Thoughts: a fraction of the whole book

grantaboybnI’ve now read a couple of the novels which were excerpted in last year’s Granta Best of Young British Novelists anthology; doing so has really brought home to me that a whole novel is not the same as a chapter or two. In a sense, of course, this is only self-evident; but it’s one thing to understand this in the abstract, and another to be able to compare a complete text with an extract which has been presented as a showcase of its author’s work.

Take Evie Wyld’s Granta piece ‘After the Hedland’, for example. I now know that this consists of the first three past-set chapters of All the Birds, Singing. So that means you immediately lose the alternating present/past structure which does so much; and you don’t necessarily spot that the chronology is reversed. That’s before we get on to the missing cues of tone, place and character. In other words, the context is gone; when you read ‘After the Hedland’, you can’t assume that you’re reading All the Birds, Singing.

Then there’s Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. The Granta anthology included chapter 7 of that novel; I knew at the time that I was inevitably missing quite a lot; but, even so, the whole book is again a very different work. For another Oyeyemi example, ‘My Daughter the Racist’ was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award in 2010; it works perfectly well as a standalone story, but it’s not going to prepare you for Mr Fox.

As I said above, this is obvious: a novel is a complete piece of work; you can’t judge from a snapshot. But the thing is that we do, perhaps more so with novels than any other art form; they demand so much time from us that we need some way of filtering out those that we don’t want to read. Rare is the reader who’ll do what Jenny Ackland did when reading The Luminaries, and plough on through 500 pages that that aren’t engaging them, in the hope that the book will suddenly be transformed. Rarer still, perhaps, is the reader who’ll find that it was worth doing.

But, in Ackland’s case, it was worth doing, and there’s the rub. I’ve seen several people around the book blogging world, whose opinion I respect, abandon The Luminaries relatively early on for one reason or another; I suspect that at least one of those people would ultimately appreciate what the book is doing, if they could carry on. I know I could have given up on The Rehearsal at one point, and I would have seriously missed out. What can we do to try to ensure that we don’t miss out, when we (probably) don’t want to have to finish every book that we start, and can’t guarantee that it will be worth carrying on ?

Well, consider what happens when a book suddenly clicks into place for us: it’s not the book that changes; it’s we who see more. So what I think we can do is be more open to seeing. We can take the view that a novel is not obliged to grab you from the first page (unless it is designed to!), but only to be true to itself. We can aim to be more attentive to what a book is doing, and less concerned with our own expectations. We can talk to each other about what worked or didn’t work for us in a book and why, and try to gauge our own likely reaction.

I think perhaps it ultimately comes back to treating literature as an encounter. It’s not an infallible strategy – nothing could be – but it may be a way of taking better chances.


  1. Have also struggled with “The Luminaries”, though I thought it was excellent for the first 200 pages or so, and then it seemed to lose its way. Like the idea of literature as an “encounter”, though, being a short story writer, I try to hook the reader in the early passages. Not easy…!

    • David H

      24th February 2014 at 12:59 pm

      Hi Bekki, I think short stories are probably a different matter; they’re generally more concentrated, so I can see that they’d have greater need to be immediate. (I disagree with you on The Luminaries, but that’s not an argument for this thread…)

  2. I think it depends. If it’s just a matter of a book not clicking, there’s always a chance it’ll click at a later point. But if you actively dislike specific aspects (or outright hate them), I can see the benefit in abandoning. And even a book that fails to hook a reader until page 500… It may become wonderful later, but it’s clearly failing at something right now…

    • David H

      24th February 2014 at 1:07 pm

      Ah, thanks, that’s something I didn’t think of: what if you actively detest what you’re reading? In that case, I would certainly be giving up (and have done so in the past for that very reason). But the second part of your comment comes back to my main point: what if the book is succeeding, but you just haven’t seen it yet? (Admittedly, I wouldn’t have the patience to go 500 pages that weren’t engaging me, but that’s the risk we take.)

  3. I wonder if that’s the difference between reading for entertainment reading as furthering yourself. I don’t give up on many books but frankly, there’s plenty else in my life that I have to struggle on with, I don’t need books that make me do the same. I give up on films too, and they’re 2-3 hours in total. Can’t imagine hoping a 500+ page book is going to justify not me being entertained for that long even if there is something amazing at the end.

    But maybe if I read for different reasons, that would be more rewarding. Still I don’t think people should be made to feel bad for giving up. Time is so precious after all!

    • David H

      24th February 2014 at 1:15 pm

      Thanks Ellie. I should probably have said that I’m absolutely not advocating that we should stop abandoning books, or feel bad for doing it – just thinking about how to deal with the risk it causes.

      I would see reading to entertain and reading to further yourself as two facets of the same thing. To me, it’s all a question of whether you want to carry on reading – and if you really don’t, it’s probably not worth it.

  4. I tend to shy away from chapter previews – they’ll either make me desperate to read the whole book, or not be enough to engage.

  5. I completely agree that it’s about openness. I know I am never more picky and demanding about books than when I want a comfort read. I’ll read anything that’s literary in an open frame of mind, because I’m convinced the two go together and I like the feeling of preparing myself to be shifted about internally by a story, and ready to rise to its challenges. But if it’s comfort I want, then I get VERY short-tempered and easily frustrated. So it’s when I really want some emotional experience, when I have particular demands from a book, that I’ll abandon them if they don’t cough up.

    • David H

      24th February 2014 at 6:00 pm

      Being pickier when reading for comfort, that’s interesting. Have you never found, though, that what you want from the book gets in the way of what the book wants to do?

      • Well exactly – when I have an emotional demand from a book then it gets in the way of my attentiveness to the book itself. I’m not open to it. I’m relieved this only happens with comfort reads (though not at the time). But I think it’s a component in why people get cross with books that don’t seem to do what they want them to.

  6. I tend to see book excerpts of the sort you describe as pretty pointless, and I don’t bother reading them. A short story isn’t the same thing as a chapter plucked from the novel it should be part of. At that point the chapter is just an extended contextless blurb, and frankly I’d rather just read a review.

    As to abandoning, as a general rule it’s rational to abandon books you don’t find rewarding. Life is after all short and it’s rare that books change nature so that if you hate them on page 200 they’ve miraculously transformed by page 205.

    Sometimes though there are books that do pay off if you persist. The problem is since the vast majority won’t it doesn’t make sense to read on in the hope a particular one will. Do that and mostly you’ll just read books that don’t speak to you, and it will be a chore. Yes, sometimes you’ll miss out on great books. That’s a price worth paying though if for every great book you miss out on you miss ten bad ones.

    What’s the answer? I think you hit on it – it’s talking to each other. I’ve noted that you say one should stick with The Luminaries. I trust you, so if when I read it I find it a struggle I’ll keep going where I otherwise might not because I have good reason to believe that will pay off. Without that though I don’t think treating it like an encounter is necessarily sensible. Sure, we shouldn’t let our expectations swamp a book, but the reality is that if we find a book bad we will likely continue to find it bad.

    I don’t think incidentally as some have suggested it has anything to do with whether a book is intended as pure entertainment or not. I read a fair bit of modernist and experimental literature. I do so because I find it rewarding. I apply though broadly the same rules as I would a pulp crime novel – is this book working on its own terms? Am I interested in it? Am I finding reading it rewarding (and a book may be far from entertaining but still highly rewarding)? If I’m finding parts of it a chore do I have reason to believe persistence will pay off?

    I just finished volume three of Proust. The second half of that book contains huge passages of basically people at a dinner party. Parts of it become wearying. I didn’t bail because I know that Proust repays effort, that his writing at its best is sublime and even if you can’t always see where he’s going he is always going somewhere. The dull sections pay off, if you stick through them. He does go somewhere. Proust though has earned my trust. With another writer if I’d been reading about a rather ordinary dinner party for over 100 pages I might well wonder if it was worth continuing for another 100 and I wouldn’t be wrong in asking myself that, or even in deciding that I couldn’t be bothered and turning to something else.

  7. What a fascinating post and thing to consider about providing excerpts which really can’t fully represent the full power of the book. I think what they do so well though is display the talent that author has for using language. In the case of Evie Wyld, whose 2nd book I just finished a couple of days ago, her writing arrests you the moment you read the powerful opening. Even if you don’t understand how the story builds through alternating chapters moving in separate directions in time you get the flavour of her words.

    I think two things can really encourage a reader to stick with a book – a well-written blurb which makes you want to know the whole story and reviews (especially personally-voiced reviews from book bloggers)

    But I think the real truth is that how we relate to books depends on where we are in our lives and if the book isn’t gelling no matter how much attention we try to pay to it it won’t sink in. You are absolutely right that we are the ones who change when we’re really with the book. It just needs to be the right time.

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