Among other things, I am a book reviewer. In other words, I spoil books for a living. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of writing – or otherwise communicating – about books recently, prompted by my reading of a novel, Sergio Y., by Alexandre Vidal Porto. I had been been sent it by the publisher, and for a few weeks it had sat on the shelf in my study where these free books sit. I file the press releases in a separate folder, without looking at them; usually I give at least a glance at the front and back covers, and at the first page. Opening the post often happens when I’m in the middle of writing something quite different, and I don’t want to be distracted. That particular to-be-read shelf functions in a specialised version of the usual to-be-read shelves: the books sit there, patiently, quietly advertising themselves by their spines, and I glance at them as I pass, occasionally pull one out, glance at it or flick through it, put it back. Who knows what combination of memory, intuition and hope makes one reach for a particular book at a particular time. It would be lovely it there was something magical about it.
Two days ago, I reached for Sergio Y.
I was tired. It was mid-morning. I had been up early to get kids off to school. Then I had been marking student essays and creative writing submissions. I had more to do. I thought I would lie on the sofa for ten minutes and read, maybe have a snooze. I didn’t finish my allotted marking that day. Instead I finished the book. But I’m not going to tell you anything about it. If someone asked me to review it, I’d probably have to say No. I’d have no idea how to go about it, because saying what was so good about the book – or what I found good about it – would necessarily preclude anyone who read the review from having that same experience.
To a certain extent it’s about spoilers. But, more generally, it’s about how we our cultural lives are flooded with information. The part of Twitter that concerns itself with books and literature is essentially a massive contextualising machine, that not only markets books, but markets the reading of them. By the time you actually read a book, your response to it has already been absorbed and programmed. Sometimes this doesn’t matter. With writers you’ve already read, for instance, you go into the reading experience eyes open, hoping to have your expectations met. I read a new Javier Marias, a new Anne Enright, with my reading mind already attuned to what I hope is there.
Sometimes the style of the book outweighs the fact of our knowledge of it. I recently read Beckett’s Malone Dies, which I realised I’d started a number of times but never finished. Was my experience of it spoiled by knowing, more or less, what it contains? No. Sometimes it’s the content of the book the guarantees its worth against pre knowledge. Another recent book, All the Devils are Here by David Seabrook, I knew fairly well before reading, thanks to listening to Rachel Cooke talk about it on the Backlisted podcast. I knew what I was getting, and I got it.
But there are books that demand, or benefit from, ignorance. Sergio Y. is one of those.
Or no, perhaps it’s not that. Perhaps it’s not that the book needed me to not know it, but that I, at that moment, felt like I needed a book that I didn’t know. It wasn’t the book I was after, but the reading experience.
This is one of the real pleasures of being a book reviewer: not that you get to read the new Marias, Enright, Mantel before anyone else, but that you get to read books before anyone else can tell you what to think about them. Obviously, debuts and translated writers are the best for this, because you will be less likely to have heard anything on the grapevine. Think how it was for first readers to read Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, or Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. By the time I read the latter, it already glowed with accrued reputation. As such, I found it rather underwhelming. I didn’t think it quite lived up to the hype, but then the hype didn’t spoil it. I don’t think I’d have liked any more if I’d stumbled across it by chance.
Is there a type of book that is more susceptible to spoiling, then? Or that benefits more from a lack of foreknowledge.
Sergio Y. is one. Other books, off the top of my head, that I would recommend, and recommend only and specifically with minimal additional detail: The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker. Nostalgia by Jonathan Buckley. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Cees Nooteboom’s books, most especially The Following Story. All books that have spoilers, of sorts, but not exactly spoilers of narrative – how to review Gone Girl! – but rather spoilers of style: they only work on their own terms, not on the ‘higher order’ conceptual terms that a book reviewer or publicist or friend on Twitter might employ. WG Sebald’s books would once have been the same. No longer. They are too thoroughly embedded to be honestly ‘discovered’ by anyone. Their reputation precedes them, and wraps about them. They are all quiet books, but confident in their abilities. And here I mean solely in their ability to work one-on-one with a reader, rather than through the culture at large. These are all books, in other words, that make you not a member of a culture, a civilisation, a social network, but an individual, alone with a book.