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A selection of walks in literary landscapes – bring your compass

Where I'm Reading FromHaving been totally gathered up and engaged by Tim Parks wonderful The Novel: A Survival Skill, which re-examines an aspect of literary criticism which became heavily frowned on, in academic circles ‘The Biographical Fallacy’, I was keen to proceed further with Parks’ reflections on literature, its practice, its audience, and the community who consume it.

The more recently published ‘The Novel’ takes the central idea of a relationship between the writer, their family dynamics and the kind of characters, relationships and unconscious psychological beliefs the writer and their works will inhabit, The Novel explores this in depth, looking at a body of work by four authors – Dickens, Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence – and assessing them through a systemic psychology lens. Parks is also open enough to explore his own writing through this lens

This earlier book contains shorter essays, some little more than a page or so of reflections, on various other topics, though the systemic psychology approach is one of the topics under discussion, and in some ways, I found the overarching explanation of this further clarified my reading of that more detailed book on this topic :

It’s a central tenet of systemic psychology that each personality develops in the force field of a community of origin, usually a family, seeking his or her own position in a pre-existing group, or ‘system’, most likely made up of mother, father, brothers and sisters, then aunts, uncles, grandparents and so on. The leading Italian psychologist, Valeria Ugazio further suggests that this family ‘system’ also has ‘semantic content’; that is, as conversations in the family establish criteria for praise and criticism of family members and non-members, one particular theme or issue will dominate

Where all this proved an exciting idea for me as a passionate reader of literature, is that of course the playing out of a particular theme in family dynamics can also explain the authors and their writing that we ‘gel’ with, the voices which resonate with authenticity for us (assuming of course that the writer has some mastery of the tools of their trade) Readers themselves come from family systems with semantic content!


In “Where I’m Reading From” Pears looks at other considerations around writing. He is particularly interesting in examining how the increased globalisation and world-wide marketing of books, from the off, is leading to a flat-lining, and uniformity of writing and subject matter. Authors, agents, publishers in search of the greatest sales will search (consciously or unconsciously) for what is going to easily translate globally. Writing, in any language, which relies on nuance and local, regional variation will be far less easy to translate with retention of the rhythms and subtlety of the original language than writing which is less subtle and more direct.

What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the sort of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives

Obviously there will always be anomalies to disprove any trend (the 2015 Booker prizewinner might be cited)

Pears has lived in Italy since 1981, and is also a translator and teaches translating, so illustrates some of these ideas by reference to the kind of writing which is more, or less, likely to be attractive ‘world-wide’. There is a tendency for books which are deemed to be able to ‘go global’ to have foreign rights and translations already on the table by the time the book is published in its original language. And he is persuasive about the way this influences writers.

There is a tendency (and I know as a reader I also look for it) – to find what is ‘universal’ in a book, a kind of recognition of global common humanity, across place and time. Pears argues around this consideration, and others, debating concepts which we may not have thought about :

what if the quality of some fine works of art lies exactly in their relationship with the local and the contemporary, with the life that it has been given to them to experience here and now?

All this reminded me of those crude ‘marketing ideas’ which had various well known authors attempting different takes on Jane Austen’s well-loved books – which, after all, are about much more than story. Austen famously focused on her ‘little bit of ivory, two inches wide’ and rooted her work in her time, her place. Pears made me think about how translation must always be challenging, as semantic style will have nuances for native speakers of any language which cannot adequately be conveyed :

Style, then, involves a meeting between arrangements inside the prose and expectations outside it. You can’t have a strong style without a community of readers able to recognise and appreciate its departures from the common usages they know

He is pretty scathing about the whole modern writing ‘industry’ and examines the tensions which are inevitable between the writer’s need to make a living (which they might wish to do from their creative craft) and what happens when the whole focus, and the sense of ‘self-worth’ for the writer IS geared to getting published, getting sales, getting world-wide rights. Who is the most successful writer – is it the blockbuster author with film rights, is it someone who has hit the pulse of the whatever-is-on-trend or is it the writer with a drawer full of rejections, but nevertheless working slowly, refining their particular unique voice, improving their craft. And then of course, there is the dreaded ‘writer’s block’ :

One of the problems of seeing creative writing as a career is that careers are things you go on with till retirement. The fact that creativity may not be coextensive with one’s whole working life is not admitted

Unlike “The Novel” which explores the journey of a particular idea deep, broad and wide, “Where I’m Reading From” is like a delicious book of possible literary journeys. The reader can take almost any chapter, embark on the reflections Parks offer us, and find useful rumination for days.Tim Parks from Guardian

I’ve barely scratched at the surface, and it is no doubt a book I shall come back to, picking up certain thought-journeys and running along with the route Parks opens out. He is suggesting possibilities, not closing things down, topic done and dusted. Interestingly offering discussion.

Where I’m Reading From Amazon UK
Where I’m Reading From Amazon USA