On literary connections: risks, lists and disappointments

I can’t be the only author who sometimes sees on an online bookshop that, ‘Customers who bought this also bought…’ and wonders, what? and why? My local library used lists at one time that suggested authors readers might like to try this if they enjoyed that… But writers like me could be accused of delusion if we linked ourselves to those we admire. I’m not the kind of reader who fixes on a particular genre and can search accordingly, whether online or on shelves. I look for novels with deep psychological characterisation and rich, distinctive or elegant language – regardless of context or category. Try that on a search engine!

I sometimes think our reading friends make the best recommendations. I am grateful to Nat when she said she thought I’d love Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. Because she knows me, I believed her and she was so right. She even said there was a paragraph that was the most beautiful she’d ever read. With no clues whatsoever, I knew when I’d found it – and that shared recognition meant a lot to us both as a new, additional bond between us.

Even though I see Carol Shields and Anne Tyler as literary soul sisters rather than stylistic twins, I’d be shocked and perplexed to meet anyone who loved one and not the other. When Jackie said that I’d be bound, as a fan of both, to like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, she wasn’t wrong; I did. Just not as much. Sometimes our expectations are impossibly high when we’re passionate literary fans, and we’ve all experienced that disappointment we feel when an author doesn’t live up to her own standard as we perceive it. How Susan Fletcher can possibly deliver, after Let me Tell you about a Man I knew, a book I can love with equal passion, I can’t imagine. Is that even possible? But whatever the blurb or reviews, don’t come between me and that book when it’s published.

At the same time I’m currently proving myself an utterly predictable pushover, thanks to A Secret Sisterhood, a scholarly but novelistic exploration by Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of friendships between female writers, including my greatest heroine George Eliot who corresponded with Harriet Beecher Stowe. To say I am riveted – although I rarely read anything that isn’t fiction – would be an understatement. It’s thrilling. But I doubt whether I would find it so without a familiarity with the work of these women. If you have the same predisposition, treat yourselves.

I write across genres and ages because I don’t want to limit myself, and I don’t want to be a narrow reader, so I appreciate it when suggestions take me into uncharted territory – like Yan’s choice for me of The Poisonwood Bible. Even when there’s a mismatch, as there was between me and Murakami, it can be a case of connections and revulsions, or magnets that attract on one page only to repel on another. It’s an experience and offers its own insights. So I’m happy to be pointed towards titles that would never be identified for me on the basis of my buying history. There’s just one caveat for me. If the writing isn’t fine, nothing else can compensate. If the characters don’t live, I may appreciate but I won’t really care.

With Christmas coming I’ve grouped books in what I call unboxed sets to help people choose as a gift for a particular someone. There’s the historical set, the fantasy and humour set for young readers, the YA and the adult fiction set. But I’ve also put together a group across genres and styles that are all, in their different ways, teenage novels full of action. And I’ve identified another kind of group as contemporary drama: deep, emotional and sometimes mysterious. How much all the distinctions count and how much readers will find these titles have in common, I can’t say. I’ve always hoped that if anyone likes Michael Morpurgo they’ll like me, because he inspired me so powerfully. But I’m fancier in style and more inward-looking; his storytelling is simply natural. But we write from the same belief in the power of the human spirit, in the light in the darkness that will never be extinguished, in love. I feel in his young characters the same affection and respect for children that I share. I want my own voice, of course I do, but when a child once said a book of mine was a bit like Michael Morpurgo, I floated home.

Happy reading this Christmas. Oh, and if anyone wants a picture book for 7 and under, I only have one to offer but thanks to the artwork by Paula Watkins, it’s a cracker and all profits will support young refugees.


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