Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On changing tastes and re-reading

Earlier in the week I mentioned my admiration for the novels of Howard Spring, an enthusiasm shared by fellow Macmillan New Writer Frances Garrood. I wondered whether I would still enjoy his novels as much today, not having read them for 15 or 20 years. Frances mused:

Years ago, I read the whole of The Forsyte Saga, and couldn't put it down. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever read. Recently, I tried it again, and couldn't get through two chapters. It happens with old films, too. Does this mean that we have changed, or that the book/film isn't really as good as we first thought it was?
I'm sure we've all had similar experiences. We grow as readers, which means our tastes change; but also our critical faculties develop. Returning to an old favourite, then, is risky. I am not the same person who discovered The Lord of the Rings nearly 30 years ago, and that's reflected in my response to the book now--a rather less adulatory one.

The experience of reading a book is the filtering of a fixed quantity (the text) and our own emotional engagement with that text, which is variable. The Catcher in the Rye will act differently on a 15-year old reader to a 45-year old. If there is such a thing as intrinsic literary value (and we won't even attempt to debate that here...), that value won't change What has changed, then, is our own emotional or critical response.

As a youth, I read a formidable quantity of science-fiction and, simply through the law of averages, some of this was very bad and some was very good. In the intervening years I've re-read some of both: Jack Vance, of course, remains my touchstone of literary excellence, while E.E. "Doc" Smith is revealed as tosh, however amiable and energetic it may be. In this case, clearly, my critical powers have developed beyond those of my 12-year old self (it would be somewhat alarming if the converse were true).

The Lord of the Rings is a more complex case. For at least ten years this was my favourite book; coming to it again five or so years ago, it was a struggle to finish. I don't think The Lord of the Rings is a bad book; what's changed here is my literary taste. I can admire Tolkien while at the same time wanting to see the lightness of touch I find in Vance; and also I now view it through the deconstructive lens of revisionist fantastists like GRR Martin and Joe Abercrombie.

This latter point is significant too. Part of the reason our tastes change is that other writers are reinventing their genres, in a way that will sometimes date earlier work. While there could be no Abercrombie without Tolkien, the way we read Tolkien today owes something as well to Abercrombie. By a curious trick of perception, chronology becomes a two-way street.

By a circuitous route this brings us back to Howard Spring and AS Byatt. Half a century separates These Lovers Fled Away from The Children's Book, but thematically and structurally they are remarkably similar. If I now read These Lovers Fled Away, it's with the experience, the extra filter, of The Children's Book. That has the potential to reinterpret the first book, to redefine my experience. That, for me, is why we should be wary of re-reading old favourites.

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Frances Garrood said...

Thanks for taking this idea further, Tim. Following on from it, I do wonder at the books which stay in print, and those which do not, and how the reputation of the former survives. I have just re-read one of my all-time favourites - Brothers, by Bernice Rubens - and still love it (what a relief!). But I find that it is now out of print. Everyone I know who's read it thinks it's wonderful; I mentioned it to Will recently, and he said it seemed to be "one of those books which people become evangelical about", and yet it is only available second-hand.

Tim Stretton said...

In recent years, the rise of the internet has made it much easier to get hold of books which are out of print, so they retain at least a shadowy life beyond the grave.

I remember spending much of my twenties trying to track down everything Jack Vance had written (nearly all out of print). I didn't have very much luck. These days, with sites like eBay and AddAll, it's easy, and not even very expensive.

David Isaak said...

As you note, the reader's age and context matter; and readers today get mature earlier (appreciating irony sooner, for example).

Yur point about what has come after is so important that I'm now going to hijack this topic off to my own blog... Web Admin said...

Glad to see that nostalgia kick to the dangly bits is not restricted only to television or films, Tim. I've resisted returning to books I read during my childhood (mainly because of time but also in fear of what you mention here) but this is a cautionary tale worth taking note of.

Taking it one step even further than this... How do you think any of us will feel about our own work ten or twenty years down the line? I feel critical about my own books even now and they're but two or three years old! Will they provoke embarrassment, maybe even relegation to an attic room box marked "What were you thinking?" as you evolve as a writer; or will that same pride that makes you keep your first school trophy or the first statement from MNW, keep you from packing them out of sight?

I like to think I would do the latter, but who knows?

Tim Stretton said...

David, an interesting topic: breath bated.

Matt, I wrote The Zael Inheritance in 1997. Although I can see things I would do differently now, I can look at it without embarrassment - and when I read it the characters are still alive (I could even write more stories about them).