It's always the same, after the event you always think of the things you could have said, so this time instead of brief notes I decided to write a 'proper talk' to read out.
A write-up of the event at The Times here.
More later on all the actual and online discussions because some important points have stuck in my mind, but in the meantime, while I go and get the washing on, here's what I actually said.
So how in heaven’s name has this happened?
What on earth is a bookaholic sock-knitting quilter from Devon who happens to be a community nurse in her spare time doing on the platform speaking at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival?
And what from all that qualifies me to talk and write about literature as I do on dovegreyreader scribbles? Not a great deal you may think, in fact let me tell you, there is great consternation that I will unwittingly slip into my more familiar territory, my highly acclaimed talk on Negotiating with Terrorists, How to Manage Your Toddler’s Tantrums...in fact if things get tricky up here it might all come in handy...
But I’m very grateful for the opportunity to speak and like my blog, this overview will be entirely personal and subjective, I make no apology for that, perhaps it will help reach a consensus.
It seems mildly sycophantic to launch right into a quote from someone else on the platform but you know me, sometimes I just can’t stop myself, John Carey said it first and I must sneak it in before he does,
‘ Like all criticism of art or literature, my judgements are camouflaged autobiography, arising from a lifetime’s encounters with words and people that are mostly far too complicated for me to unravel.’
Me too John, but please bear with me as I unravel a few to clarify and explain my position. Anyone who visits dovegreyreader will already know quite a lot about me, for those who don’t here’s a very brief resume.
I was a coronation year baby, grew up in a typical post-war 1950's family. I would pass the 11+, go to a Girl’s Grammar School and I would be a nurse, it was all decided quite early on. My mother’s theory was that a degree was training for nothing; the war had deprived her of a career so I would be trained for something.
Some of us still did as we were told in the 1960’s. I did go to Grammar school and I sailed into two years of English A Level classes with my student nurse place at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital assured, and a delightful teacher called Miss Maud who left me to love the books whilst everyone else sweated over Oxbridge entrance. I have lived to bless those two years. My essays were terrible, but my love of reading since the age of five had been woven inextricably into my adult life. I took that love of reading with me into my nursing career, marriage, motherhood and finally, in 1996 along that early path not taken.
With three teenagers and a full time health visitor caseload of about 400 children under the age of 5, I decided to do that degree in English Literature in my spare time. My motive was simple, I hungered for a deeper understanding of what I was reading and I wanted to read so much that I felt I had missed. Someone was going to have to make me do it and it wasn’t the NHS, fortunately the Open University did and mostly at 2 o’clock in the morning for the next six years.
With that understanding, came a language with which to explain what my heart had always known but my mind had never quite been able to articulate, but I was really not a lot better off. Once all that literary theory had sunk into the mud and the useful stuff had risen to the surface, the view of the Tamar valley from my window looked no different; it remained outstandingly beautiful but had not overnight become the hub of the literary universe. Suddenly I felt I had a voice I could use but one which just echoed back at me from the pages of my hand-written reading journals. As my mother had so wisely said, a degree is training for nothing; I needed to put it to good use.
Dovegreyreader was born of a selfish desperation to share a lifelong passion for reading and a love of books that I had enjoyed, and I was hopeful, but not certain that perhaps a few people might read it. I had recently read all Margaret Atwood’s novels in succession; surely someone somewhere wanted to talk about Margaret Atwood?
I have never pretended to be a literary critic and nor do I really class myself as a book reviewer; both require an element of objective and controlled detachment which I get in spades from the hours of 9-5. I spend my working days listening to people’s narratives, often very traumatic stories, which I then have to write up in a very objective, factual clinical format. Fiction gets me into trouble. My job is not to pass subjective judgement, I have to make calm, rational and professional assessments; you develop a detached empathy towards the grim realities of life to protect yourself.
To be a rounded human being there has to be a balance to that, books and reading allow me to access my inner Tigger with impunity. When it comes to books, yes, I’m a hopelessly demented bouncy, flouncy, trouncy, pouncy Tigger, and I’m afraid a blog has let this Tigger loose on the world.
I wanted a recognizable voice and the only one I can do is mine, so what you read is me. I wanted to write it as a conversation about books and in a very different way from the review pages, much less about this-happened-then-that-happened and much more about
· how had a book affected me?
· why was it special ?
· what had grabbed me ?
· what else did it remind me of ?
· what would it make me want to read next ?
· why would I press this book on you if we met in the street ?
· You probably know enough now to run in the opposite direction!
Again I return to the fact that what I bring to my reading is camouflaged autobiography, my life events, my memories, and I share those too on the blog and often snippets of rural life, because though my reading slots into my context with ease, that may not be the same for everyone and I try to justify that.
Everyone has a unique eye, thirty years as a health visitor has given me mine.I wanted to offer some analytical depth closely allied to my perceptions of everyday life, but not to the point where readers felt inadequate or excluded by literary language or any sense of elitism or pomposity. Pomposity on a blog invites death by a thousand comments. I decided very early on that I would not do excoriating criticism. Life is galloping by, why waste valuable time panning books for which I’m the wrong reader when there are so many for which I’m the right reader ? My reading is for pleasure after all
But writing anything for the public domain is not without its responsibilities. In my day to day work I’m professionally accountable and have to work to high ethical standards and a written code of conduct, most professions work in a similar fashion these days so why should the world of literary criticism and book reviewing be any different? I may profess to do neither, I’m sharing a love of good books but if I want my blog to be taken seriously, if I am pushing personal opinions out into the ether then I must be responsible and accountable for them too, no matter whether people see it as yammering or follow its every word and quote it in the press. That might all seem excessive but it’s very important to me.
I take it seriously, and from the outset trust, honesty, transparency and humour have been paramount. If there is an interest to be declared then I will declare it. Let’s suppose next week Ian McEwan takes me out to dinner at The Ivy just as I am about to read and then share my thoughts on the blog about his latest book, of course I’d have to tell you.
What ??? The Mrs Merton of the Litblog miss an opportunity like that! What was he wearing? Who was sitting on the next table? The food, was it any good? Oh, yes and the book, let’s not forget the book.
I never wanted to box myself into one literary corner and as a result I no longer feel I have a reading comfort zone. This has been exciting and challenging, new and unexpected doors have opened and the blog has expanded my reading horizons to infinity, but best of all I have returned to the Classics with huge enthusiasm. Suddenly I feel grown up enough to cope with them and I know I’m not alone.
I share honestly my literary trials and tribulations, there are some brilliant writers I have struggled with for years and others struggle along with me until we crack it. Unmoderated comments facilitate a conversation with anyone and everyone, readers, authors, publishers, even with ‘bored of Ireland’ who thinks this is all ‘a load of trivial rambling rubbish’. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
Blogs are often accused of being unedited, off the cuff, thoughtless ramblings, indeed mine might look like that to many, especially ‘bored of Ireland’ but here’s the reality.
I devote a lot of time to writing it, hours and days, book thoughts are rarely written and published instantly. I am a compulsive book scribbler as I read and I write my first thoughts down as soon as I can, then there follows a process of researching, honing and editing, I will often wake up at 3am and think “good grief, I can’t say that!”.
Reading trails often open up as a result. Bringing lesser known books into the limelight is a blogger’s speciality and sharing those and getting ideas from others is always exciting. Indeed sharing the passion of reading and spreading news of good books across the world in a matter of minutes is a privilege and one I never take for granted.
This is all not much of a battle cry I hear you mutter disappointingly; where’s the spilt blood on the platform? Well I might be over-simplifying arguments about the dumbing down of culture but those are for others, to my mind there isn’t a battle to be fought because this blogger is offering something different, subjective yes, but hopefully as meaningful to a reader, as the literary critic or the professional book reviewer. In the NHS it’s called skill-mix and we learnt to deal with it years ago.
Having started with a quote from John Carey I was going to apologise for not using one from John Mullan, but we’re OK, I’ve found one.
“Each novel reader has an experience of the novel to describe and even mere partisanship can generate a kind of critical analysis.”
I feel semi-vindicated.
But the final word must go to Virginia Woolf
‘I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesman come to receive their rewards- their crowns their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble – the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms,
“Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”