New Year, New Us

This year I am determined I am actually going to make some changes. Every year it’s the same old resolutions and every year the default setting quietly settles back into place. And it’s understandable when the past three years have been fraught with violent upheaval. I find myself sort of annoyed at the universe for having given us such a persistent diet of unexpected changes, though in all honesty I suppose they were heading our way for a long time in each case. Anyway, it would be nice to focus just on the changes I actually choose, rather than those that have been forced upon us.

The first thing I really want to change is my tendency to book myself up with work and deadlines for months ahead. It’s an old bad habit and I’m tired of it. That means I’ll be cutting right back on reviews. I’ll do a few for Shiny (BookBuzz remains my prime responsibility) and I have a couple outstanding for this month. After that, enough for the time being. So this blog is also getting a shake-up as I’ll be writing here once a weekend and it will be more of a diary format. Given that my activities, such as they are, mostly include reading, there will still be some talk about books.

My related resolution is that I am going to try not to buy any books this year. No, Mr Litlove doesn’t believe I can do it either. And I might not be able to. But shortly before Christmas I began to tot up how many unread books I own and… well, let’s say it’s enough to keep me busy for a while. For years I’ve been a big supporter of the publishing industry, but I think it’s fair enough to let others take on that role while we have no income.

Last year was somewhat hogged by CFS, but the long-term resting strategy that I’ve been following since the autumn is gradually making a difference, I think. If I can keep going with the pacing, and stay patient, I might be able to improve my health significantly. And if I could work again, I have to wonder what I would do. Supposedly, since I left college in 2012 I’ve been devoting myself to writing, but then the past three years happened, and I haven’t had a decent stab at it. So my plan is to give it one last try, one more year, and if at the end of that I haven’t made any progress, then it’s time to think again. I’ve been considering finding part-time work as a counsellor of some kind, probably working with students one way or another. I have lots of experience but no qualifications, and the qualifications are really expensive to get and will mean going over ground I’m very familiar with. Well, we’ll see; it’s a way off yet. But when I think about what motivates me, I realise I have no desire to be an important person, but I really do want to do something that I think is important. I would like to feel useful again.

One way that I can be useful at the moment is supporting Mr Litlove. This is such an enormous change for him, leaving 25 years of life in industry behind to make furniture. This past week he has had a number of moments of – well, I think the technical term here is ‘wobbliness’. I thought back to when I was made redundant from college and what I remember most clearly is Mr Litlove telling me what a fantastic opportunity it was, and me feeling the most disinclination to write that I had ever felt in my entire life. In many ways, this is the sort of moment that I want most to capture. Because we think that when change comes along, or indeed when we try to be creative, it should all be plain sailing. We’ll make progress like people do in the films, when they show that five-minute training montage. But human nature is contrary, and it is complex. I think we seriously misunderstand creativity, what it feels like, what it demands of us, and that’s something I’d like to think about in much more depth. I daresay Mr Litlove will feel rueful about it at times, but he seems to have become my private study support student.

So, to sum up, 2016 is all about a sharper focus for me. I need a sturdy triage system and essentially this means that I’m only doing things that are a) important, b) really interesting to me and c) fun. And I’m going to try to give up feeling guilty about everything I don’t do (you would not believe my capacity to feel guilty about anything) – as if it helps! And I’ll try to keep myself honest and up to the mark in a weekly blog. This year I mean business – at least until the next thing happens to throw us off course!

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.

In the Middle of a Heatwave

I’m not sure I can describe what I’m in as a blogging slump when I’ve just finished my 13th review for Shiny and have three more to write over the course of the week. But I’m certainly on my way to being all reviewed out. I’d like to say that I don’t know how I ended up with so many reviews to write, but of course I do. It’s too easy to say yes here and yes there, and over the course of three months, those yeses really build up. And this time around I’ve read quite a few books that were very good but for which I wasn’t exactly the right audience, perhaps. It’s funny how hard it is to tell, even after all these years of intensive reading, which books will fall in the sweet spot. It’s part of the fun of reading, the not knowing, but you can fall foul of it too.

Anyway, I’ve decided to take a break from reviewing on this blog. I’ll still keep talking about books – what else is there to talk about? – but there must be other ways to talk about them. I’ve signed up to write some longer literary pieces for another online journal, Numéro Cinq, and I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be a chance to get arty and complex in a way I haven’t done for a while (I’m wondering if I still know how to, we’ll have to see how it goes). But that’s going to be a big call on my time as well. I’m very conscious, too, that I haven’t left as many comments with my virtual friends as I ought to have done lately. I’ve been reading all your brilliant posts but really, I’m running low on words about books. Or maybe just running low on words.

I know blogging ebbs and flows, and that the best thing to do is go with it. I’ll certainly continue to turn up here at least once a week with some sort of dispatch from the reading life, and I can assure you that the Summer edition of Shiny New Books, out on the 9th July, is going to be fab.