On Monday, Tricycle Readers analysed a story by Salman Rushdie. After the reading, one of the group admitted she’d struggled to listen because she doesn’t like Rushdie: ‘He has a mean face. He doesn’t look a nice man’. I was taken aback but not in a position to challenge her as, the previous night in the cinema, I’d recoiled at a Stephen Fry ad for similar reasons. Fry has a new book out and was advertising the nationwide transmission of an interview about its content. ‘I won’t be coming here for that,’ I muttered to my daughter who is one of his biggest fans, ‘he’s so smug, I can’t stand him.’
The fact that Fry can sound smug does not mean that he is, but whenever I read his work I hear his voice, and it’s smug, and I cannot disassociate it from the content. A number of my friends are successful writers and one in particular has a very distinctive way of speaking. She’s one of my favourite people. Nonetheless I cannot read her novels without hearing her in my head and her voice is a constant intrusion. As a result I buy and display all her work, but I never get past page 50.
The pleasure of reading is NOT hearing someone else’s voice but hearing your own voice, or voices, and that enhances individual enjoyment and understanding. Writers create the narrative, or the narrator, but it is we, the readers, who realise the text. Where this can’t be done because external forces intrude – as was the case with the Rushdie refusenik – you don’t buy their work.
In literary criticism we turn the way we read, upside down. We search for the writer in the text. We identify indications of intention and evaluate whether they get it right. We question characterisation and examine vocabulary and tone, testing for meaning and effect. What is Rushdie trying to show here, and does he succeed? The external forces become our driver. Should looks matter at this stage?
Personally, I take more notice of distinctively featured writers whether Rushdie, Will Self or Katie Price, so I was delighted that once the detective work began our reluctant reader soon joined in. Will she read Rushdie again? Who knows. But the joy of literary criticism within a complementary group of participants, is that it allows one to both exercise and exorcise prejudices intelligently.