On Giving Up On a Book

    This is not, as you might have guessed from the title, about writing. It’s about reading.

    How long should we give a book by even a beloved author, before giving up on it, if we are not enjoying it?

    It’s relatively rare for me not to finish a book that I start. There are a few that I took a couple of runs at, having to start again – Ulysses springs to mind. And some that I haven’t finished, and would have to start again: Gravity’s Rainbow, Swann’s Way. I might never bother with either of those again, but you never know.

    I’m fairly sure I’ll never get further than the the two or three pages I’ve managed into Finnegan’s Wake. And there’s the odd other one I’ve abandoned. One that I accidentally left on a train, and realised I didn’t care. It was something to do with an excise inspector in Scotland. No idea what it was called or who it was by.

    Most of those above are what people would call difficult: something about the style, form, or content makes reading them a challenge. Overcoming that challenge can be rewarding, but we should never feel guilty about abandoning them if we’re not enjoying them, I feel. Reading for pleasure should not be a chore.

    But now we come to a strange case. Claire North is an author I like a lot. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was great, and so was Touch, which I read the last time I was out of the country.

    So I was pleased to get her 84k for Christmas. And I’ve tried to read it twice, but I just can’t get into it. It’s not that it’s boring or hard to read.

    It’s that it’s unpleasant.

    That probably doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Lots of books have unpleasant characters, or depict upsetting or hurtful events. Lots of entertainment shows those things, TV, movies, songs…

    I have mentioned here before that I don’t really care for dystopias as a subgenre.1 I’m not sure I can easily explain why that is, but they just don’t appeal.

    And this is set in one. It’s largely a version of Britain, more or less present-day, but things have gone so far into privatisation, rampant capitalism, and generally Conservative party policies, that everyone knows the value of a human life.

    That’s what the title means. That’s how much, in pounds, the rich have to pay to get away with murder. They can do anything else they want, too, as long as they can afford it.

    I’m sure it will have a positive, maybe even uplifting, outcome. But I won’t be carrying on with it. I got about thirty pages in on my second time of starting it (only a couple the first time), and it’s just too bleak, too grim, for me to want to spend any more time there.

    Maybe it’s partly the times were living in. But it’s not for me.

    1. If that’s the right thing to call them. ↩︎

    Masters Update

    We’re halfway through the first term of my Creative Writing masters course. Those five weeks went fast, but 2020 is The Year When Time Was Weird, for everyone. How is it going, you ask.1

    Pretty well, thanks. At first glance, with only two actual sessions, the workload looked light. But as is common with postgraduate courses, you have a lot of work to do on your own. Add to that, it’s a writing course: we have to write, and you can’t do that while sitting in a class.

    Or you could, for small exercises, and I think maybe they would be asking us to do that kind of thing if this were a conventional year and we were sitting in a seminar room in Bloomsbury. It is, however, the most unconventional of years, and we are sitting in our own homes on Microsoft Teams.

    There are two modules. Everyone does the Writing and Reading Seminar, where we focus on short stories. Each week we read and discuss two or three assigned stories, with there being a theme or area of focus: Character, Voice, Territory, for example. Then we workshop pieces submitted by three members of the class. Everyone gets to submit a piece of up to 4000 words, twice this term.

    For my first piece I decided to get out of my comfort zone (such as it is) and write a purely realist piece. No spaceships, no magic; no element of the fantastic whatsoever. I think it worked out pretty well.

    Those pieces are not assessed, but in January we have to submit a 4000-word piece that will be. I only recently learned that this piece has to be a reworking of one of the two pieces we’ll have workshopped in class. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, but I would have liked to have known that sooner.

    The second module I’m doing is called Contemporary Writing 2: Genre2, or just ‘Genre.’ We spend two weeks on each of these genres: crime, science fiction, historical fiction, and young adult fiction.3 There’s a novel assigned for each one. The first week has a two short, prerecorded lectures, and in the seminar we discuss those, and techniques, and the assigned novel.

    For the second week we each write a 1000-word piece in the genre in question, and some of us have the pieces workshopped. We got to choose the genres in which we wanted to be workshopped. I chose SF and crime. Even those of us who aren’t being workshopped in a given week have our pieces discussed on the class forum.

    So as you can see, there’s quite a lot of reading, analysis, and commenting, as well as actual writing.

    I’m enjoying it a lot, but if you were to ask me what I’ve learned, I’m not sure I could specify that yet. However, the practice, the fact of looking at my own writing and that of others, professionally-published and not, in great detail: that alone is bound to improve my writing, I feel.

    Right now it’s reading week. I don’t recall having such a thing back when I was an undergraduate, but maybe we did. They’re standard now, just like half-term breaks at school.4 So we have no classes, and some extra short stories to read, and time to catch up on the novels. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday, so I only have The Hate U Give to read for YA. Plenty of time to get some writing done.

    Oh, and a couple of homework assignments, too. All work is homework, of course.

    1. I’m always confused about how you should punctuate that idiom. I’m asking a question: it needs a question mark. But neither of these look right:

      • How is it going? you ask.
      • How is it going, you ask?

      It should really be:

      • ‘How is it going?’ you ask.

      But that makes it too much like I’m writing dialogue in a a second-person narrative, and it doesn’t really fit with the overall feel of a blog post.

      The way I’ve written it above has no question mark at all, and that can’t be right. ↩︎

    2. I’ve yet to learn what ‘Contemporary Writing 1’ is, or was, or if there ever was one. ↩︎

    3. I’d argue that YA is a target market, not a genre, but never mind. ↩︎

    4. It was during my primary school years that Scotland introduced the week-long half-term break in October. ‘The October Week,’ as it was called, and it was definitely a new thing at the time. I was aware of it particularly because my Mum was a primary school teacher. I can’t find any evidence of it now, because there are so many other pages about half-term holiday dates and history projects for October half term. But if my memory is not totally faulty, that’s the truth of it. ↩︎

    Reading Materials

    You’re probably wondering what’s happened to my books posts. Surely I must have read something since January (and I thought I’d posted about two books this year, but apparently not).

    Thing is, after the Twin Peaks book, I started something rather large. I’m over 200 pages in, which means I’m about one-sixth of the way through it.

    It is Alan Moore’s Jerusalem: a monster hardback with tiny print. I picked it up when I went to see him interviewed by Stewart Lee, back in November. I could have got either the hardback or a slipcased three-volume paperback version. Almost as soon as I started reading I wished I’d gone for the latter, because it’s so damn heavy to hold.

    So it’ll take me quite a while till I’m ready to write about it. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, though.

    Neither tempestuous nor particularly challenging

    I'm taking the Tempest Challenge.

    I was somewhere in the middle of the third book I read this year when I heard of it, and I realised that all my reading so far was books by women, and so why not?

    The idea of the challenge, in case you haven’t clicked through, is to:

    take One Year off from reading fiction by straight, white, cisgender male authors and instead read fiction by authors who come from minority or marginalized groups. This includes women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ authors along with a wide variety of other marginalized identities from which to create a reading list: people with disabilities; poor and working class authors; writers with non-Christian religious or spiritual beliefs; and for Americans, even reading books in translation by authors of any background will open up new viewpoints.

    Which, when you list as many categories of author as that, sounds pretty easy. And so it is.

    So far, as you’ll have seen from my published notes to date, I’ve just read books by women. No trouble there. I’m currently reading Wild Seed by Octavia E Butler, which also adds African-American to the mix.

    The only problem – and it is, let’s face it, a very minor one – is when I see a book on my shelves that I think, “Oh, I must read that;” and then I think, “but not this year.” (Though it occurs that if I were to take “writers with non-Christian religious or spiritual beliefs” at face value, then I could, for example, carry on my Iain Banks re-read; but such writers – atheist writers, at least – are far from marginalised in Britain. And it wouldn’t really be in the spirit.)

    I’m making two exceptions: one is a book I started last year, about the music scene in New York in the 70s. It’s important preparation for our trip to New York in the summer, so I intend to finish that.

    The other is if Robert Galbraith has a new book out this year. :-) And in getting that link I discover that it’s due out in the autumn, which is pleasing to hear.

    Apparently some people are offended by the very existence of this kind of challenge. Mostly straight white men, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear. It’s “censorship”, apparently. I mean, what?

    You’ll read all about my reading adventures here.

    The Summer of Rereading 1: The Magus, by John Fowles

    A summer of rereading, that's what this one has been for me. Let me tell you about it.

    Note: contains spoilers

    Early on – maybe it was still spring – when we booked our holiday to Greece, I decided it was time to reread The Magus. I read it something like thirty years ago, when I was at university. I remember enjoying it, but being annoyed by the ending.

    So I was expecting that annoyance to still be there. On occasions between then and this rereading, I have looked at the last couple of pages. I did so again before starting it this time; it was no clearer for doing so. Fowles himself recognised problems with the ending. In his foreword to the revised edition, he acknowledges that the novel has flaws, not least that it is a novel of adolescence, both his and that of his protagonist. (I found Nicholas to be annoyingly adolescent and spoilt, especially at the start, on this reading.) He goes on to say:

    The other change is in the ending. Though its general intent has never seemed to me as obscure as some readers have evidently found it -- perhaps because they have not given due weight to the two lines from the Pervigilium Veneris that close the book -- I accept that I might have declared a preferred aftermath less ambiguously… and have now done so.

    (Ellipsis the author’s, incidentally.) The thing is, he hasn’t done so. Not really. Not if you want to know whether or not Nicholas and Alison get back together, which seems to have been what his correspondents regarding the original edition were concerned about.

    But that’s not what bothered me, either then or now. I don’t mind an ambiguous ending. And I actually kind of like the way you can think of it as a freeze-frame, like the ending of a film (Bonnie and Clyde ends like that, if I remember correctly – though in a more dramatic event).1

    No, what annoys me is that we never really learn what Conchis and the others were up to. They called their project “The Godgame” (it was also Fowles’s proposed title for the novel at one point); but what was the point of it? What were they trying to achieve?

    Ultimately I suppose that can be answered in part by Fowles’s argument regarding people asking about the “meaning” of the novel:

    If The Magus has any "real significance", it is no more than that of the Rorschach Test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader[.]

    So the Godgame’s meaning or purpose may be simply the reaction it provokes in Nicholas; but that still leaves us wondering, as I said above, why did Conchis do it? Was it just the whim of a rich man? He did it because he could? And yet mere whim feels weak alongside all the discussion of freedom and what it means.

    In the end the mild sense of frustration remains, because we never find that out.

    Back when I first read it, there was no immediately obvious way to find discussions of it. No doubt there were some in academic journals and theses, but finding those would have been difficult. Now, of course, such discussions are easy to find. And the most interesting one I found recently was by Jo Walton on Twists of the Godgame: John Fowles’s The Magus. As Walton says, the ending “twists at just the wrong moment and sends it away from metaphysics into triviality and romance.”

    She goes on to compare it to Ted Chiang’s “The Story of Your Life”, which I haven’t read. But the argument that “Fowles doesn’t know what he’s doing, that the underlying reality that is never explained doesn’t make sense” rings true for me. And so when she says that “what Chiang’s ‘The Story of Your Life’ does is what Fowles may have wanted to do”, I’m inclined to suspect that she’ll be proved right when I come to read the Chiang.

    I still loved the book, though: you can enjoy the journey even if you’re not entirely happy with the destination. Walton’s conclusion gives a hilarious suggestion for how it could have been improved, though:

    It’s beautifully written. The characters are so real I’d recognise them if I saw them at the bus-stop. And there’s nothing wrong with it that couldn’t be fixed by having them go off in an alien space ship at the end.

    Now that would have been an ending.

    1. Apparently there was a film of the book made. It’s considered to be so bad that (according to Wikipedia) Woody Allen said if he had his life to live again he’d do everything the same, except he wouldn’t see The Magus↩︎