Saturday 18 September 2010

Literary Pudding - in praise of books that don't win prizes.

It’s often said that writers must be readers. If the amount of reading one manages equals the quality of writing one produces then I should be a pretty good writer…

I’ve been a reader ever since I could get past sentences more adventurous than those about obese felines perched on a small floor covering. For me reading is as essential as eating, and like eating it should be varied. Just as I wouldn’t choose the same meals every day, I don’t always choose the same kinds of books.

Good reading is rather like a good meal: something light but interesting to stimulate the reading appetite as a starter; a substantial main course with plenty of bite, and then something frothy, and even a bit bad for you, for pudding.

I’m wary of readers who read only the main courses; books that have at least been short-listed for the Man Booker or have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. While such readers occasionally deign to read a starter, they dismiss dessert as beneath contempt. (Or do they secretly read racy thrillers tucked inside the latest prize winning tome?)

I’ve read a number of those prize winning main courses and have thoroughly enjoyed some and appreciated their contribution to the literary canon, but others have left me wondering ‘Why this one?’ Was the panel made up of the winning author’s friends? Did nobody actually bother to read the entries and the panel drew lots? Or were the panel members trying to out-do each other in showing off their mental supremacy and so voted for the most pointless contender. Do they think ‘no-one will get why this book won so they will think we understood something that they are too dim to appreciate?’ I am obviously one of the ‘too dim to appreciate it’ group - a reader of very little brain, (but one who read Winnie the Pooh in her early years.)

It’s like going to a restaurant that has a triple Michelin star and being served a meal of rare ingredients artfully arranged on the plate only to find it has no taste and gives you indigestion.

Once a book has won that prestigious Man Booker, the heavy brigade will delight in reading it in order to air their views on it (often with a copy of the Guardian review close to hand in case they missed some meaningful insight.) Many thousand more copies will grace book-shelves of people who like to think they are reading the right books, but I can guarantee that a number of these will bear evidence of reading on only the first few pages while the rest remain pristine. Yet there they will linger in the book-shelf that visitors can see rather than the one in the bedroom where the murder mysteries, the thrillers and the chick-lit live, the copies bent and thumbed from having been read, re-read, and lent to friends.

I like good literature, I like books to open up my world, telling me about places and times I know little about, I like books to challenge my thinking, and I’m quite happy to learn new words from sesquipedalian writers and even keep a dictionary by my bedside for that eventuality but sometimes dessert, a formulaic romantic comedy or a thrilling page-turner is balm to the soul.

Sometimes reading needs just to be fun, an escape, a soothing emotional massage in a hectic, troubled world. There are plenty of excellent writers whose work fulfils this role, giving millions of people pleasure and reassurance in difficult times, and perhaps opening up a reading world to those who are not greatly experienced readers, yet the literary snobs tear their offerings to shreds - figuratively if not literally. Just as I never warm to anyone who constantly refuses pudding, I cannot warm to those who shudder at literary dessert.

If I ever get one of my novels published, I’d love it to win a prize. I’d be thrilled. I’ll never be the kind of writer who wins a Nobel prize, but if it was a choice between a prize for the sort of book people bought to look good on the living room shelf, but didn’t actually read, or a Thumping Good Read Award, I’d prefer the latter. I’d want people to like my book, to enjoy it, to re-read it, to lend it to friends, (or better still, to buy each of their friends a new copy every year). I’d be very happy for my book to live on the bedroom bookshelf, to be literary dessert with extra whipped cream.