BBC Open Book


I’ll be talking about the dangers of novels on Open Book on BBC Radio 4, at 4pm on Sunday.

Update: Someone very flatteringly asked for a transcript. Here it is.

In the early days, almost everyone agreed that novels were, in general, bad for you. So popular, so sensational and so addictive was the prose fiction that spread through circulating libraries in the 18th century, that it had to be a menace.

In 1799, the playwright and poet Hannah More wrote that novels, “by their very nature… soften the mind [and] impair its general powers of resistance… which lays [it] open to error and the heart to seduction.” In More’s view, novels were one of “the most pernicious sources of corruption among us.”

Today we think differently. To us, More sounds like an uptight snob. The disapproving voice you always hear when something is new and popular. We have our own pernicious sources of corruption, like the smartphone, which makes books look wholesome, even erudite these days.

Novels now are compulsory for schoolchildren. Charities and libraries hand them out for free. When a novel impairs our powers of resistance, we admire it. We call it “gripping” or “unputdownable”. We’ll say we “can’t get it out of our head”, as we press our softened copy into someone else’s hands.

Was More wrong entirely? Watch someone who is lost in a good novel, their awareness of the world dissolved. The regular flick of their finger across the page or screen. The mechanical scanning eyes. Think of your own experience, reading at night. Promising yourself another chapter. Then another. Then just one more. Knowing you will pay for it in the morning, but powerless to stop. Every novel is at least an attempt at mind control.

Do you want someone to control your mind? Some people say it’s good for you. For all of us. They say that novels show us lives unlike our own. They say it will enlarge our empathy, knowing how it feels to be someone different. Perhaps it will. But how do you know that what you feel is true?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps the most influential novel ever written, hastened the abolition of slavery by making white readers believe they knew how it felt to be a slave. Today the book is infamous for evoking slaves’ minds falsely, showing only the racial caricatures that people were willing to believe. Novels can deceive us, especially the ones we praise.

And you have to wonder, knowing what a powerful tool for gripping minds the novel is, what kind of person would want to write one? Quite a lot of people, as it happens, myself among them. Are we being generous? Or might the thought of gripping your mind have some unsavoury appeal? You never asked us to start writing, after all. We ask you to read - and hope that you will spread our words to others. We may not consider why we want this. Like a virus, a novel turns its host into a factory for itself. Like a virus, it doesn’t need a reason.

How do novelists get away with this? By writing novels, if we can, that are a pleasure to read. Perhaps by saying they are good for you. We write novels to shape our thoughts into infections people want to catch. As a reader, I know that I’m past curing, or even hoping for a cure.

As a writer, I can only confess what I’ve just said, and give you fair warning. If you love novels, you ought to be frightened of them too.