07 March 2011

Readers' Guides

I heard The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott as a Book at Bedtime (or was it The Late Book?) on BBC Radio 4. I later discovered that books broadcast in this way are reduced to 25% of the original — the books are (almost) rewritten for radio, and there are writers who specialise in this. So I thought I should read the whole. The ‘summary’ for want of a better description was well done, and I didn’t think I’d been cheated out of any of the main events.
I was disturbed though, when I’d finished the book, to find a section called ‘Reading Group Notes’ as an appendix. This includes a résumé of the story, and a list of topics ‘For Discussion’. There is also ‘Suggested Further Reading’ which, curiously, is printed twice.
I’m not so sure that I want a list of topics to be discussed at the end of a novel; I read novels for enjoyment, and I don’t expect to be tested on my understanding when I’ve finished. Perhaps it would help my greater appreciation if I did undertake these exercises, though as there are no ‘specimen’ answers, I don’t know how much benefit I’d get from it. The author’s positions include a Professorship in Creative Writing, and I was strongly tempted to think that the novel was an exercise, taking topics and constructing the fiction around them. And perhaps another reason for its creation was as use as a textbook. Maybe I’m just too cynical.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, doesn’t have tests at the back, but there is an interview with the author, and her commentary on Thomas Cromwell (the hero of the book), and a list of key dates. Wolf Hall is set in the England of Henry VIII. Although I went to school in N Ireland, the history we learnt was English history. And it began, out of nowhere, in 1485 and ended equally abruptly in 1714. Mostly, it was a long series of dates which we had to memorise. There was little effort put into the ‘why’ of history; and looking back, the version we were taught was heavily expurgated. We didn’t learn about Henry’s marital problems, his over-riding need for a male heir, and absolutely nothing about his ‘natural’ son. So, although it’s a novel, Wolf Hall put a lot of what I remembered into context, and explained what was really going on. If only I’d known then.
I’ve always liked Sherlock Holmes, even if many of the stories are nothing more than pot-boilers. They are littered with careless mistakes in chronology, in Watson’s first name, and the number of his wives. A large industry has grown up around Sherlock, with rivals, films and television series. As long as you don’t look too closely, these are enjoyable.
Irene Adler, the woman, appears in A Scandal in Bohemia, not one of the better stories, but the one in which Sherlock is defeated by the woman. And now there is a series of Irene novels, the first (Good Night, Mr Holmes) based on Irene’s side of Scandal. It’s amusing, even though it doesn’t quite recreate Victorian London in the way that the Literary Agent does.
But, at the end of the book there is a Reader’s Guide, and this includes a list of topics ‘For Discussion’, not just of the book, but of the other novels in the series. There are no answers. There is also the inevitable interview with the author (Carole Nelson Douglas).
I think my problem with books that have ’For Discussion’ is that they remind me of school textbooks. I’d like to think I’m beyond that now, I don’t read because I have to, I read for enjoyment. I don’t have to memorise large chunks, in case it’s asked about in the examinations. And I can often distinguish the themes from the story — of course, we weren’t taught about themes at school, well at least when we studied Eng Lit. I’ve a lot of ground to make up, but asking me questions isn’t the way to do it.
So why do authors and their publishers include ‘For Discussion’ at the end of novels? Is it a marketing exercise, to draw readers in, or something that ‘adds value’? And why, if this is necessary, can’t they simply refer to a web site about the novel? If I’m to be tested (and given specimen answers), why can’t this be done externally? There’s a big difference between reading for pleasure and enjoyment and reading a ‘set’ text on which one is going to be examined. So why not separate these two? By all means have a discussion on a web site — setting one up is so easy these days — with interaction from fellow readers, rather than leaving me to flounder alone.
I want to read a novel for enjoyment, for fantasy. I don’t want to have to dissect it immediately afterwards.

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