When Authors Go Astray

I had intended to sit down today and write a piece on what happens when your favourite author writes something you really don’t like; that is so unlike the thing you’ve been buying into all these years in terms of genre, style and content that you are left feeling really let down and, well, reeling from it all.

And then along came the advance copies of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to her global bestseller, To Kill a Mockingbird, revealing that our beloved Atticus Finch is really a racist, a bigot. And it has shattered our dreams.

I haven’t read it yet, but I’m reading reviews where people are clinging to the fact that this novel was written earlier than Mockingbird. They are using all the words beginning with D to describe it: ‘disorienting’, ‘disturbing’, ‘distressing’, with New York Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani summarising it thus:

“How could the saintly Atticus – described early in the book in much the same terms as he is in ‘Mockingbird’ – suddenly emerge as a bigot?”

Well this weekend I finally finished The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and could have summarised in a similar way, “how could the Man Booker-prize winning Ishiguro, consistently found to be a writer of great lyricism, melancholy and unrequited feeling – suddenly emerge as an author of a Bad Novel?”

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber)

I hadn’t been aware of any bad reviews at the time because I was (and am) a huge fan who doesn’t want to hear anything negative said about Ishiguro’s novels until I’ve read them myself. When I went back to look, I came upon the blasting from Adam Mars Jones in the LRB, concluding: “From the reader’s point of view it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” I can’t disagree.

From my friends and social-media acquaintances, there was a resounding silence on the book. A few had started it but couldn’t carry on, others had it gathering dust on a shelf (they knew they *should* read it but had been aware of the LRB review) and some just doggedly stuck to the ‘it must have had something brilliant in it that went over my head’ response.

No, guys. It’s just that a great literary novelist has tried to go ‘off-brand’ and written a poor novel. It happens. Let’s give the man a break and hope the Real Ishiguro comes back to us.

I started thinking that there was a pattern emerging between my favourite novelists (curiously all men) who’d all let me down a bit with a bit of a duffer. I could have cried when I started reading David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, which treated the ’80s with the same shoehorned-in references to the culture as Titanic (the movie) did with its clunky ‘What would Dr Freud’ make of this?’ script. Where was the classy surrealist who blew my mind with Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas? Having a break by writing something so utterly pedestrian I had to pretend it didn’t happen. I’ve got The Bone Clocks on my shelf to read next – don’t let me down, David.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (Sceptre)

Then there was William Boyd and his sudden switch into the crime novel in Ordinary Thunderstorms. Stupidly, I loved Boyd so much that I chose this for my book club, thinking I’d wow everyone with his talent for an epic, sweeping storyline, as seen in Restless or Any Human Heart. Nope – it was as though he’d asked his editor if he could ‘have a go’ at crime-writing. Some people didn’t turn up to the book club I hosted because the book was so bad. Thankfully, Waiting for Sunrise signalled a return to form.

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (Bloomsbury)

And then Niall Williams and History of the Rain. This too, is on my bookshelves, but as I read about fifty pages in, that familiar feeling hit me. Gone was Brand Williams – lyrical, surreal, magically real, poetic – and in came a story written by someone I didn’t know, possibly because he was writing in the voice of a young girl, Ruth Swain. I wonder if that had put me off Black Swan Green, too, written in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy. These books are more YA than anything (and incidentlally, Adam Mars Jones thinks the same could be true of The Buried Giant.)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

I think this is what happens when authors writing into a particular genre, veer off in another direction without their readership knowing they’re going to do it. Publishers are culpable, in that they package the books in a similar fashion to their authors’ backlists, hoping they won’t frighten the horses.

I’d much rather they said, ‘literary fiction giant pens young adult/crime/fantasy novel for the first time’ in big letters – I’d still buy it, just to see what they’d done with it, and I wouldn’t feel as though I’d been hoodwinked into reading something ‘off brand’. I can understand an author’s urge to break out of a genre, just like bands do when they go all experimental in later years. The fans may waiver and yearn for the early days, but they do stick with them to see if their favourite band will return to form.

When they don’t for a while, we’re very reluctant to say so, it seems. We need to be able to voice that disappointment and move on, retaining the hope that one day the writing we love so much will come back to us. We do talk about film franchises being disappointing (hello Star Wars prequel) or albums being a disaster, but it just feels to awful to admit that a brilliant author has gone astray, let alone tell all our bookish pals about it. I was told that I was ‘controversial’ for giving Ishiguro one star on Goodreads.

Not controversial, just telling the truth.

Walking is the Way Forward

Walking is having a moment, isn’t it? Well, it is for me.

It started last year when I read a piece by journalist Polly Vernon on how she’s incorporated at least three hours’ walking into her life every day since 2003 – it keeps her fit, slim and her headspace clear. I found myself wondering how long it would take to walk into central London from my home north-west London and Google Maps told me it would be 75 minutes. It seemed like an age, given that I was used to hopping on a bus or a tube and whizzing in under half an hour. But once I started doing it I became hooked, and time passes so quickly when I’m walking, it all seems like a bit of a lovely dream when I get to my destination.

I’ve noticed that I’m gravitating to books about walking, too, and they’re inspiring me more and more. I’ve just finished The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and cried with the joy and grief of his journey. I’ve always loved travel writing and whilst I’ve enjoyed books about people cycling or taking trains or motorbikes across vast continents, I’ve never really read walking books. The first one to inspire me was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild. I first heard the author on the radio (while walking!) reading extracts from her book. She walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own – over a thousand miles from the Mojave desert to Washington State. Reese Witherspoon picked up the movie rights and made a film I wanted to leap into almost as much as the book – I want a Walk of One’s Own.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic)

Then came the wonderful Robert Macfarlane, whom I’ve only just discovered this year. I usually confine my travel reading to foreign lands. Why would I want to read about travelling around Britain? I want to stretch my horizons when I read, not limit them. But I was oh so wrong. Macfarlane’s incredibly intelligent writing in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012, Penguin) has opened up a world that is right on my doorstep. He follows ancient tracks around the world but seems at his most spiritually enlightened on British soil, or on ancient sea trails.

The Old Ways (Penguin)

The Old Ways (Penguin)

I’ve now bought his earlier work, The Wild Places (2007, Granta) and I can’t wait to join him again as he seeks out the wildernesses in Britain and Ireland. The last time I felt like this about a travel author was when I discovered Paul Theroux (Louis’ dad) who is still the One and Only for me.

The Wild Places (Granta)

The Wild Places (Granta)

So now I’m contemplating a Walk of One’s Own. I’m going to walk around the Isle of Wight at the end of July, 69km over four days, five nights. I’m going to tweet it, blog it, review it, Instagram it, and 4G-allowing, Periscope it. I’m now a seasoned solo traveller so the thought of doing this on my own is exciting. I’ve been to Thailand, Turkey, Egypt and the Middle East on my own and blogged about those experiences elsewhere. But what will happen on my own doorstep? Whom will I meet? Where will I stay? Will I collapse after walking 16 miles a day? What will the weather throw at me?

Bring it on. I hope you will join me as I go. More details to come, but in the meantime, here’s my Top Ten Travel Books reading list (excluding the above). Note that all but one of the authors are men – that’s another blog post!

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux (Penguin)

Moods of Future Joys by Alastair Humphreys (Eye)

McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy (Sceptre)

The Full Montezuma by Peter Moore (Transworld)

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin (Vintage)

Sea Room by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins)

Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson (Canongate)

Duende by Jason Webster (Black Swan)

Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon (Penguin)

The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (HarperPerennial)

Why are we so anxious about reading?

There’s a lot of anxiety about reading these days. There’s my own anxiety about losing my ‘reading mojo’ a couple of years ago when I was going through a stressful time, and more recently friends are telling me that they can’t get into a novel because their mind is distracted by social media and their attention span has been reduced to the level of a gnat.

(What is the attention span of a gnat? Just wondering).

Anyway, I think we are in the midst of a Reading Anxiety Epidemic. I know that I can only really get into a novel while on holiday, when wifi access is limited and my mind is free of distraction. If I read a novel at home, it is fitful and stop-starty – not the ideal way to immerse myself in a literary work.

When I talk to people about their reading they are often really worried that they haven’t read a book in ages, or can’t find the time to devote to it, yet they continue to stack up paperbacks on their bulging bookshelves or add ebooks to their Kindle wishlist. Just to add to the guilt.

The same people are often plagued by the books they’ve never read – usually the ‘classics’ – and then they start Ulysses and can’t get beyond ten pages. That then stops them reading anything else because they feel they ‘must’ finish Ulysses before being ‘allowed’ to read something ‘trashy’. (Define trashy, I say).

The two female friends I spoke to seemed very worried about online distractions, their gnat-like attention spans and the growing pile of books in the corner. One of them had even worked out how many books she’d read if they only read one per year for the rest of her life, and was already anxious that it wasn’t nearly enough. What is enough?

The percentages on Kindle help some people tick off their reading in a satisfying way – for me and other people it’s about seeing the chunk of pages we’ve read and marking how far we have to go with a bookmark or, dare I say it, a folded corner. But this implies that we think of reading as a chore, or an achievement, rather than simply a pleasurable experience. Why is that? Why do we think we must read, as opposed to just doing it? And why do we think we must read Ulysses before we can read mass-market fiction?

I think we know that our inner lives are enriched by the experience of reading a book, and our horizons broadened. We know that it enriches our vocabulary and makes us see the world in other ways. It is the process of inhabiting another human brain for days, and coming out enlightened. It is harder work than watching TV – we have to fully engage with the world we are presented with and it inhabits us as we inhabit it. If we read something we think is ‘trash’ we enjoy it, but know it’s not quite doing the same job.

We know we’re in the middle of an epidemic because everyone has started referring to the time it takes to read something. First came the ‘short read’ and the ‘long read’ – I’m still a little unclear on what the timings are on those – and now we’re into an era of timed reading.

Lauren Laverne’s new initiative, The Pool, has organised its features into timed-reading slots for ‘women who are too busy to browse’ (should that be ‘too busy to read?’). Similarly, curated feed site Medium displays a read-time for every post. (I assume these are based on an average reading speed – some people I know are fast skimmers, others take much longer).

If the idea here is to gravitate from a one-minute read to a 12-minute read – which I do regularly on those sites – then I wonder if our ‘gateway’ back to more contented reading lives is via something we’ll enjoy and read quickly, rather than a Tolstoy epic. That’s how I got my reading mojo back.

So whether it’s the new novel Grey by E L James or a bit of Brad Meltzer, we could start by opening up our poor short-circuiting brains and giving them a break from Ulysses. Put all the lists of what we should read that we are bombarded with to one side and start with what we actually want to read.

I’m interested to hear about other people’s reading anxieties, why you think we have them and what you’re doing to combat if you think we should.