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.

The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.

Lying

You may well be familiar with the paradox of the Cretan liar, the Cretan who says: ‘All Cretans are liars,’ thus presenting a difficult act of deduction. Do we believe her or not? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, is the most audacious elaboration of this paradox that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. It’s a memoir that attempts to express the deepest, most twisted realities of Slater’s identity and her troubled relationship to her mother – and not a word of it might be true.

LyingWhen she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. Lauren’s father fades into the background, a spineless Hebrew School teacher, leaving centre stage in their family life to his socially ambitious wife. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Initially her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But when she is sent to the nuns whose special program teaches her how to fall without hurting herself, the will Lauren finds to help her is quite different to the one her mother insists upon. There are two types of will, she explains.

Will A is what we all learn, the hold your head high, stuff it down, swallow your sobs, work hard kind of will. Will B, while it seems a slacker thing, is actually harder to have. It’s a willingness instead of a willfulness, an ability to take life on life’s terms as opposed to putting up a big fight. It’s about being bendable, not brittle, a person who is brave enough to try to ride the waves instead of trying to stop them.’

The discovery of Will B seems to offer genuine hope and enlightenment to Lauren, as well as a way of escaping her mother’s clutches. But then puberty comes around and everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. In the end she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. Oh, and she’s also left with those personality disorder symptoms I mentioned before – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. Writing begins to take on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. Lauren begins an intense and unhappy affair with another writer (and sexual compulsive) who had wanted to mentor her, and when this ends and she is left in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, no such operation would ever be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch, or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate, or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth, or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ How can we pretend that things are real or not real when half the time we’re not even sure ourselves? When reality can feel like a dream, or like such a vivid intense experience that we can’t believe it when other people tell us it wasn’t so, it wasn’t that way. How can we be completely sure that our memories are accurate? Or that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t true?

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.”’

And the thing is, no reader can accuse Lauren Slater of not being honest about the way she toys with us. The book opens with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy (who needless to say, does not exist) in which he tells us exactly what we will be up against when reading this memoir:

[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

So, are you horrified yet? At the idea of a memoir about a debilitating form of epilepsy that might not be factually true? About a non-fiction writer refusing to tell her readers what actually happened and what is a construct?

But what if this memoir really is the truth of Slater’s life? What if she is a natural confabulator, uncertain herself what is real and what is fantastic? What if she is just more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections? What if our identities were all composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? I think it’s more truthful to say that they are, than that they are not. I think that Lauren Slater asks us to confront a very disturbing truth of the human condition – and of storytelling – when she draws our attention to the very blurred boundary between truth and fiction.

A final intriguing point. Halfway through this book, I had a small, disconcerting thought. I went to my bookshelves and found that yes, I had this book twice, once in an American edition entitled Lying, once in a UK edition entitled Spasm. The blurb on the back of the American edition admits immediately that this is a book about the uncertain line between fact and personal fiction. The UK edition begins with the epileptic fits and the surgery, stating that by then the ‘psychological reflex was ingrained’ of inventing and exaggerating. Two utterly different perspectives on the same book. Which one is more true?