The other day, I was talking to someone about a recent discussion that had taken place at her book group. The novel under discussion was written about 20 years ago and was a remarkable success story at the time, going on to launch the writer’s notable literary career. I remember loving it when I read it soon after it came out.
This friend from the book group, however, commented that other members said they found the book ‘challenging’ – ‘not easy to get into’ – ‘too slow – things move more quickly these days and we’re used to a faster pace in novels.’ I found these remarks unsettling, but wasn’t sure why …
Of course I never think of the right answer at the time.
About an hour later, when it was too late to resume the discussion, I thought of all my objections to the comments of the book group members.
If people object to a style which is a little slow and ‘not how books are written these days,’ does that mean only contemporary fiction will be read? Do we chuck out the entire canon of 20th century modern literature simply because it doesn’t read like the domestic noir and lit/lite and uplit genres- all newly coined phrases for the kind of literature currently hitting the high spots of the Amazon lists? And as for the great 19th century novel – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy et al who have so much insight and wisdom to offer us – but do, admittedly, require a slower and more careful reading approach – are they to be disregarded simply on the grounds of being slower paced with content that demands reflection and consideration?
The point of book groups, surely, is to ask and encourage people to make a little effort in reading something that does not immediately grab their immediate attention or to alert them to a novel or writer new to them. It always worries me a bit when people claim that a book is wonderful because they ‘couldn’t put it down’ or ‘couldn’t turn the pages fast enough.’ Surely, that’s not the point of a worthwhile, enduring novel – to be read in one bite at a rapid pace. I imagine if we all look back at the books we remember reading, loving and valuing in the past, they are not necessarily the ones with a rapid pace and dramatic climax, but the novels with something to say, offering, however cliched it might sound, a universal truth of some kind.
And please let’s think of the poor novelist!
It takes years to write a book. It takes endless time re-drafting it. Sentences are read over and over again to ensure the cadence, clarity and flow is right. The pace of the plotting constantly needs attention. It then takes time editing it, proof reading it, perfecting it. The perfect title spends ages being elusive, the ideal cover equally so. Then there are the acknowledgements, the dedications, careful to praise, not to overlook and offend.
The thought that a reader is only going to bother to read that novel if it grabs their attention swiftly, easily and demands to be consumed within a few hours is not at all heartening.
I don’t belong to a book group even though I think it’s brilliant that so many more people are reading novels as a result of their creation and popularity. I am not a very ‘group’ person so that’s just a ‘me’ thing rather than a personal objection to their existence. I know book groups all vary in the way they are organised and structured. Some are very sociable, others very serious. The best of them, I think, should be conducted in the spirit of wide, but not judgemental discussions. Of course the delight in reading novels as a group is that everyone brings their own personal response and experience to that debate, but sometimes it seems as if a novel is treated more as a piece of homework to be marked in a narrow, prescriptive way. And as for the idea of awarding marks ….
A novelist has devoted years to his or her work in progress. It is not a school or student essay swiftly rolled off before a Monday deadline. Instead, it’s been a subject of ridiculously early hours ahead of the day job or before the family are awake; it’s received snatched moments in the lunch break, on the commuting journey home; characters have been thought about in the shower or in the waking hours of the middle of the night; endless late hours devoted after everyone else is asleep; days hovering over the laptop during the annual holiday when the others are sensibly sunning on the beach.
This is a novelist’s dedication that should not, in my opinion, be reduced to marks out of 10.
However ‘challenging’ the read, however ‘hard to get into,’ that novel deserves more merit and attention than a reduction to a mere score!