One of the books I decided it was high time I read and so I did was How Fiction Works by James Wood.
We almost had too many of these books to cope with last year as everyone suddenly felt the need to instruct us in exactly how to read a book. John Mullan's How Novels Work arrived at about the same time and we were all to be suitably instructed in the art of getting this reading thing right.
Except what's right? The temptation is to say 'are we bothered' and just carry on enjoying what we read, in the way that we read it, but never say never I always say. First and foremost I want to read a good book without giving too much thought to how it works, but then I probably am interested in how that has happened beyond my initial emotional response. Then there's always the chance I'll discover some great revelatory eureka reading insight that could change the way I read forever.
In the end I'm not sure I'm reading any differently, but How Fiction Works was an interesting and enjoyable guide through the minefield especially as there were some very helpful hints about To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf which I happened to be reading at the time.
Though at this point, dovegreyreaders I'm honour-bound to say that nothing was actually more helpful than the collective advice I received from all of you about that little moment in my reading life.
Returning to How Fiction Works and James Wood who is actually a staff writer at the New Yorker. Particularly helpful for me were the references about unreliable narrators because when I open a novel I'm generally of a trusting nature, will often jump right in there and believe whatever I'm told, fundamentally wanting to think well of people in the first instance and not that they could be stringing me along. I think that could easily be called gullible but what James Wood politely calls sewing myself into the text, though I think we could equally use knitting.
This is in direct and inverse proportions to the healthy questioning that I often had to apply in my day to day working life, where only listening to one side of a story and trusting that I was hearing the given truth could be quite dangerous. In certain situations I was always having to question my assumptions, add in checks and balances, be a suspicious person and, as it's not in my nature to be so, it became something to leave behind at work at the end of the day and not bring home as an initial response to my fiction reading.
So innocent abroad that I am when I open a novel, I was grateful to James Wood and took heart at his suggestion that
'Even the apparently unreliable narrator is more often than not reliably unreliable.'
Have you got that? The manipulation is reliable which I assume means I'm likely to clock it,
' the novel teaches us how to read its narrator'
Yes, I think I've grasped that now.
I also liked the suggestion that I must read with a third ear and I think mine's growing nicely with some more deliberate reads of late,
'finding the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hem of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes...'
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson according to James Wood, reveals a familiar American simplicity,
'puritan and colloquial in origin... achieves an almost holy simplicity',
and I realised a very good book for my third ear to practice on. Likewise To the Lighthouse put my third ear through its paces.
The I read this and decided perhaps I don't really want an actual third ear after all.
So James Wood took me on a good yomp through the writers from 1605 ( Miguel de Cervantes) to 2006 (John Updike). Ninety-three books in all, but here's the thing, only nine women writers in amongst them and only eleven books by women.
Nine women writers?
Eleven books by women?
Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Beatrix Potter, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark and Marilynne Robinson...and that's it.
Should I have been as surprised as I was?
Should I have been as profoundly disappointed as I was?