Endelig har jeg kjøpt How to Read a Novel av John Sutherland. Virkelig på tide! Ifølge forfatteren selv "a truly important book". I hvert fall en både underholdende og lærerik bok om kunsten å lese. Her er forordet:
I recall one evening walking to the underground with AS Byatt, after a day's teaching. We were both then lecturers in the same English Department. Why, I asked, did she publish so much higher journalism: I couldn't open a copy of a literary supplement or an opinion-forming magazine without seeing her name. It was great stuff, but why so much?
"Because I need shoes," she replied, dryly, "and I like to buy new ones from time to time." She then went off to get her train to Wandsworth.
Nowadays the author of Possession could outbuy Imelda Marcos - were she so inclined. Probably Wandsworth, too. And when she writes (she still does a lot of it in the prints), I suspect, Dame Antonia now writes for herself: not for shoe-leather. And very well she writes.
Most authors' motives are impure (what was it Byron said: "money, fame, and the love of beautiful women"?) My motives in writing How to Read a Novel were, I admit, mixed. No beautiful women, alas. Shoes? Perhaps.
A main motive, the worm in my apple, was embarrassment. Embarrassment, that is, at how little fiction I've read, set against the mass there is to read. It's the familiar "so many novels, so little time" problem. It's also an insoluble problem. The stuff spills out faster than one can even read the listings of what one will never get round to reading. Every time one logs on to amazon, there's another half million - all yours for a click and a flash of plastic. The buying experience has been sped up to nano-seconds. Reading practice is something else: even the most practised reader of fiction will be doing well to manage a page a minute.
One can, of course, as recommended by the witty Frenchman Pierre Bayard, whose Comment parler des livres que l'on na pas lus? (How to Talk About Books One Hasn't Read) was published in 2007, go in for the higher bluffery. Since - as Bayard shrewdly points out - the person (or class) you're talking to won't probably have read the book either, you can usually fake it. But, possibly, someone will have read what you haven't and are talking about, with all the confidence of the consummate un-reader. Sod's law applies to literary conversation as much as to anything else in life. At one's back one always hears the whirring of the bullshit meter (is there a French word for "bullshit"? How about "sod's law"?)
How best to invest one's tiny mite: the (say) 1,001 novels one can read in a lifetime? Our current addiction to "best ever", "must read", "bestseller" lists, charts, and tables reflects that anxiety. This taxonomic desperation originated, literary historians record, in the 1890s, at exactly the same time, as the historians elsewhere record, that the number of new novels produced annually began to overflow the containers society has for them.
As a number of reviewers pointed out (some indulgently, others less so) How to Read a Novel did not, in any detail, instruct on how to read, so much as how to position oneself to undertake that act. How, as it were, to close in on the novel, fending off commercial coercion, word-of-mouth seductions, the herd instinct to thunder along behind the crowd - above all, how to dig out the right book from the huge mass available.
An ever more massive mass. On the day I'm writing this, Forbes Magazine proclaims last year to have been the richest ever for the human race. I would wager that, for English Language readers, 2006-7 was also the richest-ever year for fiction. And, for a certainty, 2008 will be even richer. This is not merely a function of ever more new novels as the fact that - unlike other products - old novels do not disappear once consumed. Like old soldiers, they never fade away. The must-read archive gets bigger and bigger. Bestseller lists used to contain ten titles. Now it's up to a hundred. It's like a mountain which grows faster than any reader can climb. How to be well-read in the 21st century? Can one be well-read?
As the sad witness of lottery winners testifies, vast wealth seldom makes life easier. We are, as regards the range, quality, and sheer number of novels available to us in 2007, better off than all generations before us. "Embarrassment" is inadequate to describe the dilemmas this unprecedented richness poses. It is not (as it was in my youth) disposable cash which defines the dilemma as available time. We live longer than they did but even if we lasted as long as Swift's Struldbrugs the reader's eye would never catch up with the writer's hand.
A related, more intractable, and perennially fascinating issue is why we need so much narrative in our lives. It's not just novels. Why is it that 100 per cent of what is shown on our cinema screens, over fifty percent on our TV screens is fictional narrative. Even newspaper and magazine articles are sucked, inexorably, to the condition of "stories" with beginnings, middles, and ends.
Why, in a life where (as a modern Gradgrind would say) Fact is paramount, hurry incessant, and the real world so pressing do we crave such large, time-wasting, doses of fiction? Dickens, the creator of Gradgrind, proposes one answer: "people muth't be amuth'd", as the circus-master Sleary (rather too liquidly in my view) insists.
Imagination, Dickens argues, must be fed if we are to live full lives: deny that nourishment, and life shrivels. Man does not live by fact alone. One of the novelist's targets in Hard Times (along with the political economists, the utilitarians, and Preston's striking textile workers) was the anti-fiction prejudice the newly founded public libraries in Britain.
The public library battle has been well won. The novel triumphs on its shelves. But in the interwar years of the 20th century, fiction faced an even sterner cultural test than the stony faced public librarian. How could reading novels justify itself as a university subject? Belletrism - the notion that fictional prose was an art which connoisseurs could relish like fine wine was deemed to be beneath the level of an academic "discipline". Too weak-wristed. Something strenuous was required - as strenuous as Anglo Saxon, or classics.
From Cambridge University came a saving strategy - a way of reading novels as "critically" as philologists read Ormulum or chemists turned blue litmus paper red. Fiction the new puritans of reading declared, had two contrary characters. The first (wholly deleterious) was escapist. The novel, like gin, was the shortest way out of Manchester, or wherever. On its wings, little Wellsian people, leading their little lives, could drug themselves into accepting those little lives. The mill-girl, dosing herself with regular drams of romance from Peg's Paper, or the Kippsian counter-jumper with a "shilling shocker" stuck in his hip pocket was the image associated with this fiction. Critical sneer was the approved dismissive technique.
There was, however, another worthier kind of fiction which offered engagement, not escape from the real world. These novels lent readers (the relatively few capable of profiting from the loan) the privilege of sharing a superior sensibility: seeing the real world through other eyes which rendered the world more, not less, real. The trick was to separate one kind of novel from the other. The faculty required, for this operation, was "discrimination". The critical razor, applied to the mass, could find the vein of gold among the mountainous dross.
Famously the Leavises, with whom this harsh doctrine is principally associated, found room on their bookshelves for only a yard or two of truly worthwhile works (together with the yard or two of their own - justifying the first yard). The avatar was DH Lawrence. The stricter sect of Leavisites held to the belief that after Lawrence, there was nothing. The rim of the fictional universe had been reached with Women in Love.
It was an intellectually gratifying, and highly economic doctrine, but radically ungenerous. Those who, like myself, were subjected to it in the decades that its parsimony dominated university study of fiction felt that it left one culturally airless. There was all that activity, elsewhere, which one was prohibited from even thinking about.
In recent years more relaxed, and intellectually curious academic disciplines (notably literary sociology, and media studies) have widened the gate from its Leavisian straitness. I have even read answers on Jackie Collins in finals papers, and (many, many) dissertations on graphic fiction. Neil Gaiman is now scrutinised as rigorously as was once the artist-prophet of Eastwood.
But the big questions remain. Why so many novels? How should we (can we) deal with them? Why do we need them? And, if we need them, how do we make the necessary moves so as to invest our reading time wisely.
There are, I think, no easy answers. My own view is that with the rise of the novel (as Ian Watt memorably called it) in the eighteenth century, human consciousness was as revolutionised as it was by Watt and steam power, by the 1832 Reform Act and the extension of the franchise, or even (to be personal) by the 1963 Higher Education Robbins Report.
With mass access to fiction it became legitimate for any literate persons, of any class, to fantasise infinite possibilities, and to feed those possibilities back into their own lives. That life became larger and more potential.
Making the right choices, however, as in all other defining areas of life remains life's most difficult thing. Not least, I would argue, with the novels one chooses as companions along the way.