A Brick Wall

tumblr_lptmh1EY1E1r1sle6o1_500Look, for the moment will you just assume that if I’m not around for a bit my health problems have temporarily caught up with me and leave it at that.  Otherwise we are all going to get sick to the back teeth of my apologising for my tardiness all the while.  I’m here today and that’s what matters.

Mind you, I might very well not be.  I thought I was going to spontaneously combust the other day, which given that I was in a library at the time might have led to a conflagration similar to that which destroyed the library at Alexandria. Although, to compare one of our small branch libraries to a wonder of the ancient world is, I suppose, a tad fanciful.

And what caused this disturbance to my equilibrium?  It was the declaration by someone who had just been berating the others in the reading group for not only never discussing style but having no idea what constituted good style, that she never read a book that was written in the first person.  “If I open a book and see that it is all I, I, I, I close it straight away and put the book down.  No one ever wrote a good book like that.”

Talk about a brick wall.

And it was a brick wall there was no point in trying to climb over, either.  If I’d suggested that novels such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Moonstone, and Jane Eyre might reasonably be thought to have some merit I suspect she wouldn’t have accepted that they were first person.  Or if I’d found copies and proved it, she would probably have told me that she’d always thought they were overrated anyway.  What do you do when you encounter someone who is that closed minded?

Of course, every reader has her or his preferences where narrative, lexical or grammatical style is concerned, but for me part of the pleasure of reading is suddenly finding a writer who opens up an aspect of style I’ve previously had difficulty with and shows me how effective it can be in the right hands and the appropriate circumstances.  I can remember a time when I would balk at novels written in the present tense until I came across one (which, I am ashamed to say I can’t remember the title of) that used it to convey the minute by minute horror of a woman whose child had been abducted.  To have portrayed those frantic hours in past tense wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. As it was, I lived each moment of her terror with her and with none of the reassurance that at least she survived the experience that a past tense rendering would have  provided.

These days it takes me a couple of pages to really notice what the chosen tense is, not only because it has become less unusual for a writer to use present tense, but also because I have come to see the potential of the choice in the appropriate narrative environment.  Would Elly Griffiths’ books, for example, really be so engaging without their rather sardonic third person present tense narrator?  I think not.

So, what am I going to do about this brick wall?  Absolutely nothing, I’ve decided.  I can recognise a battle that can’t be won when I see one and I’m not going to expend any energy even trying.  In the end the loss is hers not mine. It is, however, a salutary lesson to us all.  Are we hiding behind a brick wall and refusing to even peek over it?  I will have to check my own prejudices and make sure I’m not using them to frame a construction that is preventing me from exploring new and exciting work.

17 thoughts on “A Brick Wall

  1. Oh dear. How did the other group members react? I do feel sorry for that “brick wall.” S/he is missing out on a lot of good literature. But it’s hard to feel empathetic while being berated.

    1. I’m afraid they don’t have the confidence to say anything in the light of such certainty. More worrying, neither does the person running it. But you’re right the person who is really missing out is the lady concerned.

  2. Wow, she’s missing out on so many excellent books with a bias like that! I’m sure I have my own biases, although I can’t think of anything specific that would cause me to rule out a huge swathe of books. I would have said stream-of-consciousness writing, but then I discovered Jose Saramago. Or unconventional use of quotation marks, but there’s Cormac McCarthy (who I admit I prefer on audio). I think a lot of the time it takes finding a writer who does whatever the thing is so exceptionally well that I don’t notice the “problem” is there. Then I realize the problem doesn’t have to be a problem, and I become more open to other books that employ the technique.

    1. Yes, Teresa, that’s it precisely. When you meet a writer who knows how to use a particular narrative technique that is the moment you understand its relevance.

  3. Does that mean the brick wall never reads memoirs either? or does the rule only apply to fiction, I wonder? Both my book groups have dominating voices, but at least they don’t berate us – otherwise I might find it hard to stay.

    1. Yes, Lisa, it does make staying difficult and I’m not sure I shall last the course. The books are all chosen by the librarian who runs the group and so far, with only one exception, they’ve been re-reads for me and there are too many other books out there I want to read. I might give it one more month but I doubt it.

  4. How irritating, to say the least and what a waste. I remember the first time I read a book written in the first person when I was a child (still have the book, I think) and I was enthralled, so I would have been tempted to say something to the ‘brick wall’. But yes, it would have been a waste of time and damaging to my blood pressure, so I’d have not bothered. I used to think I didn’t like the present tense, but you can’t generalise without missing out – I loved Wolf Hall and many others too.

    1. Exactly, Margaret generalising is a really dangerous business. Invariably the next book you pick up is the one that shows you just how wrong you were.

  5. That seems a particularly stupid wall. But it’s true we all do probably have our — if not walls, at least stumbling blocks. I pretty much never read science fiction, for instance. But I don’t have an explicit policy against it! It’s funny that Teresa brings up Cormac McCarthy. I suppose if I do have a brick wall like that, it’s really graphic violence — but I’ve been so fascinated by The Road that I’m thinking I might risk Blood Meridian, which a good friend and trusted fellow reader was just telling me won her over completely once she got past her own horror at its violence. Reading doesn’t have to be about risk-taking, but why cut yourself off preemptively from discovering great books?

    1. I’ve avoided The Road precisely because of reports of the violence, Rohan, but having just read your post (and left a comment about some of the brick walls you discovered!) I can see that I’m going to have to at least give it a shot. I remember a friend waxing lyrical about All the Pretty Horses. I must ask her if she has read The Road and, if so, what she thought.

  6. You make an excellent point, and I’m sorry that she brought her brick-wall attitudes to your discussion group. You’re right; there’s nothing you can do to change her. I just hope the others in the group are more open-minded, even if they are quiet. And I think your leader needs some assertiveness training. 🙂

    1. I think the librarian was floored by the force of the comment, Naomi. It came out of nowhere and I suspect the unexpected nature of the remark threw her. We’ll all be more prepared next time.

  7. First of all, I am sending hugs because both of us are in a low state, health-wise and it’s getting me down a bit so I don’t doubt it’s getting you down too. Ach our bodies!! What are we to do? As for the ‘brick wall’, I am exactly like you: nothing pleases me more than finding a writer who can make a device I’ve struggled with before sound compelling and engaging. That’s such a pleasure. But it’s a shame for the group to be stuck with such a closed mind.

    1. Reciprocal hugs flying back through the ether, Litlove. It’s trigger finger this morning, which is making typing a little difficult. But, at least it’s something new. Every day is a voyage of physical discovery at the moment. I’m not sure I’m going to last the course where this group is concerned. Everything I’m being asked to read is a re-read I wouldn’t have chosen to go back to. I don’t have enough reading time left to me for that.

  8. Commiserations on your health situation – hope you begin to feel a litle better soon. It must have been so hard to hold back when faced with such a blinkered attitude. It does make you wonder why she goes to a book club? Just to air her own prejudices? Or to expand her horizons by reading books she wouldn’t normally read? Seems like more of the former.
    I have some personal dislikes such as science fiction or fantasy but wouldn’t completely block them. It’s just there are so many others to choose that I enjoy more.

    1. I suspect this lady has a whole set of brick walls defining the parameters of every aspect of her life, Karen. Part of me feels very sorry for her, but another part cringes away from the aggression that was involved.

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