This is one of my big struggles. Once I’ve launched into a novel, I’m committed. Committed to the story and the characters and to the author whom I know, worked damn hard to get this book into my hands. And usually I get to the end, even if I don’t enjoy the ride as much as I’d have hoped. Clearly, I am somewhat selective with what I choose to read so there is some initial vetting, at least. I won’t ready just anything. Though, that makes letting go all the harder: I chose this book; I know this author – I’m meant to like it.
Well, for the first time in ages, I got three quarters of a way through a book I was meant to like and then I just closed it and said: life’s too short. My reading life’s too short. There are just too many other books out there for me to spend another second ploughing through a page that does my head in.
I love David Mitchell. As far as novelists go, he’s a genius. A Mozart of the fiction world. His Cloud Atlas totally blew me away. He’s one of the few writers who can just about pull off any genre and style – and mash those genres and styles up in a way that is thoroughly inventive.
Knowing how much I admire him, my husband bought me Bone Clocks, his latest, for my birthday. When I sit down to a Mitchell, I know it’s not going to be easy. So I brace myself. He’s clever. Really clever. And he expects his readers to be too. But still, I looked forward to it. I look forward to being challenged and to learning more about this extraordinary form that I love so much: the novel.
And, at first, it went well. I got into it. The funny thing about Mitchell is that, brilliant as he is at the challenging genre-bending stuff, he’s actually best (in my opinion) at straight forward contemporary: his dialogue and characterisation are so sharp you feel the characters are right there in the room with you. And he’s funny. Really funny. But then, he can’t help himself, he goes off into different time zones and creates fantastical plots and plays with language just that bit too much. Too much for me – I hasten to add. Others, clearly, love this stuff. And just because I struggle, doesn’t mean I can’t admire it. Usually, I admire it enough to persevere, but this time, it just couldn’t.
It’s hard to give ourselves permission to stop reading. Especially when we love reading. Especially when we’re writers. The thought that one of my novels is sitting, half read, on someone’s shelf – or even maybe abandoned and given away, is heartbreaking. But the truth is, that our reading lives are short. And whereas some books nourish us and enlighten us and make our hearts sing – others just don’t. And that’s largely down to taste. And it’s okay.
So, I’m sorry David Mitchell. I got as far as I could. I hope you forgive me. I still think you’re a bloody genius.
As an antidote to my literary struggles, my husband suggested I turn to an old favourite – a book I gave him because he’s a Shakespeare nut and because Anne Tyler’s one of my most beloved authors. In Vinegar Girl, she gives us a contemporary take on The Taming of the Shrew. A few years ago, a bunch of contemporary novelists were given different Shakespeare plays to update in novel form. I read it a couple of nights and loved it. So simple. So effortless. So beautifully characterised. And such a wonderful reminder – in the way that Shakespeare reminded us to – that difficult people (the prickly ones, the ones who are hard to be around, the ones who speak their minds too much and don’t do what we expect them to do), can be awesome people too. It was perfect therapy after my wrangle with Bone Clocks.
So, give yourself permission. Start books – books that are hard. See if you can get through and if they deepen and broaden you as a reader. But if that little voice in your head and heart keeps saying: nope, it’s not doing it for me, life’s too short, there are too many other books out there – just move on. It’s okay. Treat it as a bad date. Chalk it up to experience and be glad you found someone else.