Thursday, 28 February 2013

Adventures in literary criticism

If there is one advance in technology that I am most grateful for, it is satellite navigation. Last night my trusty Tom Tom led me from Reading, along dark and winding roads, to Winchester. The light at the end of my journey was a stylish sitting room with a wood-burning stove, several plates of pizza and two bottles of wine. 
Winchester book club
The book club ladies of Winchester

An old school friend had heroically persuaded her book club to read my new novel, A Sister for Margot, and had invited me along for the fun! Ha! The group included an inspiring line-up: four teachers, a management consultant, a doctor and a journalist. For a brief moment, I rather wished my satnav had left me stranded on the A33 Reading relief road. Seven sets of curious eyes alighted upon me. Feeling slightly sweaty, I wondered if Margot and her relations were up to this.

To date, I have chatted to journalists and I have been interviewed on radio, but this was the first time I had come face-to-face with a room of discerning readers. In some senses, this was the culmination of everything I have been trying to achieve: a book that people will read, enjoy and discuss. But like so many things, when you get there, you wonder what you've started.

There is a theory of literary criticism called formalism that strives to analyse a text by focusing on the work itself and disregarding the author. Last night we did away with formalism. The book and I came as package, and inevitably my panel of readers interpreted it through my experiences and influences. Were the characters based on real people? How did my becoming a mother shape the book? One of the characters loses her parents when she is nine. What happened to me when I was nine? 

But it wasn't all about me, I realised. Each of them brought something new to the book - their own response. There is another vein of literary criticism more concerned with the reader's experience: each reader is unique with different ideas, educations and values, and therefore interacts with the book in a singular way. The English teacher, for instance, shared her analysis of my syntax and imagery (terrifying) while the history teacher asked about my research on the second world war (slightly less terrifying). Another member enjoyed the scenes in Ibiza because it brought back memories of a teenage holiday.

By the time I climbed back into the car and handed myself over to Tom Tom's expertise once more, I felt quite exhilarated. It may have taken me ten years to complete the book, but two hours in Winchester made me feel it was worth it. (And, in the interests of formalism, I left early to give my readers a chance to say what they really thought.)

A big thank you to the book club in Winchester, and most particularly to Emily who stuck her neck out to arrange this.