sks41aWell, hello again!

I’m still feeling my way round getting back to writing here, but as the hours of daylight get longer so the problem with my eyes becomes slightly less of an issue and while I don’t think I’ll ever get back to posting as regularly as I used to the need to be part of the book blogging world is beginning to outweigh the discomfort.

Are you all well?  I do hope the winter months have treated you kindly.  The Bears would like you to know that they are thriving, although they could have done without the freezing temperatures during the nights and were observed to be channelling Queen Victoria when the snow forced them to cancel an outing last week.

Life has not been entirely bookless.  I am, however, having to be rather more discriminating in what I choose to spend my reading time on. At the moment I’m coming to the end of Kamila Shamsie’s Orange shortlisted novel, Burnt Shadows.  This reinforces the value of a good book group, because I doubt I would ever have read the work had it not been selected by another reader for discussion this coming Wednesday.  Starting with the horror of Nagasaki, it charts the life of Hiroko Tanaka, a nuclear survivor, who then finds herself caught up in further international conflicts as her life takes her to the India of partition, the subsequent subcontinental nuclear confrontation and the aftermath of the twin towers.  If this sounds depressing reading then I suppose in one sense it is, but the very fact that through all these troubles Hiroko is able to maintain supportive friendships with people who should stand firmly on the other side of the political divide gives grounds for hope that at some point in the future we might find a way of co-existing with those who are ideologically in the opposite camp.

We will be glad to get back to a ‘proper’ group meeting this month.  December and January were given over to an experiment to bring several reading groups together to discuss the same novel and explore it in greater depth through the involvement of an academic who had studied the work and might thus bring a different level of insight to the conversation.  We read the book for our individual meeting in December and then met with the other groups in January. This would have been really interesting had it not been for the fact that the book chosen was, to put it bluntly, poor.  Or at least, we thought it was.  All the other groups loved it and I know that a lot of book bloggers did as well.  However, I think that was because of the subject matter, which was always going to appeal to those who are interested in the book world.  What no one ever asked was ‘is this a well written book?’.  And we just didn’t think it was.

You will have noticed that I am being very circumspect about the title of this work.  I’m pretty certain some of you will have enjoyed it too and I don’t want to alienate you all and have you scream at me to crawl back under my winter stone just as I’ve stuck my nose out to smell the daffodils.  It is interesting, however, what different groups demand of the books that they choose to read.  Are we just attracted by the themes or do we look for quality in the writing as well?  Someone said to me that having two literary PhDs and a Professor of English Language amongst our number does make us a rather unusual group, but surely you don’t have to have formal qualifications to be interested in the quality of an author’s writing?  What do you focus on in your groups?  Do you question the writer’s ability to write with skill as well as to tackle interesting subjects?  Surely we are not alone in this?

44 thoughts on “

  1. Lovely to see you posting again, I have missed your posts. Glad the situation with your eyes is a little easier at the moment. I can only imagine how difficult it has been. I love Kamila Shamsie’ s work have read all her novels and Burnt Shadows is my favourite.
    It is always interesting how people can react so differently to the same book. Last year I read a couple of books that have been enormously popular but which I hated. That’s what keeps blogging interesting.

    1. Hi Ali! You’re right about the differences of opinions being what keeps discussing books interesting and if it had been on a blog I would have been happy to disagree and give my reasons. I think what was so hard about the situation we found ourselves in was that everyone else was so enthusiastic and if we had marched in with our “but it is a badly written book” to their faces, it would have appeared as if we were really saying “the truth is that you’re all lousy readers”. Not the way to win friends and influence people. 🙂

  2. Still very keen to hear what the book was! When you mentioned the subject matter “was always going to appeal to those in the book world”, my first thought was Possession by A.S. Byatt, and my second thought, “But surely a bunch of PhDs would be more likely to approve of Byatt’s style than your average reader!” So now I am bursting with curiosity. Pleeeeease?

  3. Like Ali, I have missed your posts, and I was so happy to see this one in my reader. I’m sorry to hear about your eyes but glad that you are reading, and writing, as you can. I haven’t head of Burnt Shadows but am now interested to read it. With regard to the particular Book That Shall Not Be Named, I don’t think there’s much danger of any screaming here! In my book groups, the quality of writing is usually a major factor in whether I persevere with the book chosen, but it’s something I have trouble discussing with them. There was one book we read, supposedly narrated by a young girl, and the narrative voice was completely wrong – it threw me off almost from the first page. I got a lot of blank looks at that meeting.

    1. I think you hit on the real issue here, Lisa, which is that unless you are used to critiquing a book in respect of its style it is very much easier to concentrate on what it is about. The trouble with our group is that too many of us are concerned with style for a living!

  4. Such a delight to find a post from you, Alex. I’ve been wondering how you are and am very pleased to hear that things have improved. Very pleased, also, to hear that you enjoyed Burnt Shadows. A very fine book – I think you’d like A God in Every Stone, too.

    1. That’s going on the list then, Susan. Somehow she’s a writer I had missed but there is one member of our group who is very interested in literature set outside the UK and I owe her a great debt of gratitude for the authors she has introduced me to.

  5. It’s lovely to see a new post from you, Alex. I’m pleased to hear your eyes aren’t such a problem at the moment and that the Bears are well. You’ve made me curious about the title of that book! There are a lot of factors that determine whether or not I enjoy a book, but the quality of the writing is certainly one of them – and my degree is not literature-related. Burnt Shadows sounds interesting, though probably not something I would have chosen to read either.

    1. Helen, The Bears are delighted that you are concerned for their welfare. They send you greetings from their sofa, on which a seat will always be reserved for you.

      I think you might find Burnt Shadows interesting. While it’s not your usual historical fare it does explore a certain aspect of history through from Nagasaki through to the present day and plays with the randomness of history’s great events in as much as they involve the individual.

  6. I too am glad to see you back — even though I was gone for a long, long time for a while too. But yours was a blog I looked forward to. I am always amazed at books that some love that I disdain because I find them poorly written. Then, I try to explain to myself what I mean by poorly written — and I end up with evidence that makes me dislike the book even more. How could others miss this? I have no idea. Very curious about what the book is.

    1. Thank you, Barbara. In fact it wasn’t just the quality of writing that got our goat in this instance. It was also that the book was being hailed by the speaker as a feminist text. Given that the main character ends up with her man and pregnant when she was in the middle of building a really good career for herself, this was also hard to follow. Hey ho, it sold well, so as far as the author is concerned that is probably all that matters.

  7. Alex! It is so good to hear from you! I was just thinking about you the other day and wondering how you were doing. I do very much prefer my books to have interesting subjects and be well written. Bad writing has ruined books I thought I should love. But at the same time, I’ve been able to overlook bad writing if the story/subject was compelling enough in other ways.

    1. The trouble with this book, if I’m honest, Stefanie, was that it wasn’t just badly written, it also wasn’t very plausible. I gave it to a friend of mine who is in a similar situation and she just laughed!

  8. You raise interesting questions. I care deeply about the quality of writing, but as an historian I lack the words–the conceptual tools–for discussing what it is that I like or dislike about it. I need writing to be “good enough” and love it when it blows me away, but what interests me most are the themes and topics and personalities of the characters. Thanks for asking.

    Glad to have you back.

    1. I think you put your finger on a really relevant point in as much as quantifying what makes a piece of writing good isn’t always easy and if you’re not careful you can destroy the very essence you valued by trying to pin it down.

  9. Personally I am going through a bit of a “functional” phase, where I am more interested in ideas and the way they come across than I am in the “well written-ness” of it. At one of our book groups, someone complained about Karl Ove Knaussgard’s My Struggle as not being very well written, regarding choice of words, but I thought his other techniques were so strong, I didn’t even notice this. “Badly written” books that put me right off are to me those without themes, those without something of substance to say, those which structure scenes poorly, those which use cliches. My Number 1 example of this would be The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney.

    1. It’s interesting isn’t it, how our view of a book differs. I really enjoyed ‘Tenderness of Wolves’ and thought its exploration of the theme of blindness was very persuasive. But then that is what makes blogging about books so fascinating.

  10. I’m so pleased to see you’re back blogging – you have been missed!

    Tell the Bears we’re fine up here – hardly any snow, but cold. Today was lovely and sunny when we went for a walk down to the river through the woods – not quite picnic time though!

    Whether a book is well written is always part of the discussion at our book group – it’s very important, less so though to one or two members! Do let us know the book in question – please.

  11. Hey, hey! Welcome back! So wonderful to hear from you again! I am reading a Kamila Shamsie book now myself, A God in Every Stone, and I am only 40 pages in but absolutely loving it so far. Can’t wait to see what more is to come.

    For book groups: I am no longer in my book group due to relocation, but I know that everyone’s preference was for a book with a good story and good writing. We wanted both. We were greedy that way. And given the preference, although I would prooooooobably choose a good story and workmanlike writing over the reverse, I think most members of the group would plump for the writing.

    I’m so curious what the book was! I am trying to deduce it from what you’ve said about it, but so far no luck.

    1. You are the second person to mention ‘A God in Every Stone’, Jenny, so I am certainly going to seek that one out. One of the things I have missed most about the blogging world is no longer getting recommendations.

  12. Welcome back! I can imagine how frustrating it has been (and is) having to ration your reading and writing time. I have a dear friend just recovering from her second concussion in a row and for over 6 months she’s been basically banned from doing either — audio books have saved her, but what a hard time she’s had.

    I have a guess about the book you didn’t like but will keep it to myself. I find that even the quality “badly written” (or “well written”) can turn out to be debatable, which is why, as others have said, it all stays interesting.

    Greetings to the bears. 🙂

    1. And The Bears send greetings back to you, Rohan. You have, after all, actually sat on their sofa. I think you may know what the book is and I’m fairly certain you would have had some of the problems with that we did. One of the things that really annoyed us what the author compared it to ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’. She was really kidding herself if she thought she could write as well as that!

  13. It’s lovely to hear from you, and to know that you and the bears are looking after each other. I’m curious to know what the books is and I don’t mind people not liking books I’ve admired, because we’re all different and we all have different tastes and different life experiences at the point when we pick up a book.

  14. Hooray, so happy to have you back with us Alex. It must have been a miserable time the last few months. I found Burnt Shadows in a library sale last year, like you never having heard of the author before. I enjoyed it, particularly the way it dealt with Hiroko’s attitudes to her homeland.

    I don’t have too much experience with book clubs (it took me a year to find one near my home) but the one I did join has such a disparate group of members that its hard to give a clear answer to your question. In the ‘learned’ group we have a book shop owner and someone who reviewed submitted scripts for a publisher. By contrast we have a 93 year old lady who is very adept at distracting us with anecdotes of her father’s life in service in London.

    1. Most groups have the anecdotist (if there is such a word) in their midst, Karen. I’m afraid that in our case it is often me. I love telling stories as much as reading them!

  15. Welcome back – it’s lovely to see you in the blogosphere again! Regarding book clubs, having studied 24 of the things for my research, I can reassure you that “Someone said to me that having two literary PhDs and a Professor of English Language amongst our number does make us a rather unusual group” is not valid – several of my groups had members who all had PhDs, for example, and literary experts, in one case someone who knew the author of the book I was having them read! Some concentrated on style, some character, some plot, some their own experiences.

    And I’d love to know what the book in question was, too!

  16. So happy that you are back. You have been missed. I have only once been in a book group, and though I enjoyed the company and the chat, I found having been an academic in Eng Lit was a bit of a drawback, as the discussion never really got beyond a slightly superficial level. I am deeply influenced by the quality of the writing which, as some of the comments have said, doesn’t bother many people at all. That being said, I loved The Tenderness of Wolves and was surprised to see the comment above!

    1. I’m with you where ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ is concerned, Harriet. I’ve read it with two very different groups and both of them really enjoyed it.

  17. So lovely to see a post from you!

    I think I could make a guess, based on the comments, as to what the book is, and if I’m right it’s one that I enjoyed very much. But I enjoyed it for the plotting, not so much for the writing, which was mostly merely workmanlike. It wasn’t bad writing; it just wasn’t anything more than a vehicle for the plot. I did think the writing suited the characters–their thoughts and writing would sound like that.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes good writing lately, having encountered a couple of books that I rejected entirely because the writing was terrible. For the most part, as long as the writing isn’t actively bad, I’m OK, as long as the story is strong. I edit for my day job, and if I start focusing too much on the language, I get drawn into reading the way I do for work, and that’s no fun at all. But if I start to notice bad writing, I can’t un-notice it. So I don’t often pay attention unless it really jumps off the page, in a good or bad way.

    1. This is a subject I’m going to come back to, Teresa, because when you try and pin down what makes a piece of writing good it is very hard indeed. I’ve been reading Francine Prose on the perfect sentence, this morning, and I’m still not sure that I understand why some of the sentences she quoted were so good!

  18. So good to see you again! I’m just getting back into blogging myself, having recently jumped ship (the corporate/office ship, that is; not my kind of ship, it turns out). I’ve really missed blogging and bloggers like you. 🙂

    Writing definitely matters; for me, it sometimes matters much, much more than the story, in fact. And this becomes more true the older I get. Knowing I have finite time on this earth to spend with books makes me much less forgiving of books that seem mediocre to me…

  19. I’m so glad that you are well enough to be blogging again – hurray! Take it all very gently (as no doubt a thousand well-meaning souls have told you). It’s just good to know you’re on the mend.

  20. Hello! It’s very nice to be able to read you again. We are surviving winter, in part by reminding ourselves of how much worse other people have it — at least our weather hasn’t been as bad as it is in Boston! We most definitely pay attention to the quality of writing in my book group, although there isn’t always a consensus on what good writing consists of. I think we might all agree on the extreme of writing ability, good and bad, but there is a lot in the middle that is up for debate.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right, Rebecca. As I’ve tried to pin down what makes a book well-written I have found it more and more difficult to be precise about those other than the very obvious ones.
      I have been wondering about you over the winter and I’m glad things haven’t been too bleak. How is Cormac doing?

  21. How great that you’re back Alex! I’ve missed your posts. I’ve heard of Kamila Shamsie before but never picked up any of her books. A recommendation from you pushes her up the list…

    I’m not in a reading group any longer, alas. As for good or bad writing, well, not only is that hard to quantify, as others have said, but what I can tolerate depends on the novel, and why I’m reading it. If I’m reading a thriller and the plot and characterisation are brilliant then I will forgive less-than-stellar prose as long as there isn’t something about it that actively irritates me, but at the risk of being a roaring snob I find that the ‘better’ the writing, i.e. the better-judged the language and cadences, the ‘better’ the characterisation tends to be – but not necessarily the plot.

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