Review: Sheffield University Theatre Company Present Death of a Salesman


Published by Kettle Mag 27/02/2015

“Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be… When all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am?”

Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman in 1949, yet over sixty years later its indictment of the capitalist dream is as relevant now as it was then. His plays are poignant in any age, but although his writing is famously forthright and naturalistic, Miller’s themes can be difficult to fully address on-stage; even for well-established theatre companies. So it comes as a wonderful surprise, to discover that Sheffield University Theatre Company has produced a compelling and moving production of this classic text, with a cast that deliver subtle performances far beyond their years.

Creating a World

But the cast aren’t the only stars of this show. From the moment the curtain goes up on Willy Loman’s disheartened return home, it is clear that the production team and designers have striven to create a believable and realistic world for their cast to inhabit.

The set is beautifully designed by Keir Shields, who has used the space to optimum effect, with raised rostra representing the different rooms and spaces, and the tunnel behind giving us a glimpse into the outside world. This aesthetic is complimented by Fredrik Rentsch’s well thought-out lighting design, which carries the action seamlessly from family home to restaurant and back again.

Ali Stringer has also created a wonderful sound design, featuring subtle period music to add poignancy to the most heart-wrenching moments of the text, and emphasise those subtle flashes of everyday comedy that Miller writes so well.

Outstanding Performances

As with any opening night there were a few shaky moments, and personally I would have liked to have scene the script cut a little more ruthlessly in rehearsal. So it’s a testament to the cast, under superb direction by Perry Hughes, that neither of these things mattered, and the production was so worth watching.

Willy Loman is one of the most enduring and complex characters in 20th century theatre, but Chris Sharp-Paul still manages to deliver a confident and moving performance in the lead role.

Loman is a salesman, but he is also a man living the life of a pathological optimist, firmly convinced that the promised dream is just one more lucky break away. Chris is able to bring both comedy and tragedy to this role without it feeling forced, and as Loman’s mind begins to unravel, it’s impossible not to become caught up in the threads.

Tom Williams as the conflicted Biff, and Alex Cosgriff as the overlooked Happy, also deliver outstanding performances as Loman’s two wayward sons. Alex’s comedic timing is exceptional, and Tom’s transition from football star to disillusioned adult is both subtle and heartbreaking.

Strong comedic performances from Will Taylor, Alex Monks and David Upton, also bring some much needed levity to what is, at its heart, a tragic and emotional play. But it’s Flora Turnbull, in the role of Willy’s long suffering and loyal wife Linda, who truly shines in this piece.

Nothing in her performance feels unnatural, whether she’s playing the role of the supportive wife, the frustrated mother, or the heartbroken widow. The famous monologue in which she declares that ‘attention must be paid’ was a highlight of the show, as was the final, tear-jerking scene.

An Impressive Production

This production may have benefited from being cut slightly more harshly in rehearsal, but overall it far surpasses what many would expect from student theatre. Everything from the design, to the direction, to the performances, is well thought-out and spectacularly delivered.

As ever in theatre, it isn’t perfect, with a couple of stumbles that are to be expected on opening night. But in the end these minor flaws didn’t matter, when set against a two and a half hour production that succeeded in bringing Miller’s grave and cautionary tale so  beautifully to life.

Review: Paperfinch Theatre Present The Nutcracker


“Come and see the Nutcracker, so brave and strong and noble.”

Following successful adaptations of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Beauty and the Beastand Hansel and Gretel, Paperfinch Theatre return to their Sheffield home this Christmas season, with an immersive musical show to delight adults and children alike. 

Building on their already well-showcased gifts for storytelling and musical arrangement, director and writer Joe Bunce, and composers Matthew Malone and Dom Hartley, have created a truly impressive retelling of ETA Hoffman’s original Christmas story.

Entering the Dreamworld 

Updated for the 21st century, and set in the beautifully designed galleries of Bank Street Arts, the cast of The Nutcracker welcome their audience into an extravagant Christmas party held in a variety of rooms we are free to explore.

The immersive nature of the show allows for a truly entertaining beginning, in which we are offered mince pies by a butler, glitter from the extravagant sisters Pippa and Prudence Silvertree, and stuffed animals, paper and pens by the troubled and mute Billy Silvertree. 

But the real fun begins with the entrance of the fantastical Uncle Roy, played with exceptional comedic timing and touching finesse, by University of Sheffield graduate Richard Agar.

A Delightful Retelling

Paperfinch specialise in whimsical storytelling, live music and puppetry, and this production has all of these things in wonderfully well-wrapped bundles. As we enter Billy’s dreams and come face-to-face with the devilish Mausikins – the incarnations of his cruel  and domineering family members – we are not only transported into this fantastical world, but we become a part of it.

With the absurd and erratic Sugarplum as our guide – brought to life with outstanding vigour and laudable hilarity by Will Taylor – we must don a variety of ludicrous clothes in an attempt to become bona fide figments of Billy’s imagination.

The strength of the performers and the company as a whole, mean that none of this feels uncomfortable. To the accompaniment of the live band and original musical numbers, adults and children alike are swept along in our hunt for the missing pieces of The Nutcracker, and the quest to defeat the malevolent micey marauders. 

From crafting playdough into recognisable objects to remind the Tree of Knowledge of the things he has forgotten; to hunting for a sleepy tiger’s lost thought bubbles; to interacting with a dancing robot – every facet of this production is fanciful and thoroughly enjoyable.

Standout Performances

The cast as a whole deliver exceptional and engaging performances, but special mention should be given to Perry Hughes – who seamlessly morphs from upper-class curmudgeon to mousey interloper – Richard Agar as the positively joyful Uncle Roy, and Miriam Schechter, who plays the troubled Billy with touching sincerity and warmth.

The ensemble cast, as well, manage to deliver high-energy and entertaining performances throughout. For sheer enjoyment, however, particular credit should go to Rob O’Connor as an endearingly meek and charming squirrel called Chip; Mark Mehta as an hilariously somnolent tiger; and Matilda Reith as an inexplicably but brilliantly funny Australian sheep.

A Christmas Treat

It may be the season for pantomimes, but with this polished production Paperfinch Theatre have proved that children’s shows needn’t be simplistic. The Nutcracker is a feat of innovation, novelty, and talent, all wrapped up in a wonderfully bedecked gallery space that will enchant everyone who enters.  

I’ve said it before, and no doubt I’ll say it again, but Paperfinch Theatre are a remarkable, exciting and wildly creative company, who produce outstanding and inventive theatre time and time again. 

If you’re searching for an exuberant and magical evening this Christmas season, then Bank Street Arts’ new dreamworld is the first place you should look.  

NB: The Nutcracker runs from 16th – 20th December at Bank Street Arts, Sheffield. Tickets can be purchased here:

What Does the Future Look Like for Arts Television?

David Tennant as Hamlet

David Tennant as Hamlet

Published by Kettle Mag 07/11/2014

For the last few years, the five main television channels in the UK have faced down accusations that their funding cuts to Arts programming have been negatively impacting our culture. In the summer of 2009, ITV scrapped The Southbank Show, and a report by OfCom in 2012 revealed that broadcaster spending on arts and classical music content fell by 39% between 2006 and 2011.

So, is the future of our cultural programming in danger?

BBC Arts

If we look purely at the discrepancy between the drama, film, and arts budgets even today, our natural inference would be that cultural programming is, indeed, suffering. However, based on empirical evidence alone, the scope of arts programming remains broadly positive when we take into account channels such as BBC Four.

Their programming may not start until 7pm, but the BBC’s cultural arm does pack a whole lot into the few hours given to them. Most recently, they’ve been celebrating all things Gothic, with documentaries including When Gothic was Born, The Family That Built Gothic Britain, and an architecture piece on The First Gothic Age.

These shows may represent a niche interest in our culture, but they nevertheless exist as part of our national programming, and they do still have an audience.

Modern Culture

Outside of BBC Four, arguably, our modern culture is given an even wider showing. The eponymous Glastonbury festival, for instance, was this year given it’s most expansive BBC coverage in the history of the festival.

For anyone who wasn’t able to get a ticket – and, let’s face it, that was most of us – this meant that there were live video streams from six stages; more than 50 hours worth of television; and broadcasts from Radio 1, 1XTRA, Radio 2, and BBC 6 Music.

Similarly, the BBC’s coverage of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the largest theatre and performance event on this side of the Atlantic – was wide-ranging, prime time viewing throughout August. There is also the BBC Proms, the summer long classical music festival which airs on various BBC TV channels and Radio 3.

And, of course, we shouldn’t forget BBC Two’s The Culture Show, which still condenses the “best” of the week’s arts and culture news into a succinct half an hour chunk every week.

The Sky Legacy

A cynic might say that the BBC is trying to prove something – and the cynics may be right. Our primary television channels may all have experienced cuts to their arts budgets, but channels on digital TV are expanding all the time. Most notable among this phenomenon, is Sky Arts.

Broadcasting around the clock seven days a week, Sky Arts features classical music, explorations of great minds such as Shakespeare, televised theatre productions, and a whole host of arts-based documentaries.

Additionally, far from being a niche avenue, these two Arts channels attract big-name actors and celebrities, including the likes of David Tennant, Simon Callow and Stephen Fry.

Widening the Net

It may be, however, that the future of cultural programming lies not on our television screens, but on the internet. The impact of bi-directional media has already changed the way we read books and share information, and it seems a natural progression to assume that it will soon have a lasting impact on the way we consume television as well.

Up-to-the-minute social networking means that, increasingly, audiences are able to respond and interact with the content produced. This, inevitably, means that broadcasters are – now more than ever – beholden to their viewers.

Such audience participation, far from being damaging to cultural programming, I would argue actually increases its prevalence. Documentaries on the nature of Gothic Architecture may not pull in millions of viewers on TV, but online, the audience impact is increased by our ability to engage with both the programmes, and with each other.

Ultimately, arts television is changing. With losses such as The Southbank Show, there’s no arguing that, in terms of prime time viewing at least, cultural programming is still languishing in something of a funding decline. But with competition from both digital TV and the internet, it seems safe to assume that such a decline can’t last forever.

We, as audiences, are changing the way we consume cultural media; but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t watching. If competition is truly what’s needed to encourage more broadcasters to include books, art, theatre, and architecture on our television screens, then competition is what’s already happening.

Its funding may be weak, but the audience’s appetite for arts programming is still going strong, and sooner or later, the main five channels are going to have to respond to that.

It’s Time We Discussed the Economics of Rape Culture


Published by Kettle Mag 18/10/2014

A 19-year-old man was jailed for five years on October 13, for drunkenly raping a woman after he’d taken off all her clothes, and photographed her naked as she slept. Louis Chand is from Scunthorpe, at the time of the assault he had just completed three and a half years studying engineering, and he had no previous convictions. So how did it come to pass that after a few drinks he thought, in the first instance, that it was justifiable to strip a sleeping woman and photograph her, and in the second, that he then had the right to have sex with her without her consent – or, indeed, her consciousness?

To merely condemn this man as a terrible human being would only serve to sweep the cultural issue under a carpet of inflammatory rhetoric, which so often serves to hide the deeper problems that are inherent in our society when we talk about sexual assault and rape. Across the country women suffer through sexual intimidation every day – but these instances, sadly, seem to be more prevalent in areas of high unemployment, and low economic growth.

An Economic Sinkhole

I am four years older than Louis but I, too, grew up in Scunthorpe. I may not have lived there since I was his age, but I remember the kind of culture that proliferates in its clubs and bars. Scunthorpe, like a number of industrial towns has, in recent years, been swept up in a seemingly unstoppable slide into an economic sinkhole.

Since the 1980s, employment in Scunthorpe’s main steel industry has fallen from 27,000  workers at its height, to an estimated 4,500 today. The knock-on effect of such a dramatic set of job cuts, is that a disproportionate number of the population have been forced to claim government benefits of some kind. The high street is littered with pound shops, and big-name retailers including Marks & Spencer and Dorothy Perkins, have been forced to close. Crucially, the crime rates, particularly for burglary and sexual violence, are significantly higher there than the national average.

I should mention, at this point, that underage drinking is also something of the norm. With such an abysmal set of achievable aspirations on offer for its young people, coupled with the bitter injustice of a significant rate of unemployment for many skilled older workers, Scunthorpe’s pubs and clubs have become a bizarre and frightening alternate reality, in which to wile away the hours.

At the heart of this alcohol-fueled twilight zone, the age range of the people caught in  thrall to its pulsing lights and 50p Sambuca shots, ranges from 15 and 16-year-olds, to a  singularly disheartened generation of apathetic pensioners. In this other-world, a generation of benighted teens are exposed from an increasingly young age, to a strange pseudo-morality, in which the norms of equality so hard won throughout the 20th century, are drowned beneath an incessant and sickeningly sweet flow of cheap alcohol and economic impotence.

Challenging Cultural Conditioning

A number of years ago, and as an underage young teenager myself, I was one of the many boys and girls who floundered there on a Saturday night. What concerns me, is that I never realised quite how far from the norm of social structures Scunthorpe’s nighttime system was, until I left for university. So, let me describe for you a particularly worrying faction of this system – as it was when I resided there – as context for the environment that, I’m sure, Louis and his victim are all-too familiar with.

Underage girls are conditioned to bribe their way into clubs by wearing low-cut, high-hemmed, skin-tight clothes, and a delicately nurtured vodka-jacket. When challenged by some of the more diligent bouncers – and they do exist – their night may yet end with a swift and disappointing taxi ride home. But for a concerning number of wannabe revelers, a flash of flesh and an intoxicated smile, will be enough for them to gain access to the rivers of chemicals that flow beyond the doors of many a darkened watering hole.

Once inside, the real fun begins. With an age range that encompasses the only-just-pubescent and the probably-taking-viagra alike, anything goes, and girls learn from their first entry, that a certain system of acceptable behaviour is firmly set in place. Men will grab you. They will grab you an awful lot, almost anywhere they can reach. The trick  many young girls intuit quickly, is to push valiantly through this sea of wandering hands, and learn when to smile, when to laugh it off, and when to get angry and move on.

This may sound both prosaic and prurient to anyone who has been in a club in recent years, and so already knows first-hand that this happens across cities and towns on a nightly basis. But so ingrained is it in our culture, that it has become a phenomenon that the media increasingly leaves unhappily unexamined. The surprising quality of Scunthorpe’s nightlife, however, more than that of any other town or city I’ve experienced, is that this system has entered into a sexual spiral, in which the lines of acceptability have become steadily more difficult to define.

Rape Culture and Socio-economics

I would delve deeply into the nuances of this problem, but I think it can be summed up by one key anecdote. On Scunthorpe’s high street, in a sticky little bar called The Britannia, is  – or there was a couple of years ago – a dance floor heralded by a sign which reads “Beaverview Square”. Here, there resides a first-floor dance partition with a see-through plexiglass floor. Women are encouraged to dance there – it being the only dance space available – whilst men of all ages, from those in their teens to those in receipt of their free bus pass, sup their pints and leer up-skirts from the ground  level directly below.

This is “normal”. Even worse than that, this is “harmless”. In an area in which so many people are without even the prospect of a job, and surrounded incessantly once the sun goes down, by such readily-accepted sexist voyeursim, is it such a huge leap to suggest that the area’s young people will become, inevitably, both perpetrators and victims of rape culture?

In the first instance, Louis’ actions were voyeuristic. They were fueled by an already publicly sanctioned desire to see more of this young woman, and to see it while she was at her most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that it is excusable. Louis is 19-years-old, a presumably intelligent human being, and being drunk is no justification for assuming a right to a woman’s unconscious body.

But without previous convictions, without a history of violent behaviour, and with an educational level higher than a number of men his age from the same area, he did. Now, he will have to live with this actions coming to define the rest of his life, and so will his victim. In a statement to the court, she told the jury she had “flashbacks and nightmares” of waking up with this man on top of her. She said she now felt that her “goals and ambitions” had been “ripped from” her, and she has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and prescribed anti-depressants.

Now, through no fault of her own, this young woman must come to terms with what has happened to her. Louis has scarred both his own life as well as his victim’s, and his actions are inexcusable. But to pretend that this crime is simply a result of one man’s predilection for violence against women, would be wrong and unhelpful. The issue is far wider and far more ingrained than that, both within our culture generally, and within the gaping maw of our socio-economic situation. As a society, isn’t it about time we addressed the economic factors inherent in our rape culture?

Analysing Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize Winning Novel

Published by Kettle Mag 15/10/2014

In an earlier review for Kettle Mag, I called The Narrow Road to the Deep North “a deeply impressive novel” – but I also argued that the psychology of Flanagan’s juxtaposed love story relied too much on a “laboriously romanticised archetype.”

On the 14 October, however, the judges for the 2014 Man Booker Prize decided that, whatever its failings, Flanagan’s 12-year-in-the-writing novel deserved to take home the highest literary prize on offer in the Commonwealth. So, were they right?

A Prolific Writer

It is difficult to argue with Flanagan’s output over the course of his seventeen year authorial career. His first novel, Death of a River Guide, was described in 1997 by The Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing”.

Flanagan’s works since then have won numerous accolades, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and listings as the New Yorker’s Book of the Year and The Observer’s Book of the Year. With this in mind, it almost seems as though it were only a matter of time, before the Booker Prize was added to his list of auspices.

Indeed, his was a popular choice on social media among both writers and the public.

Rhyme and Reason

That isn’t to say though, that the competition wasn’t, as it always is, fierce. Flanagan’s fellow shortlisters included Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker in 2010 for his wisely comic The Finkler Question, and Ali Smith’s How to be Both was hotly tipped to take home the £50,000 prize.

But if the comments from the judges are to be believed, Flanagan’s tale, which was loosely based on the WWII experiences of his grandfather as a PoW on the infamous Japanese “Death Railway,” was the obvious choice to win.

Philosopher A C Grayling, the chair of the Booker panel, said the novel had a visceral sensation on reading, like being “kicked in the stomach”. For Grayling, it was “the beauty of the writing, the profoundly intelligent humanity, the excoriating passages of great power, and the great truth” inherent in the book, that made it the standout winner of this year’s competition.

This was something I also argued in my review last week. Flanagan imbues his prose with poetry in the form of haikus, ontological meditations, and a perceptive juxtaposition of the beauty of the Japanese culture, and the brutality of its war effort. Similarly, he forces us to make sympathetic leaps, from the perspective of the PoWs, to the recesses of the Japanese General’s psyche, thereby creating a nuanced and insightful work of historicised fiction.

Notable Absences

Five of the six shortlisted novels were published by global conglomerate Penguin – with, surprisingly, the exception of Flanagan’s winning novel. For me, however, there were some notable missing persons from this year’s Booker long-list. Most obviously, for me, Will Self’s incredible Shark, the second book in a trilogy, the first installment of which, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012.

Similarly, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was surprisingly absent, and there was an unhappily white-male-focused selection from the get-go, with only one woman making the final six on the shortlist.

These slight issues aside, however, Flanagan’s deeply personal, refined, and thought-provoking  book is, in my opinion, a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2014. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, as I’ve said before, a deeply impressive novel, written by an equally impressive writer.

Booker Shortlist Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Published by Kettle Mag 12/10/2014

“Mother, they write poems” – so reads the epigraph to Australian novelist Richard Flanagan’s ambitious novel, concerning life on the infamous Japanese “Death Railway” during the Second World War. Taking its title from one of the greatest works in Japanese literature by the haiku poet Basho, the vertiginous timeline of Flanagan’s own work expresses one universal truth: that all human history is a history of violence.

Despite its bleak subject matter and philosophising, however, this is not an inherently pessimistic book. Basho’s original work – a mixture of haiku and prose – is a masterpiece of meditation, philosophy, and precision. And in its namesake, Flanagan imbues his prose with poetry in the form of haikus, ontological meditations, and a perceptive juxtaposition of the beauty of the Japanese culture, and the brutality of its war effort.

Individualism and Universality

Focusing on the life of Alwyn “Dorrigo” Evans, a doctor and the officer in charge of J Force – the one-thousand strong assortment of mostly Australian PoWs working on the infamous “Line” in Burma – Flanagan’s narrative pulls us incessantly back and forth across both time and place.

Based on the wartime experiences of the author’s grandfather, who died just as the book was finished, Dorrigo’s character is intimately and masterfully drawn. Through this individual, Flanagan manages to universalise a generation’s anguish, and his strength lies in forcing the reader to make difficult, sympathetic leaps throughout the novel’s 448 pages.

The suffering of J Force at the hands of their Japanese captors is a brutal, and often viscerally difficult narrative to become lost in. But perhaps even more difficult than the scenes of egregious violence, are the unsignposted leaps Flanagan makes to the perspective of the Japanese Major responsible for many of the atrocities, as he suffers through homelessness during Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction.

Humanising the Inhuman

Representations of the WWII Prisoner of War camps in western literature, inevitably focus on the suffering of those who were captured – many of whom were worked to death. Not only does Flanagan attempt, and mostly succeed, in describing such horrific acts, but he also humanises the people responsible for perpetrating them.

From the Burmese Jungle, where putrefying flesh, skeletal human beings, and merciless soldiers abound, he drags us to a Tokyo broiling in the midst of post-war reconstruction. Here, we find Major Nakamura, a formerly proud and vicious Japanese general, responsible for some of the PoW’s most brutal beatings and unjustifiable deaths.

Here, though, he is changed. As he discovers himself to be listed by the Americans as a wanted war ciminal, Flanagan takes us deep within the ex-soldier’s psyche. Once there, we grapple with him as he struggles to understand how he could be called a criminal, for treating the prisoners as he was ordered to by the Emperor; who, of course, remains unmolested.

Here, Flanagan’s history of human violence reminds us starkly of one thing: morality is decided by the victors, and the human cogs of the war machine are far more easily punished than the engine that drives it.

Love and Hate

Juxtaposed with this tale of death, destruction, and disdain for life, is the bittersweet relationship between the young Dorrigo, and his Uncle’s remote and conflicted wife. Here, however, it is impossible not to notice that Flanagan’s own idealised image of the redemptive powers of a woman’s love have, perhaps just a little, clouded his keener insights.

Amy is possibly the least well-drawn of Flanagan’s formidably well-realised characters. It’s obvious that he has attempted to create a strong, complicated young woman who, like Dorrigo, finds her true self only within the object of her affections.

However, although the resulting passages are beautifully written and often with more than an element of the poetic to their form, for me, this analysis of the star-crossed lovers was too simplistic, and the psychology too loosely weaved around a laboriously romanticised archetype.

A Timeline too Far

Similarly, for all of the author’s masterful treatment of the complex issues surrounding war, torture, enslavement, and the the jarring return to civility for the prisoners at the battle’s end, his final chapters felt like a step too far.

Yes, it was important for us to witness the enduring camaraderie between those men who survived. Likewise, the state of Dorrigo’s relationship with his future family could never have been glossed over.

Nevertheless, without giving too much away, the chapters featuring the fire during our protagonists’s twilight years, and the incredible serendipity of one Darky Gardiner’s heritage, are inescapably contrived. And what’s more, they come as a severe disappointment when set against the virtuosic treatment of the far grander issues that have gone before.

In the end, though, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a deeply impressive novel. With disarming narrative control and sympathetic consideration, Flanagan has succeeded in examining one of the darker periods of our recent history, and creating one of the most insightful books published in recent years. It’s just a shame he didn’t know when to stop.

In Defence of Serious Reading

Published by Kettle Mag 10/10/2014

Nick Hornby is the bestselling author of novels including About A Boy, High Fidelity, and Fever Pitch. Titles ripped from Elvis Costello lyrics aside, he is also, if we are to take his comments at the Cheltenham Literature Festival to heart, an advocate of the simple pleasures of reading. Here, “simple” is the operative word, because the popular writer doesn’t believe that readers should attempt to finish so-called “difficult” novels, if they don’t  start to enjoy them within the first few pages or chapters.

Now, I may not be a bestselling novelist, but to me, this is a potentially damaging view to take.

Reading to be Lost

Many of us read as a form of escapism. Readers, as a collective, intuitively know that a strange telepathy is at work when we dive beneath the wordsea of a really good book. For however long we stay submerged there, the codices of the writer’s words match our own visual and emotional absorption into the text point-for-point. In fact, this phenomenon has been described, characteristically eloquently, by Will Self in one of his most recent articles for The Guardian – and I’ll stop paraphrasing it if you start reading it.

Reading to become lost in a different world, or to know a new set of characters intimately – and often far more deeply than we know our own friends – is, of course, one of the great joys of picking up a book with a rollicking narrative.

With this in mind, I’m not going to attempt to argue that there isn’t a place for this kind of reading. As a child of the 1990s, like most readers my age I harbour an enduring love for the Harry Potter series, with all of its borrowings and simplistic prose combining to make a bloody good story nonetheless.

Similarly, my own guilty pleasures are fantasy novels – and I read them across the spectrum. From the insightful sci-fi of J.G. Ballard, to the frankly painfully populistic imaginings of Suzanne Collins, my love of a decent dystopia, utopia, or Tolkien-style fantasy epic, unfortunately does not discriminate based on talent. But here is where my agreement with Nick Hornby ends.

Diving More Deeply

To read as a utilitarian, purely for pleasure, is no bad thing. But as I said in an earlier article on Hilary Mantel’s assassination short story, words are power, and ideas have influence. Without serious literature – and by this I mean works such as Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, and even, if the Bronte’s float your metaphorical boat, Wuthering Heights – human life would remain unexamined.

In this sense, Kafka’s argument still stands. Great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us”. Numerous psychology studies in recent years have proven this claim, by revealing that readers of literary fiction posses greater tolerance of different people and races, heightened empathy, and a far higher emotional intelligence than those who only read mainstream “stories”.

A Worthwhile Expedition

To complain that reading a book like Ulysses is difficult, is the literary equivalent of complaining that Everest is hard to climb. Some of the most valuable experiences of our lives are won through hard work, concentration, and perseverance. And what’s more, once completed, these endeavours often turn out to be some of the best and most rewarding undertakings of our lives.

As a teenager, I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time. Close to 200 pages in, I was still hopelessly lost and thoroughly beleaguered in his vertiginous narrative. In all honesty I very nearly gave up, until a short while later, something miraculous happened. Heller’s narrative suddenly converged, and it was as if someone had turned on a light.

Suddenly, everything became clear. The whole imagined world opened out in front of me, and from that moment I raced through the book alternately laughing, crying, and running an incessant inner-monologue which screamed, disbelievingly, “HOW DID HE WRITE THIS?”.

I still don’t know, but I do know how I read it. I read it with difficulty, and it is categorically one of the best – and certainly most productive – things that I did in my teenage years. The scale of some of the best known works of literary fiction is awe-inspiring, and the challenge of reading and understanding them is both a test and an expansion of capability.

Reaping the Rewards

Difficulty, I would argue, is in fact a necessary consequence of valuable innovation. Knowledge, skill, and pleasure are bought by hard work, and you don’t get something for nothing. Nabokov famously sneered at people who “talk about books instead of talking within books”, and this is, I assume, what Nick Hornby is advocating.

For me, literature is a method and a manner of better living. It both threatens and amplifies the ways in which I see the world, and I’m yet to find a reason why anyone would want to shy away from the agitation and dislocation that serious literature can evoke.

So, my apologies to Nick Hornby. As charming and successful as his novels are, I would far rather live in a world where people were encouraged to read Ulysses, than one in which About A Boy is the pinnacle of a reader’s ambitions.