Thursday, 4 February 2010

Arguing about books

Recently on this blog I have been less than complimentary about Cormac McCarthy and J D Salinger. One reader and friend in particular has chastised me and it got me thinking about how we talk about books, publicly and privately. I've just read Susan Hill's Howard's End is on the Landing and enjoyed it thoroughly even when I didn't share her tastes.

Firstly, she takes a positive pride in the lack of organisation of her books, something she invests with a moral quality, as she does so many of her personal preferences. She implies that mere "book collectors" arrange their books; she, on the other hand has had a life "working with books in various ways". Well, lots of us have, Susan, and some of us still like to know where to find a specific title!

This chaos does not extend to the study of her husband, the Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells.

Susan Hill reads Dorothy Sayers' detective stories but finds the Wimsey-Vane romance "embarrassing", enjoyed using the London Library but refuses to be a country member, remembers her extensive reading of Enid Blyton, is left cold by Jane Austen but re-reads Ian Fleming. In all of the above she couldn't be more different from your Maven.

But she loves Dickens and so do I, though we have different favourites. But we agree on the flawlessness of Our Mutual Friend.

"Name-dropping is a tiresome, if harmless trait" she says in the introduction before warning the reader that she has known lots of famous writers and I was glad of the warning. There is a lot of showing off in this book. (A postcard from Dirk Bogarde falls out of Graham Greene's The Third Man, for instance.)

Susan Hill loves My Family and Other Animals, Nancy Mitford,adores P G Wodehouse - I can follow her two thirds of the way here. Admires every other one of Kingsley Amis's novels, which makes her much more enthusiastic than me. And I just can't read his son at all - so fully expect another comment from my friend.

Like so many people, writers even, she hasn't read Proust or Ulysses ("though Stephen Fry ... swears by it"). But at least she says "I will go to the gallows to uphold the right of Ulysses to be called a classic." Other omissions are Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, Gormenghast, any Terry Pratchett, in fact any fantasy or historical fiction writer.

Hasn't read the Morte d'Arthur either but at least that falls into the category of books she will get round to one day, rather than the often-tried and cast aside like the books in the above paragraph. The writer she loves most is Virginia Woolf.

So her literary mental world is peopled with different authors from mine. We might come together on Dickens and Gerald Durrell but the Malory that fills and furnishes my own brain is missing from hers, which instead has Virginia Woolf. But we both do have brains peopled by literary experiences, writers and their characters and that gives us more in common than either of us would have with many other people.

In the end Susan Hill tries to boil down the books she loves to a strict forty (I can't remember why). In choosing from Shakespeare she rejects all the poetry (why?), 12th Night, the Roman plays and all tragedies except Hamlet and Macbeth.The Scottish play wins. Shakespeare is allowed only one work while PG Wodehouse gets two! So does Trollope but I don't mind that because I love him.

I wouldn't give shelf room in my forty to Graham Greene or Anita Brookner but there again we are up against the immoveable problem of personal taste.

I found the book absolutely addictive because of the moments when I disagreed as much as the moments when I nodded approvingly.

But in the end I think perhaps its best to discuss books, like politics, with people whose general standpoint is closest to one's own. I never discuss politics with a Tory - no point. And there's no point discussing Terry Pratchett with Susan Hill any more than in her trying to convince me that P G Wodehouse is funny. We all have our blind spots.

But I enjoyed arguing about books with her for the duration of reading Howard's End is on the Landing.


Ann Elle Altman said...

What an interesting take. I'm in the process of reading Howard's End (the original) and find my self fighting with it too. Probably because Forester insists his work is not at all dull and I insist it is. He may argue his characters tell the story but with all his POV changes, I think he himself takes over.

Ah, I continue because as usual, I must have the last word.

catdownunder said...

I keep trying to read Jane Austen and telling myself that there has to be something wrong with me because I keep putting it down again.
(Maybe it is because I am a cat? :-) )

maryom said...

I think Susan Hill is cheating slightly here. If she knows that Howards End is on the landing, she knows where it is, even if it's not filed alphabetically or by genre. Mine, by the way, is on a 'literary' shelf organised chronologically - starting with Pamela and ending with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog - anything later is somewhere else.
OK maybe organisation, or a lack of it, isn't the real subject here.
You're absolutely right in that a common starting point is needed for literary, or other, discussion.I find talking about books with my 'real' friends very tiresome. Too much 'have you read Martine McCutcheon?' or 'the new Val McDermid' - they don't all read the same things but they're rarely reading something I would (slight overlap maybe with Ian Rankin) and (it's difficult to say this without sounding pompous) if they've heard of Howards End it's because of the film. So even if I disagree with your opinions, or Susan Hill's, I feel we're starting from the same position comparatively.
PS Have all of Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, have read Ulysses (once had a copy but no longer),Portrait of a Lady and North and South, and can't get on with Terry Pratchett. It would be a very dull world if we all agreed on everything.

Cathy Butler said...

Sorry to commit libel on your blog, but I simply don't believe that Susan Hill has never read a work of historical fiction! (Or fantasy either, for that matter - though it might depend how you define the genre: I include Milton, Dante and Shakespeare amongst its finer exponents.)

Mary Hoffman said...

It's hard to credit, Charlie, I agree. Maybe she was just coat-trailing.But she did turn down all Shakespeare's Histories apart from Henry 1V part 1 and then it didn't make the final cut because it made no sense to have just one history.

I agree, Mary. It would be a dull world if we all agreed and I find I can't agree with Ann Elle that Forster is dull or with Cat that Austen is not absorbing.

Actually, Mary, I did like the film of Howard's End and it's not my favourite Forster but I "did" A Passage to India" for A level and knew it by heart at that time.

Sorry that your "real" friends read Martine McCutcheon! (I blogged about that novel earlier on this site) but your "virtual" friends on FB have a greater range!

And my husband and I discovered on first meeting that we both shelved chronologically, by genre, so we were obviously made for each other!

Penny Dolan said...

Mary, I love that thought about the mind being a space peopled with characters from the books one's read - glimpsing the horrible Heep lurking in this dark corner, Harriet Vane taking tea on that sofa in the corner, and Scout pushing her way on her knees through the hedge over there.

That thought explains a lot about readers and about writers!

Mary Hoffman said...

Yes, Penny. I think that readers and writers are a bit odd that way! But what I mean is that there is nothing like a shared field of reference.

Lots of our family's sayings are based on literary references and when our oldest went to read Eng Lit at university we were rumbled.

For instance if someone is finding it hard to open a packet or jar, we say "It's quite easy if you have any strength in your thumb" and she never knew it was a quotation from Henry Reed's Naming of Parts!

Eni said...

So Susan Hill had Enid Blyton on her literary itinerary. Well I am glad to inform you that I have published a book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
Stephen Isabirye

Brian Keaney said...

Such an enjoyable post. Other people's tastes are always so inexplicable.

Lucy Coats said...

Brian has the right of it. OPT! I have long learned not to argue with the people who tried (or didn't/wouldn't try) Lord of the Rings, as I've never managed to convince a single one of its merits. When I was younger and more energetic I used to try, but the older and lazier me just shrugs and says 'tant pis'. SH has every right to her tastes--but I fear that her generally rigid didacticism (despite her defence of Ulysses)would put me off. There goes my own prejudiced opinion again!