Reading a subject simply meant reading books, and the books had to be the best. When I was a young student it was poetry all the way: especially T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell, not only because they made me feel important and clever, but also because poetry seemed more important than fiction. The languages were more intense, elusive and metaphorical. Poetry appeared closer to philosophy, to a real literature of ideas. I still think that poetry comes first.
I then went through a fanatical radical feminist separatist stage as a young woman where I read only women writers. I revered the Brontës, all three Brontës, because they wrote about adultery and violence against women with a radical candour that still takes my breath away. And I adored Virginia Woolf, because her writing swooped so close to poetry, and I fell for all the myths of Bloomsbury; all those middle class intellectuals discussing art in deckchairs and being openly queer. But I read anything that was written by a woman – a biologically female member of the species. Nothing else would do. We, the literary women of my generation, sometimes operated with a ruthless biological determinism, searching for difference, for confirmation that the genitals of genius governed the brain.
I still read writing by women that isn’t banal domestic fiction or romance, with a concentration and interest that few contemporary male writers can ever generate within me. Women who aren’t tools of the patriarchy are uncomfortable and difficult to read. They are not often published well. Now, however, I lay siege again to the Great Misogynist Tradition of the Fathers and claim it as my tradition too. I am especially fond of and attached to male writers who hated women with an engaged and committed desperation. At least they believed that we matter in the great scheme of things. Milton is one of these Great Fathers. The grandeur and fervour of his imagination still amazes me. Sometimes when I have been reading him I cannot imagine why I ever read anyone else.
But the woman to whom I say ‘Master!’ is George Eliot; I re-read one of her novels every year now. I love her vast intelligence, her eroticism, bitchiness and savagery. I am fascinated by the slipperiness of her narrative methods, the famous ‘we’ that includes and excludes whole communities of readers at will. Eliot was an arrogant and tendentious writer; she believed in the novel as an epic form.
I think that one part of growing up as a writer is that you lose interest in naïve first-person narratives. A first-person narrative will give you claustrophobic intensity, an unreliable first-person narrator is often suggestive and interesting, but it is hard to represent intelligence, good judgement, moral discrimination and a literary ethic of compassion. There is a danger with first person narrators – apart from Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – that, if the writing is not careful and disciplined, the voice will seem selfish and long-winded, and the speaker’s concerns self-centred and trivial. I am perfectly aware that these judgements sound like moral judgements. But they are also about the effect of writing on the reader. I don’t like spending time with trivial, self-absorbed narrators. I have better books to read.
George Eliot’s narrators and storytellers have a generous sophistication that is subtle, principled, devious. It is a precious gift left to other, later writers. Henry James learned an enormous amount from her; he poached her themes and plots. He was just as clever as she was, but never so sexy.