It’s a remarkable coincidence. On the day our Book Club finally gets the attention it deserves from the serious press, I also happen to be launching my own one-man reading group. He may be winsome, witty, handsome in a Burt Lancaster kind of way, but he’s definitely only one man. And he's also looking for your book recommendations.
To cut a long preamble short: if you’re interested in giving me your favourite reads, just jump to the end of the post where I explain what I’m interested in reading, along with my pet hates so you can avoid leaving comments suggesting that I 'give Jilly Cooper a go'. For a more detailed explanation of how I come to be asking you for advice, there follow a few hundred words of confused waffle. It’s the reason why I’m rather late posting to the blog this weekend. I was busy indulging myself all of yesterday.
Bookshops are my secret addiction. On the one hand, there’s so much that’s good about them that it’s hard to pull oneself away without spending a fortune, but, on the other, they can make one wistful, chagrined, and all the other emotions that tend to afflict heroes in eighteenth century sentimental novels. I rarely get chance to spend as long as I like browsing for books. Yesterday I did just that. It explains why I’m still feeling such contrasting emotions. It’s probably why I’m feeling a little depressed.
There’s much that terrorises me in a bookshop. There’s the constant irritation of seeing books by the latest celebrity guru promoted as the answer to our problems. This week, Waterstones are pushing Sting’s collected lyrics. Not that there’s anything wrong with pushing Sting collected lyrics. In fact, so long as we're pushing them over a 90 degree edge followed by a drop of few hundred feet terminating in some sharp rocks, I'm happy to help do the pushing. Then there are the books by misfits who hardly deserve to be described as ‘a human being’, let alone deserve book contracts. Drug dealers, ex-mafia hard men, corporate swindlers, porn stars, Delilah Smith: they’re all there, demanding our money with menaces. And then amid all the lurid tat is the unlurid tat. Middle-class, middle-of-the-brain mawkish sentiment usually involving the words ‘moving’, ‘tender’ or ‘relationships’ in the blurb. I steer clear of them. Finally, there’s the great bulk of contemporary fiction that’s quite adequately written, sometimes attaining the quality of good prose, but it all leaves you feeling neither one way nor the other. They are the books you read and abandon before the end.
My current drug of choice is literary criticism. For my sins, I bought James Wood’s ‘The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel’ after I’d finished reading his essay on ‘Hysterical Realism’ for a second time, just sitting there in the Waterstone’s armchair. Engrossing stuff. In fact, I hardly noticed that I’d been sat for nearly an hour among the books on photography. My head was framed by Angelina Jolie’s breasts on one side and, on the other, a collection of Pirelli nudes. The essay troubled me in ways I’m not sure I can explain beyond the fact I was wondering why I was getting so many covert yet admiring looks from the shop's male customers. Wood writes so eloquently about novels that share the common trait of a kind of baroque surrealism; an abundance of florid and overblown characters, lack of traditional narrative, a reliance of comic juxtaposition to overcome the absence of meaningful plot. He picked out DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’, Pynchon’s ‘Mason & Dixon’, Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’, Rushdie’s ‘Ground Beneath Her Feet’, and David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’.
He could hardly have picked out a series of books to which I have a less troubled past. As a genuine fan of DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’, I found ‘Underworld’ long, flat, and ultimately unrewarding. It was saved by the final hundred pages. Pynchon remains an author I feel I should ‘get’ until I actually pick up something of his and I am reminded why I find him unreadable. Rushdie’s personality prevents me from reading anything of his, despite friends who recommend his earlier work. As for Zadie Smith, I’d prefer not to go down that path full of bitter resentment and half-acknowledged jealousy. The only book I haven’t had a troubled run in with is ‘Infinite Jest’, though I’ve come close to buying it on many occasions.
They are books which, to Wood, ‘abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.’ Most troubling to me is his criticism that ‘these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion’. I think of my own autobiography, now approaching 30,000 words, and I wonder if the world is ready for another ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’? I worry that the narrative of my life isn’t strong enough; that there’s not enough stillness. Is my prose strong enough? Is it the stuff of contemporary fiction section or the shelves tagged as ‘light entertainment ghost-written pap’?
All of which got me thinking about good writing and my book club idea. Only, rather than telling you what you should be reading this summer, I want suggestions. I want to read some new writers whose novels embody the very meaning of great prose.
Let me make this explicit. I don’t want to read some unpublished manuscript you happen to have lying around unless the name on the cover happens to be Amis with the initial ‘K’ or ‘M’. I don’t want to read your vanity published history of World War 2 submariners, the history of your great aunt’s wedding cake, nor your book about collecting seashells. I don't want any PDFs in my email box. I also don’t want to read ‘chick lit’ or anything written by a celebrity name. So, please, no Katie Jordan or Colleen Rooney. I’d prefer to avoid anything too postmodern or ‘meta’. No James Joyce. I’m not at all interested in reading any book that gives me an insight into another culture unless there is something more to it than it just being about a different culture. No thrillers unless they do more than simply give me the specifications of the latest sniper rifle. Comedy I like but with the restriction that it has to be something that’s going to challenge me. Terry Pratchett can write a good gag but I find that his books bore me quite quickly. I’m looking for something different. I was tempted by ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’ by David Madsen but knew nothing about it and hadn't the money in my pocket to gamble. But that’s the sort of book I’m looking for. Something that will excite and surprise me. Most of all, I want to read prose that will make me shiver or weep with awe.
I intend to keep a running list of books I’ve been recommended and to update it as I get through them. I might even write a review when I have strong enough feelings about any particular book.