Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On Having a Favourite Writer

Having a favourite writer is an odd thing. It occurs amongst bookish people and people who aren't bookish at all; in fact, I think it's rather more likely to occur amongst the latter group. It seems a fairly common phenomenon that some child or teenager or even adult who never reads much is suddenly hooked by a distinctive voice. I once knew a man in his thirties who claimed never to have finished a single book, until he found himself gripped by The Rats by James Herbert. I have read another chap declare that Philip Larkin is the only poet worth reading. This gentleman not only insisted that Keats's line "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" left him cold, but he refused to believe that it really spoke to anybody. He thought the reputation of every poet other than Larkin was sheer hype and puffery.

As for me, I am not especially bookish. At my age (midway between thirty and forty) I have accepted that I will never be a man of wide reading. I will probably never get round to Sophocles and Virgil and Chekhov. Pepys and Dostoevsky and even a great deal of Shakespeare bore me, though I love the classic poets. Most of them. I could never work up an enthusiasm for John Donne or Emily Dickinson. I sometimes suspect their reputations are sheer hype and puffery.

And yet I have had several literary enthusiasms. My first was for WB Yeats, who I still consider the greatest poet who ever lived. When I was fourteen, and I discovered a memory for poetry that has sadly decayed already, I found I had memorized "A Prayer for my Daughter" (not a short poem by any means) from a schoolbook without even trying. I have also developed literary infatuations with Walter Macken (an Irish writer of the mid-twentieth century), Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole books, J.P. Donleavy (an Irish-American writer who I admired so much that I overcame my early-twenties shyness and actually interviewed him), Philip Larkin (you can even find my article on his early poem The School in August on the Philip Larkin Society website), and now Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. I have also had a thing for the recently-deceased Keith Waterhouse, author of Billy Liar.

Favourite authors are different from most reading because we approach them in a unique way. I think we read most books for pleasure or for improvement. I don't think there is anything wrong with reading for improvement, despite the inverted snobbery that sometimes decries it. It is not that it doesn't involve pleasure, but rather more effort than pleasure, at least at first. I sweated through Palgrave's Anthology of Golden Verse in my early teens, very much in a conscious effort to acquire Culture-- not so I could show it off (though I was always glad of the chance), but because I had already tasted the ecstasy poetry could afford. I read each poem twenty or thirty times, as slowly as I could. I have probably never made a better investment of mental effort in my whole life-- many of the poems I "acquired" in this way have been my faithful companions for a twenty years.

Then there are the books we read for sheer pleasure, which are usually old favourites (Wodehouse or Dickens or Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps Flann O'Brien for the Irish), or perhaps even books we are rather ashamed of reading(in my case, biographies-- surely the lowest of all literary forms, merely an upmarket version of a gossip rag).

But our favourite authors don't fit either category. We read them with unfailing delight, and yet also with a sense of spiritual nourishment. It's like eating two tubs of chocolate ice-cream, but getting the benefits of a five-mile walk followed by a salad and carrot juice.

Even more interesting is the phenomenon of authors with followings, or (the term is overused today but really seems to apply here) with cults. Scotland has its Burns cult, Chesterton wrote about Browning Societies, and Matthew Arnold argued with Wordsworthians in one essay about the nature of poetry, before confessing he too was a Wordsworthian. I always remember how the father in Richard Llewellyn's How Green was my Valley read Boswell's Life of Johnson aloud to his family, and Arthur Conan Doyle has an amusing story about a fanatical apostle of the travel writer George Borrow. It is interesting, and I think delightful, that followers of a particular author can become a recognizable type or class, one that we can't help making fun of-- though inevitably with affection. Everybody loves a besotted reader, and though you might hate Joyce you will surely not hate Joyceans.

That's why I'm always pleased when I hear of the existence of a literary society. Quite recently I corresponded with an official of the Irish Byron Society, an organization I never would have suspected of existing. He tried to induce me to come to a meeting, mentioning that they had many more female than male members. I bet they do! I might have taken the bait, too, but I realised that women dreaming of a Byronic lover might find I fell rather short of their ideal...

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