Authors read a lot – it’s part of our continued professional development, if you like. But it’s more than that – reading’s an obsession. I learned to read at three years old– my mum taught me and I was a receptive learner – I would read everything from cereal boxes and advertising hoardings to any magazine or paperback I could get my hands on. I read the Bible, the Qur’an, the Reader’s Digest, The Daily Mirror – if it had words, I’d read it. By the time I was eight, my favourite novel was the Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas. I found it in the school library, a tatty old red book with crumpled covers but the characters, the tension, the setting transported me to a place I’d never imagined could be and I was hooked.
In Primary school, I read novels by Blyton, Coolidge, Montgomery – all the stories my mum read in her childhood and thought I’d love because they had role models of imaginative, intelligent and sensitive girls. At that point, I was still developing my literary tastes and I knew no better. It was a book so I lapped it up, enjoying some stories more than others but devouring every word from start to finish.
As a teenager, I experienced what happens when the angel of literature spreads her wings wide. Books leapt towards me from libraries, from junk sales and charity shops. I read Salinger, Harper Lee, Bashevis Singer, the Brontës x3, Solzhenitsyn, Camus, Sartre, Donleavy, Kerouac. I loved them all. And then I read Jane Austen and formed a strong opinion.
In my early twenties, I had a friend who adored Austen. She was a vibrant woman, a strong personality, from Puerto Rico, so she adored the eccentric Englishness of Austen. My friend loved to reflect on the role of women in British society at that point in time: their power, or lack of it, and the simple ways they could assert themselves. We had long conversations about it. She explained how she enjoyed Austen’s style, her pace, the language, the setting, the way the romances unfolded. I couldn’t see it at all. To me it was just a boring tale about privileged women with not much else to do except fuss over societal mores and wait around for a characterless man with a lot of money to pay attention to them.
Later, much later, I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I loved it. It was an exceptional novel and I enjoyed every moment. Particularly, I adored the character of Boris, who was unpredictable and funny. The story was well told, pacy and plausible. It was one of those books I couldn’t put down, a laugh-out-loud, glue- your-eyes to-each-page book. So I sought out two more books by Donna Tartt – The Secret History and The Little Friend. I wasn’t really motivated by one and the other I couldn’t finish. I pondered a long time on why I loved The Goldfinch and didn’t like the others and I decided, finally, that it was simply just me. Liking books is a subjective thing and while The Secret History might have been ideal for some readers, it was just not my type of book.
This led me to think about the huge respect I have for any writer, whatever their genre, whether they are published or still at the stage of writing a novel. It is a task of incredible resilience akin to running a marathon, cycling the Tour de France or climbing Everest. There are highs and lows, joys and trepidation. It takes stamina and guts to finish 100,000 words of A novel, then go back and rip loads of it out again to make it better in the hope that someone will read it and like it.
I was at a writers’ meeting last week. An experienced and intelligent woman, who writes historical stories was talking about her methodology, how she uses a flexible formula to make her style work. Another bubbly woman, a writer of popular romcoms, was explaining how piqued she felt when an editor was critical of her story. I said little and listened a lot. These writers were discussing the vagaries of creating a popular novel. The historical writer mentioned a trope she’d used in her first novel and her intention not to use it for the future because someone had said they didn’t like it in a review. This led me to think how many books I had read, loved and yet I’d never paused to say so in any forum the writer might read. There is a whole different blog post waiting to be written about reviews and how we should respond to them as writers.
Good reviews are wonderful and I’m so grateful for people from across the globe who have said wonderful things. The Swedish lady who wanted one of my novels to become a film and wrote to my publisher to say so was the highlight of my week not so long ago. I hope someone in a position of film-making decisions is listening! Of course, there are reviews that are less complimentary, some we can learn from and some that have little use. For example, someone once wrote in a review about the best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, that it wouldn’t pass GCSE English Language. I doubt whether Gail Honeyman gives a monkey’s – I certainly wouldn’t, in her place. (And it’s a great book!)
Last week, I read a novel by an author I know, whom I like as a person. I loved it. It sat perfectly within its genre, the characters were well-drawn and it made me laugh out loud. But I wonder what I’d have said to her had I not liked it. I always feel a bit bad when I don’t like a book. It feels disrespectful to admit it to someone after they’ve put so much work into it that it hasn’t moved me at all. But there are some novels I really can’t get on with. I read one ages ago, a romantic novel about a woman in her fifties who meets a new man: it was recommended to me. I hated it so much – I thought the main character was feeble, underdeveloped and the male romantic interest was a facile twit. The plot was banal and the setting unimaginative.
I felt so awful about being negative. I went back to my response to the novel and tried again. The plot was valid enough, the pace was ok, the characters inoffensive, but the outcome was still predictable and I couldn’t see any point in reading it: I’d gained nothing, finding no way of immersion in the story.
But the book had sold well, the author was quite popular. So I concluded from this that I was just not target audience. There are certainly a bunch of people out there who have bought and loved this book – it has given them that feel-good transportation to another person’s world and they have benefited from it. I should just shut up. Maybe the people who loved that book would hate stuff by novelists I adore – Dostoyevsky and Winterson, Shamsie and Doyle. My opinion is simply that – just an opinion, one person’s opinion amongst many others, and so I have to conclude that, although that book’s not for me, the novel would be a crowd-pleaser to someone in a different crowd. It would be wrong for me to dismiss a book on the grounds that I think my response is the right one or has the right to be prevalent over others who might actually enjoy it. It’s best to say nothing at all.
So I continue to read widely and enthusiastically: books I love are books that teach me something, or take me to a new place or introduce me to another way of thinking. Books I don’t like are still part of my education – I need to consider why I don’t like them and what sort of audience would relish every word. Alright, so I spend more time thinking about why I don’t like some books and less time on others – that’s natural. But I’ve now resolved never to be negative about a writer, to keep my opinions of books I don’t enjoy to myself. I don’t want to influence anyone else.
Writing a novel is hard work. It’s not in my nature to jeopardise someone’s accomplishment or spoil their pleasure. I wouldn’t shove a stick into the spokes of a Tour De France rider while he or she was huffing and puffing up Mont Ventoux. I might even extend a hand and give them a helpful push along, or some words of encouragement: Allez, allez! Or I might simply watch them go on their way to the finish line and hope they enjoy their journey. The going is hard enough for them – they may be a winner, achieve a strong finish or they may fall off onto hard gravel. So similarly it is with writers. I wish them all the best. There will be no harsh words from me.