Developing Your Reading Tastes
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.