Writers Reading


I am always suspicious of writers and would-be writers, who are not also hungry, omnivorous readers. They cannot possibly be serious practitioners of their craft, and worse still, must be lacking in intellectual curiosity. My reply to that banal cliché, 'I don't read as I am afraid that I'll be influenced by other writers', is simply this: get down on your knees and pray to be influenced by a more original and brilliant writer, as that's the only thing that's going to save you. Originality is fuelled by knowledge of other writers, their styles and techniques. And it is wise to read your contemporaries, even those who seem antipathetic, misogynist, overblown or downright mad. Whatever is shaping their writing is probably also shaping yours. But there is another, more pressing reason to be a hungry reader and that is my own reason: I simply adore doing it. Nothing else gives me such pleasure. Reading is one of the magical arts. An imagined world lies open before you. All you have to do is turn the page and step through the door. If I cannot read, I cannot write. Over the past year, 2013, I have been too busy with academic work and with my own writing to record my reading and my discussions about books with other writers beyond the pages of my journal. But I have read around 40 books. Some were re-readings. This is often the richest and strangest experience of reading, for the book has not lain silent and asleep while you were reading other things; the book has been transformed into another book, often one even more remarkable than the one you remember. The book has grown and changed. But all these precious arguments and debates, while they are not lost, have never been given a formal, public shape. In Writers Reading I want to give those shared thoughts and discussions a platform and a place where they can be recorded and remembered.

‍ FEBRUARY 2023 

Adventures in Bestsellerland

Well, if vast sales were a guarantee of quality, John Grisham would be The Big One. I picked up The Judge’s List (2021) on a cross-channel ferry and noted the sales puff for all his works on the back: 350 million copies sold, translated into 45 languages, 10 blockbuster Hollywood film adaptations. I had never read a book by Grisham in my life, but I like to live dangerously. Here is the story of how I came to read a serial killer thriller, and what happened when I did. 

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Elizabeth Lowry: The Chosen (riverrun, 2022)

James Cahill: Tiepolo Blue (Sceptre, 2022)

Percival Everett: The Trees (Influx Press, 2022)

In the spring and early summer of 2022 I read three good books. These books, all new writing, adult fiction, published within a few months of each other, and written with intelligence and ambition, raised my spirits. In recent years, it has been hard to find good new books that meet my somewhat exacting criteria. 

What constitutes a good book? Well, obviously, to some extent that depends on the reader. I read very little conventional crime, but lots of “noir”, that is crime with added metaphysics. I never knowingly read anything that could be described as romance, only the odd fantasy, and not much in the way of domestic novels concerned with heterosexual relationships. I have a soft spot for war stories, novels of adventure and submarine dramas. I have very little patience with cosy crime or lightweight feel-good lifestyle fiction, where all’s well and ends well. And whilst I am delighted to be entertained, I don’t read primarily for entertainment.

So, what do I read? Despite my comments above I actually think that it’s important to read widely and delve into the great river of trash that pours off the commercial presses, even if you cannot bring yourself to finish the awful book in hand.  You never learn nothing whatsoever from a badly written book. In fact, in my experience the most indescribable merde has always been most instructive.

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Sally Gardner's Tinder, with drawings by David Roberts (Indigo, 2013)

Covers are a contentious area of discussion between writers and their publishers. My own view is that what's on the label should match what's in the can. And no one could say this isn't true of Sally Gardner's Tinder. A giant wolf with curling claws and vicious canines looms over a medieval cluster of houses. We are in the world of Grimm and the terrifying, uncompromising truths of fairy tale. Tinder is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Tinderbox (1835). Andersen's tale is a classic of the genre: an amoral narrative, generating patterns of three, and describing a world where the lower classes outwit the aristocracy.

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Jim Crace Harvest (Picador 2013) 

Harvest was short-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, the last fiction prize competition to be held before the Americans arrive, as many British writers fear, to dominate the lists. And Harvest was in fact the favourite to win. According to Booker traditions, the favourite never wins. And sure enough, this one didn't win. I read Harvest for the first time at the end of January, 2014. I finished reading the novel in a blaze of resentment several days later, very irritated and slightly drugged by the poetic rhythms of the prose. There is not enough action in Harvest to retain this reader's interest, and at least two fatal errors.

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The Spare Room by Helen Garner 

There's a story behind the moment when I first read this book. I was teaching a Fiction course at Ty Newydd, the Welsh Writers' House, and we were discussing beginnings, when my co-tutor produced, as an example, the opening of a book I had never heard of: The Spare Room, by Helen Garner (Canongate, 2008). I peered at my colleague's copy while she explained the slippery genre of domestic fiction, and its insidious connection to the marketing category of 'women's interest fiction'. No wonder I had never read it.

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Patricia reviews Dear Life, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro

Read the review on the Literary Review website (subscribers)

‍ JULY 2012: PURE 

Never underestimate the power of the simple linear plot. Andrew Miller's Pure (Sceptre, 2011) is shaped by this structure, which is common to fairy tales, myths and primal narratives: one central character, whose story it is; numerous obstacles; antagonists and supporters, who might swap roles at any time, a compelling setting; and a resounding resolution, which leaves the reader in no doubt at all concerning the fates of all the characters. And basta, there's your novel! Miller's new novel, which won the Costa Book of the Year 2011 award, opts for this powerful simple structure, and carries off his readers in triumph. How is it done?

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During the academic terms I re-read the books I am teaching for my courses. I think of them as texts, not only because that's the more usual academic term, but also because they are not always books of fiction or poetry and we study diaries, autobiographies, letters, and theoretical, as well as personal essays. I don't always teach the same texts, but before doing so I will always have read each text at least twice. Once, to know what kind of a book I am dealing with, and once again to decide how it will fit into my syllabus and what the students will gain from the book. What difficulties will the text present? Will they be as fascinated as I am by the writing, the issues, theoretical and political, or the literary strategies of each text?

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‍ NOVEMBER 2011 

I dip my nose into the giant pool of genre fiction at less frequent intervals than my closest friends do, the friends who are also writers. Most of them read crime. Nothing odd about this: most people who read, read crime and always have done. Two friends read what is described as 'Good Crime', which, I think, means Euro Crime, that is, continental crime novels, often characterised by first class writing and dense with discussions of metaphysics and ethics, as well as dead bodies. And one friend, who is a more balanced reader than I am, choosing both difficult writing and chocolate box books, cheerfully and freely admits to indulging herself in light, fluffy reads, women's interest fiction and bestsellers. Which often also means crime.

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All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2024