Soppy and feminist.
On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.
One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.
‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.
‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’
That person was wrong. WRONG.
It is about enjoying it.
I’m going to write that bigger:
It *is* about enjoying it
And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.
This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.
The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?
The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.
Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.
But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.
In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?
The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.
But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.
It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.
It’s not surprising that cookery books are the ones that come in for the most punishment. This one gets referred to mainly for the Christmas Eve meal (several courses, most of them fish, in great haste, between the carol service and Midnight Mass) and flavoured vodkas (most of them go like this: dump flavoured component in vodka; leave to steep; strain).
I’m half way through the latest set of edits on A Spoke In The Wheel. Latest of how many? I’ve lost count. It feels like about six, but it can’t really be as many as that. Three or more, anyway. And I am still finding scenes where it isn’t clear which room the characters are in, let alone whether they’re standing, sitting, or swinging from the lampshades.
Dialogue is easy for me. It’s the first thing that appears as the book begins to materialise. I start out with indeterminate blobs in an indeterminate landscape exchanging stinging banter with each other. Perhaps I should write radio plays instead. I have no regrets about my Write Whatever The Hell You Want policy, but sooner or later the time comes when I have to fill in the gaps. And that time is now. I’m working my way through A Spoke in the Wheel – again – and asking myself where people are, and what they’re doing, and then putting in things to indicate that.
I write a lot about characters who are stuck in their own heads. But heads are attached to bodies, and bodies have to be somewhere in space. I’ve had to think more about that this time around, since these particular characters have more reason than most to be aware of their bodies, but even so I keep running across scenes where I can’t tell whether people are in the kitchen or the living room, or which pub they’re in, or what’s happened to the character who must have been there three lines back, because they said something hilarious. Did they tidy themselves out of the way, and, if so, why?
The only way to fix it is piece by piece: adding in a chair here, a glass there, some TV noise in the background. And then, of course, I have to go back to the beginning and see whether my use of chairs and glasses and TV noise is consistent through the book. Every little change can have consequences, rippling forwards and backwards through the text. If I mention a coffee table in chapter 14 (because the bowl that held the jewellery that gets stolen in the burglary has to sit on something) then I have to go back to chapter 3 and make sure it’s there when my characters are eating pizza in front of the telly, or else explain how it comes into the house somewhere in between. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s got to be done.
In a year or so I might try writing a murder mystery: something where I have to know exactly where everyone is, and exactly what they’re doing, all the time. In the meantime, I’m getting there. I am. On this edit, some pages have ended up without any red ink on them at all.
I don’t drive. I do cycle, though. So do many other people in my life. I bought this book for one of them as a birthday present and restrained myself with great difficulty from reading the whole thing before I wrapped it up.
Active Anglicans may well know Dave Walker from his work for the Church Times. His cycling cartoons are just as funny and well-observed.
I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.
Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.
Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.
Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:
- this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
- it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
- it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
- and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
- you’re a one-hit wonder
- everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
- you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
- write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???
But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.
And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.
What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.
That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.
Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.
Then I see what’s wrong with it.
Then I see how to fix it.
And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:
It isn’t finished yet.
Quite often, a book catches my eye and I know the name because it’s been mentioned in another book. Here’s a case in point. Edmund de Waal is Elisabeth de Waal’s son; he talks about The Exiles Return in The Hare with Amber Eyes:
In December 1945 Elisabeth decides that she has to return to Vienna to find out who and what remains. And to rescue the picture of her mother and bring her home.
Elisabeth wrote a novel about her journey. It is unpublished. And unpublishable, I think, as I appraise it in typescript, 261 pages with painstaking tippexed corrections. The rawness of its emotion makes for uncomfortable reading.
It did in fact get published: Persephone, who specialise in obscure and out of print titles by women, brought it out in 2013. I bought it the other week, having read, and loved, The Hare with Amber Eyes earlier in the year.