Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Snow. So the kids are off school and the baba is off creche. Therefore, no writing for me. Sob. So I blog.

I've been thinking a lot about the fact that extracts do not do justice to novels. Take Emma Donoghue's Room. I read an extract from it online a few months ago and thought, 'Uck'. I hated the lack of definite articles, hated the child's voice. Then my Book Club decided to read it. And I loved it. It's brilliant. The child's voice is authentic, sweet, clever. The story is tense and harrowing and gave me nightmares, but it is also hopeful and well executed.

I heard Claire Kilroy read from her novel All Summer at Cúirt a few years ago. Again, I thought, 'Not for me.' It sounded stilted and repetitive. Maybe it was her reading style. Anyway, always one to give books a chance, I bought and read it. A great book - well written and enjoyable.

As a reader of my own work, I have found reading from the novel a challenge. You have to pick an extract that will give a flavour of the tone of the book without giving away the plot. You don't want to confuse the audience with too many characters or a disjointed scene. It's hard. Every time, before I read from the novel, I panic as to what bit to read, and how much to read.

Short stories are easy to read from - you just pick one and go for it. Poems are simpler again - you get breathing space between each poem, you can mix up the mood with light and dark, funny and serious. The audience engages easier at poetry readings, I find.

Also, let's face it, some writers are simply not good at reading their own work aloud. Annie Proulx read head down, into the page when I went to see her and she made no effort to involve the audience (she's still a heroine, though.) Then, some writers are utterly convincing. I went to hear Ian McEwan read from On Chesil Beach which I found enjoyable but flawed. He read brilliantly from it - he is a seductive reader of his own work.

I guess I've learnt from all this that novels are wholes as much as short stories are wholes and should be judged only as such. Having said that, I am struggling through a novel everyone raved about and thinking 'Why? Why? Why?' as I shove it to one side to read anything else that comes to hand. Not a good sign. And am I qualified to pass judgement on it if I haven't read the whole thing?


Rachel Fenton said...

Do a potted digest, like they do in the gruniad, up until the bit where you've tailed off (I'm on about the book you're fed up of reading....had both my kids home all day too - got no brain cells left now for full sentence thingies)...hmn..I know thiis may seem contradictory but it's not meant to be, it's about the reader thing...I read a book of poems by a well respected NZ poet - they were wonderful, the sort that have me wanting to push myself harder, but I listened to the poet reading the same poems and I was just scratching my head thinking Oh NO, Why? He was destroying his beautiful words, flattening the syntax out into one duff monotone lack of meaning. So it's a lot to do with the presentation in some ways. But I suppose the best way to test a novel is just to throw yourself into one and be the bawdy one at the dance, you might get your toes stomped on or have no escape from the guy with rotten teeth but you'll have at least had a blooming good dance...hmn...Maybe all novel extracts should be taken from page fifty - something daft like that...imagine the outcome: people'll be polishing their page fifties no end....

Anonymous said...

Agree definitely that extracts don't do entire novels justice. It can be very tricky to find a piece that works as an excerpt, whether printed or read aloud, that is exciting enough in itself to work as a standalone - because that's not how novels work, yet it's what is expected from short pieces.

BarbaraS said...

Just read Room yesterday, on the bus to Dublin and then finished in the hotel last night. Great book.

I agree, I hate hearing extracts from novels, because they don't really give you the way into a novel the way it works when you sit down to read and get involved in it, in your head. I've never heard a novelist read from their book live, apart from your good self, and that was a short story, and I'd already read it, so knew what it was about. Extracts don't really do it for me.

Now, poems...!


Thanks Ladies.
Having said all that, I heard Lorrie Moore read from a NIP and she had the whole audience hanging for more. Brilliant writer and reader of her own work.

Catherine said...

I'm a blogger, and once had a vanity published piece in a book from a memoir course I did - and had to read an extract at the launch . Hard to find a piece that reflects the whole.
I found your blog via the Antiroom which I wandered over to from Twitter. I can agree with you about the extracts from the books you mentioned - our book club did Room last month and I'm writing a review of it for an online Bloggers' Book Club tonight. It was intriguing and I found it convincing - the voice of the child. I love hearing readings from the writers but I prefer when they talk about their experiences. We have a travel writing festival in Lismore (Immrama) and this year Tim Severin read lots of extracts which took from the flow of his talk - in contrast Ranulph Fiennes talked non-stop for 2 hours with apparent effortlessness and had the audience in thrall. So maybe it's personality - Annie Proulx's a great writer - loved The Shipping News - but maybe wooden with readings.
I don't know if your blog's easy to follow - I'll try. Drop by mine if you like, it's a bit of a miscellany.
All the best, Catherine.