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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: Pick up a book – and be ready to fight

Great writers stake out a battlefield you can’t simply slink away from. Some wars insist on being fought

Awarding the Man Booker International Prize to Philip Roth last week, the chairman of the judges, Rick Gekoski, gave a wonderfully barnstorming appraisal of Roth which took on, without apology, all the complaints usually levelled at that great writer, turning what some call failures into successes, showing how difficulties can be pleasures, making a virtue of exasperation.

"When you read Roth," he said, "you cannot only feel under attack, you want to fight back. I can recall few of his novels that don't provoke an occasional but overwhelming desire to shout 'Will you shut up' at a character or his author... How often, reading him, do we pause for breath, put the book down, pace about, sit down, chuck a pail of water over our heads?"

Chuck a pail of water, I would add, over Philip Roth, were he only in the room. "Get out of my head, Mr Roth," has often been my own response. "Go drive someone else crazy." I can't read everything he writes. I need a break. But even those novels I don't read I admire. I know they're there. I feel them nagging at the edges of my consciousness, wording me, disturbing the air around me. You can read without actually reading. You can ingest the words by some other means. This is not an argument for not reading at all, but it is an argument for varying the way one does it. It isn't just about the obedient turning of pages.

It strikes me that reading has grown supine and masochistic. I don't make that judgement from on high. By their own admission, by what they say on Amazon and in reading groups, by the come-ons that appear on book jackets, readers seem to want nothing more than to submit to the familiar allure of the writers they like best – hence the success of the serial novel: The Girl Who etc – and, the minute they see a fight coming from a quarter that is threatening, withdraw.

"I couldn't put it down," you will hear a reader say of a novel which, if I had written it, I would consider in that case to have failed. "A page-turner" has become one of the highest terms of praise, as though the mere act of turning is itself a compliment to the writer and a validation of the act of reading him.

For God's sake put it down, I say. Stop turning. Pause for breath, pace about, expostulate, go fetch the bucket. In Rick Gekoski's words, "fight back". It's that idea of reciprocity, of fighting your own corner, that's important. You can be bored into rage by a novel and not want to go on. You can be infuriated by its predictability or would-be cleverness and fairly decide you've simply had enough. Whereas the great writers empower you somehow even as you resist. They stake out a battlefield you know you can't simply slink away from. Some wars insist on being fought. And it's because what Roth writes about is important – that is to say he makes it important – that you have to take him on.

This, anyway, is the alternative to that other terrain of faint-heartedness where readerly sollipsism rules, where a novel that asks too much, that isn't immediately clear, that doesn't flatter and please, doesn't invite instant sympathies, doesn't think what you think, isn't at the beck and call of the vagaries of your constitution, nervous system and attention span, is called a failure. Whereas, reader, as we know, it is sometimes we who are the failures.

How to balance the need to think for ourselves with the need to put ourselves aside? "I want to hear what you think," I would say to students in my teaching days, disheartened by their regurgitations of accepted views. But the minute they told me they found Jane Austen "boring" or George Eliot "long-winded" I had no choice but to reprimand them for merely voicing their own limitations. Because what they hadn't done was enter into those complex and often wearing hostilities with a writer in the course of which the voices of both parties to the experience of reading – the writer's and the reader's – come to enjoy that fraught if brief equilibrium without which true judgement is impossible.

If I am right about this then there is much to fear from a new initiative which on the face of it is no more than an attempt to save the printed book from the march of electronic publishing. The idea is that the writer, rather than approach a publisher with an idea for a book, will go directly to its potential readers, pitching it online, and if enough people like the sound of it and are prepared to pledge say, 10 quid a head, then it's a goer.

Recognise this? Precisely. It's a focus group by another name.

In a column this week, John Walsh had fun imagining how some of the great works of literature of the past would have fared under this system. "Well it's an allegorical epic poem in three parts about my encounters with people in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, drawing on medieval Christian theology and Thomist philosophy." Funny, and then, like all good jokes, not funny at all. Because we know damn well that had the focus group been in operation in 13th/14th-century Florence, and had readers read then as timidly as they read now, The Divine Comedy would not have found a single taker, except perhaps for Dante's mother and Beatrice Portinari.

It's true there have been times in history when literature has gone cap-in-hand to patronage and subscription. Johnson's famous letter to Lord Chesterfield – "Is not a patron, my lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help?" – testifies to the bitterness he felt writing his Dictionary without the promised patronage. But if this new scheme were to be a model for how novels and poetry are to be introduced to the public, then that's poetry and novels down the sink, firstly because you can't describe a novel or poem before you've written it, and secondly because it plays into the very nervousness we've been discussing, enticing readers with what they know they like, instead of surprising them, through the experience of a different kind of reading, into engaging with something else entirely.

Yes, I know books are chosen this way already. You don't fancy the sound of book, you don't buy it. But when not fancying the sound of a book will stop it being written altogether, the safe reader has become enthroned, and the game is up.