Sunday, April 17, 2011

Literary Allergies

Admist all the media kerfuffle surrounding the posthumous David Foster Wallace book, Geoff Dyer has come out in hives: or rather he's admitted upfront his allergy to Wallace's writing. Its a nicely different take on the literary parlour game of what great books you have and haven't read; but it also struck a chord with this reader. There are some writers we know are good, some we know are bad, but there are some where it doesn't make a difference, as they bring us out in a rash.

As Dyer says, he even "likes" Wallace's writing, he just can't get on with it. Its interesting that Dyer says this, as I think he's a similarly rare food group. I've heard him read on a couple of occasions, and I've loved it, but trying to read his books, I start by enjoying his light, breezy style, his digressions, his authorial interruption, and then, I get annoyed by it. There's just too much Geoff Dyer in it, and my palate's not up to it.

But I think there are a couple of types of literary allergy. Dyer (as with Wallace for him) is in the "I like it, but can't stomach it" category - writing that's a little too rich, or too plain, or simply too "too", for our taste. And perhaps, like David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer is a writer who writes books which are almost guaranteed to bring out that reaction from some readers - they are books that are not easily pigeonholed. I might start reading expecting one thing, and then get another. One of these days I'll finish a Dyer book and can throw away my anti-histamines. On the other hand, other allergies are more severe. I get annoyed when I see the cover of the book; when I hear the writer's name; when I hear how brilliant they are. It's not just that I don't get it, it's that every time I try to get it (i.e. by reading them) I can feel the old panic attacks coming back. It's like they are written in a language that induces migraines. Beryl Bainbridge is one of these. She's a national treasure; she was the "best writer never to win the Booker"; she's loved by all and sundry; she wrote books on a range of subjects. Yes, yes, yes. But two pages in to "Master Georgie" or whatever, I'm in knots inside, my eyes are glassed over. Ali Smith's another one. I skipped pages of "Hotel World" in an attempt to get through it; I've even read a couple of her acclaimed short stories, and I've felt physical unwell at the end.

I noticed that when people started sharing their #literaryallergies on Twitter (thanks to the writer @sarahchurchwell) it was old dead writers like Trollope and Hardy; or bad experiences at school. There aren't, I think, allergies - some writers just aren't for you or there's a non-literary reason for liking them - but an allergic reaction is a personal one; books that you otherwise perhaps ought to like, and for one reason or another don't. Just accept it, and move on to the next author, there are plenty out there.

No comments: