Wednesday, October 12, 2011


The New Zealand writer Joy Cowley remarks in her recent memoir “Navigation” that the way to teach children to read and write was through story, and that the best way to do that was for them to read stories featuring them as the main characters.

Writers, if they have children and grandchildren, have a captive audience. My small people learned from an early age that a flexible rectangular parcel amongst their birthday presents or under the Christmas tree contained another story book. Usually that book was about them in all sorts of adventures. They bounced so high on trampolines that they landed on a cloud and found themselves talking to birds. They cycled to a nearby park and were accosted by a grumpy beetle and serenaded by singing tomatoes. They were woken by a blue moon and got out of bed to watch chairs dancing in the moonlit garden.

On their birthdays they opened cards which were home-made and contained poems or stories that were about them and their world. One Valentine's Day the postman brought them a large envelope with a card showing a huge red heart with the story of St Valentine written inside it.

The books and cards were modest, simple things, made with love. They were written or typed on coloured paper and the books were sewn together at the spines with wool or Christmas string. The illustrations were often of the kind that they might have done themselves. Stick figures for example, drawn with crayons or felt-tip pens, houses with two windows, a door, a wobbly path and curly smoke coming out of the chimney. Dogs that were all eyes, tail and teeth. Sometimes there were collages, put together with shiny coloured paper shapes cut from magazines.

Those books and cards, poems and stories were joyfully received, and sometimes taken to school to show the teacher. My small people are not so small now, and have probably forgotten those book and cards and stories. But they can read really, really well.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


There must be something in the coffee – or the earthquakes have shaken up the neurons in my brain as well as the stonework of my house, but I have had an epiphany. Another one, following closely after the one about new literary personas. (I'm still trying on Lavinia's over-stated hats and TraCee's skimpy skirts and have yet to decide which way to go.)

Anyway, it has dawned on me that sometimes we writers might struggle down the wrong track, literarily speaking. That is, the wrong track for us. Those who have grown up with books acquire knowledge, taste and discernment. When we start writing, we probably aim towards the high end of the field, because that is the ultimate goal – to be a good writer. Even if we read all kinds of books and enjoy them for what they are, when we write, I suspect that we try to write at a level, or in a genre, that doesn't suit us. And that probably makes us tense and anxious.

I must have read thousands of books since I learned to read at age four or so. As well, I've been a book reviewer for forty years. That must be close to a thousand books which I have read and commented on as a professional. I know what I like – but that doesn't affect my published opinions of a given book, because there is a difference between "I like it" (or not) and "this is good" (or not). Yes, I know that my opinion of what's good or bad can differ from someone else's, but that's another matter.

What I like is mostly personal and subjective. When I read for myself, for pleasure, I enjoy books that range from literary to pot-boiler. I automatically adjust my taste buds to suit the genre, the style and the content. I ask only to be entertained, and that the authors don't infuriate me in some way, specially by lapses in the internal logic of the work.

I have preferences within genres. For example, with detective stories I would rather read Agatha Christie than Ngaio Marsh, not because she is a better writer (she isn't) but because she is a better plotter, and because Ngaio Marsh's style can seem fairly stuffy by comparison. For thrillers I would rather read Dan Brown and Lee Child, who write novels which fairly gallop along, before John le Carre, who can be heavy going but worthy in the long run.

So, as writers, the first thing we should probably do is to sort out what kind of book we would be comfortable and happy writing. And that may not be the kind of book that we admire from afar, and that attracts critical approval. It is more likely that it should be the kind of book that we want to curl up in an armchair with and find satisfying. To both read and to write.