Thoughts: literary encounters and Catton vs Miéville

luminariesThis post is expanding on a few thoughts I’ve had recently, mostly prompted by reading Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and ‘elitism’ (first published in New Zealand’s Metro magazine in March 2013, then posted on Metro‘s website in December). The whole essayis fabulous, and you should read it. Catton argues that literature itself can’t be elitist, because a book can’t dictate who will read it, or how. But I’m more interested in her conception of literature as encounter, and book reviews as a means of ‘describing and critiquing a literary encounter’. This is such an inspiring idea to me, a different way of thinking about books: less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why? It’s something I want to try to capture more on the blog.

Thinking about it more, I start to feel that experiencing a strong engagement with a book is more valuable than liking it per se. Don’t misunderstand: I’m not knocking enjoyment of a book, or suggesting that we should feel happy about disliking one; but it seems to me that – less often – we can have deeper reactions to a book which reach beyond that kind of consideration. I’m reminded of when I read Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham a few years ago: the only time in the history of this blog that I’ve abandoned a book and still felt the need to write several hundred words explaining why. At the time, I was annoyed at the book; now I can see how infrequent it has been for me to be so affected by a book I didn’t like, and I feel that’s worth treasuring (it also makes me wonder whether I should give the novel another chance).

Another example. This week, I came across Jenny Ackland’s response to The Luminaries:

It is possible that a book you were on the verge of giving away…still made you want to finish it like no other book you’ve ever read?



I am exhausted and exhilarated, and a little bereft.

It’s a wonderful piece that captures just the sort of encounter Catton is talking about. I strongly suspect from this that the experience of reading The Luminaries is going to stay with Ackland for a long time, to put it mildly. But I would also wager that the negative parts of that experience will become integral to the memory of the whole (that’s what I mean by going beyond ‘like’ and ‘dislike’). To my mind, one reading experience this intense – even when there’s rough with the smooth – is worth a dozen moderately pleasant ones.


Another thought I’ve had recently is that Eleanor Catton’s current breakthrough reminds of China Miéville’s emergence at the time of Perdido Street Station (2000). Fittingly enough, there are striking coincidences (both writers won a major literary prize with their second novel, and at around the same age). But what I’m thinking about is that both came along as young writers with a very intense vision for their work, and an ability to articulate that vision powerfully. They could see their own way to do things, and Miéville opened up a space that changed the creative landscape around him (other writers, too, but it seems to me that Miéville’s voice rang loudest).

There are a couple of key differences: Miéville emerged from and worked firmly within the field of science fiction and fantasy, which Catton does not; she also doesn’t appear to have a creative ‘manifesto’ like the New Weird. It’s also, of course, too early to know how Catton’s career will develop; but it will be interesting to see how, and how far, her influence spreads. It wouldn’t surprise me to see more elaborately plotted historical mysteries, or novels built on formally organised structures, in the years ahead; but to focus on such trappings is to overlook the heart and soul of Catton’s books, which to me is the depth of unity that she achieves. My hope is that writers will take one key lesson from Catton’s work: do your own thing, and do it as fully and as well as you can.


Since I started planning this post, it has also occurred to me that The Luminaries would make an interesting point of comparison and contrast with Viriconium, particularly in terms of how (if?) they gradually erode story. But that’s a thought for another time!


  1. David, I love the title: literary encounters. For they are encounters. On your suggestion – and I agree absolutely, it is inspiring – that we could be thinking differently about books, as you say ‘less in terms of ‘like’ or ‘dislike’, more as an exploration – how did I respond to this book, and why?’ when I was grappling with how to write reviews (or responses to books) on my blog, I did some reading and came across this very idea, from a reviewer Lev Grossman. He said: ‘The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.’

    That’s an idea that strongly resonated with me. Maybe my approach could be to tell the story of what happened when I read the book, as in The Luminaries.

    Thanks for mentioning me in your post, and linking to me.

  2. I totally agree with the concept of an encounter and that we should push past the like and dislike reaction and understand why, especially if it is negative, because it is such a personal and subjective response, we know that from the divergence of opinion, nearly every book has those who give it one star and those who will give it five.

    When we delve into the encounter, we are searching to understand the buttons that are being pushed inside us, our own preferences and disturbances, whether we come from a more academic inclination or as readers who read more for entertainment. We have a responsibility to understand our own triggers and then an encounter with a book becomes an experience that has context.

    I don’t believe in negative reviews, but I challenge myself to review a book I didn’t like, I try to be discerning and not read a book I know I won’t like, but sometimes we are surprised by an author whose previous work we enjoyed. To me, reviewing the book I didn’t like should not put someone else off reading it, it should be presented whole and untainted, just as it is in a bookshop or on a website and then we can speak about our response to our experience with it and why it did or didn’t push those buttons and this often has more to say about the reviewer than the writer or the book and can indeed be a reason to attract readers to a book, to see what kind of encounter they will have.

    Great post David! And thanks for the link to the essay.

    • I don’t often do negative reviews because my usual dislike of books stems from my own perception of “lazy” writing (eg indistinctly drawn characters that borrow too much from the library of stock characters, or interminable dialogue) and it’s harder to write about the lack of something than it is to respond to a positive presence of something.

      I agree with that a negative review should be more about our own responses and why they exist. I did a negative TV review recently which I had thought was about my response and felt very guilty when people said they weren’t going to watch the programme, as I had tried to get across the fact that the programme was good, just not for me, for various reasons.

  3. David H

    16th February 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Jenny: I like that Lev Grossman quote; thanks for mentioning it. ‘They open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside’ – when this happens, it is wonderful to read; and it’s also a great aim to aspire to.

    Claire, Denise: I think a negative review can be as valuable as a positive one, provided that it;s properly focused on analysing the book (this is why I don’t think of hatchet jobs as proper reviews, because I feel they’re more about performance than analysis). I don’t write many negative reviews on here, because I want to spend my time on the books that engage me most, and they do tend to be ones that I like.

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