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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Is it the choice of subject matter?  The genre?  The number of pages?  The use of big words?  Is a Margaret Atwood or Salman Rushdie book considered to be of a higher literary quality than Dan Brown or Stephanie Myer?  If so, why?

I heard an interview on the radio a few months ago with Jeffrey Archer and he described himself as a storyteller.  There’s an interview with Archer on The Browser website where he talks about 5 famous books.  It’s really interesting because in this article, as with the radio interview, he makes the point that Dickens isn’t considered a great writer, but a great storyteller, the same goes for Dumas.  It’s taken the French 200 years to recognise how good a novelist Dumas was.

So the question is this, in 100 years what books written from this current period will we consider classics?   What will they be reading in school?  Great Expectations, Pride & Prejudice or Harry Potter?  Will students be studying Ian McEwan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Sebastian Faulks?  What makes these authors more worth studying than Sarah Waters, Philip Pullman or John Grisham?  The latter 3 authors have all won literary awards so aren’t they as good as the others?

I wrote an earlier post asking if we’re aver embarrassed by what we read and I concluded that we shouldn’t ever be embarrassed, as everyone likes something different.  But I do notice that if people ask me what I’ve been reading recently I sometimes will say ‘just some crime novels’ in a dismissive way.  But if I’ve been reading something that’s considered literature I’ll make a point of naming the author.  Is that really pretentious?  I don’t do it all the time – now I sound defensive!

It’s an interesting thought as I personally much prefer a good story to an award winning literary novel.  The Booker Prize long-list was released on 26 July and, not surprisingly, when I looked at the list I had read none of the books.  In fact, I haven’t read any from last year’s list either!  But I have read a huge number of works that are classified as literary classics.  I’ve read every Charles Dickens novel and they are considered classic works of literature – but when they were first published they were the Victorian equivalent of Eastenders!

So what’s the key difference between a literary effort and popular fiction?  Personally, I don’t know how to describe the difference other than in many cases a good story is easier to read.  People criticise Harry Potter and dismiss adults reading these books, but I would much rather see anyone of any age reading Harry Potter or Dan Brown than reading nothing at all.  As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read every Dickens, I’m a huge fan and I’ll highly recommend Dickens to anyone. But why should you read Dickens rather than James Patterson?  There’s no reason.  They’re both great story tellers, though one does take a few hours longer to read than the other!

Maybe one difference between literature and popular fiction is that literature is what we’re told we should read, like it’s good for us!  Who says so, some critic in the Guardian?  Why should they advise us on what we should read?  I think I’m pretty capable of deciding what I will and won’t read.  I enjoy reading reviews, they provide me with ideas of books I might be interested in reading.  But I certainly don’t choose the books I read based solely on reviews or award lists.  At the end of the day surely the sign of a good book is how enjoyable it is.  That’s the key point of reading, isn’t it?  I wouldn’t read over 100 books a year if I didn’t enjoy reading and I wouldn’t enjoy reading if there weren’t so many darn good stories out there!  So I say, stuff the critics and the awards lists stick with what’s enjoyable.  100 years from now, that’s what we’ll still be reading!

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If you were to ask me to name my favourite author my answer would probably differ depending on my mood, but I can guarantee that Dickens would consistently be in my top 5.  I’ve read and own practically everything he wrote but I don’t own a copy of Great Expectations and I’m not sure why.

It’s certainly not my favourite Dickens novel but then again Mansfield Park is my least favourite Jane Austen novel and I still own a copy.  I’ve not read Mansfield Park since I had to dissect it at school but I figure that someday I’ll be ready to face it again (it’s only been 15 years or so!) and I want a copy for when that day comes!  I’ve never read Les Miserables, but likewise I own a copy for the day when I’m ready to read it.  So why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?

I have read it and it was easy enough to read, though it wasn’t as enjoyable as David Copperfield or the Pickwick Papers.  It’s darker than either of those two books but it regularly appears in ‘must read’ lists and lists of favourite books.

I’ve often wondered if people name Great Expectations as their favourite Dickens novel because they think they should.  They think that there’s more depth to it than Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.  I also wonder if, for many people, it’s the only Dickens they’ve ever read, and that was probably at school.  People think they know Oliver Twist because they’ve seen the film but I doubt that most of those viewers have actually read the book, which has much more depth and twists and turns than the film or the musical.  The BBC adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit received fantastic reviews and were watched by millions but how many of those viewers have read either book?

Is current awareness of Dickens due to word of mouth, school and TV adaptations rather than actual readership?  I wonder how many people have a copy of Great Expectations but don’t own any other Dickens novel?

Many people have told me that they find Dickens difficult to get in to, that the novels are too descriptive.  Perhaps that’s true to some extent.  But I think that with Dickens perseverance pays off.  For me Dickens is a master of evoking a time and place.  Think of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels, I know this might not seem like an obvious comparison but bear with me.  Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels are huge (in size and readership)!  They’re full of detailed descriptions of locations, weapons and military paraphernalia and all that description brings a reality to the novels.  You can believe what he’s writing because he infuses his fiction with fact.  And Dickens was the same.

Dickens descriptions focus on society and environment; the time and place.  He evokes a society divided by class and his novels portray the true nature of poverty faced by many on a daily basis.  He wrote about a time and society that he was familiar with and understood, and it’s his passion with regard to highlighting the social conditions of the poor that often leads to the descriptive nature of his works.  He also uses comedy, satire and gross caricatures to get his point across and I believe this is what makes his work so enjoyable.  He may be trying to portray depravity and the harsh conditions of the lower classes but this darkness is infused with a lightness that keeps the reader engaged.  He’s not preaching about social conditions, he’s creating awareness through entertainment.

Dickens is a social commentator, just as many other authors before and since.  Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) is a great example of a satirical look at society.  George Orwell took a more realistic look in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) but also reverted to caricature in Animal Farm (1945).  Alan Sillitoe fictionalised working class life in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) but it’s very much based on the reality of life and social conditions during that time.  And just as Dickens, Swift and Orwell inserted lighter moments in their works, so did Sillitoe.

I think many people probably have the wrong idea about Dickens, they think they know what the books are about.  These novels have been around for years, and everyone has heard of Dickens and can name at least one novel.  But how many people would go into a library or bookshop and pick up a copy of The Old Curiosity Shop?  How many people think they know what happens in that novel?  How many people think they know what happens in Hard Times?  I think Dickens is misunderstood, not because people don’t understand what he writes but because people don’t actually read the novels but instead rely on what they think they know about the novels.

Obviously I’m making a lot of assumptions but it’s just my opinion.  And in my opinion a Dickens novel is a great read and I would encourage anyone to give one of his novels a go.  Stick with it and hopefully you’ll get the same enjoyment I have.

So now that I’ve raved about Dickens why don’t I own a copy of Great Expectations?  I am a huge fan, as you may have guessed, and I’ll happily sit and read Martin Chuzzlewit or Nicholas Nickleby despite having read them numerous times already.  But if someone gave me a copy of Great Expectations I’d probably put it to one side and read something else.  So maybe it’s time to take my own advice and give it another go.  I guess that means I’d better go get a copy.

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“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”, these are the questions that mysteriously appear in the mailbox of 14 year old Sophie Amundsen.  This is the beginning of Sophie’s correspondence course in philosophy.  It may not seem like a natural fit for a book; a fourteen year old schoolgirl living in Norway and learning philosophy but it works.

As mentioned, the story is set in Norway and this book was translated from Norwegian.  The story starts with Sophie walking home from school and finding these mysterious, anonymous notes.  As with most novels we see everything from the perspective of the protagonist, Sophie.  So we are as much in the dark as she is as to where the notes came from or why they are in her mailbox.  We are then taken on an intriguing journey as her mysterious correspondent keeps delivering more notes and papers to expand her knowledge.  At this point we start to learn about the beginnings of philosophy ourselves as we are reading everything Sophie reads.  This is an interesting way to position what is, in many ways, a text book.  It’s a history and explanation of philosophy and philosophers surrounded by a fictional teenage narrator dealing with normal teenage life.

I studied philosophy at University and I have a basic grounding in some of the major players in this field but I wouldn’t say I could explain exactly who believed what and who came up with specific ideas or ways of looking at the world we live in.  But since reading this book I feel much more confident that I really do understand the philosophy movement and how it has spread and developed over the centuries.

Gaarder has created a story that allows us to connect with a character and their life and interspersed it with fact.  I won’t give anything away but I will say that Sophie’s story develops into part of the philosophical discussion and by the end of the book my head was full of questions.  I really enjoyed this work, perhaps it helped that I enjoy philosophy but I do believe that anyone with even the vaguest interest in philosophy would get a lot from this.  It’s fiction but it’s not, it’s a text book but it isn’t, it’s just a really well written work that provides a great overview of the history of the philosophy movement and the major players and asks questions of the reader that we don’t always take the time to ask ourselves, never mind try to answer!

“Who are you?”, “Where does the world come from?”; I sometimes think it would be nice to have an easy answer but then again, isn’t that why we read;  to explore new worlds and ideas, and try to put ourselves in others shoes?  It’s good to ask questions we can’t answer; the world would be a bit boring if we knew everything.

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As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, I set myself the challenge to read all 100 books in the BBC’s list of the Nation’s Favourite books.  When I first saw the list I’d read approximately 33 of the books, so I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult a challenge.  There were a few books on the list that I was not looking forward to reading; namely War and Peace, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Midnight’s Children, and the Jacqueline Wilson books!  There were other books that I had never heard of and had no opinion on whatsoever; such as Dune and Magician.  To my surprise I found that I enjoyed War and Peace, Captain Corelli, Dune, Magician, The Shell Seekers, The Thorn Birds and many, many more.

I didn’t enjoy reading Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things or Crime and Punishment.

But I found a love for Terry Pratchett!  Who knew I would enjoy sci-fi so much.

Generally, it wasn’t a difficult list to complete, I struggled to get through some of the books I’ve mentioned, but I also wasn’t going to give up on any of them and they didn’t feel insurmountable. And the number of books I liked and the new found loves kept me interested and ready to try anything.

However, there has been one book that stopped me from completing this challenge a year ago!  That book was Ulysses by James Joyce.  I picked it up in October 2009 prepared to read it and complete the challenge by Christmas.  But I just couldn’t do it; I’ve never put down a book so much in my life before!  I was so fed up with it I put it down in November and didn’t pick it up again until March 2010.  But I soon put it down again.  Then in late October I decided I’d had enough, I wanted to finish the damn thing and be done with it.  So picked it up and set myself rules; I was only allowed to read Ulysses and nothing else during the week but I could read other books at weekends.  I found myself actually hoping that I wouldn’t get a seat on the tube, because the book was too heavy to hold with one hand whilst standing!  Ridiculous, I know!

But I persevered and on Friday 17 December I finally finished Ulysses, the challenge was over!

I was so relieved.  You may have guessed that this was one of the less enjoyable books on the list.  It was a strange book; it certainly wouldn’t be in my top 100 of favourite books and I couldn’t recommend it as a good book to read.  But it is interesting in its own way.  It’s intellectually stimulating and it explores a multitude of literary and grammatical styles which challenge the reader throughout.  I want to call it an indulgence on Joyce’s part; a book he wanted to write without really caring what anyone else thought.  The sort of book a well-renowned author might produce and get published because his publishers have made enough money to lose some on their author’s whim!  But that doesn’t feel fair.  Joyce struggled to complete this book, struggled to find someone willing to publish it, and struggled to get it accepted by general society.  It only exists because of his pure determination and the generosity and courage of his friends.  It had to be smuggled into the United States and the publisher lost a lot of money producing the first edition.

Now that I’ve completed the book I think I have a better insight into why Joyce wanted to create such a work.  He wanted to challenge our perceptions of how books should be written and what they should be written about.  And he does that.  Ulysses does challenge and stimulate, no matter how infuriating it might be!  And although the novel is a day in the life of Leopold Bloom my favourite section was the last, when it’s written from the point of view of his wife Molly and Leo’s asleep.  Many parts of the book are dull and tedious, other parts are amusing or barely decipherable, but the last section feels the most human and realistic.

Overall, this is a book that I will probably never read again but it’s also one I’m not likely to forget!  Try it if you dare.

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I was off work last week with an ear infection and as I lay on the sofa feeling sorry for myself and unable to hear the TV, I read a few books. And as I automatically reached for a PG Wodehouse I started thinking about what I read when I’m ill! There are certain books on my shelves that I would classify as ‘illness favourites’. These include; Harry Potter, Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse. They’re all excellent books for any time but I particularly like them when I’m ill as they’re so easy to read and don’t take a lot of thinking about. It doesn’t matter if I fall asleep mid-sentence or can only read a page at a time, you don’t need to keep track of intricate details or decipher long-winded descriptive paragraphs or try and work out the sub-text, it’s all there on the page.

I love books that make you think and question things but when you’re ill all you want to do is curl up with something comforting, the literary equivalent of hot chocolate! That’s what Agatha Christie etc are to me – my comfort read. They’re familiar old friends that I can dip into without thinking, I don’t have to concentrate too much, I can just relax and enjoy them.

I’ve been reading Ulysses over the past month or so and I’m getting through it, I’ve got less than 150 pages to go, but when I realised I was ill I felt quite relieved that I could ignore Ulysses for a while and pick up something a lot less taxing. The last thing I want to read when I’m ill is something heavy, depressing or intellectually challenging!

So I say thank goodness for all those writers who’ve created proper comfort reads! Illness would be horrible without them.

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So I’ve just finished reading The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah and I’m left with a general feeling of ambivalence.  That’s not a great feeling to have when you finish a book!

It’s the story of a couple who both have secrets and as the book develops we learn more about them and their hidden pasts.  As I started the book I actually wasn’t that hopeful so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was enjoying it.  But then about a third of the way through I lost interest.  I just wasn’t too bothered about picking it up and that’s a sure sign that it’s not the book for me.  But why wasn’t it the book for me?

Maybe my lack of interest in the characters, I didn’t really care about them that much, I wasn’t bothered who the bad guy was or who died or lived or whatever.  I did finish the book but that was more because I always finish the books I start, it’s very rare for me to give up on a book.  This was almost one of them, but not quite.  I persevered!

There were so many twists and turns it was as if the author was totally preoccupied with style and construction and so focused on the structure of the novel and when to release certain snippets of information that she forgot about the story and the emotion.  And there was a lot of the story that revolved around emotion and how the protagonists were feeling and reacting.  Abuse, fear, anger, revenge, love, mistrust, desperation; they were all in there but they were just words on a page that weren’t brought to life.  Though I was feeling a certain amount of desperation but that was more a desperation to get to the end of the book!

If you were to describe the story it certainly has potential but it was just too contrived for my liking.  The author thought too hard about the book rather than the story and the characters, which was a shame.  The good thing was it didn’t take up too much of my time!

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Am I cultured?

Are we book snobs? Prejudiced against certain books?  Think they’re not literary or good enough to class as a serious read?  Do we class certain books or genres as non-cultural reading?

A friend of mine recently commented, on seeing the list of books I’d read in the last year, that she’d read hardly any of them and felt very uncultured.  My automatic reaction was to correct her, just because she hadn’t read certain books didn’t make her uncultured.  Plus can we call someone cultured if all they do is read books?  What do we mean by cultured?

I called this blog ‘culture and cake’ but I’m really only focusing on books rather than any other form of culture.  Surely to be truly cultured a person must experience a variety of literature, music, theatre, cinema, foods, people and places.  It’s easier to have an opinion on a variety of topics if you’ve had a variety of experiences.  People often have something to say about a book or a film and can provide an opinion but that doesn’t make you cultured, just opinionated.  Just because you’ve read Chaucer or Proust doesn’t mean you’re more cultured than the person who’s read Harry Potter or spends 8 hours in front of the telly every day.  It’s just a different side of culture.  If everyone read the same books and listened to the same music the world would be a very boring place.  What would we have to debate about?  The great thing about cultural diversity is just that – culture is diverse and everyone’s opinion is worth something.  Just like everyone’s choice of reading material is worth something.  I may not be a fan of Salman Rushdie novels, that doesn’t make me uncultured.

I don’t believe we should pressure people into reading certain books.  Embrace the variety and make your own choices.  There are days when I love reading Harry Potter and days when I can’t get enough of George Orwell, doesn’t make one day better or more cultural than the other, just different.  And that’s great.

There may be an argument that reading literary prize winners provides people with an introduction to a variety of styles of writing and language and therefore can enhance a person’s own language skills.  But that’s more about a broad vocabulary and grammatical skills than culture.  I’m sure people reading this blog will find plenty of grammatical errors to comment on, and I believe I’m pretty well read, so obviously reading doesn’t guarantee a perfect level of grammar!

But I also regularly read up on current affairs, visit the theatre, watch films, travel, and listen to an eclectic enough range of music!  So am I cultured?  Perhaps to an extent but there’s still a few million books to read and plays to watch, so I don’t think it’s even nearly time for me to stop experiencing new things just yet!   And thank goodness for that; wouldn’t it be awful to think there was nothing left to experience, that you were as cultured as you could get?  My friend may think she’s uncultured but she’s most definitely not, she has children, goes on holiday, reads, listens to the radio and has many experiences I don’t.  So I reckon we’ve just had different contacts with culture and that makes catching up and chatting even more fun as we get to share what we’ve done and learnt with each other.  So choose a cultural experience of your own and get stuck in.

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