On the eve of the Man Booker prize, our insatiable appetite for fiction (and fascination with those who create it) comes sharply into focus. According to the Publishers Association, sales of paperback fiction rose by 3% in 2012 to £502 million, while sales of digital novels soared by almost 150%, reaching £172 million. What’s the magic of reading and writing?

Stories have been told for as long as we have been able to speak.  From the epic narratives of the Middle Ages to the latest 3D horror movies, the telling and retelling of stories is an important aspect of being human. The enduring appeal of the novel – which takes the reader into a parallel universe - has been boosted by the advent of digital readers and proved resilient in the face of the multiple distractions that bombard us.  Book groups flourish and creative writing courses have never been so popular. Just why we continue to be gripped by the make-believe is the subject of a panel discussion at the University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 31 October.

We asked four people questions about the reading and writing of fiction. Dr Sarah Burton is the Director of Creative Writing Master of Studies Course, University of Cambridge, a new programme run by the Institute of Continuing Education. Her latest book The Complete and Utter History of the World According to Samuel Stewart Aged 9 (Short Books) was published in September.  Trevor Byrne is author of the novel Ghosts and Lighting (Canongate) and many short stories and essays. He is also co-founder of Hyland & Byrne Editing Firm with author MJ Hyland. Both Byrne and Hyland will be taking part in the Festival of Ideas debate.  Dr Malachi McIntosh is a Fellow of King’s College. He is interested in representations of migrant and minority groups in contemporary Caribbean, British and American literature. Helen Taylor is a literature consultant. Her latest project, ‘Thresholds’, brought leading poets into Cambridge University museums to create new work and inspire young people and the wider community to engage with the collections.

How did reading and writing shape your childhood?

Sarah Burton: My mother taught me to read and write when I was four. She also read all the time, so reading was simply a natural activity. There were lots of books at home and we regularly went to the library. I also had a fantastic godmother who weaned me off Enid Blyton and onto writers like Clive King and Nina Bawden, and I remember the surprise of reading about ‘real’ children, rather than the Famous Five or Secret Seven, who didn’t speak, behave or look like me. Then I discovered Kurt Vonnegut and that revolutionised my idea of what writing could be. Vonnegut’s writing was surprising yet somehow familiar – it had a humanity and an irreverence that had me devouring as many of his books as I could get hold of. It was the first time I recognised and identified with a writer and I think that’s when I started to think that writing was something I wanted to be able to do. At about this time our teacher asked us to write what we thought happened after the end of Watership Down, which we’d been reading in class. My effort filled two exercise books. I’m a better editor these days.

Trevor Byrne: There weren't a lot of books around when I was a kid, but my mother read to my brother and sister and me from what I think were Enid Blyton books, just the same one or two. The only character I remember is a very bold doll ('bold' in the Irish sense – 'naughty', you'd say in England) called Emily Jane. The stories were dull and so my mother added expletive-laden dialogue. Some bleeding heart pixie might say, 'Oh Emily, you're so selfish!' (this would be Blyton's dialogue), to which Emily would reply, 'Ah fuck off, you! Get a life!'

At age 10 or so I stole The Hobbit from school, which was the first book I read on my own. My other great early experience with words was the Fighting Fantasy series of 'choose your own adventure' gamebooks. A few years ago I was in the attic and looked at them again and said, 'Oh, it's all written in second person!' This is what university does to you.

It was about this time I wrote my first story, which borrowed for its cast of characters the Irish national football team, and detailed the squad's adventures trying to reach Italy in time for the 1990 World Cup, as for some reason there were no planes or boats. In the end the Irish proletariat constructed a massive catapult and shot the team across Europe – total deus ex machina ending, that.

Malachi McIntosh: Maybe bizarrely, this is a question I’ve never been asked or asked myself. I suppose I read a fair amount as a child, partly because I was an only child and partly because I spent a good chunk of my childhood in hospitals for one reason or another. Like Sarah’s, my mother was an avid reader and some of my best childhood memories are of her voices for characters from the Chronicles of Narnia. Around age nine or so I discovered comic books and spent the next 13 years living with the hope that I’d suffer some grievous accident that would give me either a superpower or a laser beam someplace.  I started writing around the same time, maybe inspired by the comic books or just following the path of many people who begin reading at a young age.

I wrote my first ‘novel’ at maybe age nine or ten or so, and gave it to a teacher who never gave it back. After that I wrote comic book after comic book, stories mostly filled with superheroes named after randomly selected words from the dictionary like ‘Trilobite’ and ‘Enervate’. My mother was an avid churchgoer and we went to the type of church where everyone contributed something, so I started writing about, speaking about and trying to interpret the Bible as well, an experience that I think served as good preparation for a career of literary analysis and lectures long after I left the church. Writing was then, and still is for me, a way for me to understand my own ideas. Often it’s not until I’ve seen my thoughts take concrete shape that I realise the implications of what I’ve been thinking.

Helen Taylor: As a child, reading was a sanctuary and an escape from the boredom on Sundays and the long hours awake after my sister and I were made to go to bed when it was still light and we could hear life going on outside. We had a few books at home, classics like Anne of Green Gables and Heidi but then like Sarah, I discovered Enid Blyton and the Malory Towers series which led me on to the Narnia books and I became an avid reader. One of the highlights was being allowed to borrow six books from the library when I reached the grand age of 12 and having the safety net of a selection of books to read every week.  Discovering  Alan Garner’ s novels and studying D H Lawrence at school was the gateway to reading more widely and thinking about the actual writing rather than just turning the pages.  A Scottish primary education gave me a love of the act of writing, whether it was summaries of books or crafting stories and essays.

Where does the power of fiction lie?

SB: The power of fiction is released, as I see it, by two processes. First, writers have to recruit or seduce or beguile us into their world – only then do we trust them to take us on this journey. The books we put down after only a few pages have failed to make that connection with us (and different writers, of course, connect with different people). Then there is the journey, and that’s where the power is most obvious. That’s where the reader and writer have made a compact, where a point of view is shared, where common responses are exploited.

TB: Until some neuroscientist cracks it, it's an open question. We're evolutionarily hardwired to look for patterns, for meaning; we crave narrative. This is a hindrance when unchecked but it's also an incredible gift. Fiction brings you to places, emotionally and imaginatively, which you never otherwise would have visited. The psychologist Steven Pinker wondered once that, maybe, fiction is a kind of empathy technology. I like that. In its construction I think fiction is a skilled dreaming, and the story we construct in and from the dream is presented as a subtle thesis: given this set of people and this set of circumstances, this will happen. It's a claim by the writer about the nature of some aspect of humanity, and that's no small thing. The audacity of that is arresting; if you stick with me for the whole story, then it's probably because you agree with me, you think, 'Yeah, that's how it is, you've told me the truth.' And the truth is powerful.

MM: I suspect there are almost certainly as many answers to this question as there are people to answer it. My current favourite answer is the one given by Albert Camus in his book The Rebel [L’Homme revolté]. Camus says that all artwork is a demand for unity, a ‘reconciliation of the unique with the universal’, an imposition of order on our chaotic, closed and very limited experiences of the world. His core idea is that narrative art organises life in such a way that we can reflect on it from a distance, experience it anew and deny the transient nature of the everyday.  Following Camus, I think fiction lets us press pause, rewind, zoom in, zoom out; it creates a space for us to think ourselves and our world in novel ways – to be titillated, frightened, disgusted, amused and surprised – often at ourselves – and meaningfully and distinctly from television or film, have significant control over that experience, to work with the author rather than be worked on by the author.

HT:  Yes, I agree with Malachi and with Camus’s answer.  Someone once said to me that it’s easy to recognise the people who don’t read fiction as their outlook on life is narrower and less imaginative, and they find it hard to put themselves in other people’s shoes. A generalisation, but with elements of truth.  The power of fiction begins with fairy tales, nursery rhymes and picture books  giving children ways of looking at the world and outside themselves.  As we grow up, ‘the compact between reader and writer’, working with the author, is a powerful personal and shared experience, and in recent years a more public experience with the meteoric rise of book groups.   The poet Billy Collins puts it well I think. On reading fiction he says: “I see all of us reading ourselves away from ourselves, straining in circles of light to find more light until the line of words becomes a trail of crumbs that we follow across a page of fresh snow...”

Is it important for readers and writers to read the classics?

SB: What are ‘classics’? It should almost be a human right that people have access to Shakespeare, Hemingway, Golding, etc (and everyone will have their own list, which proves the point that there is no agreed canon). But it won’t kill them if they don’t. As long as high quality fiction is available to them, it needn’t have the endorsement of the literary establishment. The establishment is usually way behind, or narrowly ahead, or talks airily about ‘the common or general reader’, as if these were not the readers who first endorsed the Brontës, Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, etc. There are also truly outstanding writers who time has forgotten, such as Mary E Mann (1848-1929). Her short story Little Brother is just astonishing.

TB: Depending on what kind of book you want to write it might not be important at all, and as a reader you should feel no more pressure to finish Don Quixote than 'Salem's Lot if you don't fancy it 50 pages in. If by 'classics' we mean the Russians, Proust, Hardy etc, then my own reading is patchy. I love Chekhov's stories, but will never finish Sense and Sensibility, even though Austen will soon be on the ten pound note. Martin Amis said that the only way we have of judging the quality of a book is whether it retains a readership. I think that's fair enough, though it's imprecise, as all things literary tend to be (in her answer to the same question, Sarah mentions Mary F Mann, for example – I've never heard of Mary F Mann). Apparently Kazuo Ishiguro hardly read at all growing up, then gobbled some 'classics' like Popeye does spinach and won the Booker in five minutes. But classics come in all kinds, as everyone else has pointed out. 'The Call of Cthulhu', though it's about an extra-terrestrial Great Old One and was written by a troubled weirdo who was an anti-Semite but then married a Jew and ended up shedding his crackpot views, is a classic. So's 'The Lady with the Dog', written by a doctor who spent years writing goofball vignettes for Russian tabloids before he evolved like some literary Pokemon into the best of the best. Both stories move me. Like Lovecraft and Chekhov, like writing itself, nothing is straightforward.

MM: My answer is probably inevitable based on my field of focus – but echoing Sarah, I think important questions are ‘whose classics’ and ‘the classics of which era’? It seems relatively clear that most writers immerse themselves in the ‘classics’ as they are understood at their time and in their place, but Dickens’s classics weren’t Eliot’s classics and Eliot’s classics were likely not David Foster Wallace’s, Shani Mootoo’s or Chinua Achebe’s classics – although there might be some interesting overlaps. It’s always useful, in all fields, to know what people think is good and why – but we should never confuse ‘a’ good with ‘the’ good. The book I would always tell anyone to read is The Life and Times of Michael K – a Booker-winner, but very much hated by some of my colleagues. It’s a classic for me because of what it says to me about loneliness and the difficulty of living against the day; to other people, it’s just a bit boring and the main character doesn’t speak enough.  As Sarah says, we create our own canons.

HT: I agree with both Malachi and Sarah – what classics, whose and which era?  However, one can’t escape from a need for shared references and reading experience.  It can be useful and enjoyable to make connections and know if something is Dickensian, Woolfian, Chandleresque etc, etc.  My children (now grown up) would put the Bible in the classics section. Going to local state schools, they had little Bible education apart from nativity plays, the Easter story and carol singing, which means as adults, a reading of say T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, or Grahame Greene is a shadowy experience.   The ‘classic’ children’s book I would tell children (and adults for that matter) to read would be Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, and for adults, well it changes, at the moment I would say To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, a book I abandoned at 22 years old after the first chapter.

Is some literature better than others – and what makes it better?

SB: Is Heart of Darkness better than Fifty Shades of Grey? Undoubtedly, if you’re looking for a literary masterpiece. But it’s not ‘better’ if you’re looking for a certain sort of escapism. What makes fiction that tends to deserve the title of literary fiction different from other forms of fiction can be pinned down to a certain extent by critical analysis of the literary techniques deployed by the writer. Yet a huge element of its appeal lies in something almost ineffable – the brilliant, original idea; the insight that, once written down, seems the only way to say something.

TB: It's difficult, perhaps impossible, to prove objectively that one book's better than another. Still, I defend my right to say something's bad, and that, if it were treated this way, it could be made better, even just better on its own terms (ie, a better, more engaging, exciting, heartbreaking, swoon-inducing romance than it was in the previous draft). This is the editor in me speaking. All writing can be honed in such a way that the final experience (for the reader) is enhanced, and this fact must say something about the theoretical (if not practical) possibility of stating that this is better than that.

With respect to book versus book (rather than draft versus draft of the same book, which is an argument about the improving power of craft), we now shuffle into the maddeningly bureaucratic headquarters of experiential relativity. Here I leave my science hat at the door: while I can't prove that a single copy of All That Rises Must Converge is a greater gift to the world than a million Mills and Boon books (or that a single Tom Waits more deeply enriches the human condition than a million Justin Biebers), I'm gonna go ahead and say it's so anyway, Mills and Boon (and Bieber) be damned.

MM: I think, too, that we can never stress too much that categories like ‘literary masterpieces’ and even ‘literature’ do not exist independently of their assessors, assessors who are bound in an era and see value in part with that era’s eyes. As Sarah said before, schools – from compulsory education upward – set borders on and mould expectations of what is and isn’t literature, but over time those boundaries break. It’s difficult for me not to recall Thomas Macaulay’s ‘Minute on Indian Education’ of 1835 where Macaulay, a historian and colonial administrator, declared, that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’.  Or recall the many books banned which had to assert their right to be called literature and not pornography, like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. For those reasons, I find it near impossible to make claims that one work is better than another. I can describe what makes it better for me, or why it might be worthwhile to study it, but I think that’s all I can do.

HT:  This is an impossible question for all the reasons Malachi and Sarah give.  It also misses out the experience of reading and how it is different for everyone depending on the time, place, mood, purpose and so on.  Going back to Sarah’s earlier comment about being weaned off Enid Blyton, I’m not sure I agree about ’weaning’ children off particular writers, if children want a staple diet of Famous Five and Harry Potter, that’s fine as long as they have the opportunity of reading a wide range of books throughout their lives and mixing old friends of books with new ones. These opportunities can come through family members, teachers, friends and libraries, who can create the reading landscape and encourage children and adults to look wider and further.

What are you reading now and what will you be reading next?

SB: I am currently reading my own latest book, as it has only just been published and I am still learning to love it as a real, physical hardback I can hold in my hand and admire from a variety of angles (and also because it is so utterly hilarious). Unfortunately, that only takes about an hour, so I’m having to read and reread books we have chosen for the reading list for our first cohort of students on the MSt in Creative Writing. That, in itself, is a huge, unmitigated treat. Both Michael Holroyd and Wendy Cope are coming to talk to our students this week and it’s been a sheer delight to have a reason to revisit their earlier work and discover their more recent writings.

TB: I just finished Abominable Science! by Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton, which is a great sceptical look at the mad, fascinating world of cryptozoology. For the past couple of months I've been slowly working my way through the mammoth Collected Poetry of Ted Hughes (I'm an atheist, but that tome gives me some understanding of what a holy book might feel like to a believer). I go through phases, sometimes months at a time, when I don't feel like reading fiction at all, and instead read nonfiction and watch lots of documentaries, and I'm just now beginning to emerge from such a phase. I'd intended to read The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, by Adrienne Mayor, but instead, next up will be Donald Ray Pollock's tough, sad, funny and just plain great story collection Knockemstiff, which I've already read, but found myself flicking through again this morning, before I got back to work on a story of my own. I'm hooked all over again.

MM: I’ve just started Sunetra Gupta’s Memories of Rain for a paper I’m working on. It tells the story of a very young Indian woman who marries a British man, is almost immediately betrayed by him but remains faithful. So far, it’s excellent; its stream-of-consciousness style fuses and mutates sentences and slides in and out of perspectives in a way that really propels me through it. I’ll also be doing a fair bit of re-reading in the coming weeks in preparation for the start of term. The text I’m most looking forward to going through again is Zadie Smith’s NW, a book whose central section, on the character Natalie, was, for me, like reading a mirror.

HT:  I’ve just finished Stoner  ‘the undiscovered masterpiece’ because I felt I ought to read it.  Not a good feeling to begin a book with.  I’m half way through re-reading The Leopard by Giuseppe de Lampedusa because I’ve just come back from Italy and wanted to recapture the wonder I felt when I first read it in my 20s. I’m also re-reading a lot of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, “I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing”, and his Oxford lectures The Government of the Tongue.   I’m looking forward to starting NW because I like Zadie Smith’s style of writing and the latest Donna Leon just because it’s set in Venice which I know well; I enjoy her plots, I like the main character and also local detail which walks me through the city as I read.

Inset images from top: TooFarNorth (N), Gwydion M. Williams (Hobbit), Ann Bowler Calton, The Royal Freemasons’ School for Female Children (O), John Shepherd (Camus), TooFarNorth (V), Gabriel (Dickens), TooFarNorth (E), Jvoves (books), dumbledad (L), Chris Drumm (Heaney)

For more information about this story contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, amb206@admin.cam.ac.uk 01223 761673

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