The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize is all about shining a light on authors who, for whatever reason, may have fallen off (or never even been on) people’s radars. But it’s not always writers and books that need uncovering – sometimes it’s us, the readers. Sometimes you don’t know what you like until you read it at the right moment. I used to spend most of my bookshop (and reading) time in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ section. These days my tastes have broadened – indeed, I’ve largely migrated to the ‘general fiction’ section – but I don’t feel that my essential preferences have changed. I’ve just gained a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what I like in fiction. Let me talk you through what happened with a few examples.
First, I must tip my hat to a non-fiction title, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy edited by John Clute and John Grant (1997). I found a second-hand copy in my late teens, and its passionate and distinctive take on the subject matter made a deep impression on me. It started to make me think more about how books made me respond and what they were doing, rather than what they necessarily looked like. I found many unfamiliar authors in the Encyclopedia’s pages, one of whom was Christopher Priest, whose 1995 novel The Prestige (which I first read in 2000) became one of the key books that would point towards the reader I am now. The Prestige is about two feuding Victorian stage magicians, each with his own secret; with its various accounts and viewpoints, it has a combination of transforming the reality it describes, and highlighting the gap between that reality and the words on the page. Looking back, I can see that one or the other (or both) of these is at the heart of so many of the books I love.
As the years went by, I started to read beyond strictly fantastic fiction. Gold (2007) by the Fiction Uncovered alumnus Dan Rhodes feels like a significant milestone, because it was one of the first books I’d really enjoyed in which ‘nothing happened’ (I can feel how much my way of thinking has changed even as I put inverted commas around those words). Gold is a novel about a young woman who goes on holiday to rural Wales in the middle of winter, and does little more than go walking and visit the pub. But Rhodes’ book is also layered with its themes, and has some beautiful, unexpected shifts in tone. This was a novel that showed me I didn’t necessarily need fiction to have a plot as such, and that I could appreciate books on the level of language and metaphor, as well as narrative.
By the time I came to read Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child (2012), I knew I had changed as a reader, because I could tell that it would have left me cold just a few years earlier; as things stood, though, I loved it. I think of Hawthorn & Child as an ‘anti-detective’ novel: each chapter features the two titular police officers, but their presence doesn’t bring order to the world; instead, the novel fragments into incoherence – but that very fragmentation is what makes Ridgway’s book work. Hawthorn & Child evoked a similar response in me as did The Prestige, though coming from a very different direction; in a sense, I’d come full circle as a reader.
There were still other paths to travel, though. I could see a kinship now between something like Hawthorn & Child and the kind of fantastic fiction that had always been my reading heartland – but what about books that were working in a very different way, to different ends? I’d never been much of a reader of 19th-century fiction, and I was deliberately trying to push myself into new territory when I picked up Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (1847) a couple of years ago. The tale of a governess and her travails was not something that would instinctively appeal to me; but at that point, I’d come far enough as a reader that I could approach the novel on its own terms and find something in it to appreciate. I may only ever be an occasional visitor to that kind of fiction, but I now know that there’s a place for me there.
Finally, a time I returned to an author I hadn’t previously enjoyed. In 2009, I read Kazuo Ishiguro for the first time: I didn’t really care much for the stories in Nocturnes at all – there was a stiffness to the characters and writing that I couldn’t get along with. Since then, I’ve wondered whether I was missing something, and resolved to read more of Ishiguro in the hope of finding out. So I tried The Remains of the Day (1989) a few years later, and then I began to see – the qualities that had irritated me in Nocturnes started to make sense in the context of the old country house and its butler. Some of this, I don’t doubt, was down to the particular fit of Remains’ subject matter; but certainly I had also become a better reader in the interim.
So now I’ve reached the point where I can find what I like in books that are ostensibly very different from what I usually used to read, and I can appreciate kinds of fiction that I never could at one time. Where next? That’s the beauty of it: I don’t really know. It’ll just take the right book at the right time for a new path to open up, and then…
David Hebblethwaite is a book blogger and reviewer. He has written about books for venues including Fiction Uncovered; We Love This Book; Strange Horizons; and Shiny New Books. He blogs at Follow the Thread. You can also find David on Facebook and as @David_Heb on Twitter.