I’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.