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