Earlier this week Frank Wilson found a post by British blogger Mark Meynell in which he claims frustration with the shelf talkers at a bookstore chain. The cards ask staffers to finish the sentence, “This book made me feel…,” but feeling has only so much to do with it:
It seems to me that our whole approach to life, from primary school up, is based on emotional response. Probably because we’ve given up on the possibility of truth—not necessarily out of a partisan, ideological antagonism (although that’s true of some). More because of a despair at previous failed attempts. As a result in western culture, we learn to feel, we don’t learn to think.
In response, Meynell has written “20 Questions to Ask of Novels,” though this seems to veer too far in the other direction, favoring a clinical analysis of the book’s plot mechanics, themes, and reasons for existing. (A handful of questions also prompt the reader to ask about the Christian aspects of the book, which is only going to be useful for so many novels, and the wrong filter for most of them.) I cringe a little reading it, the way I usually do whenever I scan the questions in the “reading group guide” stuffed in many paperbacks. Is a book’s ending “escapism…or gritty, unresolved realism?” goes one question, as if I only had two possible responses. “If evil is a reality, how does it get portrayed?” Er, realistically?
I don’t mean to mock or dismiss Meynell’s project, because by and large the questions are worth asking. And he’s right to be skeptical about how so much casual book commentary celebrates how “relatable” a book is—how much a book evokes something I’ve personally experienced. (I still resist writing about my personal experiences in any review I write, and I reflexively think less of any review that starts with a personal anecdote. Some can make it work, but most can’t.)
The grating part of the list of questions that no open-minded reader ought to look at a book so programatically, and a set of particular questions won’t be relevant to all books. As Wilson points out, “The questions posed here may lurk somewhere in the back of my mind when I read a novel, but certainly not consciously. I just pick up the book and start reading.” For a critic as much as any other reader, the book has to deliver some kind of pleasure—the critic just more spends more time sorting out why the book succeeded at that (or didn’t). And though the answers might touch on “Scale,” “Narration,” “Development,” it’s rarely so simple.