A friendly editor asked me last week if I would be interested in writing a literary advice column for his publication. A what, I asked, or it might have been, Eh what? What, after all, is a literary advice column? Chicken soup for those with limited time on their hands, but a desire to read as much as possible? Or perhaps a forum to explain in pitiless detail that yes, sometimes 12 people can actually murder a person on a train (although 11 of them might not be guilty of the crime), or what the ending in The Sense of an Ending actually refers to?
Maybe readers want to know what my top 10 novels about love are, or the bottom six on crime, and so on. I can also visualise questions like: ‘I am 64 years old, and I haven’t read a single book in my life. Should I start with children’s literature, move on to teen stuff before tackling John Grisham?’ The obvious answer would be: ‘You don’t have the time – start anywhere and keep going.’ Of course, it may lead to the loss of an important subscriber for the publication.
What if the questions are about the use of irony in Shakespeare’s plays? That would be difficult to fit into a 100-word reply, even if you used words without any vowels or letters beyond ‘M’. But is that the kind of question an average reader might want to ask? I check out other advice columns – parental, food, relationship, buying goods online – and I discover that the average mental age of questioners is between two and four. At least that is what questions like, ‘When my child drops food on the ground, for how long should I keep beating him’, seem to suggest.
I lack the tact and kindness to say: ‘Stop badgering me with these silly questions’.
What I am good at though, is pontificating on my likes and dislikes. In the latter category are the chicken soup books, self-help manuals, management guides, and anything written by Paulo Coelho. Come to think of it, Coelho’s books are a combination of all of the above, and that’s quite a chicken soup.
I can tell people what not to read, at what point to give up on a difficult book, when to ask the author for a refund, and what to keep for a rainy day. Or even a sunny day. I can also be a consultant to those who aren’t going to read anything but want an impressive set of books in their study. I can strongly recommend my own tomes.
This is beginning to sound enjoyable.