Call me a slut, but Julian just can't satisfy me

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The Independent Online

What a week. I am all loved out. First I developed my relationship with Julian Barnes. Then I enjoyed a brisk but all-too-brief fling with Muriel Spark. Now Carl Hiasson is giving me the old bedroom-eyes routine.

What a week. I am all loved out. First I developed my relationship with Julian Barnes. Then I enjoyed a brisk but all-too-brief fling with Muriel Spark. Now Carl Hiasson is giving me the old bedroom-eyes routine.

Some might call me a slut, but at least I now know that I am not alone. "Fiction is as intimate as sex," Barnes told Tom Sutcliffe in an interview for these pages. "A reader in the presence of a completely absorbing book is, it seems to me, intertwined as closely with the writer of that book as anyone is in bed, and responsive in probably more ways."

There may be those who find this connection a touch excessive. If Julian Barnes really does intertwine more intimately with, say, AS Byatt on the publication of her new novel than with his lovely wife Pat, one worries for all concerned. Yet the idea is not new. When Kurt Vonnegut told his creative-writing pupils at the University of Iowa that "You've got to be a good date for the reader," he was not talking about giving the reader a peck on the cheek on the doorstep.

It a daunting prospect for a writer, this idea that one has to primp and doll oneself up in fiction, which is probably why most authors claim that, in fact, their date is (an unattractive image, admittedly) themselves.

It is the reader who is truly tested. While Barnes can sit back with the post-coital languor of the recently published, his would-be suitors look in vain for guidance among the self-help books. There is no Joy of Text or Women Who Read Too Much. Yet, as anyone who has attended one of the courses on reading for addicts - "reading holidays", as they are called - will know, the craving for fiction can be as powerful as any erotic urge.

My colleague Philip Hensher has claimed never to have been without a book in his pocket since the age of five, but frankly, compared to true compulsives, he is an amateur. Some have to have a novel in the glove compartment of the car in case a traffic jam offers the chance for a quickie; others read while walking down the street or riding in a lift.

Once one realises that entering a novel can be as complex and emotional an experience as making love, the question of partner choice becomes critical.

Some readers, looking for a quick, passing thrill, may opt for one of the confessional I-shagged-my-flatmate novels that are now so popular, only to experience that sense of emptiness and mild embarrassment when it is all over.

Others embark on what should be a solid and successful relationship only to find that, inexplicably, the excitement is simply not there. I have had some wild, wall-banging nights with Philip Roth in the past, but have recently been overcome with a terrible sense of weary, marital dutifulness whenever I open his latest, The Human Stain.

On the other hand, I have discovered that I prefer my partners to err on the side of seriousness. I waited for a long time for Tom Wolfe, but found that there was something slatternly about A Man in Full - the distasteful sense that he was putting himself about, trying too hard to please. Jane Smiley and I have had some good times, but her hefty new beach read, Horse Heaven, has made me wonder what I saw in her.

It was perhaps unwise of Julian Barnes to point up the similarities between fiction and sex. Without wishing to be ungallant, I confess that, with his latest book Love, etc, ours has turned out to be one of those sensible, civilised relationships which never quite catches fire. Maybe it was my fault. I was there for him - heaven knows, I wanted to intertwine - but I sensed a lack of commitment on his part.

terblacker@aol.com

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