Reading: it’s a feast that never ends, a desire that cannot be sated. And the best advocate for reading, the person most likely to whet your appetite for more books, is a writer who relishes a hearty serving of books.
I want to read Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth, and Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, and a book of Victorian women in crime that I stumbled across by happy accident, but Lynn Shepherd has convinced me that I should read Bleak House, and read it now, even though I’m not a Dickens fan. (Sacrilege! In the year of his bicentenary, no less! I’m happy to become a convert, but alas I haven’t joined the ranks of the faithful—at least not yet.)
So what prompted this decision to take some tentative steps into the church of Dickens? The passion of writer Lynn Shepherd as a reader. What first drew me to Tom-All-Alone’s was the narrative voice. A worldly third-person narrator oversees most of the novel, commenting on Charles’s Victorian life from a twenty-first century perspective. It reminded me of the ironic narrative voice I loved in John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman. As it became evident that Shepherd and I shared an affection for The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, I began to think there must be something in her love of Bleak House.
Tom-All-Alone’s takes characters and themes from Bleak House to create its own entertaining tale of corruption, injustice and a private detective’s attempts to connect murders amidst London’s slums and mansions. I’m not yet able to say if Tom-All-Alone’s is an inspired response to Dickens’ work, but I can say that it stands in its own right as a rollicking tale of cruelty, vengeance, blood and fog, even if you’re not familiar with Bleak House.
Although Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is the main source of inspiration, there are allusions to the works of other writers, including Jane Austen and E.M. Forster. Clearly Shepherd loves books and conveys that in her story. That might seem the most blindingly obvious thing in the world: that a writer should love books and read a great deal. One of the most alarming things I encountered when I worked in book publishing, however, was the non-reading writer: writers who submit manuscripts with a covering letter that opens with “I don’t read much, but I’ve written this book”, or “I don’t like reading, but this book I’ve written would make a good film”. What? I wouldn’t go to a marriage counsellor who hadn’t ever been in a long-term relationship; what confidence could I have in a writer who hadn’t spent much time in a reader’s shoes?
The most depressing cases were the celebrities who bragged that they didn’t read anything they hadn’t written themselves (or more accurately, that they didn’t read anything not produced by their ghost-writers). One celebrity author was honest enough to tell the publishing staff that he’d met people who were far better writers than he’d ever be, but he got the publishing contracts because he knew how to promote himself and the dedicated writers didn’t. These celebrity ‘writers’ aren’t good advocates for books, because they’re not passionate readers themselves. To them, books are just merchandise they release to promote their personal brand, something to supplement their latest TV series, album or film.
Booksellers and publishers sometimes wring their hands over the fate of the book. They’re competing for attention in a world where potential readers are distracted by their smartphones and tablets, updating their social media accounts, watching TV and playing games when they could be reading. Celebrity authors aren’t going to save the day; they’re only interested in promoting their own books (and no-one else’s) as a springboard for something else. Booksellers and publishers who are more interested in the cult of personality than in books are cutting their own throats. Only passionate readers—and writers who are enthusiastic about other writers’ works—can fuel a lasting hunger for books, not just a fleeting peckishness.