Books we don’t read

For a long, long time now, I have been banging on to anyone who will listen (not many, admittedly) about declining literary standards. And now, here’s further evidence.

Only 4 years ago, a list was compiled (don’t ask me how) of the books we tend most to lie about having read. Topping that list were Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, Nineteen Eighty Four and The Lord of the Rings – all sturdy, time-honoured classics. A similar list recently published is made up of books that, whatever merits they may have, are nowhere near so highbrow – The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, and the like. Even The Da Vinci Code.

(The only title the two lists have in common is The Lord of the Rings, and there, I do actually sympathise with the lying: I’ve lied about this one myself, as I explain here.)

One lies about books primarily, I guess, in order to impress. If I were to lie about books I have read, I’d say I’ve read The Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the like – books that will make me appear fiercely intellectual, or, at the very least, a bit less of a shithead. I don’t really see why I would want to lie about having read The Da Vinci Code. I don’t really see why anyone would.

And here, it seems to me, is irrefutable evidence of the decline in our literary standards: we’ve stopped not reading challenging books.

O tempora! O mores!

Books that make me cry

I was asked recently by the administrators of the website Rogue Cart if I would like to put together a list of ten books of my choosing, on a theme of my choosing, and write a few words on each. Never being one to hide my light under a bushel, I agreed. And, being somewhat maudlin and lachrymose by temperament, I decided to choose books that address the theme of grief. Or, as the title of my list puts it, Ten Books That Make You Cry. (Strictly speaking, they’re not all “books”: I’ve included a few poems and short stories in the list.)

Please do have a look.

When Chekhov’s gun fails to fire

The principle of Chekhov’s Gun is a well-known one. If a gun is shown in Act One, it must go off some time before the end of the play. In other words, there must be no such thing as an irrelevant detail. Everything must serve a specific purpose within the work.

And yet, I can’t help wondering how good this advice necessarily is. If the purpose of one’s writing is to depict some aspect of reality as truthfully as one can, then a fictional world in which there is no place for the arbitrary, the random, the irrelevant, is very far from the real world as we know it.

Although Chekhov repeated this advice several times, one wonders how seriously he took it himself. At the start of the second act of The Cherry Orchard – for many, Chekhov’s dramatic masterpiece – Yepikhodov produces a gun on stage. It never goes off. Indeed, it is never referred to again in the rest of the play, either directly or indirectly. It is almost as if Chekhov is drawing attention to his having flouted his own rule.

I guess it merely goes to show that “rules” are for lesser writers. The Chekhovs of this world made up their own, as and when required. And when a rule previously formulated is no longer required, it is discarded.

The problem still remains for writers – whether they are Chekhov or some teenager convinced he has a novel in him: how does one steer a course between, on the one hand, that air of contrivance that can all too easily appear when the arbitrariness of life is removed, and, on the other hand, the shapelessness that can occur when it isn’t?

Well, I have no idea how to solve this. This is one of the many reasons why I don’t try my hand at writing fiction myself, and why I admire so much those who do pull it off.

Some ferocious feedback from Henry James

An article in a recent edition of the London Review of Books quoted some feedback received by a young author from Henry James:

I am myself a fanatic on the subject of form, style, the evidence of intention and meditation, of chiselling and hammering out in literary things that I am afraid I am rather a cold-blooded judge, rather likely to be offensive to a young story-teller on the question of quality. I’m not so sure that yours strikes me as quite so ferociously literary as my ideal.

I love the use of the word “ferociously” in the second sentence after all the circumlocution and, seemingly, the gentlemanly reticence of the first. How very Jamesian.

As for the young author in question, I guess it serves him right for asking feedback from Henry James in the first place.

“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers

*** SPOILER ALERT***

It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

My Answers to Author Questions

I don’t normally do these memes on this blog, but I have been enjoined to do so by the redoubtable Di Nguyen of The Little White Attic blog. (Her own answers to these questions may be found here.) So here goes.

1/ Who are your favourite writers? Restricting myself to ten (or we’ll be here for ever), Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Tagore, Conan Doyle (and not just for the Sherlock Holmes stories), M. R. James (I’ve always loved creepy ghost stories), and, finally, P. G. Wodehouse, who makes me laugh more than any other author.

A few more? OK – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eugene O’Neill, William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Brontë, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, George Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Carson McCullers, Sophocles, Nikolai Leskov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Boris Pasternak, Benito Pérez Galdós, Raymond Chandler, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Homer, R. K. Narayan, Thomas Mann, Seamus Heaney, Cervantes, Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, James M. Cain, Muriel Spark, Thucydides, Alexandre Dumas, Vasily Grossman, Harold Pinter, Joseph Conrad, Eudora Welty, Gustave Flaubert, Bertolt Brecht …

Can I stop now?

2/ Who were your favourite writers when you were a teenager? Which of them do you still like? I was an overly serious teenager, and my teenage reading was, on the whole, fairly heavy duty stuff. Shakespeare I discovered early, and has remained a constant companion. I also discovered the 19th century Russians – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc. I was a great admirer of Bernard Shaw for a while, but the major influence on my political thinking was Orwell – not so much his two well-known novels, but, rather, his essays, reviews, and journalism.

I continued my childhood love of reading creepy ghost stories in bed at night: other than M. R. James, writers such as Algernon Blackwood, A. M. Burrage, E. F. Benson, and various other writers who will only be known to aficionados, were (and remain) huge favourites. And, of course, there were the Sherlock Holmes stories. And various other stories by Conan Doyle: it’s a shame that the Holmes and Watson stories, wonderful though they are, overshadow, for instance, the Brigadier Gerard stories.

For some reason, when I entered my teens, I felt adventure stories – which I enjoyed in my pre-teenage years – were now beneath me. So I gave up on the likes of Stevenson, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Anthony Hope, etc. It was very foolish of me.

3/ Which writers have most influenced you? In terms of my political views, Orwell, certainly – although, as I said, his essays and journalism were more important to me than Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty Four.

My literary mentor was Anthony Burgess. I did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable or interested in literature to discuss it with me, or to guide me, and Burgess filled that position admirably.

As for the rest, just about every writer whose works I value has, in some way or other, influenced the way I think, and the way I see the world.

4/ Which writers do you wish had not influenced you? None that I can think of, really. For a time, I was something of a Shavian, but I soon got over that, although I still admire him as a comic dramatist. Sadly, I don’t think he was anywhere near as profound a thinker as he imagined himself.

5/ Which writers are you embarrassed you used to like? Once again, none I can think of. In my early childhood, I used to love Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, and I know I am supposed to find that embarrassing now, but I don’t. I enjoyed her stories, and they gave me the confidence to read in English (which was, of course, not my mother tongue).

6/ Which writers did you not expect to like, but did? I find that the older I get, the broader my range of sympathies become. I used to find Austen, for instance, very alien to my sensibilities. Similarly Henry James, or Edith Wharton. I much preferred the irregularities of a Dostoyevsky to the smooth and immaculately polished surfaces of a Henry James; the vast, mysterious vision of late Ibsen to the seeming ordinariness of Kathrine Mansfield; Gogol’s streaks of madness, or the exuberance and eccentricity of Dickens, to the eminent sanity of Austen. I now admire (and even like) all those sane, immaculate polishers who used previously to bore me.

And, of course, Tagore. I grew up in a very Tagorean household: he was, effectively, an extra member of the family. His music and poetry were all around me, and I think I absorbed Tagore virtually through the pores of my skin. I turned against him in my teenage years, only to return to him later, in middle age.

7/ Which writers do you think you will still read, and like, for the rest of your life? I’ll be sixty in a few years time, and I can’t really see myself turning against any of those writers I have loved now for decades.

8/ Who are your favourite prose stylists? Or your favourite writers on the sentence level? I don’t think I know of any prose writer in English who had greater command over the language than James Joyce. Dickens had a magnificent ear for the rhythms and sonorities of the English language: no matter how long his sentences, he never lost his way. I enjoy also the grace and the elegance of Austen, Wharton, and R. K. Narayan.

And, for all his repetitive clumsiness (and, it must be said, occasional gibberish), the prose of D. H. Lawrence could, at its best, communicate states of mind and levels of consciousness that one might have thought were beyond the power of words.

9/ Who are your favourite writers of characters? Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

10/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner? I’d invite renowned conversationalists, such as Mark Twain or R. L. Stevenson.

11/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you like to know personally? And think you could be friends with? See answer to previous question. I also like to think I’d have got on quite well with Carson McCullers.

12/ Do you personally know any published author? Yes, one or two, but this is not the place for name-dropping.

13/ Which writers do you like/ admire but generally avoid, for some reason? Nabokov comes to mind. Not entirely sure why I tend to avoid him: it’s something I haven’t analysed.

14/ Which writers do you like as critics/ essayists but not as novelists? I do like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, but I rate Orwell more highly as an essayist. Also, I find the novels of Virginia Woolf very alien to my sensibilities, but her critical judgements tend to be sound. (Except her views on Ulysses: like so many others, she was shocked by it, but didn’t really want to admit being shocked.)

15/ Which writers have changed you as a reader? Just about every writer who has meant anything to me.

16/ Who do you think are overrated? On the understanding that “overrated” doesn’t mean “inferior”, I’d nominate John Steinbeck and Harper Lee. It’s not their fault: it’s just that, in UK schools at least, everyone (and I mean everyone) has to read Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, or both; and as a consequence, these two novels, which are both pretty good, are often regarded as representing the highest peaks of literature.

I’m also genuinely puzzled by the reverence in which F. Scott Fitzgerald is held, but that’s probably just me. I really don’t know. The high status of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster also continues to puzzle me.

17/ Who do you think are underrated and should be more widely read? R. K. Narayan, definitely. And Aldous Huxley should be known for more than just Brave New World: his early novels especially – Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Point Counter Point – are intelligent, endlessly witty and inventive, and a sheer joy to read.

18/ Who do you think are the best living writers? My reading of contemporary literature amounts to so little, I’d be embarrassed even to try to answer this question.

19/ Which writers do you go to for comfort? Conan Doyle, M. R. James, P. G. Wodehouse, R. L. Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas. And many writers of creepy ghost stories.

20/ Which writers do you go to for mere amusement? I’ve never thought of “amusement” as “mere” (the ability to provide high quality amusement is a skill to be respected) but P. G. Wodehouse I think fits the bill here. And, possibly, the Flashman novels of George Mcdonald Frazer, although, once again, it is doing these books a disservice by applying to them the rather insulting adjective “mere”.

21/ Who are the greatest writers that you don’t personally like/ that you just don’t warm to? See answer to Question 13.

22/ Which writers do you hate/ strongly dislike? When I dislike a writer who is generally well regarded, I put it down to shortcomings on my part rather than on the writer’s. The whole point of reading is to come across perspectives and sensibilities very different to my own, and to absorb them into mine; but some perspectives and sensibilities are so very different to my own, that taking them in becomes virtually impossible. One just has to shrug one’s shoulders, accept that there are limits to what one can take in, and move on.

I confess as well that I have a strong antipathy to the fantasy genre, and to science fiction. Once again, that’s a comment on myself, and not on the accomplished writers within these genres. But I generally try to avoid people who push a copy of The Lord of the Rings into my hands and tell me I really must read it.

There are many writers I’m sure I’d dislike if I were to read them, but who are not even on my radar, so there’s little point my mentioning them.

23/ Which writers are you prejudiced against? Writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres (see answer to question above).

24/ Which writers do you feel you should have read by now? Montaigne (I’m reading his essays now); the mythical Valmiki and Vyasa (reputedly authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and the anonymous authors of the Icelandic sagas; the great poets of Persian literature; Dante and Proust (I’ve only dipped my toes into their works, and don’t claim to know them adequately); Lady Murasaki; Ezra Pound (I’ll get round to the Cantos some day, I’m sure); … and so on, and so forth. In the immortal words of Stan Laurel, life’s not short enough.

25/ Which writers from your country would you recommend to a foreigner? I’m not entirely sure what “my country” is. Bengal? India? Scotland? England? UK? Assuming it’s Bengal (or India), I’d recommend the two magnificent novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. (Tagore was a towering figure, but his poetry is very difficult to translate. However, the existing translations have garnered much praise.) Assuming it’s Scotland, I’d recommend Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

And assuming it’s England, I’d recommend Shakespeare. (For those who insist that these plays were “meant to be seen, not read”, I refuse to discuss the matter further.)

26/ Which writers do you recommend to everyone? Every serious reader? I love talking about the books I value, but these days, I never recommend anything to anyone, We all have our own priorities, and we all have too little time.

27/ Which writers do you wish you could write like? R. K. Narayan. I wish I had that seemingly effortless grace and elegance, and that natural charm.

28/ What is your favourite language to read in? English. It’s not my mother tongue, but it’s the language I know best.

29/ Which foreign-language writers make you wish to learn their language in order to read them in the original? Russian. My enthusiasm for Russian literature is still as strong as it ever was.

30/ Who is the best writer you’ve just discovered recently? I recently found the short stories of Giovanni Verga quite revelatory. And I am currently enjoying rediscovering Molière, whom I had previously underrated.

If any other blogger would like to address these questions on their own blog, please do go ahead, and put a link to it in the Comments section below.