Inspiration: Criticism or love letters?
Back in the early 60s, theatrical criticism in Britain threw up its hands and resorted to love letters instead. The cause was Vanessa Redgrave starring in As You Like It, directed by Michael Elliot. She was 24 years old and luminous, with a voice that still pushes all those emotional buttons in the weekly Voice-Over to Call The Midwife.
Bernard Levin, a notoriously astringent theatre critic, wrote “If the word enchantment has any meaning, it is here,” and fell in love with her. Fifty-four years later, Michael Billington was still rhapsodizing about the performance in The Guardian.
The Award-Winning, Five-Star, Chart-Topper Delusion
In spite of his rhapsodies, however, Billington, a professional to his fingertips, couldn’t quite resist calling it “her gold standard Rosalind”. As if there were some sort of industry blueprint.
Amazon, with a star-rating system based on hotel comparator techniques, seems to be doing something similar. So do the bestseller charts. But, as (best seller) Patricia McLinn recently pointed out, sadly they can be manipulated, so they are not statistically reliable.
Sharing a Magical Journey
When someone recommends a book to me, what I remember is how they felt about it, not their measured assessment of the style, theme and content. I certainly don’t care if, after they’ve finished, they’d give the book ten out of ten or a patronising seven and a half for effort.
I want to know what it was like to go through the door into the world of that book.
I realised it, some years ago, when I was invited to contribute a piece on a favourite book to Normblog, the wonderful blog of the much-missed Professor Norman Geras. Indeed, the last entry was his own list of 100 books that he would happily recommend. I think I’ve read 85 and, apart from The Lord of the Flies, which I think is too nasty to recommend without a major health warning, I’m with him all the way.
To Show or to Tell?
Sitting down to write about Hot Water by P G Wodehouse, I realised that, yes, I quite enjoyed the idea of talking about what I now knew about the author and where the story sat in his own history and preoccupations; maybe even to suggest that it was “better” — whatever that means — than his contemporaries had given it credit for.
But these were secondary issues.
What I really wanted was to show what it was like to dive into this glorious world and walk around in it, free and joyous. I wanted to show other people that they could do it too. I wanted to make them laugh, as PGW had made me laugh, and in very dark times too.
Authenticity and Sharing
And, in the case of this book, this special writer, I wanted to say humbly, honestly, from a full heart, that my life was better in uncountable ways, because of P G Wodehouse.
I wriggled a bit after it was published. Felt a bit shamefaced, even. “Bit of a schoolgirl splurge, there,” I muttered to one person who queried my sentiments about “English Literature’s performing flea”.
But then I thought; no, I’d told the truth. Stand up and admit it, damn you! So I added firmly, “And I mean every word.”
It felt wonderful. It still does.
I had, in fact, written a Love Letter.
I was introduced to PGW at the age of 16, by a classmate reading aloud from Summer Lightning. She was unable to continue for a few moments due to uncontrollable laughter, which, of course, made all of us laugh too. My parents having had “doubts” about him, we had none of his books in an otherwise extensive collection, so off I went to our local bookshop as soon as I got my pocket money.Still have it, all 3/6 pence worth.
Absolutely adore Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. The others don’t grab me in the same way, but a couple of hours spent with Bertie is just bliss and a laugh a minute. I am also often in awe at the brilliance of PGW’s craft, the simplicity of his writing which we know took a great deal of effort to make it so. My Bertie books will never end up in the charity shop.
I couldn’t agree more. Personally, if I don’t like a book, I’ll just quietly close it – or perhaps fling it across the room, Dorothy Parker style – and move on. I’d rather enthuse about the ones I think are wonderful, the ones which come from the heart and head of the author into the heart and head of the reader.
I agree with Maggie. I used to think that I had to finished a book I’d started. Now I think that, if it doesn’t grab me after fifty pages, then I’m allowed to stop reading.
I, too, really enjoyed Summer Lightning, which was my first P. G. Wodehouse book. When I was teaching on an Access to the Humanities course at a College of Further Education, I always read my (adult) students a P. G. Wodehouse short story. I wanted them to think that Literature was fun, as well as deeply meaningful. And that good writing was often the simplest.
And having heard how brilliantly you read/recite, Elizabeth, I have no doubt you had your students rolling in the aisles!
There are certain books which make you feel that they’re amazing, and that your life is definitely the better for having read them. But if you try to analyse why they had that effect on you, to work out what it was the author did, it can start to dispel the magic.
I agree. And that’s part of why we started this love letter feature. Analysis can kill the magic. But sharing the love seems to spread the spell without diminishing it. Or, at least, it CAN do so.
Totally agree, books can’t be judged by their star ratings. I read novels for enjoyment and escapism, and if a book “grabs” me that’s all that matters. I have only recently discovered PGW and feel quite smug that I have all that joy still to come!