Unreadable Books

As we eagerly await the announcement of this year’s Booker prize, I thought we too might ponder the criterion of “readability” upon which this year’s judgement is to be made. (Though I’m not sure this is necessarily the direction the prize is taking eternally hereafter; it is just one jury’s take on it). Now I am going to attempt to defend this criterion against all critical judgement, and I shall defend it by a clever ruse (one very dear to literary critics, in fact): I shall wilfully misinterpret it.

For I too favour books which are readable: unreadable books I have difficulty reading. I leave them unfinished. And what sort of books do I find unreadable? – Usually those which are uninterestingly written, which consist in relating the dull lives of dull people without any particular thought or insight, which haven’t a moment of drama in them (in fact, often wilfully avoid drama: for you can be sure, if anything dramatic has ever happened to any of the characters, it was long ago or off-stage), which choose for their subject the inherently tedious (i.e. everyday life) etc.

Yes, this is the kind of book I find unreadable.

The last winner of the Booker Prize I’ve read is the 1999 winner J M Coetzee’s Disgrace. I read it because it was said to be the greatest novel written in the last 20 years (in English, by a non-American). Perhaps it is, who knows? I can’t immediately think of anything else. But all the same, it’s not much good. Amongst other winners, I’ve tried Graham Swift’s Last Orders (gave up), Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (gave up), Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (long ago, short, completed) and William Golding’s Rites of Passage (in fact, I’ve read pretty much all of Golding).

Added to this was my last concerted effort to read contemporary literary fiction (mostly English), which was at the very cusp of this blog’s genesis (not that, I think, geneses have cusps), in which I read 10 books and finished 1 (I kept it quiet at the time, but feel I can admit now the one I finished was by John Banville – dull, but interestingly written). Lost in the ether, I still have the original files for this endeavour, which began to read like some sort of Antartic expedition. This, for instance, is Magnus Mills’ The Scheme for Full Employment:

The life it describes is that every day, tedious life of the working world; and the trouble with describing tedium, is that unless you are very careful you are likely to become tedious yourself. There is far too much aimless, pointless conversation about nothing in particular. The incidental and repetitive detail is becoming tiring. There seems to be no humour in it at all. I am hoping in vain for anything, even to come across the quotation I have already read on the book’s back cover.
Nothing has happened now in 40 pages. Nothing has occurred or particularly been explained. The intrigue by which our sense of anticipation was first aroused, has long since left us. It has become too much effort to overcome the mindnumbing tedium of pressing on in order to find out what is being explained to us. Nothing can be worth this.

This is Jeanette Winterson’s much admired Sexing the Cherry:

As with the previous work, I find myself (at the end of 60 pages) thinking how unengaged I am with the narrative. It has a similar structure to the last novel: an overarching central story-line, interlarded with semi-mythological/folklorish anecdotes. These anecdotes serve to break up any interest the reader might have in the wider story, while at the same time being too short to be engaging on their own account. They are not dramatised enough and become tiresome to trawl through.

Again, there is little coherent meaning to the work. It is just a collage of images, which it is hoped placed in proximity to one another might create a narrative. I am left with no eager expection of what will happen next, since it will inevitably be beyond me. It is like being shown through a room of strange artifacts – at first they are intriguing by their strangeness, but after a time you become bored of such exoticism.

For all the characterisation of the narrators in these last two novels (and, for the purposes of humour, the characterisation in both is fundamentally exaggerated), it is remarkable how unemotional these works are; and consequently, how little investment of emotion they ask of the reader. I am not asking that I must care for these characters (as the common critics have it) – I do not believe I have cared for a literary character in my life. But there is no point in these novels in which I find myself thinking of my own life and how in times past I have suffered similarly. Love has, I feel, treated me cruelly too; so when I read the line “I fell in love once, if love be that cruelty which takes us straight to the gates of Paradise only to remind us that they are closed for ever,” I know there should be a feeling of sympathy here; I know that a novel which contains such a line should please me. And yet, because that is all it is, because it is a single line quickly passed over, because the emotion behind it is not dramatised in any way – I feel myself left cold. And even if there are a hundred such phrases in a work of this kind, I will never be other than unenchanted.

This is Don TheDildo’s Cosmopolis:

It is the mundane nature of the style, however, which I find truly tiresome. Much of it is written in the functional manner of any bestselling thriller, short simple sentences: “Torval was standing outside the door. Their eyes did not meet. They went to the elevator and rode to the lobby in silence. He let Torval exit first and check the area,” or, “He felt good. He felt stronger than he had in days, in weeks maybe, or longer. The light was red. He saw Jane Melman on the other side of the avenue, his chief of finance, dressed in jogging shorts and a tank top, moving in a wolverine lope.” This could be selecting from any page of the novel, except those pages where DeLillo finds himself lost in odd dialogues forever hinting at a profundity which is frustratingly absent. The central character is troubled, he cannot sleep, so he is always asking questions like, “where do all these limos go at night?” or, “Why do we still have airports? Why are they called airports?” These are left hanging in the air, as if they are points beyond anyone’s answering.

This is something by Ali Smith:

I’d been looking forward to reading Ali Smith ever since she used the quotation “Remember you must die” at the front of one of her novels and attributed it to Muriel Spark.

This novel apparently won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005. It is an incredibly dull story written from the point of view of a 12 year old. Being a 12 year old, of course she has nothing interesting to say, and is no good at saying it. So we are treated to an endless series of commonplace actions: the girl gets up (pages 8-15), the girl comes down to the kitchen (15-18), she goes out into the garden (18-21), she disturbs her mother who is a writer (a writer? really? in a modern novel?), all described in the usual simple sentences which pass these days for poetry. I’m sorry, I really couldn’t manage 50 pages of this novel. I managed it with Don DeLillo, but this is just too much. The plot seems to be that this girl is on a dull holiday she doesn’t wish to be on. (It must have seemed like such a good idea at the time.)

This is something by the extraordinary writer and critic Julie Myerson:

For a novel written in the first person, it strikes me as strange that the novel is entirely absent of human thought. It is concerned throughout only with appearances and human emotions at their basest level (“There’s Mick, standing lost in the middle of something in the room where he can’t settle or do anything, which is how I feel too”). Nothing is considered or analysed, as if this author does not in any way associate rationality with mankind. My opinion is that, in seeking to portray ordinary people’s lives and how they think, we are presented with the view that they are not reflective or critical at all, and are incapable of disassociating themselves from their immediate senses and instincts – that is to say, we are nothing more than beasts. I am reminded, reading this, of a cat I used to have who, when her brother was killed, hid under the hedge at the bottom of the garden for three days. This is exactly how character react in this novel, without the slightest thought as to why they are hiding under the hedge.

And I haven’t even mentioned Tibor Fischer.

So yes, I would like some more “readable” book to win the Booker Prize, or even be written by someone English, or by anyone in English. Somehow, though, I don’t think it will turn out to be on the Booker Prize short-list.

(With the Prix Goncourt, on the other hand, I’ve tried 13, finished 11, and would suggest 5 are pretty good.)


20 thoughts on “Unreadable Books

  1. The Banville was the last one I read, though some time after the event. I quite enjoyed it, and planned to read some more Banville one day. I have ‘The Line of Beauty’ on the stacks, but before that Coetzee’s ‘Disgrace’ was my last Booker read. I thought it brilliant.

  2. I’ve just read The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, the winner of the 1997 Booker Prize. The only reason I read it is because it was the only vaguely acceptable book in my hostel, and I do not want to go out and buy anything at the moment. It is a novel filled with striking similes; one describes a smell from a factory hovering over a town like a hat. I was not aware that hats are in the habit of hovering, but this is one of the joys of reading fiction, that one comes across new and surprising bits of information one would be unlikely to encounter in a reference book.

    Actually, the novel did not prove to unreadable, as I feared it might; the story is actually quite powerful, and the bad writing becomes less of an annoyance as it progresses. The really bad bits are easily skippable. But I doubt I’d have bothered to finish the thing had I greater choice of reading material. Fortunately, a copy of Lord Jim has just materialised.

    The other Booker winners I’ve read are:

    The Line of Beauty – Shallow and tedious. Hollinghurst has a great reputation as a prose stylist; the reason for this is not clear. He writes very much in the shadow of James, minus only the richness, subtlety and seriousness. The TV adaptation was much better.

    The Ghost Road – OK in parts but very uneven. Familiar trenches stuff; the previous volume of the trilogy was more interesting.

    The English Patient – good, as I remember it, but there was something annoying about this desert romance, a po-faced aspiration toward the ‘epic’ which got on my nerves. Preferable to the film, though, which aims even more po-facedly for the epic and ends up being slush instead.

    The Remains of the Day – I enjoyed this as a teenager, but I’m not sure I would now, at least not so much. This was an A-level set text, along with the livelier A Room with a View; we got to watch both Merchant-Ivory films in class, which really deepened by enthusiasm for the cinema.

    Rites of Passage – excellent, and its two sequels are even better. A really enjoyable trilogy.

    The also-rans I’ve read are:

    John Brown’s Body – I managed two short chapters, so maybe I can’t say that I’ve actually read this, but that’s because I found it unreadable for the reasons you give; it was simply too dull for it to be worth persevering with. The dialogue was astonishingly tone-deaf and made me wonder how the writer managed to find a publisher.

    Shadows on Our Skin – unremarkable naturalistic tale but quite pleasing; it has the good sense to be short and thus avoid spreading itself too thinly.

    The White Hotel – a book of Big Themes (Sex, Freud, the Holocaust), and therefore an Important Achievement. It’s ambitious, I’ll grant that much, but not a success. There were plans to turn it into a film, which, thankfully, never came to fruition.

    Empire of the Sun – good adventure story with a strong narrative. The sequel, The Kindness of Women is better, though.

    The Colour of Blood – intelligent political thriller set in Cold War Eastern Europe, but neither as intelligent nor as thrilling as it could have been.

    Reef – it seemed to want to be the kind of novel I might have admired, but though it aims for a prose that is supple, sensuous and evocative, it achieves only flat-footed clumsiness. Not a book to dislike, all the same; points for trying, and there’s something almost endearing about its many infelicities.

    Morality Play – historical fiction. Nice enough, but nothing much to it. I don’t recall the details, but do remember the ‘morality’ being rather heavy-handed, which probably impressed the judges (though not enough for it to win).

    Which Banville did you read? I found Kepler to be quite flatly written, though one epistolary chapter played some mildly interesting games with chronology.

  3. Excellent!
    I wonder if the jury was aiming at a particular public who reads only at night after work or while commuting, when to tired to focus on something substantial. I can read any title on the Booker Short list with mini effort after a long hard meeting-filled day at work.
    If I try reading one from the list of the Deutshher Buchpreis or the Goncourt, I will have to give up. Still, I believe they are very readable just not post-workday readable.

  4. Oh, that’s a good idea. Specify sub-categories: “severe head cold readable,” “peak of concentration readable,” “listless yet for some reason jumpy readable.”

    I have read most of Banville’s books. “‘[D]ull, but interestingly written” is a good general description. Several of them are much less dull than The Sea, particularly the Cambridge spy novel The Untouchable and the Nabokov naknockoff The Book of Evidence.

    One of the great surprises, when I began to read book blogs, was to discover how seriously the Booker was taken by a substantial number of readers. I’m sure it beats randomly picking books from the “New Arrivals” shelf at the library.

  5. Anthony: Yes, people have suggested before that I underrate J M Coetzee. The problems I have with Coetzee/Disgrace are:

    1. He is more a constructor of novels than a novelist – builds novels out of contrived symbols (he’s hardly the only one) – in Disgrace, the opera, helping put down animals.

    2. He has an uninteresting prose style – at best competent.

    3. There is no significant drama in his work (the one bit of drama in Disgrace – the attack on the house – is the best bit.

    4. I don’t seem to be interested in anything he has to say.

    Which Banville did I read? – I have looked through his bibliography on Wikipedia and I have to admit, I don’t know what one it was – none of them seems familiar. It was about an old man living in a house. (Beckett, eh?).

    Captain Ned: Your take on the Booker seems suspiciously similar to mine. I did once own a copy of The White Hotel, and maybe read 10 pages, but it didn’t appeal to me. I have Arundhati Roy somewhere: I’ve always had a vague feeling I’d like it – nothing better than over-the-top, inappropriate metaphors!

    Caroline: Hello and Welcome. I find it difficult these days to read any novel after work (I blame my sleeping habits!). I just vegetate in front of the er internet. It’s my belief that our judgment of books (authors) are partly based on the circumstances of how we happen to read them. That’s probably why I’m saving the rest of Faulkner’s Pylon for a special day.

    I do think though, on reflection, that having read 150 contemporary literary novels, all of which are probably no doubt the same dull stories about dull people doing dull things, you’d probably hanker after something “readable” – or in any way different.

    Amateur Reader: My filter doesn’t recognise you now you’ve changed your name to Tom. I must read the wrong books blogs: everyone I come across seems very dismissive of the Booker (and who could blame them!).

  6. I must admit I quite like DeLillo, although I haven’t read Cosmopolis. I read his most recent one, POint Omega, and enjoyed it while I was reading it, but at the end felt a little bit like I’d been had.

    I tried Banville years ago and he didn’t take; I decided a while ago to give him another go and have The Book of Evidence lying around somewhere.

    Mangus Mills? Thought about it but never bothered. Jeanette Winterson? I would be surprised if anything could convince me to read her. As for the Booker in general: yes, it is surprising how seriously it is taken, and how even longlisting is seen as some kind of imprimatur. Some good books have been recognised by the award, but it seems more by accident then design.

    What struck me about the “readability” thing was the profoundly stupid assumption that the judges seemed to make that this peculiar quality was some kind of technical, easily quantifiable aspect of a writen work. And of course there was the corollary, expounded by the ogre-like Susan Hill, that by default any books that someone (her, or the judges, or “the average reader”) dislike or misunderstand are “unreadable”.

  7. Word-playful mistress of literature Jeanette Winterson states:

    The most unreadable books I have read recently were Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

    They can’t have been that unreadable then.

  8. The Roy perhaps isn’t as bad as I made out, Obooki. It relates the interesting lives of interesting people with some insight, and is not free from drama. And it’s certainly not uninterestingly written. Having read it, though, it does seem understandable that the author hasn’t published any fiction since, and has devoted herself to political campaigning.

  9. Magnus Mills’ THe Restraint of Beasts was a good reads I thought. I tried another and wasn’t as taken with it.

    I thought De Lillo’s White Noise was fantastic. The rhythm in the second section is beautifully handled. I can’t think of another book which really picks up speed as the chapter progresses. I kept thinking I must have missed stuff out and had to go back and check.

  10. Many outside factors affect readability. At work almost every day I read the seemingly unreadable because I am being paid to do so. For the right price, any of the books mentioned here could become highly readable.

  11. Today I bought The Best of McSweeney’s, vol 1, which will form Obooki’s biannual attempt to find some interest in contemporary English literature. I haven’t heard of most of the contributors, which is probably a good thing.

    Yes, there’s been far too much now on this “readable/unreadable” controversy. There’s another two articles in The Guardian today. On the other hand, it seems to have generated the most comments in recent history on this blog, so maybe there’s something to be said for discussing what everyone else’s talking about. It must be better than constantly going on about obscure books that no one reads anyway.

    I don’t know if you could pay me to read a book. The Booker Prize committee get paid, but I’d regard such a trial as beyond compensation. I do read odd things at work too, like government policy documents, but they still don’t bore me as much as literary fiction.

  12. I thought everyone knew that the Golden Age of the novel was between the mid 19th century and the mid 20th – flanked by “Wuthering Heights” and “Moby-Dick” at one end, and by “Invisible Man” and “Doctor Faustus” at the other!

  13. And I don’t get this “readable” business either. I find the prose style of Henry James readable, because, difficult though it is, it captures my attention. But most of the popular titles I browse through in the bookshop I find pretty *unreadable*, as my mind starts wandering after only a few sentences.

  14. I’m a bit more optimistic about the novel: I think it’s just going through a bit of lull.

    I agree on the readability. Late James in particular is one of those styles which seems to completely immerse me when I’m reading it – much of Faulkner too. It is part of that indefinable quality which tends to have me giving out 10s in my “Books Read”.

  15. A story by Susan Hill was the last unreadable book I read. I bought it to pass the time on an overnight boat trip. At least with Finnegan;s Wake you know what Joyce is up to.

    I had no idea what this book was about. It was blurbed as a murder mystery but you discovered who the murderer was after the first chapter. It featured a variety of troubled characters and I’m guessing the things that were left hanging in the air were what you were supposed to take away with you after finishing the book. I found it impossible to get beyond chaper 3. I can’t even remember the title – something to do with leaves I think.

    Do you have a category for books you can’t bear to have in the house? I bought “Certain Fragments” bty Tim Etchells about a theatre company he writes and directs for called Forced Entertainment.

    I’ve seen their work quite a few times. Very post-modern, very irritating but they can be good as well.

    This book was so precious and straining to be cool that its mere presence in the house bugged me. So out it went into the bin.

  16. I remember an English teacher I didn’t much like at secondary school always trying to get us to read Susan Hill’s I’m The King of the Castle – I’m sure there was something in it about a crow. Anyway, I never read it, and have never gone near her books since (I always assumed she wrote for the teenage market?).

    I am worried still having that Philip Roth book in the house. Someone might come round and think I like Philip Roth. Is there an opposite to a coffee-table book? (I kept McCarthy’s C a good long time before giving it away, but only because I felt I might want to refer to it again).

    Actually, it was on my mind to find the most obscure book I could find and do my next post on that – but I accidentally wrote about something else. Popularity has never been my aim as a writer of booksblogs: after all, if I wanted popularity I’d read lots of recently-published novels – and make out I enjoyed them.

  17. On the evidence I have Susan Hill is more like an aga saga with dead bodies and psychology.

    Opposite to a coffee-table book? A wheelie-bin book perhaps.

  18. I must admit I enjoyed Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” immensely, but then again, I’m a sucker for creepy ghost stories. She never managed to repeat the trick. Her next supernatural novel, “The Mist in the Mirror” has it’s moments, but is fragmented; and her other two ghostly stories, “The Man in the Picture” and “The Small Hand” seemed to me poor: in the former, there are three narrative planes with ghostly goings-on in all three, with the consequence that the novels seems to lack a proper centre; and in the latter, the mystery is over-explained, and far too much time is spent in communicating the mere mechanics of the plot, which isn’t particularly interesting anyway. But credit where credit is due – creepy ghost stories don’t come much better than “The Woman in Black”.

  19. PS What is it with iPad’s auto-correct? I’m sure I didn’t put an apostrophe in the word “its” above!

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