Nick Hornby has told an audience that they shouldn’t be scared to abandon a novel if it proves tough going. John Sutherland picks the 10 books that have convinced him not to turn the page
Nick Hornby has got himself some easy headlines by telling punters at the Cheltenham LitFest that they should toss any novel as soon as it gets hard going. Stop when it hurts, he said. Farewell, then, Finnegans Wake.
Personally, I’ve always admired Professor George Levine’s approach. Levine announced to the world that he was cancelling all his classes to lock himself away for three months in 1973 to read Gravity’s Rainbow. Eight hours a day. No remission. He emerged, as he put it, “giddy” but convinced that “Thomas Pynchon is the most important American novelist now writing”. Of course not everyone is in a position to make that kind of investment in difficult fiction.
It’s not just a book’s difficulty that compels us to ditch it though. The intelligence or stupidity of the reader is a determining factor. As is age. Ten-year-olds devour Harry Potter. I personally can’t make head nor tail out of Rowling’s novels. Why? Because my addled adult brain can’t see the narrative shapes and structures for all the detail and hither and thithering.
Conversely, I found Ulysses impenetrable when I first dipped into it (stopping as Nick instructs when the going got tough, around page two if not before), 50 years ago, but can skip through it quite happily now. Perhaps difficult novels get less difficult as you (and they) grow older.
However smart you think you are, there will always be novels that make you feel stupid. For some, it is their mission in life. The following are my all time top 10 unfinishables:
1. J by Howard Jacobson – A worthy successor to John Berger’s equally stupefying G. Passing page 50 is an achievement.
2. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eiemear McBride – Great novel, whatever it means. I suspect a few Booker judges stopped around page 40. Their lips are sealed.
3. If on a winter’s night a traveller by Italo Calvino – Italian jiggery-pokery. It has 12 openings so you can stop at page 2 a dozen times.
4. The Sacred Fount by Henry James – Why did Emily Brontë have to die so young, and he live so long after he stopped writing readable fiction? Stop at page one – for all but PhD candidates.
5. The Amazing Marriage by George Meredith – Any Meredith would work here, really. I gave up around page 50 – my usual tether.
6. Ada by Vladimir Nabokov – He knew readers would keep going for the sexy bits: then didn’t write them.
7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace – Like swimming through setting cement.
8. IQ84 by Haruki Murakami – Can 80 million readers – or whatever it is – be wrong? Yes. Good opening scene, though.
9.La Disparition by Georges Perec – The one that doesn’t use the letter ‘e’. Stop with the e-less title. You’ve got the point.
10. Moby Dick by Herman Melville – Read the first 10 chapters and the last three. Avoid the rest.