled with Dickens..I realise he is seen as one of the great literary authors, social comment, etc..but, apart from Christmas Carol, I have struggled. Even with his other Christmas stories. As T.S. Eliot mentioned in an essay, Dickens was good on character but less so on plot structure, whereas Wilkie Collins was the opposite. I also struggled with Agatha Cristie too, mostly her plotting. The feeling that clues throughout the book could lead to it being any number of the characters, all who have motive and opportunity, then one is picked at the denoument. I have only read one Dan Brown, I was dog sitting for a mate who was off on a Stag weekend and he had just bought The Da Vinci Code. To me, it almost read like a script rather than a novel. Personally, I do not like a chapter that is, in essence, merely a paragraph. I admire your work and there are a number of current good detective authors in a genre that is pretty flooded; particularly, the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie L. King and the Maisie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear.

  4. Bob Low says:

    Henry James is certainly a challenge-his sentences are like towering ziggurats, with multiple layers of clauses and sub-clauses. Reggie Oliver wrote an interesting piece about him, explaining that as James’ career went on, he started suffering from writer’s cramp, and began using an early form of dictaphone. This only added to the verbiage. In some of his later writing, the endless sentences are almost like someone thinking out loud. However, for all that, I still think he’s worth the effort. ”The Golden Bowl” is one of the most remarkable novels ever written, and he deserves the gratitude of all lovers of the macabre for ”The Turn of the Screw”, and the intoduction of the ambiguous ghost story.
    The author whos still defeats me utterly is William Faulkner.It’s frustrating, because his work sounds so fascinating when it’s described by his fans-but I’ve never been able to get more than about ten pages into anything he’s written. I intend to have another go-at some point.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    I can handle Faulkner, when I have the time, but Henry James – other than The Turn of – was ruined for me by a night class I took at the university: Early American Fiction. Henry David Theroux, Ralph Waldo Emersion, Herman Melville, Henry James and selections of others. There were five novels or books by each authors, taught at night twice a week after a full day in the State Dept., crammed into 4 1/2 months and that was only one of three grad level courses, including another lit. course.
    It burned me out and I learned to dislike James with a passion – twisty, pretentious, ambiguous, prose that weighed the petty detail with a goldsmith’s scale and appeared to wander and doddle all over the map. (I had to have the course or I wouldn’t have subjected the authors and myself to the grind which squeezed the life out of all but Walden.) But Faulkner I can still handle, although he might have drunk tea rather than sprits while working for all our sakes, especially his.
    Perhaps, I should try James again, Bob, but I ….

  6. Bob Low says:

    Dan-that night class sounds punishing! More like the literary equivalent of an unending assault course. The author on the list I’ve always meant to have a crack at is Herman Melville. People who’ve read Moby Dick seem to be equally divided between those who think it’s The Greatest Novel Ever Written, and the rest, who found it to be more like root canal surgery.

  7. Russ Varley says:

    Hear, hear on the Dickens, Mark. I had loathed him with a passion for 30 ever years since I was forced to read him at school. Weirdly though, now the hair is grey and the knees creak he is one of my favourite authors. I’m not sure why I changed my view. Perhaps it is growing up or, more likely, after being saddled with a three hour commute developing a serious audio book habit and listening to his books rather than reading them. David Copperfield read by Martin Jarvis is simply wonderful. But the change of format doesn’t always work; Jane Austen was vacuous tosh aged 11 and still is.

  8. Ken Murray says:

    I think John Fowles fits rather neatly into this category. I enjoyed The Turn of the Screw, But Fowles’ The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, in my view, are little more than existential gamesmanship. Emperor’s new clothes anyone?

  9. Helen Martin says:

    My mother and I read Tale of Two Cities several times when I was in high school and I still like it tremendously. He was paid by the line so that explains the verbiage. Henry James I’ve been warned against, but I really think I ought to try The Golden Bowl. The Moonstone is a favourite but I still haven’t read The Woman in White. It’s odd what draws a person to books. I had some sort of thing against “detective stories” in my teens, except for Rex Stout, and I thought Agatha Christie was silly for a long time. (What on earth are ‘court shoes’ anyway?) I read a John Dickson Carr, The Devil in Velvet which I found particularly enthralling because he evoked the historic period so well. There are passages from it that I see clearly in my head today although I haven’t read it for over 40 years. As for Laurie King, I think she is a marvelous writer. Her prose flows so smoothly you aren’t aware you’re reading, her characters are alive, her plots are good and how much fun is it to meet Kim in The Game and Dashiel Hammet in Locked Rooms?

  10. Bob Low says:

    Helen-It’s probably a bit off topic, as this is supposed to be a thread about problem authors, but if ‘The Moonstone” is a favourite, you’ll love ”The Womman In White”. I’m a Wilkie Collins buff, and another you might like is ”’The Law and the Lady”, quite a daring book for its day, as it features a female amateur detective as the central character, and has a wonderfully creepy villain. I never really warmed to Agatha Christie either,but my wife is a big fan.

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen: The Golden Bowl is a heck of a place to begin James. It could be called: What the bowl heard and takes the endurance of scaling Annapurna without CO2.

  12. Bob Low says:

    ”What Maisie Knew” or ”Washington Square” might be better places to start James. Much as I like the book, Dan’s description of The Golden Bowl, or the effort involved in reading it, isn’t that far off the mark.

  13. mark says:

    Reading tastes change..Russ, which is a good thing, it means we are remaining open. I studied Eliot’s poetry at school and never ubderstood him..returning to his poetry later in life and realised the depth of it. Never read Henry james apart from The Turn of the Screw which, as stated, is a wonderful psychological story. Saw a stage version of it and it was very atmospheric. Wilkie Collins deserves to be read. There were so many decent writers in the Victorian age but many have been overshadowed by a few. Of course, there were plenty of penny dreadfuls too.

  14. Helen Martin says:

    I’ve never found it possible to ease into an author. I either like that book or I don’t and I’m not sure whether that’s fair. It’s funny how some books are great reading for one person and a slog up Annapurna for another (and I’d prefer oxygen to carbon dioxide). I have every intention of reading The Woman in White and while I never heard of The Law and the Lady it certainly sounds like one I would enjoy. Most Victorian authors seem to become over-heated with their female characters and either drool or droop over them.

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    Helen: Thanks! Now I’m for it. And all because of a natural slip on my part.
    Before we landed each of us had to sign in our own sap that we would never, ever, reveal we lived off CO2 and not oxygen like your people. All the decades of struggle to convince you that YOU were responsible for widening the “carbon footprint”, not us, who were only of necessity modifying the atmosphere to meet a basic need. And what of our many pulped heroes, who went from government to government, as paper reports written by wingnuts, to convince each of you that “climate change” is a bunch of hot air here, cold air with rain in Europe.
    I hear them coming now with their chainsaws, in their long-bed trucks, ready to cut each of us off at the roots. We’ll all be plywood boarding by Monday.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    In that case, Dan, Forest, rather. you were giving off oxygen after inhaling your CO2 which should have made it easier for those of us slogging behind you. Your slog was incredibly slow, of course.

  17. Russ Varley says:

    Mark, you are absolutely right on reading tastes changing and on Wilkie Collins, superb books. As for the many great writers who are now forgotten, Admin’s own column casts light on many of these lost gems. All of which leads me to wonder who will be the forgotten greats of this age?

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