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.

Shiny Summer!

Shiny New Books Edition 6 is now live, hurray!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245It’s a packed programme over there, as always, with loads of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprinted books, as well as the BookBuzz section which has all kinds of intriguing interviews and features.

Okay, where to send you first? Well, given I’ve been so absent from this blog, I’ll link to a few reviews of my favourite books this time.

Probably the most moving and engaging book I read for this edition was One Life by Kate Grenville, a biography of her mother and a deft social history of the 20th century in Australia.

But you should definitely check out Threads,  Julia Blackburn’s quest for the lost painter and embroiderer, John Craske, a fisherman whose experience of chronic illness turned him to art.

As for fiction, I probably enjoyed most Paradise City by Elizabeth Day, a four-handed narrative between disparate London-dwellers whose lives interact in surprising ways.

I’ll also mention Early Warning by Jane Smiley, second in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. I loved it, but you really do need to read the first volume first.

As for my own section, BookBuzz, there’s so much there that I really loved. Check out Anne Goodwin’s fascinating account of creating her unusual main protagonist in her debut novel Sugar and Snails.

And oh, choices! How about Tony’s account of being on the shadow jury for this year’s IFFP?

Finally, the book we’ve chosen for book club in August is Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, so now you’ve got six weeks to read it if  you’d like to join in with our discussion on the 20th August. Do hope you will!

 

 

 

 

The Inconvenient Past

I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.

Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.

the tutorIn Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.

the hourglass factoryIn The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.

Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.

So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?

For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?

It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.

In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.

 

The Almost-Made-Its

I’ve read a lot of books over the past couple of months, not all of which proved quite right for Shiny. The following are two very gentle, very undemanding novels that work well on their own terms and only missed the cut because they were a little too sweet and cosy for a general recommendation.

 

Francesca and the Mermaid by Beryl Kingston

francesca and mermaidThis is a romantic fairy tale in modern day dress. Francesca is on a holiday cruise with her partner, the intolerably bumptious Jeffrey, when she spots a mermaid splashing in the waters. Surprised by the sight, she finds herself confiding in a fellow passenger, Agnes Potts, who is older and a little infirm, but sprightly in spirit and a straight talker. As the days pass it becomes clear to Francesca that the mermaid is a harbinger of great change and a sign that she should put her life in order. Jeffrey is behaving even more obnoxiously than ever, and by the end of the holiday she decides to leave him. Agnes invites her to stay with her in Lewes, offering Francesca a wonderful retreat from the world in her untidy house, and while recovering the lost shape of herself, Francesca decides to start painting again, taking the mermaid as her first subject. This painting will introduce her to widowed Henry Prendergast who owns the local potteries, and who has plans to alter Francesca’s life in all possible ways.

There’s an almost magical moral universe at work in this novel, in which Francesca’s fortunes just get better and better, despite the villainous Jeffrey’s rather weak attempts to derail her. Creativity, success, friends, love, security, money, all begin to shower down upon her, and we are told, often, that this was the happiest of all times for her. In fact, the insistance on paradise and good fortune ended up making me feel that some terrible sadness had been at work in the author’s life, this was a novel of such fierce wish fulfillment. And then I noticed that the dedication was to a lost son. There might be no connection at all; best to pay me no attention. In any case, this is the novel to give to someone going through hard times who wants uninterrupted comfort in their reading. The good characters are richly rewarded, their lives healed and their desires satisfied, whilst the bad characters get their comeuppance. It is charming, and sometimes touching but it can be a little overwhelming in its goodness.

 

The Whitstable Pearl Mystery by Julie Wassmer

whitstable pearlSet over the course of Whitstable’s annual oyster festival, this is the first in what I imagine will be a new crime series featuring Pearl Nolan, a seafood restaurant owner who has always harboured a desire to become a detective. Years ago, a teenage pregnancy prevented her from entering the police, but now that Charlie is grown up and away at university, Pearl has a little more time on her hands and she starts a fledgling private investigation agency out of a shed at the bottom of her garden. And then it just so happens that she stumbles upon a couple of corpses in quick succession, one of which is her old and dear friend, Vinnie, a local fisherman, the other the first ever client to call upon the services of her agency.

Curious and determined to become involved in the investigation, Pearl dogs the footsteps of the Chief Inspector assigned to the case, Mike McGuire, in a way that in real life might well earn her a charge of obstructing the course of justice. But eventually her knowledge of the local area, and the local people, provide her with some useful leads. The investigation is also easing Pearl over a difficult time in her family, as Charlie’s new and perfect girlfriend, Tizzy, is driving a gap between mother and son, and we’re given a hint that romance between Pearl and Mike McGuire is not entirely out of the question.

This is a very easy book to read (the author is a regular writer for Eastenders, in case you’re interested) with a strong sense of place and a neatly unspooling plot. The characters are lively and well-drawn, and it’s essentially one of those novels that feels as if you’re watching a good quality midweek television drama. I did enjoy it, and it’s well-constructed, so it’s hard to say what holds me back from a full appreciation. I think it lacks a bit of spark, something to make it more memorable than it is. But in all honesty, I hardly ever read the first book in a crime series as I tend to think they are never as good as the ones that follow subsequently. If you enjoy relatable, cosy crime then definitely consider giving this one a try, and I’ll certainly be curious to see where the author takes her characters as the series continues.