Sunday, 8 July 2007

Bringing Ishiguro to the Masses

While helping out at the school book fair recently, I was surprised at the number of children who bought books they could easily have checked out at the library. I mentioned this to another mother who was helping out, but my American accent must have gotten in the way because she misunderstood me. "I like buying books!" she said, giving me a rather supercilious look. "I buy books all the time, and I'm never happier than when I'm reading a good book!"

I assured her that she had misunderstood me. That I too read books, getting through several a week, but tended to buy only the ones I couldn't find in the library. We then got to talking about our favorite authors and she told me that hers were three very prolific writers -- two Americans and one Briton -- whose names I will not note here because I am a weenie and I do not want to be sued.

Now I'm really not a book snob. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've never read Proust and I find Faulkner a little tiresome. That Henry James gives me a headache (didn't he ever learn how to do paragraphs?) and I am out-and-out bored by John Milton. If I was really a book snob I would hide all those facts from you instead of admitting to them freely and openly. But when this woman mentioned those three particular writers, all of a sudden I felt like an elitist. Because here is the embarrassing truth: I have read the books of all three of these writers and although I blush to admit it, I have pretensions to do better.

I don't deny that these people can write. I don't deny that they can come up with interesting plots, snappy dialogue, and endings that satisfy their readers time after time. I am fully aware that they've done what I have singularly failed to do: honed their craft, marketed their work, and built up a huge readership. I honestly have no illusions about how hard it is to achieve even part of what they have achieved; I am just stubbornly convinced that if I try hard enough and am endlessly patient, I will be able to achieve something more. Something better. I am convinced that my characters won't be so one-sidedly good or bad, their romances will be more believable, and their lifestyles less unrealistically rich-and-famous. (Yeah, I already know: they'll go over like lead balloons, won't they?)

Do I really have it in me to be a better writer than these incredibly successful, bestselling writers? Am I just full of sour grapes because, while lusting after even an iota of their commercial success, I have the sense to know that I will never have one tiny scrap of their selling potential? Who knows? It doesn't even matter: I have this guilty ambition, and I might as well admit it.

I didn't say all that to my fellow book fair helper of course. I just acknowledged that I knew the authors she liked and had read their books too. And I swear to God, I wasn't the least bit snooty about it.

"So who are your favorite authors?" she then asked me. I told her that I liked Kazuo Ishiguro. She stared at me for a few seconds. "Never heard of her," she said flatly. I told her that Ishiguro was a man, that his novel Remains of the Day had been made into a successful film starring Anthony Hopkins, (she'd heard of him), but she commented rather dismissively "I don't read foreign writers."

This needled me. I happen to come from a long line of teachers and missionaries, people who had it in their DNA to try to reach the ignorant and bring The Truth to them, a quality I have inherited in spades, so I told her that Kazuo Ishiguro had lived in the U.K. since he was four, was as fluent in English as it is humanly possible to be, and almost certainly a naturalized British citizen. I said this very politely and I didn't bother to tell her that Ishiguro can write English 500 times better than any of her favorite authors, but my words cut no ice with her. So I got a little mean. I pointed out -- gently! -- that two of her favorite authors were actually Americans, i.e. foreigners, and yet that didn't take away from her reading pleasure, did it?

To this day the woman shies away from me on the street.


Eryl Shields said...

Good for you Mary, people rarely like having their assumptions challenged but it has to be done. Sounds like you were kind and subtle and got your point across. Perhaps once she's got over the shock she will try other writers.

I have Remains of the Day on my shelves but haven't got round to reading it yet. I never get the chance to read for my own enjoyment these days but once my dissertation is over I have about sixty books to choose from that I have picked up in charity shops over the past year. I have a mental list of books and authors I want to read and when I spot them, even though I don't have time to read them, I can't help bringing them home.

Paul said...

Hats off to you, Mary, for trying to widen her perspective. But at least she reads SOMETHING, which is more than can be said for the majority of the population (especially us males!). But don't get me started on THAT . . . !

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- You really have to read Remains of the Day! That is his best book in my opinion, and incidentally probably the finest I have ever read. Charity shops are great for books! The Oxfam shop in our town almost always has a 2 for 1 special deal on, and I go there as often as I can. You'll have great fun when your dissertation is complete! When I finished graduate school, I checked out eight books at the library and worked my way through the lot. Then I went out and did the same again twice. Sheer heaven.

Paul -- I still feel like a heel for being so zealous, and I know that this woman must think I'm a book snob. And you are right that she is to be commended for reading at all, but because I read all sorts of books and try occasionally to read ones that are out of my general sphere of interest, I can't help wishing that others would do the same. People who don't remind me too much of kids who turn their nose up at food they've never tasted.

Carole said...

I also use the library continuously. I can't afford to buy books on a regular basis, but always feel a bit guilty, like I am cheating the author when I pull a book off the shelf at the library. After all when I get published, I will want people to buy my books. You don't sound like a book snob at all. You sound like you have a vision of what kind of writer you want to be. That seems completely different than being a snob. There are brilliant, good, mediocre, and poor writers in every genre. If you don't satisfy yourself in your writing, there seems to be no use to do it.

As to your "friend" who doesn't read foreign writers, she reminds me of the old adage by Mark Twain,"It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

Mary Witzl said...

Carole -- I love Mark Twain and all of his wonderful sayings, but as for opening my mouth and removing all doubt that I am a fool, I do this all the time. I NEVER learn! Worse still, when I do it, I know better, but it is as if I cannot help myself.

I had a pretty good idea that my fellow book fair helper was not going to be convinced by what I said, but damned if I could keep myself from saying it.

Eryl Shields said...

Remains of the day has gone to the top of the list.

Brian said...

I stay away from book fairs, mostly (even though they are cheap) because of penury , but also because of lack of space. Luckily my children make up for it-- and I can wade through their many purchases,

Now my snobbery comes out . After a lifetime of reading , of lecturing in literature, I have allowed the internet to take over my time. I still get to the Library , but when I borrow , it has to be a book with something very different and very new in style , structure or content.

The latter is not all that hard to find,but for the first two requirements I have been outrageously spoiled by past reading.

Much the same alas has occurred with my live theatre going

Oh well -- I take consolation in Chaucer's dictum, applicable in so many ways to both writer and reader --* The life so short , the craft so long to learn *


Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- Good! I will be interested to hear what you think of it.

Brian -- Mind you, Chaucer did pretty well in only fifty-seven years!

When people say you can't take it with you, I know I won't regret leaving behind money and worldly goods, but it does seem hard to lose those skills I've spent so much time acquiring. It hardly seems fair to invest decades in learning so many useful things, only to lose it all when we die. I like to tell myself that when I come back, it'll all be that much easier to pick up again. But who knows?

Kim Ayres said...

I've read a few of the classics to my kids - Peter Pan - The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe - for example - and I was appalled at some of the writing. Seriously crap. The films and adaptations were considerably better.

Could I be a better writer? Probably not - I doubt I'm capable of writing a complete novel, but I sometimes think I'd beat these authors in a 300 word blog entry.

Carolie said...

I love it! Perhaps you will become one of the rarest of birds...a fine writer who is also popular with "the masses." (And then I will struggle not to frame and display the comments you've left on my site...ha ha!)

Both my husband and I are avid readers, and it's very difficult here with a very limited English language library. We're not looking for "the classics" necessarily, just a steady supply of reading material! I'm afraid we both spend FAR too much ordering books, but I don't begrudge him the stack he carries with him on deployment in the least. I try to ship him more when possible, to feed the need. I'm just so grateful that Internet booksellers will ship to us!

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- It is interesting to see how dated the language in some classics has become, but I have to disagree with you about the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's dated, sure, and yet it is still great; when I re-read it a few years ago, I felt the same frisson I remember getting from reading it the first time. But don't get me started on Enid Blyton, whose prose sounds terribly stilted -- and racist to boot! And yet weirdly enough, even my kids have read Enid Blyton and enjoyed her. So she must be doing something right, and how dare I criticize her when I have yet to publish my middle-grade book?

Carolie -- Thank you once again for your kind words. I try not to let myself get too hopeful (agents help me out in this by rejecting my work repeatedly), and I know that my chances of writing something that can be read and appreciated by a diverse group of people are pretty slim. But I tell myself that if I come out of the closet with this guilty ambition, it will force me to try and make my nebulous dreams come true.

When we were in Japan, we ordered books through a remainders catalogue. We also splurged once a year at Kinokuniya Bookstore, traded avidly with friends, and cultivated the habit of reading everything we had two or three times. I can read Japanese (albeit very slowly) and I got better at it when deprived of books in English, but coming back to an English-speaking country with unlimited books at the library was sheer heaven.

Kanani said...

Well, Ishiguro is already in the masses, as his books are regularly sold at Costco. You don't get much more mass market than that!

I loved Remains, but couldn't finish his last book.

There are lots of books I haven't read either --many of them in the popular fiction genre, which mostly I find repetitive and based on some movie that I saw 24 years ago!

I do find that lady's comment on "not reading foreign authors" to be quite mystifying. I'd of asked her "Why not?"

Kanani said...

I loved Remains, yet didn't love his most recent book.
Ishiguro is one of Britain's most talented writers. But it's odd how many people might have seen the movie, but never realized that it was written by Ishiguro.

Mary Witzl said...

Kanani -- I am comforted by the idea of Ishiguro's novels at Costco! But that tells me that my mission is here, where I am needed. As for asking the woman why she didn't read foreign writers, she said it with such finality that I didn't bother, wanting to spare myself a xenophobic rant.

Remains of the Day is my favorite of his books, but I would still rather read one of his worst than one of those formulaic romances my fellow book fair helper was so fond of. The library in our town is full of those books, so obviously they are popular. I would not mind that in the least, but when one of my kids recently wanted to check out R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island, they did not have it. And this is Scotland!

I think you said the same thing happened when you tried to find Steinback in your library, so I know that it isn't only a problem here, but it is still frustrating.

Sue Millard said...

At least your lady did read something. People are odd - so many will assume that if you are a writer you make loads of money, yet they'll happily not buy your book or they'll even say they never buy books. Something wrong there ...

Mary Witzl said...

Sue -- Well, the coffers of Danielle Steel, Jilly Cooper, and Catherine Cookson (or those of their estates, if they are no longer with us) will do very well from my book fair friend.

I'm really not that bad a book snob. I read all sorts of trash sometimes, when I can't get anything else -- or sometimes when I just feel like reading it. And it wasn't her ignorance of Kazuo Ishiguro that bugged me: it was the fact that she didn't WANT to know about his books because he was 'foreign.' Brrrrr!

Sue Millard said...

Well, having not read any of Ishiguro's work I went off and bought "The Remains of the Day". So you have made a useful contribution, Mary! Thank you!

I can see why you like him; it's a very cleverly written work and Mr Stevens speaks in an even longer, and more roundabout way than you like to use yourself. Fascinating example of seeing someone through others' eyes, yet through one character's writing.

(Of course, the cause of poor Mr Stevens' problems is very evident in the fact that he never once mentions his mother.)

Mary Witzl said...

I wondered about his mother too. You get the feeling that she was either not much of a feature or she died early. I'd like to think that if she'd lived, she would have set Stevens straight, but who knows?

One of the reasons I love this book so much is because I can see the obvious comparison between a butler who devotes his life to an employer and offers him absolute allegiance and the loyal followers of an emperor who are taught not to think critically but to blindly follow. Plus, Ishiguro's writing is so beautiful, and he describes his characters with such loving tenderness that it is just heartbreaking. And you could not find a better, more fitting title.

Yes: given my own fondness for long, drawn out descriptions and circuitous prose, no wonder I love this writing. But reading Remains of the Day, I was never even remotely bored.

Phil said...

Nothing wrong in knowing what you like and don't like, Mary. I can't get on with most trashy stuff - but I am partial to the odd Steve King - does that count as trash. I like Ishiguro but think The Remains of the Day is much better than the others I've read.

As far as buying books goes - it's my one luxury. I avoid the library as I have a pathological desire to own most of what I read. I've been known to read a library book and then go out and buy it!


Mary Witzl said...

Good for you, Phil. I've done the same thing myself: I've liked a book that I've borrowed so well that I've gone out and bought my own copy. We used to do this much more than we do now; our bookshelves are full and we're beginning to stack books on the floor.

I agree about Remains of the Day: I think that's Ishiguro's finest novel. And I would never classify Stephen King as a writer of junk: his characters and his plots are complex and interesting.