Interview with a hostile reader

In Books
April 7, 2010

So, while I was writing The Lessons, I tormented myself by imagining all the horrible things that reviewers would say about it. Sometimes I even wrote down a line or two, just to get them out of my head. And a couple of days ago my friend Robin sent me this, written by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project who apparently does the same thing! Her solution was to conduct an interview with an imaginary hostile reader, the reader who would ask all the most horrible questions, so she could answer them! And this struck me as so brilliant, I have done one for myself. And it was really fun, and beautifully empowering. Bring it on, hostile reader:


So are you gay, or what?

I can see why you ask but no, I’m not. I’m basically heterosexual. Have occasionally been known to fancy girls but mostly fancy blokes, only ever fallen in love with blokes. I’ve just broken up with someone, actually, so if you happen to know any interesting/good-looking/articulate/vaguely-feminist-but-not-through-self-loathing men…

Why all the gayness in your novels then?

Well. OK. I have asked myself this too. Because it hasn’t come from a conscious thought-process, but has been a subject that I’ve been drawn to. So I’ve had to work out why for myself.

So, here’s my thought about why: I grew up in a frankly fundamentalist religion. There are many fine things about that religion but it is not a great place when it comes to talking about or experiencing sexual desire, especially as a woman. I had a pretty 1950s (or earlier, maybe 1890s)-style education about desire growing up which was basically: pick a husband based on his good character traits, and don’t think about sex until you’re engaged, and don’t do it till you’re married. Which is fine if that’s what you want. I have friends for whom it worked very well.

I found it, in that way, quite crushing however. I wanted to be able to fancy men, but felt that with the education I’d had that wasn’t even allowed. In a way, my experience of my heterosexual desire was of a ‘love that dare not speak its name’. I would never ever want to suggest that my experience was *anything like* the historically appalling experiences which many gay and lesbian men and women have had to go through. But I felt a kinship with the idea of not even being able to experience your own desire without a degree of guilt and fear.

This has all been done before, hasn’t it? Oxford glamour, decadence, drugs, sex, tragedy… there’s Brideshead Revisited, The Secret History, The Line of Beauty… this novel is pretty derivative.

Well. On the one hand, yes, I did not pick a subject for this book which had never been treated before in fiction. For my first novel I kind of did, but that’s because that was the subject which presented itself to me and about which I had something to say. I don’t think there’s anything much wrong with writing a novel ‘in a tradition’. As long as you try to write a good novel, that is. There are a fair few novels out there about the Tudors, but Wolf Hall is still a masterpiece. On the other hand, I hope I did something a bit new with this subject. It addresses my particular concerns, and my particular generation, I hope. So yes, it is a novel with antecedents… I didn’t go looking for ‘the next Orthodox Jewish lesbians”!

The Catholicism in this book feels tacked-on; like you haven’t really got to grips with the religion as you did with Judaism.

You know, in a way I feel that’s fair comment although it’s a pretty harsh way to put it! But yes, I couldn’t claim to know Catholicism as well as I know Judaism. I did a lot of reading, I spoke to a lot of people but… unlike Disobedience, this isn’t really a novel *about* the religion – that novel isn’t mine to write, really. Even though I had flashes of genuine understanding, I would agree that Catholicism still seems far away from me in a way that Judaism, and even atheism, do not.

Don’t you think you’ve just essentially written the same book twice? The love triangles, the weird controlling relationships, the concerns about sexuality, faith and the tremendous difficulty of overcoming a bad education?

Yeah. I’m very aware of the similarities between the two novels actually (I felt it especially at the end of chapter 11 of Disobedience and the final scene between James and Jess in The Lessons. In a way I hope that this is OK. Novelists I think have emotional veins that they mine. Sometimes the same story worrying away at them over and over throughout their career. Perhaps I’ve managed to make these stories seem sufficiently different that people won’t mind the similar emotional palette.

This is a pretty miserable book, isn’t it?

Yes mum, it is. Well. In a way it is. Some sad things happen in it. Having said that. I feel like it’s hopeful at the end, actually. And quite a jolly romp at times. What can I say: I think some people are self-destructive, do go through years and sometimes decades of destroying their own lives. It was something I wanted to think about and explore. If, for you, a novel has to be light and cheery the whole way through, this is not the book for you!

Why on earth would anyone want to read a novel about a bunch of over-privileged over-educated youths drinking and taking drugs?

Hey, it’s the kind of novel *I* like to read! But there are plenty of novels out there. If books about different kinds of people to this float your boat, go for it. No novel is ever going to please everyone.

If you’re asking why *I’m* interested in this subject, the answer I think is that… many of us go through our lives thinking that our problems would be solved if we had a lot of money. We spend our lives chasing money, stressing about money. But I’m interested in exploring what might happen to a person if money were no longer an issue in their life. It’s a thought experiment, like imagining human life without sex or religion or food. Take something away, see what happens. I don’t think I’m in any way suggesting that what happens is great, or that my over-privileged characters are admirable. Even they don’t suggest that.

Why isn’t this book as lyrical as Disobedience? The writing doesn’t have those loops and swirls to it.

Different subjects demand different writing styles. Disobedience is a novel about personal religious faith, a trembling and fragile subject. And it’s a novel about people who live within the bounds of the Old Testament, so a biblical style is appropriate. The Lessons is a novel about students drinking, taking drugs and shagging each other. It felt to me that it needed a more immediate, raw style. But I hope the writing in it is still enjoyable to read.

Why have you written a novel that’s so different to Disobedience? Don’t you feel that you’ve stepped out of your area of expertise – Orthodox Judaism – and now you don’t have anything original to say?

What can I say except: this was my actual life? Orthodox Judaism and then Oxford. I don’t think I’m less entitled to write about Oxford because I didn’t grow up Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I don’t think my take on that experience is less valid because of that, or indeed less valid because I didn’t write a Jewish Oxford novel. There may well be a Jewish Oxford novel to be written, but this is a novel about the mythology of Oxford, the ways in which its beauty and glamour can twist and distort perceptions, emotions, experiences. Also, you know, if George Eliot and Charles Dickens got to write novels about Jews, surely I’m allowed to write novels about people who aren’t Jewish!

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