The writer and her material: Lionel Shriver and Han Kang

You may have heard about the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s recent keynote speech at Brisbane Writers Festival. The flaws in Shriver’s argument have been outlined elsewhere (here, for example); but I was struck by how clearly some of her underlying assumptions illustrate a particular approach to fiction.

“Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls?” asks Shriver. “The fiction writer, that’s who.” At first glance, this might just seem to be common sense, but it assumes a particular relationship between the writer and her material: not just one of taking, but also one of assuming control over what is taken.

This can lead to situations such as one from Shriver’s latest novel, The Mandibles, which she describes later in the speech:

In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.

From Shriver’s account, Luella exists within the novel solely for the purpose of teaching Douglas a lesson, and being part of a neat little artistic counterpoint; and never mind that she ends up humiliated and presented as bestial. At one point in her speech, Shriver takes issue with the idea that there may be a difference between ‘representing’ and ‘exploiting’ characters. I would suggest that one definition of exploiting a character might be this: manipulating a life purely for fictional ends, with no concern for the implications.

Human Acts

So, what alternatives are there? One good recent example of a different approach, I think,  is Han Kang’s novel Human Acts. This concerns the Gwangju Uprising, which took place in Han’s home town when she was a child; but, even so, the book does not treat the experience of the event as ‘belonging’ to the author. Indeed, the epilogue (written from Han’s viewpoint) brings the question of how to write about the uprising into the work itself. It suggests that Han could only apprehend these events from a distance and in fragments; and this is also how readers experience the novel. Han allows her material to be what guides her way of writing.

Human Acts is stronger as a work of art because it confronts the problems inherent in its own making. It illustrates something that I often feel about fiction: in the best work, there is a sense that the author has spent time considering what it is that she’s doing in writing that work.

Towards language

I used to approach my reading in terms of content. I’d be looking for particular genres, or at the very least I would choose books based on whether the subject matter appealed to me. But something has changed (or maybe something has been brought out) in the years since I’ve been blogging. I now approach books much more in terms of language.

What do I mean by this? Well, I don’t mean that I’m drawn to ‘fine writing’. Indeed, I think that literary style, in and of itself, is a red herring. What counts for me is not the style of writing per se, but what the writing opens up. In the work I value most, the language embodies what it seeks to portray; the way a piece of fiction is written becomes part of what it means.




A good example is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England and written in a ‘shadow tongue’, a modified version of Old English. The effect of this shadow tongue is to estrange the reader just enough from what might otherwise seem an overly familiar historical period. The crucial thing is that the same story couldn’t be told in a more contemporary style (or even a more conventional ‘historical’ one), because the style of The Wake adds its own layer – a particular relationship between reader, text and world – to the work, one that can’t be replicated otherwise.



So perhaps it’s not surprising that I tend to gravitate towards fiction that departs from stylistic norms (though not fiction that does so just for its own sake – the interplay of style, form and subject is important). But there are less obvious examples, too, such as The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This novel is written a slightly heightened way that often gets labelled ‘quirky’; when I read it, I recognised the general tone from a whole raft of contemporary American fiction. But then it became apparent that all the artifice in July’s book is there to represent a shield between the characters and the harshness of the ‘real world’. Again, the language of the novel adds a further dimension to the whole.



Recently I came across Gabirel Josipovici’s idea that art can be like a toy (see, for example, his essay ‘I Dream of Toys’, collected in The Singer on the Shore. He describes how children turn the most ordinary objects into toys by applying imagination: a cardboard box becomes a house; a stick becomes a hobby-horse – but, at the same time, they’re still a box and a stick. Josipovici goes on to suggest that some works of art function like this: their component parts are plain to see; we can take them and make our own experience.

This idea really strikes a chord with me, because I can’t help but thing that the kings of books I’ve been talking about here – the kind I most want to read – act in a similar way. To go with the same examples: the distortions of language are clear enough in Kingsnorth’s and July’s novels; when I open my imagination to them, the books gain a deeper richness.

Book details (Foyles affiliate and publisher links)

The Wake (2014) by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound paperback

The First Bad Man (2015) by Miranda July, Canongate paperback

The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004 (2006) by Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet paperback

A reader’s beliefs

I believe that a work of fiction is not…

…a machine. It cannot be understood simply by breaking it down into its component parts. It lives in the reading.

…a business transaction. Once the book is in my hands, there is no customer relationship. The book owes me nothing.

…an exam. There is no such thing as ‘difficult’ fiction. There may be fiction that requires concentration, or setting aside preconceived ideas of how a work ‘should’ be – but it’s all there to be read. There won’t be a test at the end, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t see everything. What matters is opening myself to the experience.

…functional. There are times when I’d like a book to fit a particular bill, and sometimes I’ll find the right one and the right time. But many of favourite books do things that I may not have anticipated, which is why I try to let the book have its way when I read.

…mandatory. There is no  single book that I have to read, be it old or new. There are books which are essential to me, but these can only reveal themselves with hindsight. Reading is an ongoing process.

…an unfiltered view. Reading a book is like looking through a window, but even the plainest window frames and shapes what you see.  The fiction I value most builds that sense into itself: form is the window, and it is made to be part of the view.

…written for my benefit. The author wasn’t thinking of me when writing this book (any book); I ought to bear that in mind.


What, after all that, do I believe a work of fiction is? Just that: a work unto itself.  No matter how old, no matter how much has been said or written about it, the work remains, ready to speak anew. I just have to listen.

Reflections: fiction and manipulation

MountainsEchoedI recently read Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed for my book group. It’s the kind of realism that is not generally to my taste, but I found it okay for the most part. That was until the point where two characters were about to be reunited, when I had a distinct sense of being made to care about these characters – and I did not like that sense at all. “Unpleasantly manipulative book,” I thought.

But this reaction raises some questions for me. Couldn’t it be argued that all fiction is ‘manipulative’, in that fiction manipulates language, and language affects the reader? Well, maybe, but that makes it sound as though fiction is just a trick, and I don’t believe that – I have been affected deeply, viscerally by some fiction; it would be denying the reality of those experiences to treat them as products of trickery. If I’m going to conclude that, however, perhaps I need a more nuanced picture of what was happening when I read Hosseini.


It might be useful to compare my experience of reading And the Mountains Echoed with that of reading The Weight of Things by Marianne Fritz. Now, there was a book I found harrowing, an effect created at least in part by the way the novel withheld information and rearranged its chronology. Is Fritz’s approach really so different from Hosseini’s? If not, why did one book induce the feeling of being manipulated when the other did not?

The answer, I think, lies in the language and style that the authors use. In The Weight of Things, the style, structure and shape become part of what the book is about – they mean something in their own right. So, for example, the deceptive lightness of tone can be seen to reflect the way that the characters do not or cannot acknowledge the existential weight bearing down from the events of their history. As a result, Fritz’s novel could not be written another way, because then it would mean something different.

To my mind, Hosseini’s book isn’t like this. It’s written what feels like a default literary style: effective and efficient in its way, but familiar from so many other books – and, crucially, not implicated in the novel’s project. It would be possible to change the words and style of And the Mountains Echoed without really changing its meaning. For me, this makes the language a kind of veneer over the novel, and that’s where the sense of being manipulated arises.

In contrast, The Weight of Things acknowledges that its language is the novel, so it brings me as reader closer to the text – and my response to it seems to emerge spontaneously from the reading. This is one reason why fiction that doesn’t take its language and shape for granted is the fiction that makes me feel most alive.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Book details (Foyles affiliate/publisher links)

And the Mountains Echoed (2013) by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury paperback

The Weight of Things (1978) by Marianne Fritz, tr. Adrian Nathan West (2015), Dorothy, a publishing project paperback

Reflections: reading for the experience

I saw this Guardian blog by Alison Flood doing the rounds on Twitter the other day: “Don’t read classic books because you think you should: do it for fun!” The particular context was reporting on a YouGov poll to find the 19th century classics that British people would like to read “if they had the time and patience”; writers including James Smythe and Sarah Perry had reacted to the poll on Twitter, pointing out – quite rightly – that they’re all just books in the end, and you can just… read them.

Polls like this, and articles like the Guardian’s, are not uncommon; but these in particular touched a nerve, because of the ways I have been trying to think more about how and why I read. It struck me that one of the things I’ve tended to do as part of that process is to step away from ideas like “reading for pleasure” or “reading to be challenged, and focus instead on what it’s like to read an individual work.

When I think back to the experiences of reading (to choose two powerful recent examples) Mrs Dalloway or Human Acts, a concept like “pleasure”, wide-ranging and malleable though it may be, doesn’t seem enough. These experiences were complex, visceral, and unique to themselves; what they did, ultimately, was to intensify the experience of being alive. Scott Esposito put it well in an essay from last year – talking, coincidentally, about Mrs Dalloway:

I spent so much time just trying to get Mrs. Dalloway to talk back to me. In my previous 22 years of life I had never read sentences of the sort Virginia Woolf writes in that book. They came on like the onslaught of some undiscovered microbe, the intense fever they promulgated within me inducing blurred eyes and a dazed head that could just not think of the usual things. I spent a week with this illness, and when I eventually recovered I understood that for all the times I was destined to fall so ill again, the infection would never be quite so revitalizing. Nearly 15 years later this is still why I seek this search for the silence that brings that revitalizing fever.

Esposito’s essay is calling for ways to talk about novelty in literature without resorting to the language of “difficulty”. I think that’s analogous to what I’m trying to do on here: find a better, more precise way to describe what it’s like when I read. “Read Human Acts for the experience of reading Human Acts” may not be the most informative recommendation, though it may at root be what I need to say. This blog is here to help me unpack that experience and others like (or unlike) it.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Too soon to be a classic?

One thought that occurs to me reading the Vintage Classics edition of Morvern Callar: is twenty years too soon to call a book a classic? (Granted, in this case ‘classic’ is more a marketing term than a critical evaluation, but the question remains.)

I don’t have a straightforward answer. On the one hand, my instinct is to say that the term ‘classic’ implies a book old enough to have survived being tested by the years, and twenty years is not old in literary terms. On the other hand, I very much liked Morvern Callar, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. If a ‘classics’ imprint can look at a certain period in time and say, ‘these books are worth reading now’, I find it hard to begrudge that.

Reflections: a fan of the outliers

I’ve always felt fairly uneasy about the idea of being a ‘fan’ of any given author or series, because I’ve never really had (what seems to me) the typical fan’s relationship with the fiction I read or watch. Even when I was deep in collecting the volumes of long series like Discworld and Fighting Fantasy, I appreciated idiosyncracies and irregularities, the value of allowing writers to go where their imaginations took them. When I encountered other fans’ opinions, the common consensus seemed to be that the closer a given book was to the series/genre norm, the better; whereas the outliers were what most intrigued me.

Over the last 10-15 years, the fields of science fiction and fantasy have become much slicker when it comes to managing series; the trend has been towards valuing plot continuity, ‘world-building’ and high-concept combinations of ‘tropes’. Those, I’ve come to see, are not really my sort of thing, which is one reason I’ve drifted away from reading a lot of genre SF and fantasy in recent years. The work I find myself most drawn to is singular and often self-contained, and I still find myself liking aspects of work that many others seem not to (so, for example, I love The Luminaries for its four-dimensional living metaphors; and I don’t really care much either way about its plot, pastiche or astrology, which seem to get most of the attention). Ultimately, when it comes to matters such as world-building and series continuity, I am more in tune with the project of Viriconium, and I have to proceed from there.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Reflections: 'more than real'

When I love a book, I love it strongly: my favourite books have all, in their own ways, made the experience of living that bit more intense. One thing I’ve been trying to do through the blog this year is to come up with a way of encapsulating just what it is in books that makes me respond that way. This hasn’t been an easy task, because it needs to encompass some ostensibly very different types of books: I started off as a reader of fantasy and science fiction, but increasingly find myself drifting away from them; most of my favourites these days come from the ‘General Fiction’ shelves, yet I still tend to find straightforward realism lacking. I perceive a continuum across the books I love, and I’ve long had an idea in the back of my mind as to what unites them; but any description I tried – ‘postmodern’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘speculative fiction’ – would always seem to leave out something important.

The other day, however, the phrase ‘more than real’ popped into my head. What I mean by this is a sense that the conventional frame or form of a given book can’t contain the reality of what’s being written, so it has to push or twist. This feels right to me in terms of describing my favourite books. It covers some obviously fantastical material: Christopher Priest’s equivocal realities; Helen Oyeyemi’s collisions of story; Adam Roberts’s laboratories for testing sf. It takes in writers who take a non-realist approach to ‘the real world’: Eleanor Catton’s living sculptures; Jon McGregor’s unearthing of the strangeness in everyday experience; the mirage of coherence in Hawthorn & Child (‘more than real’ might be another way of saying ‘not real at all’). But there’s also room under that umbrella for writers like Ray Robinson and Evie Wyld, apparently realist writers who, to my mind, are shaping their work in subtler ways. One thing I’ve learned over time is that even the most mundane subject matter can be ‘more than real’.

It’s interesting to me that, though my taste in fiction hasn’t suddenly changed, just having that phrase ‘more than real’ has enabled me to think about these things in a different way. because I can see what I mean more clearly. I have a better idea of what I’m really looking for in fiction, so I should be better placed to find it and explore the experience. I’m excited to begin searching once again.

Reflections is a series of posts in which I think more generally about my approach to and experience of reading.

Reflections: reading through a doorway, reading through a hole

FilerI have an on-off relationship with my ereader. I’m not particularly averse to electronic reading; it’s just that I rarely think to pick the ereader up when all the shelves of print books are so much more visible. I still prefer paper books at heart; indeed, very few of the ebooks I own are titles that I could also have bought as a print copy.

One of those few is Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, which I’ve been re-reading for my book group. I’d forgotten how much I liked it – the way it creeps up on you, gradually revealing that its form and narrator are not as they first appeared to be. I had put that forgetting down to not having read Shock until after it became a Big Name Book and somehow subconsciously (erroneously) assuming that meant it couldn’t be good, even though I remembered otherwise. But I also wonder if the experience of reading the book electronically didn’t have something to do with it.

“A book…is a doorway,” wrote Eleanor Catton recently. Her metaphor was more general, and made in a different context; but let’s run with the specifics of it for a while. When I open a print book, it is like stepping through a doorway, into the world of the book. Whatever distractions there may be from outside, it is ultimately just me and the book, and I have the whole text – its whole world – before me.

Catton goes on: “A screen is all surface. How many adults can sit at a computer terminal and read diligently and immersively, for hours?” It’s worth pointing out that, these days, such electronic reading is less likely to be done on a terminal than on something like a tablet or phone. But I think she does have a point here, because I find that, when I try to read on a multifunction device, I don’t have the same level of focus. After all, in those circumstances, reading is just one function among many.

I would distinguish, though, between multifunction devices and dedicated ereaders. With an ereader, it is still just me and the book, but the experience is different. If reading a print book is like opening a door, using an ereader to me is like peering through a hole. With a printed text, I can feel that I have the whole book in my hands. With the ereader, I have a single page (or page fragment) in front of me at any one time; I can’t flick so easily back and forth through the book; and an electronic page or percentage count give me a less intuitive sense of where I am in the book than holding a physical volume.

The effect of this is that, with ebooks, I find myself focusing much more on the isolated moment, less so on the context. It may be no coincidence that the only book read electronically that I’ve reviewed on this blog at any length is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a novel that demands – and rewards – attention to and engagement with its language, which is something that reading in the moment can encourage. On the other hand, The Shock of the Fall, which takes you through different texts and styles, rewards an appreciation of its cumulative effect. I appreciated Filer’s novel well enough on the electronic page, but perhaps I would have experienced it better on the printed one.


Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

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