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.

Mr Litlove And The X(chromosome)-Files

Mr Litlove had his minor eye operation last week, and it all went off just fine. For the week or so before it took place, whenever he wanted sympathy, he’d put one hand over his eye and present a trembly bottom lip. This was effective enough in itself. When he did emerge from the eye clinic, the miracle that is laser surgery meant that he didn’t even have an eye patch. And yet….the drugs they had given him to enlarge his pupils were pretty potent and with his ears a little downturned from the general unpleasantness of hospitals, he looked exactly like Puss-in-Boots from Shrek.

puss in boots

Love me! Something BAD just happened.

For the rest of that day and most of the next, the only real side effect was the difficulty he had with bright light, not surprising with pupils the size of gobstoppers. But good news! He could still watch television.

I was a little…unnerved, however, to see him heading past me later that first afternoon with the DVD of the Sex in the City movie. As one of my friends once remarked, he is very keen on his alpha male stereotypes and not what you might call a bridge brain.

‘You’re going to watch Sex in the City?’ I asked.

‘Well you enjoyed it,’ he replied.

And I had to admit I thought: this should be interesting.

A little later, when I’d finished some work I was doing, I went through to see how he was getting on. He’d reached the part where Carrie Bradshaw gives a Christmas present to her assistant of a real Louis Vuitton handbag and she practically squeals the place down.

‘This is getting surreal,’ said Mr Litlove. (Ha! I thought) ‘That is the ugliest bag I’ve ever seen.’ (Not surprising; he has strong opinions about women’s clothing, for instance, he thinks Ugg boots are particularly aptly named.) ‘Look at it, it wouldn’t go with anything!’ (Okay, that was more metrosexual of him than I’d expected.)

I settled down to watch for a while, and tried to wipe tears away discreetly. But I really did have other things I should be doing. So I said I’d leave him to it.

‘We can’t be far off the end,’ he said.

‘There’s quite a bit more to go.’

He shook his head in disbelief. ‘It’s amazing how they can make such a long film in which nothing happens!’

Nothing happens? Carrie gets jilted at the alter, Miranda splits up with Steve and reconciles with him, Charlotte gets pregnant, Samantha does a whole host of Samantha-type things, there are fashion shows and holidays abroad and a lot of angsting over emotional intelligence-based life decisions, but, no, nothing happens. Several more hours passed before I saw him again.

‘So what did you think of the film?’

‘At the end?’ said Mr Litlove. ‘When Carrie and Big make up in that walk-in closet he’s supposed to have built for her?’

‘Yes?’

‘I just couldn’t understand how he’d got it out of the space. He must have bought the next door apartment, too, and knocked a wall down.’

On the whole it was much as I expected; he could have used subtitles. Well, life moved on and I thought no more about it, would have forgotten it entirely except that the next day, as I passed the television and Mr Litlove in front of it, a familiar face caught my eye. I looked again. Yes, it was Kirsten Stewart….in the snow…and wasn’t that boy supposed to be a werewolf?

‘Is that really one of the Twilight sequels you’re watching?’

Mr Litlove started guiltily. ‘I was just curious,’ he said.

How curious?’

For a little while I got quite excited about the potential storyline: man goes into hospital for routine eye operation, but emerges with a whole new gender perspective. You could sell it as The Snow Queen meets What Women Want. But after that there were no further cinematic surprises. Whenever I walked past the television, there were men shooting each other on it, or comedy panel shows.

Yesterday evening, Mr Litlove asked me if I had a topic for a blog post yet. Since I am ethically committed to warnings, I said, ‘Yes, you.’ He winced. ‘Now don’t be like that,’ I said. ‘Your loyal fans love hearing about your exploits, and I thought I’d tell them about the weekend of chick flicks.’

‘That just showed how low I was,’ Mr Litlove replied, gruffly.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced. Mr Litlove was wearing his rowing gear, as he’s been competing all this week in the town ‘bumps’. Having caught up with the boat in front of them on the course and bumped, he was wearing the traditional branch of willow. But he hadn’t just stuffed it down the back of his shirt, he’d twisted it into a delightful laurel wreath, and being Mr Litlove, he’d managed to make the leaves particularly perky.

Maybe he’d learned a little something, after all.

 

 

Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.

 

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.