Hearing Susan Hill on BBC Radio 4 this afternoon reminded me of a review of her recent book, A Kind Man, which I read a couple of weeks ago. I do not know the book so cannot make any comment about it, but what I did object to was a remark made by the reviewer:
I’m an admirer of Susan Hill’s work, but I’m not sure what she’s getting here, though I accept this may be my fault, not hers.
The review was written by a Charlotte Moore and published in The Spectator (15 January 2011). Google lists too many Charlotte Moores for me to be certain, but I assume it is the Charlotte Moore who is also an author and writes for the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers.
If it is Moore the writer, such a sop will be – I guess – purely out of self-interest in the hope of a kind word from a writer who struck it lucky with a ghost story nearly thirty years ago. Nevertheless, I find the idea that a reader can see themselves to be at fault for failing to understand what has been written somewhat abhorrent, merely because Hill tells a good tale.
An author is a professional writer. It is their job to be able to communicate their ideas to their reader. Each reader will bring their own understanding to the text and, as any English Literature student will know, their reading is as valid as the next person's. It may be that the reader then chooses to go and research a detail to help explore or develop their interpretation, but this should not be a requirement and they should not feel compelled to do so. Despite not being obliged to do this, I have found a smartphone (with its Internet access) has made the process much easier, and the results can often be fascinating. Indeed, a few years ago I had a lengthy e-mail exchange with a member of the National Gamekeepers Organisation in an attempt to understand why, in two novels by two different authors set in World War I, references are made to dead birds being nailed to posts. (The conclusion we reached was that they were both referring to vermin lines.)
Placing a writer on a pedestal because they ‘must be saying something clever’ is wrong. If, as a reader, you did not ‘get it’, there was probably nothing to get, or the writer did their job clumsily, thereby preventing you from ‘getting it’. Whichever way, it should not be seen as the reader’s fault.
Before I get challenged about my role as a teacher of English Literature, I should stress that I am talking about readers, not students. Studying a text places more demands on the student-reader, and if a text has been chosen to be studied it is probably because someone somewhere feels that it has something to say; it may then be up to the teacher and student to discover what it is. And this is why studying a book can destroy the pleasure of reading it for people.
Read to enjoy reading and find books to study; study to facilitate reading. If the writer is not doing their job properly, a reader can stop reading and a student can explain why.