The book-chat paradox

Reading and writing are essentially solo activities. Yes, they’re channels of communication, but they communicate indirectly through the printed page (or screen page). When we read or write, we do so as individuals – and generally in silence. Yet paradoxically, readers and writers can’t stop talking with other people about their literary experiences.

A book-chatterer at the Avon Valley Festival (photo: Amanda Curtin)

Most of us like (occasionally) to listen to writers speaking on the subject of things they have written. For those of us who are writers ourselves there can be a particular interest in hearing an insider’s comments on some aspect of the craft of writing. Literary festivals attract large audiences to sessions that feature various authors using the medium of speech – a very different medium from the written language in which they are supposedly expert.

Most of us also enjoy conversations with fellow-readers, comparing reactions and discussing opinions. The proliferation of book clubs and reading groups testifies to that.

Both of those kinds of book-chat can sometimes be disappointing, irritating, tiresome. In Sally Rooney’s recent novel Normal People a young student called Connell, who is himself beginning to write stories, goes along to a public reading by a notable visiting writer, and finds that ‘everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy.’ The writer’s performance is stiff, and Connell wonders ‘why these literary events took place, what they contributed to anything, what they meant.’ He reflects cynically that ‘they were attended only by people who wanted to be the kind of people who attended them.’

No doubt some reading group members often feel similarly dispirited after a meeting in which the book-chat has been superficial, taken up with gossipy digressions rather than getting to grips with the literary qualities of the book that they have read (or half-read).

Yet despite our disappointments, we readers and writers continue to involve ourselves in book-chat. This isn’t really surprising, because the spoken word underlies all literature. Voice precedes print. Long before people began to produce books, long before writing emerged, singers and rhapsodic bards chanted epic stories and expressive lyrics around campfires and in ancient mead-halls.

At any rate, whatever reservations I may have about book-chat, I’m up to my neck in it. Within just the next week, for example, I’m giving talks to a couple of MALA groups about myth and literature, conducting a workshop for fellow-writers on editing towards publication, and speaking to the WA Genealogical Society on how a fiction writer looks at family history. Details about these occasions are on the Events page of this website.

6 thoughts on “The book-chat paradox

  1. Hi Ian. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. How readers engage in a book group discussion is, of course, near and dear to our hearts at Literary Masters! At the start of each session, I ‘present’ a little something I’ve researched to help us enter the book in some way. For example, we recently read Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, and I talked about how one’s particular perspective impacts memory and therefore “truth” in the writing of memoirs. (I try to ground each book group conversation within a larger literary context or larger literary conversation.) This opened up many, many interesting threads–it was fascinating.

    However, although I’m ‘old school’ and feel that what the actual text says supersedes what the author “intends,” I also realize that readers are, indeed, interested to hear about the author’s life–this goes for all books, not just memoirs. I have to say, your comments about the character in Rooney’s book resonated with me. In watching and reading multiple interviews given by Tara Westover, I felt like I could answer the questions before she did–they felt that rote to me. I don’t mean to take anything away from Tara Westover–her story and the book are pretty jaw-dropping, and she’s very impressive and poised when she speaks. I just wondered while watching her whether she was bringing anything ‘extra’ to the reading experience for me (and by extension, Literary Masters members).

    Jhumpa Lahiri was once on a radio program here and I called in. I was super excited to tell her the meaning of one of her short stories in the collection “Interpreter of Maladies.” I laid it all out for her, assuming she’d confirm my interpretation, and after an exceedingly long and uncomfortable silence (this was radio, after all!), she replied, “Um…no…it was just a love story.” I hung up the phone thinking “That woman doesn’t even understand her own writing”! HA! You may guess from this story that I am much more interested in what a book “talks” to me, or in what my fellow Literary Masters members “talk” to me about with regard to the book than in what the author has to say.

    Are my comments horrifying to you as an author? I hope not! I’m probably undercutting my own remarks here as I think about authors I’d visit at a book chat if I could. Philip Roth comes to mind for sure.

  2. Bravo. Whatever the venue or vehicle, live talk or pod cast or Ted Talk, it seems crucial that some level of articulate discourse continues. At least, it seems better for many of us still, however nostalgic or invested in anachronistic forms, that a range of linguistic practices, with longer, rarer and well-chosen words, remain in circulation – in this era of grunts and sound bytes and media poses. As we watch the old institutions crumble and justice hollowed out and new forms of public harrowing, who else but writers and last readers might remember Robespierre or Durkheim or Orwell or Samuel Beckett or..etc. If the university too now is ‘without walls’ then lets say thanks for the vestiges of that grand idea and a teaching, writing and reading tradition who continue on, doing what do regardless.

  3. Hi Liz,
    No – your comments don’t horrify me! Of course, writers do try to control a reader’s responses in advance by every carefully considered detail of structure and style, every textual decision about word choice, about what to include and where… But once a book is out in the world it’s also out of its author’s hands, and if it ‘speaks’ to some readers (including reviewers) in ways that the author didn’t anticipate or doesn’t like, a philosophical shrug is appropriate.
    It seems to me that the approach taken by your Literary Masters book group network is exemplary: you yourself as session leader provide some contextual information and a thoughtful insight or two to stimulate discussion, but then (presumably) your members can take their book-chat in whatever directions they find rewarding.
    Interesting that your group has recently read Westover’s memoir Educated, which I’m halfway through. Your remarks about the selective way in which memory operates in that kind of writing are very apt, I think. And I’m not surprised, by the way, that Westover’s answers to interview questions strike you as predictable and not particularly illuminating. One reason for having paused halfway through reading her book is that I’m not finding much in her account beyond the strange family situation that it depicts. The quality of the writing doesn’t excite me, I confess.

  4. Hi Robyn. Thanks for your eloquent comments, which are entirely in tune with my own thoughts. The decline of deep reading, the diminishment of book sales and the reduction of serious public discussion of books (e.g. the shrinking of review pages in newspapers, etc.) – it’s all quite dispiriting. So reflections such as yours are all the more valuable!

  5. Hi there Ian,

    I agree with everyone’s comments thus far and, as Robyn and so many others have pointed out, the whole nature of writing and its relationship to society is morphing rapidly. Writers and authors are increasingly pressured nowadays to talk (and write) around their literary offerings via blogs, public readings, author talks, workshops, and panel experiences. This is, essentially, a kind of sub-contracting out of the former publicity manager’s work back onto the author themselves. As a result, whether via deliberate self-styling, or as a kind of slight-of-hand that comes of the process as a whole, the literary landscape is now quite heavily populated by competing personality cults i.e. these self-representations that authors are now almost obliged to provide (willingly or otherwise) just to be able to interest prospective publishers in their works (often via the old ‘traditional’ model), and then shift those books off the bookshop shelves or through the electronic Kindle channels.

    All of this discourse around and beyond the ‘works’ themselves can and still does include deep reflections and insights about writing, from both sides of the conversation i.e. authors and readers. As everyone in this thread has affirmed, this is something to hold onto and develop. But perhaps one might also detect a certain “race to the bottom” in this realm, as in so many others?

    The other point to consider in all this is the way that technology and changing work habits are forcing the authors’ hands into adopting practices that simply may not suit them temperamentally. People have always wanted to hear authors commenting on their works and on literature beyond this, but they were once more forgiven for being awkward public speakers, or otherwise dull or curmudgeonly or incomprehensible, because talking (or publicising or blogging or compering) just wasn’t their job. And it can definitely happen, as per your interview example, Liz, that a work itself may say (for the author) whatever is there to be said better than any other words, in any other form, can. Who was it that said that the purpose of art was to make the ordinary extraordinary? Well, sometimes the background to extraordinary art can be noteworthy in and of itself, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it always will be. The logical extreme of this sort of puddle-plumbing, if you like, is the hoary old question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” This is grossly unfair to all concerned, I think, except in selected cases. The wellsprings of art are, most often, deeply private and often not remarkable to anyone except the individual–until they go ahead and do what they’ve devoted their lives to doing, which is to turn those nebulous and vital preoccupations into (hopefully) worthwhile literature.

    By the way, with regards to writing and reading being solitary activities, I often think of the writing process being directed to an idealised self who represents our own best, most understanding and appreciative audience. A kind of psychic Doppelganger, if you will. I can’t decide whether this conceptualisation is healthy, or horribly narcissistic (I suspect the latter). But I do know that the Doppelganger is of only very limited assistance when it comes to EDITING after the fact…

  6. Thanks, Glen, for your sage observations. You’ve nicely characterised several aspects of the changing writer/reader book-chat relationship – partly resulting from economic, technological and other pressures in the publishing industry, as you say. All of this can often lead authors into roles that they may find uncongenial, such as spruiking their own work.

    A few months ago, in a post about the writer’s double life**, I quoted David Malouf’s statement that the enemy of writing is talk. Worth pondering!

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