In praise of difficult books

There was a chorus of outrage at last week’s Birkbeck novel writing class.

‘Unreadable!’ ‘Unbearable!’ ‘So irritating!’ ‘I hated it!’

No, we hadn’t got carried away criticising some poor soul’s latest writing exercise. We were venting our feelings about the set book we’d been asked to read for this week’s session, Ali Smith’s novel The Accidental. As you can perhaps tell, it’s not an easy read.

The tutor was dismayed – not by the reactions, but by the numbers of people who hadn’t read the book, or who had read only the first handful of pages before tossing it aside in exasperation. When one student protested that we hadn’t read it because we didn’t like it, she was scornful. ‘Do you only read books you like?’ she asked.

Good question. I was glad that I had persisted with The Accidental, despite loathing the first chapter of whining, stream-of-consciousness adolescent cleverness. It is a deliberately clever book, making few concessions to my preference for likeable characters, twisting plot lines and witty, articulate prose.

One of the difficulties we all face as novice writers is creating appropriate narrative voices, constructing interlinking plot lines and handling point of view. There was an enormous amount to be learned about all of these in The Accidental. It’s stylistically ambitious, insisting on carrying you inside the heads of some pretty unsympathetic characters and forcing you to see life from their perspective. It succeeds breathtakingly well. It’s not an easy ride.

It also made me realise how little I’d challenged myself with my reading in recent years. Thinking back to university days, I remember groaning my way through the interminable Don Quixote, being baffled by Chaucer’s Middle English, feeling lost in Blake’s labyrinthine mythology, driven to despair by the twists and false turns of Tristram Shandy. Later, fed up with the cleverness of men, I refused James Joyce and turned instead to Virginia Woolf, and side-stepped The Wasteland (since rediscovered, and one of my favourite poems) to read Sylvia Plath.

But the point was I had been frogmarched through the development of Western literature, learning along the way about the development of narrative, the evolution of English from its many sources, the influence of religion and mythology on stories and the creation of whole worlds. Part way through my course, I remember thinking that history was much more useful. I wondered how it could ever benefit the world for me to express my thoughts about Jane Austen, or Shakespeare, when so many much more intelligent people seemed to have sewn it up long ago. I didn’t realise at the time that this was purely for my benefit, not the benefit of the world.

There are two things a writer must do, we are constantly told: write a lot, and read a lot. I’d add, read a lot of everything, not just what you like. Challenge yourself. Read stuff you hate, that makes you feel like you’re back at school, that makes you yawn or throw the book across the room. I once ripped up a Martin Amis book, out of sheer rage. What did I learn from it? That you can move people to intense emotion through writing. Better to hate a book than shrug and feel as if you might have read it before.


1 Comment

Filed under Books, Writing

One response to “In praise of difficult books

  1. I go by Pope’s:

    A little learning is a dangerous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

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