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.

Three Unique Voices

janice gallowaySometimes it’s good to read a book that does things a little differently and shakes up the reading experience. Scottish writer, Janice Galloway, is an author with an exceptionally dry wit, a poet’s use of words and a tendency to use white space on the page with great innovation. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, inhabited the inside of a young teacher’s head as she spiralled into breakdown, which might not sound awfully tempting, but is actually so well done and so witty and perceptive that the synopsis is misleading. If you wanted to try her, though, I might suggest beginning with her two volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me, and All Made Up. They are straight narratives, wonderfully written, about the sort of crazy childhood that is a gift to a talented writer. I wrote a profile of her for Numero Cinq, the new (to me) literary journal I mentioned, if you’d like to know more.

Hotel AndromedaI also recently finished Hotel Andromeda, by the outstanding Gabriel Josipovici. This short novel revolves around Helena, an art critic struggling to write a book about the odd, reclusive American artist, Joseph Cornell. Cornell created a series of artworks, slim boxes containing a collage of writing paper from seedy French hotels with glamourous names (Hotel Andromeda, Hotel de l’Univers, etc) and images from classical mythology, that are evocative but defy clear meaning. Does the mythology elevate the seediness of the French hotels, or do the hotels corrupt the mythology? With art this undecidable, it’s not surprising that Helena wants a new form to discuss it, not a conventional critique or biography. The action in the foreground of the novel concerns Ed, a photo journalist recently made to leave Chechnya where he was covering the conflict. He turns up on Helena’s doorstep, saying he is a friend of her sister, Alice, who is out in Chechnya as an aid worker, helping to run an orphanage. Helena is hungry for details of her sister who never writes, and who she believes despises her work for its seemingly useless abstraction. Ed assures her this isn’t so, that her sister admires her, and feels her own work to be hopeless, an insufficient drop in an ocean of human suffering.

One of Joseph Cornell's Hotel Andromeda boxes

One of Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Andromeda boxes

So this is a novel which, in the simplest of ways possible, starts to play with irreconcilable extremes – what kind of a life has meaning? One in which we turn to the best in humanity, its creativity and art, or one that deals with the worst, its brutality and violence? Is Western civilisation an aberration that is bound to revert, over time, to the tyrannies that dominate the rest of the world? How are we even to understand a world that can contain such extremes of beauty and evil? I do love the way that Josipovici writes such lucid, easy stories, based on very natural dialogue, that blossom out into powerful, provocative ideas.

jeff burseyFinally, I’ve been reading my friend, Jeff Bursey’s, latest novel, Mirrors On Which Dust Has Fallen. You may remember a few years back I reviewed his first book, Verbatim; A Novel, which took the form of written reports from a fictitious Canadian parliament. This new novel creates a panorama of the fictional province itself, exploring the lives of a cross-section of inhabitants as they unfold against one another in the mid 1990s. There are a number of featured locations – the local radio station, Johnny’s Bar, the Catholic churches, the art gallery, the offices of a clothing warehouse, and numerous family sitting rooms. It’s a really tricky book to describe, because everything I might say about it is not entirely accurate. It’s a highly realistic novel in many ways, the voices that weave it together are all exactly the kind you’d hear if you stood in the middle of a bar and listened to everything going on around you, but then we often hop in and out of the characters’ heads, too. In the opening chapter, we’re following disgruntled employee, Loyola, as he packs suits for distribution, but when he turns the radio on to listen to the lunchtime news, it becomes a portal that shoots us down into the studios of the radio station. So we readers move about the world of Bowmount in an unusually fluid and dynamic way.

That being said, most of the chapters sink down deep into the characters and their preoccupations. The action arises out of everyday concerns, and yet it also has that edge of satire to it. Whilst a lot of the interest revolves around uncongenial work places, subject to ever more ruthless management directives, there’s also a notable and extensive debate around the place of the Catholic faith at the dog end of the 20th century, fraught as it is in Bowmount with a shameful number of sexual scandals involving children. And equally prominent is the place of art, as explored through a painter creating a very unusual tryptich and a photographer of graphic sexual images. Characters have their fervent opinions, which they impress upon others, and discussions, as they often do in reality, are a mass of interruptions, declarations and exclamations.

The reading experience was, for me, a highly unusual one. Sometimes, I felt like I was looking at swarming bacteria in a petri dish, everything felt so up close and I was so deep into it. I had to put the book down in order to gain sufficient distance to see the relationships of everyone intertwined in this microcosm, to feel the outlines of the story again. There were parts (mostly in bars) where I felt very entangled in the dialogue, but then there were other places when the head-hopping was fluid and lovely, as in a wedding service near the end of the book where we shift between a number of storylines that have been developing over the course of the narrative, each unfolding inside a different character’s head. Which is to say that you are taken through a number of experiences that are oddly akin to the experience of reality, whilst being at the same time clearly artificial and only possible in the realm of storytelling.

I had to look up the title, which seems to come from Bahá’í teaching and talks of children as being mirrors on which no dust has fallen, clear receptors of their world. As opposed, then, to the characters in this novel, whose perceptions are all cloudy from experience, disappointment and desire. It’s a really unique and unusual novel, quite unlike anything else I’ve read, I think.


Frenchman’s Creek

johnny deppEver since the success – and general pervasiveness – of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I’ve found it hard to imagine a pirate without the vision of a heavily guylinered Johnny Depp floating across my mind. But the pirate in Daphne du Maurier’s romantic classic, Frenchman’s Creek, is not very Deppish at all. He is refined and artistic, thoughtful and efficient, a gentleman warrior whose crimes are mostly bloodless. He is not a drunken maniac, teetering on the edge of madness. And yet still Johnny Depp’s face persisted. Oh, popular culture, what an unexpected stranglehold you exert!

frenchman's creekDu Maurier’s novel, first published in 1941, stands up very well indeed to present day reading, partly because it’s already set in a Restoration past, partly because the heroine is as spirited and lively as any modern reader could wish. Dona St Columb is a spoiled party girl, bored with marriage to an aristocratic oaf, and desperate for some release for her excessive energies. She’s caused scandal in London already, frequenting taverns with her husband and his cronies, wearing men’s breeches to ride her horse bareback, flirting with all the beaus who cross her path. Shortly before the story begins, she has taken her quest for fun too far, pretending to be a highwayman with the rather sinister Lord Rockingham and threatening the carriage of a rich elderly lady. Sickened by her own behaviour and determined to escape the unwholesome influences at Court (of which Rockingham is clearly the worst), she takes her two young children down to Cornwall, where her husband’s childhood estate, Navron, is situated.

Navron is evoked every bit as gorgeously as you might expect, and at first all Dona wants is peace and quiet. There’s only one servant in situ when she arrives, a strange little man called William, who is quite adroit at being both cheeky and deferential to her, a combination she rather admires. Though when she finds tobacco and a book of French poetry in her bedside drawer, she wonders if she should sack him for the impudence of sleeping in her chamber when she was not there. Not long after her arrival, she is visited by one of the local lords, a very ponderous and smug man called Godolphin, who warns her that the coast is being terrorised by a French pirate and his band. Ships and jewels have been taken, local women have been ‘distressed’, and Godolphin is all for summoning Harry, Dona’s husband, to protect her.

In actual fact, it’s Dona that the locals will need protecting from, for of course, you will have guessed by now whose tobacco was by her bed, and whose servant William is. Dona stumbles on the pirates at anchor in a hidden creek on her own land, and before you can say ‘not a bit like Johnny Depp’, she has fallen passionately in love with their Captain and taken to piracy with a ready will. It’s represented in the story as a sort of fulfilling-her-potential affair, a matter of growing up and finding her soulmate, though really all she’s done is swap a botched attempt at amateur crime for a more encouraging attempt as a professional. But hey, du Maurier tells her tale with terrific verve and panache and frankly I didn’t even care, it was such a fun piece of froth.

Although that’s unfair. It just so happened that while I was reading the book, I also read an essay by Adam Phillips entitled ‘On Getting Away With It’. If there’s one imperative in Frenchman’s Creek, it’s that Dona and the pirates should get away with their activities, though as a mother and a wife, Dona has limits to what she can give up lightly. Phillips points out that getting away with things is in no ways a ruination of the law, in fact, transgression needs the law in order to be validated. You can’t be getting away with something there’s no injunction against. What happens is that the character changes while the world stays the same, and what changes is that the character swaps being a Good Person, for being an Impressive Person.

This makes a lot more sense when applied to the laws in place for women in 1941, or indeed in the Restoration period. Restrictions on women’s behaviour were not about to lift any time soon, the only option they had was to try to find their adventures in a space outside the law and hope to get away with it. It’s funny how most fiction assures us that you can’t get away with things – that there will be a price to pay of some kind, a final reckoning or an absolute judgement. But Daphne du Maurier allowed her heroine to be impressive at the cost of being good. Perhaps also in 1941, in the middle of the war in Britain, women were actually getting away with more danger and excitement than they had ever been able to access before. Maybe Daphne saw how they could finally play at being boys, just as she had always longed to do herself.

Frenchman’s Creek is vintage du Maurier, a quick and engrossing read with a romance that is not in the least sentimental, portrayed in writing that has a touch of class. I thought I’d enjoy it, and was surprised by how much I did.

Friends, I continue to be a dreadful blogger but I have not abandoned you, as it may seem. There are all sorts of things going on chez Litlove that I am not able to tell you about at the moment but will as soon as I can. Nothing to worry about, we’re all fine, but big changes on the way. I’m just a bit distracted!

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