Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The wisdom of the book club (not Oprah's)

Yesterday I gave a book review to a small book club of ladies in Hampstead. I do about a half dozen of these gigs per year, have been for over a decade. It's all in the service of literature of course, and the pay's not half bad considering the effort involved and the fact that the same review can be recycled over and over. Also, there's usually (depending on the level of commitment of the hostess) the bonus of good eats, delicious cakes, cookies and occasionally a lovely fruit plate.

I've been doing this for so long I have favourite groups. Serious literati who actually bother to read the book under discussion, which, if I'm lucky, happens only about half the time. It can be a pretty discouraging experience when the ladies just stare blankly as you speak, nothing registering. On the other hand, at least they don't (usually) fall asleep.

I mention it because we had a very interesting discussion at yesterday's session - one of my favourite groups, serious readers, a retired english teacher in the bunch, a few artists. This is a group that's been in existence for decades and has read a ton and widely. They know their stuff. The book in question was "The History of Love" by Nicole Krauss. The consensus of the group was that while the author writes beautifully, the storyline was needlessly complex to the point of confusing.

I made the point that Krauss's novel is about the boundary between the real and the fictional and a reflection on the act of storytelling itself. They wanted to know why, in recent years, had narrative strategies become increasingly convoluted. Why did it seem, that younger writers were unsatisfied with the conventional narrative approach.

I resisted the smug response that it was because we were just a more sophisticated generation, which, of course, I don't believe for a second. We spoke of how technology (from film and tv to the internet) had challenged the conventions of linear storytelling and that the novelists have had to respond.

But why, they wanted to know, did the current generation of writers feel the need to make storytelling itself the central subject, and didn't that imply a certain mistrust, not only of the narrative form but of our ability to make sense of our lives and the world around us.

Anyway, as readers, they said they were tired of stories about storytelling. And truth be told, so am I.

No comments: