Books Magazine

The Literary Guilt and Inferiority Quiz

By Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

GuiltMany of you book-lovers will have seen this very interesting, possibly funnier than intended article by the supremely erudite Will Self in The Guardian, lamenting the death of the serious literary novel (again). Now, serious and literary are two of my favorite words but this piece contained one or two (dozen) others which challenged my view of myself as an articulate and well-read Literary Sofa proprietor.

This week’s post isn’t serious but it is literary. Kind of. If you’ve ever had a complex about your reading habits, have a crack at these deeply revealing questions. I’m giving my own answers to make you feel better. Maybe.

Answers below.

1. Do you have an English degree?

No, and it’s a really handy justification for all the books I haven’t read whilst simultaneously implying that I’ve devoured the entire canon of French and German literature.

2. How many lines of the Will Self article did you read before encountering an unfamiliar word?

Horrifyingly, the answer is NONE because I didn’t know the word benison. I wrongly assumed it meant benefit, when in fact it means blessing, which I should have been able to work out from French. I was comforted by the fact that the next unfamiliar word wasn’t until paragraph 8, until I discovered Panglossian (excessively optimistic) derives from the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, a book I have actually read.

3. Have you ever read a novel by Will Self cover to cover?

You have? Then what are you doing here? I couldn’t get past page one of Umbrella.

4. Do you find long novels off-putting?

I have rarely read a book longer than 500 pages that didn’t need a serious edit, in my humble and unqualified opinion.

5. Have you ever tried to estimate how many books you have time to read before you die?

No. I am useless at maths and I don’t know when I’m going to die.

6. Do you skim-read novels or skip pages?

What do you think? It took me three years to write a novel. Either I read something or I don’t.

7. Do you feel bad about giving up on a book?

No – I do it more and more. It’s my lookout to pick books that appeal to me and the writer’s job to make me want to keep reading. Sometimes a book becomes a personal challenge and I grit my teeth and power through even if I’m not enjoying it. Especially if it’s a ‘difficult’ novel and/or written by a man. I don’t like to be defeated.

 8. Have you ever purposely watched the film version of a novel instead of reading it?

Occasionally, especially if it’s outside my usual orbit. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, for example (for some reason I feel bound to say that I have great respect for J K Rowling). I usually prefer to read a book first but Watching Never Let Me Go, The Road and Revolutionary Road made me want to read them.   As someone who’s not that keen on historical fiction or very long books I’d like to see Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies on stage. That’s a bit classier, no?

9. Have you ever been embarrassed by your taste in fiction or to admit you enjoyed a particular book?

No, and I don’t think anyone should be.   Now and again I love reading a trashy blockbuster which wouldn’t come off well if I got my reviewing fangs into it (which I simply wouldn’t). Diplomacy rather than embarrassment prevents me giving examples.

10.  Do you have a physical TBR list of titles you want to read?

No. That would be terrifying. I have a physical pile of the next six or so books I fancy reading, and shelfloads of possibles. But I am horribly fickle and often ignore both in favour of something exciting that’s just come through the letterbox.

11. Have you ever felt alone because you didn’t enjoy a book everyone else seems to love?

Yes, but I know to keep my mouth shut unless we’re in the same room. And you’re not the author.

12. Did you tell people you read Fifty Shades of Grey ‘just to see what the fuss was about’?

Yes. It was even true. Just the first one though.

13. Have you ever read a Russian novel?

No. That feels like a terrible admission and I don’t even know why. I did feel a bit of a fraud making a joke about War and Peace in story I wrote recently. I downloaded it though – does that count?

14. Have you ever pretended to read a novel you haven’t read?

That was implicitly the case for my entire English A’level syllabus, including Vanity Fair, although in my defence I didn’t actually claim to have read the texts in my exam answers. I was in a huff because they wouldn’t let me do geography and was aiming to fail, but it backfired and I got a C.

With maturity comes the realisation that nobody else has read everything either. These days I would never pretend to have read a book I haven’t, though I sometimes wish I could pretend I haven’t read a book I have.

15. Have you ever embarrassed yourself whilst discussing books?

Listen, I can’t be expected to remember every daft thing I’ve ever said at a party, but last week I was chatting to a very nice man but somehow had the feeling we weren’t on the same page. Turned out he was talking about Dave Eggers and I was talking about Dave Pelzer. I regularly attribute the entire oeuvre of Henry James to Edith Wharton and vice versa (well they were very close, and I love them both). I once cited The Commitments (sic) as my favorite novel in a conversation with a literary editor who either didn’t hear me or is very good at keeping a straight face (have since gone off Jonathan Franzen so at least it won’t happen again) Don’t get me started on Chandler, Cheever and Carver – the potential is endless.


There are no answers! Only you can know if you feel more or less smug or inadequate. But don’t keep it to yourself…


…the funniest answer (in MY opinion) to any of the above questions (max. 3 answers per person please, in one comment) will earn the winner their pick of title from my groaning bookshelves. (Answer them all if you want to, but that’s a post for your own blog).

Winner picked 6pm UK Sunday 11 May.

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