I enjoy reading the Times Literary Supplement’s Twenty Questions, in which Writers and thinkers take on twenty questions from the TLS, revealing their favourite books, writing habits and best advice. Many of those featured are playful with their answers. Some come across as generous and unassuming. Others appear a tad pretentious, or perhaps that is the nature of the questions. They encourage a particular shade of cleverness be revealed.
I read a great deal and have done for many years yet it is unlikely I would be regarded, by those who consider themselves the literary elite at least, to be well read. There are too many tomes I have not chosen to pick up, or readily admit to not enjoying. I sometimes ponder who decides on the intellectual worth of a book and why they value their personal opinion so highly.
As a little exercise I decided I would answer the TLS questions. I am a writer and a thinker, although not, perhaps, the sort the TLS had in mind.
I’m doing this for fun, because I want to, and it’s my blog so I can.
What is your favourite book published in the past twelve months?
Choosing favourites is hard. Also, what will be enjoyed and appreciated changes with circumstances. In my Books of 2018 post I narrowed my recommendations down to 15 books from around 160 read in that year. Since then, from 90 or so books finished, I would add: a short story collection, Witches Sail In Eggshells by Chloe Turner; a poetry collection, Vertigo and Ghost by Fiona Benson; a couple of translated novels, Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel); and half a dozen other works of fiction – The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas, by Daniel James, The Fire Starters by Jan Carson, Leonard and Hungry Paul by by Rónán Hession, The Offing by Benjamin Myers.
What subject have you found it most challenging to write about?
Men and how so many of them think about and treat women. Their apparent inability to interact with us as they would each other continually perplexes me and I find this disconnect difficult to articulate in any meaningful way. We are all human, with differences and similarities that cross the lines of gender.
Which author (living or dead) do you think is most underrated?
Have you heard of the authors listed in my favourite books list above? They each deserve your attention. The small, independent publishers are discovering many writers deserving wider acclaim – spread the word and read their work.
Which author (living or dead) do you think is most overrated?
Dickens. I’ve read many of his novels in an effort to discover why he continues to be highly regarded and widely read.
I am, however, a strong advocate for readers choosing books they enjoy over books they think they should read because some self-appointed arbiter of literary taste tells them it is necessary if they are to be admitted to the high table of literary conversation.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be yourself (it is incredibly stressful trying to be anything else).
This feeds into the best advice on writing I have been given – to find my own style rather than try to copy someone else. We can all improve by reading others’ work but if it already exists seek out the original.
To what extent, in your view, is writing a political act?
Politics is about a person’s beliefs and actions. Writers wish to be read, to have their voices heard. Stories enable them to disseminate their views and thereby influence readers’ thinking. So yes, writing is political, although often in a subtle, cloaked manner.
Do you have any writing tics?
I expect so but until someone points them out to me I will remain unaware of them.
What is the first thing you wrote?
The letter A.
As a teenager I wrote poetry. In a little black book. Thankfully this was destroyed, along with my extensive collection of personal letters and souvenirs from my first 23 years of life, before I moved from Belfast to Wiltshire.
For reasons I can no longer remember I let my sister read one of those poems, one I was particularly pleased with at the time. She told me it would hurt my parents’ feelings. I still struggle finding the balance between expressing myself honestly, as I need to, and being mindful of the potential impact.
How, in your opinion, should we measure a book’s success?
Reader reaction, especially over the longer term. I dislike when new books are rated based on how they sell in the first few months after publication. Continuing reader recommendation over time is a more valuable measure.
What do you read on holiday?
I tend to take short breaks and cram as much activity into those few days away as I have energy for. Most of my holiday reading is therefore done on the journey. I choose books I expect to hold my attention but also be easy to set down without losing the thread. I may choose a thriller, or a story by an author whose work I have previously enjoyed – something to entertain.
I regularly seek out literature that challenges convention but not while on holiday.
Toni Morrison or Philip Roth? Haven’t read anything by either.
Ursula K. Le Guin or Philip K. Dick? Haven’t read anything by either.
King Lear or The Tempest? Lear. I haven’t seem The Tempest played and don’t enjoy reading Shakespeare.
Jack Kerouac or James Baldwin? Didn’t enjoy Kerouac and haven’t read anything by Baldwin.
Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson? Woolf. Only know Dickinson from quotes – which should actually have encouraged me to read some of her work.
Hamilton or West Side Story? Are these based on books? I’ve no desire to see either played.
Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones? I’ve only read the first Game of Thrones book, which I enjoyed. I read everything I could get my hands on by Tolkien as a teenager but haven’t picked him up since. I seem to remember the plot of Lord of the Rings included numerous journeys – all that effort to get to the gates of Mordor the first time and then they decide to go elsewhere! I enjoyed both screen adaptations.
Gabriel García Márquez or Angela Carter? Haven’t read anything by either.
Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle? Haven’t read any Christie. Adored Conan Doyle.
Beyoncé or Bob Dylan? Bob Dylan, despite his terrible singing, although I still don’t understand why he was awarded the Nobel.