One of the great pleasures / responsibilities of being a lit critic is that you are asked to review countless debut novels. When I first began reviewing, I remember this feeling unusual to me – coming as I did from a background in academia, where you generally don’t read anything without an almost infuriating knowledge of every critical perspective, every last theoretical interpretation, every minute biographical detail.
What struck me about latest release debuts is how pure, almost virginal the experience of reading them is. How free I am from anything that might sway me one way or another in my interpretation of the text.
With established authors, however, it appears that any new novel is judged though the prism of their previous works. It’s the Faustian contract writers enter into when they publish their first novel: if granted any level of success, you’ll never be free of your earlier works, and everything you do will be inescapably judged against it.
And so it was with the release of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, consigned in almost every review I read to a comparison with the Harry Potter books – Pagford is said to be populated with Muggles, one of the principal families described as pale imitations of the Dursleys, the book retitled (admittedly rather brilliantly) Mugglemarch.
Like the cool, quiet hours linking dawn and daylight, the days between Christmas and the first day of a new year seem similarly stolen, and tantalising in their possibility. For me, it was a time to catch up on forgotten books in the steadily growing and increasingly precarious mountain beside my bed.
In an essay in The White Album, Joan Didion wrote of ‘spending most of a week writing and rewriting and not writing a single paragraph.’ For me – and anyone with an interest in books – life is similarly spent reading and re-reading and not reading all the novels you’d like to have consumed.
I often think of my reading choices as a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ story. Which novel do you choose? If you take the Penguin Classic, turn to page xi and feel worthy. If you choose the Man Booker Prize winner, turn to page 1 and feel zeitgeist-y. With all the novels in the world to read and only a certain amount of time in which to read them, to commit to one book is to inevitably sacrifice others. To read a new novel is to deny yourself the pleasure of returning to an already read and loved story. Sometimes we don’t get to choose at all – work, study commitments, life determines the path of our reading adventures for us.