“One of the great problems of attracting attention to a new book,” said a much loved novelist friend of mine, “is that Writer Writes Book is a crap headline.” Reader Loves Book, sadly, is not much better.
X Thousand Readers Love Book might do the business. Publishing phenomenon – which could include contested auction, record advance, film deal or all three – would be even better. That’s talking about cold hard cash, not ephemeral stuff like love.
Actually, even the last headline probably wouldn’t intrigue me as much as Reader Hates Book So Much She Throws it in Bin. Because that’s serious feeling there. And yes, I admit I have done it, but only twice and I’m not proud of it.
On each occasion it was not out of outrage or contempt – or even jealous spite.
It was because the book had really upset me and not in a good way. So much so, indeed, that I didn’t want anyone else to find it in my house and go through the same horror.
And no, I’m not going to tell you which books they were. My intense reaction was entirely personal. One had even been recommended by a close friend, who told me I needed to stop being a wimp, when I admitted my reaction.
I don’t know whether I’d feel the same on rereading either book now. But I do know I ain’t going to experiment.
All I will admit is that both writers were well-respected in their respective fields. And both were men. I really hope that’s coincidence.
Influence of Reader Loves Book
We are told that a host of readers, raving on Amazon about a book and scattering 5 stars like confetti, can make it more visible on that all-powerful platform. But we are also told that even mighty Amazon can be gamed. And even if the stars are a genuine outpouring of love, it still might not hit the spot with me. So certainly not an auto buy
The answer is to sample before I buy. There are too many books and too little time for anything else. Word of mouth will send me to sample something, as will a friend’s recommendation. But some of my friends have much stronger stomachs than I do. Better safe than sorry.
Influence of Superior Reader Loves Book
But just once – that I know of – reader love scored a real triumph. And this is really lovely. In 1977 the TLS (Times Literary Supplement, not part of the Sunday multiplex but a genuine, stand alone, heavyweight review of books) “conducted a symposium” on the most overrated and underrated writers of the century.
Only one writer was named by two of the literati who had been invited to comment: Barbara Pym. Her own account of this is almost unbearably touching.
Her advocates were the much-loved Lord David Cecil, former Professor of English Literature at Oxford. In his retirement he wrote, among other literary and biographical books, such an affectionate memoir of Jane Austen that one reviewer commented “Lord David would have been worthy of her.”
His birthday was last week and Poet Laureate Simon Armitage has given him a generous “revisit” on BBC Radio 4. These are 15-minute conversations and pondering, five of them so far, which I shall definitely revisit myself. And there are five more to come next week, too.
These two readers were such heavyweights that suddenly publishers, having uniformly rejected Pym’s work as outdated, fell over themselves to woo her back. Well, a couple did, anyway.
It is pleasing to relate that she rejected an offer from one of the rejectors in favour of Macmillan. This was for Quartet in Autumn which went on to be short-listed for the Booker Prize that year.
Revenge is sweet.
Reader Loves Book – but Why?
Chemistry. It’s the only way I can account for it.
They are books I can write a half-way respectable review for, setting out logical reasons why someone else might enjoy them.
Now those reviews could be useful to another reader, perhaps. I can base my evaluation on evidence.
But love… that’s different. I find writing a review for a book I love is just about impossible when I’ve just finished it. So, as an experiment, I decided to wind back to a book I read earlier this year and absolutely loved.
Recollecting in Tranquillity
The novel is Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. It’s a debut novel published in April this year. There were rumours of a high-bidding publishers’ auction in the States, though I didn’t know that when I picked it up.
It got rave reviews, including from the New York Times. It hit NYT’s best seller list, and also the Sunday Times’; got selected for the Good Morning America Book Club and the BBC Radio Two’s Book club. Apple TV bought the TV rights. I didn’t know any of that, either.
I first heard about it from earwigging on a conversation in a queue.
“It’s silly,” someone said. “Nobody behaved like that in the Fifties. I was there.” “Nobody has that much bad luck,” said another. “Even her good luck means she’s doing something she hates.”
I was already intrigued. But it was the third team member who sold it to me: “She has so little empathy, she’s almost as bad as a man. But it’s really funny.” Everything they said was true, in one way or another, but they disliked the book for it. And I loved it.
Same Book Different Reader
I think it’s really the authorial voice that calls to me. It’s a wonderful voice, amused, tolerant, ironic and kind. That is what makes it wholly original and so engaging. The elements of the plot on their own would suggest a black farce, with rage and real tragedy in the mix.
It is set in the fifties and early sixties in a South California where men run things. A woman who has stabbed her rapist with a pencil is asked by the policeman not investigating whether she’d liked to express regret. And then she gets kicked off her PhD because the rapist is her supervisor – a less gifted chemist that she is.
It is the start of a career distorted by male greed and violence. The injustice appals but does not surprise her. Her father is in jail for offences with a similar origin.
But the darkness is kept at bay, partly because this is a fairytale and partly because Elizabeth Zott, though brave. competent and loving, is also a serious oddball. Nothing deters her from remaining true to herself – and pretty much oblivious to anything she hasn’t worked out for herself. Which makes her occasional understanding of someone else (as when she tells her supportive neighbour Harriet that she will do anything for her) truly moving.
Yes, the rage and real tragedy are there too. And so are some wonderful minor characters, many flawed. At least one comes over from the dark side, which appeals to me a lot. Justice is achieved in the end, partly because of Elizabeth’ Zott’s character, partly because of small actions by several of those minor characters and partly because of coincidence, that mainstay of the fairy story.
But why so much? Well, those are some of the reasons. But in the end it could just be chemistry. Maybe it’s a sort of visceral recognition because, like Zott, I stick pencils in my hair.
What do you think?