Let's not dress our 'watershed' works of fiction in the Emperor's clothes

The picker of 'The Rainbow' calls it 'hugely important because it's historical in a way that is interesting'

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The big question this week - not whither the planet, not even whither Tony Blair, but which book changed your life. Four hundred women from the arts, publishing and academia nominating their "watershed" work of fiction - a watershed, in case you've forgotten, being a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas. What book stopped you getting wet, in other words. What book kept you from falling into the shit?

The big question this week - not whither the planet, not even whither Tony Blair, but which book changed your life. Four hundred women from the arts, publishing and academia nominating their "watershed" work of fiction - a watershed, in case you've forgotten, being a narrow elevated tract of ground between two drainage areas. What book stopped you getting wet, in other words. What book kept you from falling into the shit?

And now we know the answer. Forty novels, almost all of them by Jeanette Winterson, with a few predictably inspirational classics such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, supplemented by the usual braces of Brontes. Forty novels which, to quote Professor Lisa Jardine who has been leading the enquiry, have "sustained someone in adversity", or "matched her joy at moving on in some significant way", or "helped her make an emotional choice through emulation or analogy". (Is it me, or can you already hear next term's examination questions being set? "Describe a book that has matched your joy at moving on in some significant way: you may make use of emulation or analogy.")

The book you choose - you being a woman, no one cares what blokes think - will not necessarily be your favourite (that's next week's list) or the one that got you reading in the first place (that was last week's list), but one that has made "a memorable intervention". The therapeutic language isn't accidental. This is reading as medicine, and the primly fancy writing - you would have taken it as a satire on women's sensibilities had it come from me - the Professor's bedside manner.

My own choice, were anyone to ask for it, would be any novel that made us think twice before expressing ourselves as infelicitously as Professor Jardine. Persuasion, say. A novel which is picky about the virtues of good prose and in which people go morally awry as a consequence of not employing it. That Captain Benwick is a kind man, Anne Elliot never doubts, but she is concerned at the degree to which he identifies with what he reads - "the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness" - and ventures "to hope he did not always read only poetry", since "it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely." What Benwick needs, Anne reckons, is "such works of our best moralists ... as are calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances."

Which is not, I grant you, devotees of Jane Austen though we claim to be, how we any longer talk. "There's a big emotional scale in this novel that is beautifully drawn" - is how we talk now. If I were to tell you that this nonsensical sentence is offered in support of Persuasion, which after all, but for the wrong reasons, does make the list, you would probably not believe me. But reader, it is.

"It's about identity," (no it's not) is how the picker of Persuasion goes on. And there we have it - it's about identity, the intellectual remissness of one age grafted on to the astringencies of another without the slightest sense of shame, the reading of a book nothing more than the story of oneself.

Don't mistake me: I am pleased that people are willing to enthuse about their reading. I would like there to be more of it. But is it necessary to do it so inexpertly? Cannot The Great Gatsby's advocate - an academic, incidentally - hear the meaninglessness of calling it "a book about someone's wishes and desires". Unlike which other novel you would care to name, Professor? And cannot the person choosing The Rainbow - another academic, incidentally - hear the nothingness of her appraisal of it as "a hugely important novel because it's historical in a way that is interesting." Would it help if I read that back to you, Professor? "Historical in a way that is interesting."

Professor Jardine, to stay with Professors, has chosen Catch 22. A man's book. That surprised us, didn't it? "A hugely important book," she calls it, echoing the previous Professor's "hugely important" - so we must assume that "hugely important" is a term currently going about the corridors of English departments, much as "referent" and "mise-en-abyme" once did.

The other reason she has chosen it is because it's by a man - which doesn't seem a reason to me - and "because it really matters to me that men and women are not separated by the imaginary." I would say it really mattered to me as well if I grasped better what it meant. As it stands, I think you'll find you can apply it liberally to any book you fancy. Try it, anyway. Just name your novel, then say it really matters to you that men and women are not separated by the imaginary. My guess is that no one will disagree with you. They might start avoiding you in the street, but that's another matter.

There are a few plain things to say about this experiment in non-reading. Books rarely change our lives and, if they did, we would have a more vivid tale to tell of how. An intimate of mine jumped off the wardrobe after reading Peter Pan, and had she not fallen fortunately the story might well have changed her life in the sense of ending it. Otherwise we exaggerate the changes made in us. Nor is there any reason why a book should change our life. Our life might be fine and dandy as it is. A novel worth the reading, though, will assuredly make a difference to how we think and feel, will allow us to lose rather than to find ourselves, and will, in Jane Austen's language, rouse and fortify the mind.

The mind doesn't get much mention in this welter of "memorable interventions". But the truth is, we are never more exposed as advocates of literature than when we speak as those who do not have one.

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