The Favourites: Sian Campbell on a little bit of everything

Words by Sian Campbell

Published on November 7, 2011

This year, because I am mentally unstable, I have decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.

(In case you were wondering, as I type this it is day five, word count is woefully under the projected target at 4045, I’m at about four or five glasses of wine – also, and happily, under the projected target – and bowls of mi goreng have been too plenteous to count.)

In the lead up to NaNoWriMo I started to think a lot about novel writing, why we write, and what constitutes a good book.

Actually, first, I freaked out and gave up.

I cannot write a novel what on earth am I thinking I don’t know how to do things what is the point where do I stand when there are so many books in the world.

Then, I consulted my wise friend Tom, the Yoda to my Luke.

“Bob Dylan one said that there have been enough songs for centuries. But the reason he wrote his own was because the ones he wanted to sing hadn’t been written yet. I think we need to accept that books are just manifestations of ourselves. You know how in dreams, everyone is a manifestation of your fears, worries, and loves? That’s what stories are. Maybe we don’t have to know the world perfectly inside out; we just have to be honest with ourselves,” he said.

Yes. That is exactly right. I resolved to shout Tom a beer, and carried on.

I considered the novels I rate as favourites, and what about them distinguished them, in my own eyes at least, as A Good Book. I considered the writing; yes, it had to be beautiful. The plot? Yes, I probably wouldn’t keep turning the pages if it weren’t in some way captivating. But couldn’t beautiful writing also captivate, and vice versa? The Virgin Suicides was written so beautifully I cried and threw things and told my mother I was becoming a plumber instead, but it’s not a favourite. Picnic at Hanging Rock is riveting – it’s not a favourite.

I realised that for me, there is no particularly clear answer – perhaps it’s a combination of many things. None had similar qualities or structures. Not every character was likable. Not everything was fantastical and not everything made sense. Still, though, they did all have one thing in common. I realised that all my Good Books had one thing in common: one or several moments. Little lines, dog ears. Goodreads quotes.

“Yes. That is exactly right.”

I was apathetic with Franny in Franny and Zooey. I was suffocating with Offred inThe Handmaid’s Tale  and screaming on the road with Tommy in Never Let Me Go.I was waiting for that train with Virginia in The Hours.

I was, I was, I was in the bell jar with Esther.

In a popular fiction class at uni, we read Twilight.  (I know.) “What’s really pathetic,” said a classmate, “Are the girls who say that Edward is the reason they won’t ever find a boyfriend.” “Edward Cullen can go fuck himself,” I replied, “I will die alone and my corpse will be devoured by my many cats and you can thank Gilbert Blythe.”

(My fourth-grade crush was a Gilbert. The guy I left my high school boyfriend for most definitely was a Gilbert. Darcy wasn’t a Gilbert – probably too busy being a Darcy – but the next boy, I think, would have eventually been as Gilberty as they come.)

I first read Anne of Green Gables  at the impressionable age of about nine or ten. I knew Anne intimately; we understood each other. We were both of the race that knows Joseph. The way she thought about things made more sense to me than anything I’d read before; she fed off the trees, she worried too much, she got lost in herself. She struggled when she realised her natural writing ability could only get her so far and eventually she’d have to learn the editing process and stop writing and submitting fanciful stories that, really, were Total Ass.

And that’s what distinguishes a good book, and perhaps is the reason we keep writing; we want to understand and be understood. It is such an obvious thing; perhaps I am a little slow on the uptake but there it is all the same. Anne of Green Gables might not be my favourite novel, I can’t say for sure. I have read a lot of good books and I hesitate to even put Anne on the winner’s podium. Figuring out my favourite novel might take decades of deliberation, and when will I be done? Ask me on my deathbed – and take that stack of books off my bedside table on your way out. Keep them away from me; they’re probably the reason I’m lying there.