FROM THE PULPIT
C RESSIDA C ONNOLLY
benefits I am reaping. The cupboard under the sink has been scrubbed free of mouse-droppings and cleared of rags, the basins are gleaming, even my husband’s socks are folded in neat pairs (and this from a bolshy feminist). Cookery
LET’S NOT WRITE
T HERE ’ SAGREAT deal to be said for not writing a book. Go into any high-street bookshop, and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing: there are just too many of them already. They’re proliferating like rabbits. Big round tables – surely intended for blameless lives in provincial tea shops, nicely laid with cake forks and dishes of clotted cream and red jam – are everywhere warping under the weight of great piles of the best translations, best classics, best light fiction, best humour. If these shops are to be believed, hundreds of worthwhile titles appear every few months. Miles of shelves are devoted to television tie-ins, cookery books, thrillers, and the dread ‘mind, body and spirit’ section, the literary equivalent of scented candles, and quite as sickly. The only category of book there is never enough of is good, contemporary poetry. I remember, years ago, asking the late, great editor of this magazine – a man not known for his love of modern poetry – if I could write a piece about some of the younger poets who were then emerging: people like Jackie Kay and Simon Armitage. I still have the postcard Bron Waugh sent in answer: ‘Very well, if you must. But keep it brief.’ At the present time there are two poets whose talent is unignorable: John Stammers and Kathleen Jamie, both of whom have published books this year. Stammers’s Stolen Love Behaviour is funny, touching, and lyrical. Kathleen Jamie’s Findings is not poetry, but essays about the natural world shot through with a poet’s acute sensibility; it’s a beautiful book. But twenty years of reviewing novels has taught me a bitter truth: that you’re lucky to get two really good ones in any year. I’d go so far as to venture that I’ve only reviewed three truly great works of fiction in two decades: Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez; The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje; and Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. This last appeared earlier this year, and if it doesn’t win the Booker, then the Booker isn’t worth having. In the trade-union disputes of the 1970s, the work to rule was a gesture just shy of outright striking. Employees would perform only those duties required by their job description: nothing more. No staying on for an extra half-hour when extra help was needed; no overtime. That’s pretty much what I’m up to now. If someone asks me to, I write a review or article. I seem to be utterly incapable of writing a letter, despite the fact that one of my friends is in prison and another bedridden and nearly eighty. I do feel guilty about not corresponding with them, but I don’t feel remotely worried about not writing a novel. In fact, I recommend it. There is a well-documented correlation between not writing a novel and housework, one whose
books which have been gathering cobwebs for years are consulted and their recipes tested. The other day I even yanked at some bindweed in the garden. It isn’t that I don’t know what to write. I’ve got an idea for a novel: characters, setting, something which could even, at a stretch, be called a story. I’ve got lots of notes and I’ve made a start on a first chapter. It isn’t writer’s block, exactly; I just haven’t got the will to carry on. Eventually it’ll get the better of me and I’ll start it up again, but for the moment I can sleep soundly in the knowledge that I’m not adding to those piles of unwanted books in high-street chains. Independent booksellers are quite a different thing. Recent studies from America have revealed something interesting and entirely counterintuitive: that too much choice wearies the consumer into not wanting anything. If you have thirty kinds of biscuits, the likelihood is that the customer won’t buy any at all; but display only two varieties, and you have a sale. Some manufacturers are putting these findings into action and actually cutting down on the quantity of brands they produce. This is one of the reasons why shopping in smaller bookshops is so much more enjoyable than going to high-street chains. Another (which matters to me, living a hundred miles from London) is that they will post things. Also, the people who run independent bookshops know about books. This is much rarer than you’d think and it is why it is impossible to leave a shop like John Sandoe’s in Chelsea or the QI bookshop in Oxford without a large carrier bag stuffed with goodies. From John Sandoe’s I recently bought Amin Maalouf’s On Identity, Diana Petre’s The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, Barbara Pym’s No Fond Return of Love, Aleksandr Kushner’s Apollo in the Snow, a memoir called People Who Say Goodbyeby P Y Betts, and Gerard Woodward’s novel August. The QI bookshop furnished me with Parallel Livesby Phyllis Rose (out of print in the UK but stocked in its American edition), Revolutionary Roadby Richard Yates, How I Live Nowby Meg Rosoff (which both my teenage daughters read in a sitting), the latest edition of Granta, and an assortment of appetising titles from a small publisher called Hesperus. Of all these I’ve only read Revolutionary Road and August, both of them brilliant. But it’s reassuring to have a literary larder, well stocked with books for rainy days or sleepless nights. Not reading, like not writing, has a lot going for it.
LITERARY REVIEW August 2005