The Perfect Book

Making art isn’t an exact science.  So much is down to happenstance and luck, and I always admire authors who attribute their success to a strange marriage of dull slog and serendipity.

I recently read what was, in my eyes, a near perfect novel, but during a conversation with another reader, she pointed out some parts of the story that just didn’t ring true; things that, for her, made the rest of the story difficult to believe.  I was surprised, because I had noticed those minor loop-holes too, but chose to ignore them for the sake of the story.  The story just worked better if I chose to believe the author rather than question her.  Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies is a cliche for a reason!  I suppose we all read books differently, but for me, I am saying yes to an unspoken contract as soon as I open the cover: tell me a good story and I will believe.

Even though the reader had a completely valid point, it niggled at me.  As a fiction writer, there are many times when you ask your reader to suspend their belief, in order to make the story work.  But, are readers willing to do this?  It goes without saying we have to ground our stories in reality and make our characters believable, but don’t we also have a bit of artistic license?  As readers, are we expecting a perfection that doesn’t exist?

Just to be clear, I’m talking about minor infractions here, not great big bloody plot holes that push the entire story beyond credibility.  Such questions are valid, but in this case, it caused merely a moment’s wondering.  FYI, the novel was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and the issue was her supposed ignorance of most modern cultural references.  I also questioned if this was possible, but chose to believe that it was.  Either way, this is a story.  It’s not meant to be real.  The writer is trying to create an atmosphere, not a documentary.  You’ve got to allow for some artistic license when it comes to the business of show, or else, what are we all doing here?  Do writers really set out to write the perfect book, or is the pursuit of creating something greater than we can ever deliver, the art in itself?  Critics might expect perfection, but we, as storytellers are more focused on telling a good story.

And what is art for anyway?  Why do writers want to express themselves through stories and why do readers love hearing them?  I think Matthew Arnold, Professor of Poetry at Oxford (Culture and Anarchy) expressed it perfectly when he said that all great artists possess ‘the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it‘.  I love this quote, because I think everyone who picks up a pen/brush/instrument wants to make something good, something true.  We want to add our voice to the collective narrative, our unique take on life, our desires, our hopes and our fears.  It might not be perfect, but it’s ours and no-one else can tell our story in quite the same way.  If a book speaks to you, makes you think and makes you feel, then that is the perfect book.  For you.  Regardless of what the critics say.


Book Snobs


A woman in my online book-club opened her review post with a kind of caveat: she said that even though she knew she would probably get ‘slated’ for recommending a certain book, she had to admit that she did enjoy it.  The fact that she felt she had to apologise for her taste in reading really struck me.  I’m pretty new to this whole book club thing, but shouldn’t everybody be entitled to read (and enjoy) whatever they want to read?  And whose wrath did she not wish to incur?  Yep, you guessed it, the book snob.  But what is a book snob and how do you know if you are one?

I’ve created a totally scientific questionnaire* that might help elucidate matters.

  1. Do you wax lyrical about the smell and feel of ‘real books’ and develop an angry rash on contact with an eReader?
  2. Do you think Amazon is the devil incarnate and despise anyone who buys their books online?
  3. Does your reading list consist of only prize winning and impossibly obscure titles?
  4. Do you feel superior to other readers and often find yourself telling them what they should be reading?
  5. Do you believe that if a book is popular, it can’t be good?
  6. Do you still refer to self-publishing as vanity publishing?

Ah yes, the book snob.  We’ve all come across them.  Individuals who are notoriously suspicious of change in the book world, and who openly judge people for what they read, how they read, and where they get their books.

I suppose we’re all guilty of snobbery, to a certain extent.  Just look at your bookshelf and see which spines you’ve decided to put on display?  It’s no different to music snobbery or even fashion.  We want the world to think our lounge-wear is all cashmere sweaters and low-rise jeans, when really we’re in last years’ jogging pants and a bobbly fleece with some questionable stains, listening to Kylie!  I think we are all inherently worried about being judged by other people, but in so doing, are we just proliferating the pattern of snobbery?

There’s a difference between taste and snobbery.  Not liking a book is not the same thing as dismissing its value based on its genre, audience or author.  Assuming that one author or book has a greater value or merit than another, is absolutely detrimental to the joy of reading.  Obviously, there are lots of crap books out there that are badly written and fall well below a certain standard, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.  Book snobs view reading as a worthy, noble pursuit.  It’s not about being entertained – you’re not supposed to be enjoying it!!  This is such a narrow view of what reading should be.  Reading is so many things to so many people.  It’s a way of learning, a means of escape or just pure entertainment.  How can you quantify a books’ worth, other than the impact it has on the reader?  How we read is often more important that what we read.

In the same book-club, another woman announced that she’s not going to read any more books that are shortlisted for literary awards because she never ‘gets’ them.  I was glad to see a reader taking ownership of her reading list and showing that she wasn’t going to be swayed by other peoples’ opinions.  Reading is such a personal journey.  Again, it’s like discovering a new band or a new album; the discovery is half the fun.  If you’re constantly being told what to enjoy, it does tend to take the fun out of it.  How many times have you fallen for the lauded book that everybody’s reading, only to find it’s not to your taste at all?  And you feel cheated, because the people in the know said it would be good.  The same people in the know that would probably scoff at the stack of mainstream fiction on your night-stand.  To the book snob, critical acclaim is more important than commercial success.

Authors like Ken Bruen, the Godfather of Irish crime, are the book snob’s nemesis.  He has penned 35 novels including the Jack Taylor series, which has recently been adapted for screen, winning Bruen an even wider audience.  He has won a plethora of crime writing awards across Europe and America, but in his native Ireland, he has been left firmly outside the literati circle.  This is book snobbery at its finest; shunning genre fiction as ‘less than’.  In Ireland especially, there is a very clear divide between the literary set and the rest of us.  It’s as if what we have to say isn’t as important and the message is received loud and clear by their exclusion of talented, successful writers.

The greatest stories appeal to our deepest selves, the parts of us snobbery can’t reach, the parts that connect the child to the adult and the brain to the heart and reality to dreams. Stories, at their essence, are enemies of snobbery. And a book snob is the enemy of the book.

Matt Haig

At the end of the day, we all love books for the same reason, even if we don’t love the same books.  Never make another reader feel ashamed of their reading choices, because when it comes down to it, there are only two types of books in this world –  those you enjoy and those you don’t.

*might not actually be scientific


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