Monday, 27 January 2014

Monday Musings: Making a contract

I've discussed Umberto Eco's message to the reader in his introduction to The Name of The Rose before, and my feelings about his request that the reader slow their mind to the pace of a medieval cloister before embarking upon the novel are still very ambivalent. While such an explicit command in an introduction does feel somewhat patronising, I also know where Eco is coming from. As a writer, you know that you cannot control how the reader comes to your novel, and that there are some novels - The Name of the Rose being one of them - that demand more sustained attention and yes, a slower pace than others. This isn't because the writer deserves respect from the reader before they've earnt it, but because the reader does partly make their reading experience for themselves, and there are books that cannot be enjoyed quickly. There's a suggestion here that we should give the greatest novels more of our precious time, and this is probably why Eco's statement initially comes off as arrogant, but I'm not sure that this is true. While wonderful novels such as Marilynne Robinson's Gilead absolutely deserve time and space, some equally wonderful novels don't need it - think Pride and Prejudice, which ought to be read at full speed. I certainly don't think that The Name of the Rose is a great novel, but it is a rewarding one - if you read it slowly.

Every reader will have confessions of their own to make in this department, and at the risk of sounding too much like the General Confession (or Tyrion Lannister) I'm no exception. I have certainly sinned against many novels, even those that I loved; I have read them too quickly, I have skimmed sections, I have counted pages, I have read just to tick them off a list, I have read a book because I ought to read it. I'm certainly not advocating that we need to read every book with intense concentration, but there are so many I ought to have read better. But where does the author stand in all this? I've heard a number of authors despair over reviews which castigate novels for not telling the story that they wanted to read, and I do sympathise with these authors. Many readers (and I'm sure I've been no exception at times) never consider what an author might have been trying to achieve with a novel or that it is impossible to anticipate all readers' preferences. But (as readers of this pretty acerbic blog will have guessed) this doesn't mean we ought to let authors off the hook. It is possible for authors to guide readers towards reading a text in the way it ought to be read, without writing an Umberto-Eco style introduction. I've seen it done by writers such as Kathleen Jamie, whose prose is just so careful and brilliant that you are inspired to read it carefully; by Eleanor Catton, who skilfully uses storytelling devices such as recaps and retellings to get the reader to pay closer attention; and by Kazuo Ishiguro, who gets his reader in on a conspiracy to catch his unreliable narrators being unreliable.

This does not mean that these authors are immune to bad readers, or conversely, that anyone who dislikes their works has been reading them badly. But herein lies the power of the re-read. I'm a big advocate of re-reading, and when I'm reunited with my full book collection (happy days) I intend to do what Susan Hill did in Howards End Is On The Landing and read nothing but books I have already read for a year. Re-reading books has often delivered me some of my favourites. I wasn't sure about Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, for example, when I first encountered it, but now I think it is one of the best modern novels I have ever read. Of course, the author has to do enough to deserve a re-read, and I certainly don't intend to re-read books I thought were complete duds the first time round - but I'm always a little concerned by readers who say they never re-read. I understand this is a common stance and that it can be very difficult to find the time to read a book once, let alone twice, but - don't you ever want to go back?

That's probably enough from me for now, but next week I will be discussing what novelists can learn from soaps/long-running TV series, featuring such diverse delights as Downton, House, Doctor Who and Holby City. I'm sure nobody wants to miss this.

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