One feeds mind and soul, the other feeds the body. Apart from providing nourishment, there are other parallels between food and books.
The 2023 Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Trust by Hernan Diaz, was another reminder for me that food and literature run along tracks laid next to each other.
The structure of Trust is intriguing. Having just finished reading it, I can’t decide whether it is very clever or, appropriately given the title, clever yet also deceitful. Without giving away spoilers, it involves four variations of the same story. At times I had the suspicion I was reading the author’s drafts of a novel, complete with notes, thoughts, and things to research. The more I read, the more I wondered if Trust was a novel borne out of a writer’s struggle to find the best angle for the book they were really attempting to write. Basically, the book they started out writing ended up as something completely different. Like a magician’s illusion, they hid these struggles in plain sight, presenting them to readers wrapped up in a singular story.
I get how that can happen. I’m not comparing it to a Pulitzer Prize Winner, but my novel By the Time Dawn Breaks started out as a factual account of strange incidents from each of the Canary Islands, then changed into a singular story linked by fictional tales based on Canarian folklore.
What has that to do with food? Nada. Nothing. Not on the face of it at least. Trust is a Marmite book. Readers reviewing it online either think it genius or terminally dull. Literary prize winners can often have that effect. When I checked out reviews on Amazon after reading it, I identified a pattern.
A significant number of bad reviews came from people who had read it on Kindle, purchased at an offer price of 99p. It wasn’t the first time I’ve noticed this happen.
Buying a book purely because it is cheap isn’t a good reason for doing so. When I browse bookshops, I pick books that reel me in; books I want to read. Price doesn’t play a part.
Similarly, when I go out to eat, I want to eat somewhere the food appeals to me. I don’t see a pub/restaurant with a sign saying, ‘Nosh at low prices’ and think ‘that’s the place for me’ without at least checking the menu to see if it has something I want.
Sometimes, that ‘something’ might be a pizza at the local pub. Sometimes it is a roll and sausage from a food truck. Sometimes it could be art on a plate in a Michelin star restaurant. The establishments vary, the prices vary, the level of a chef’s technical abilities varies. The thing that remains consistent is I want to enjoy quality food that tastes good.
Books are the same. Sometimes I want to be gripped by a Mick Herron or a Stephen King. Sometimes I want to be transfixed by the storytelling of Anthony Doerr. And sometimes I want my thoughts provoked by a novel like Trust. When a book is written well, neither genre nor literary credentials play a part in my enjoyment.
The key is knowing what I want, and recognising what sort of book will deliver that.
Which brings me back to reviews of Trust. One of the other things some of the bad Kindle reviews had in common was a complete misunderstanding of the structure of the plot. More than one complained their Kindle version was incomplete, suggesting they were mistakenly sent a draft copy as theirs still had author’s notes. Those author’s notes, as I mentioned earlier, were a part of the book. The novel’s ‘original’ and unusual structure confused some people. But just because a book’s structure confuses someone, it doesn’t make it a bad book. Just not the right book for that particular reader.
It makes economic sense to pick up the books we want to read at bargain prices when they are on offer. The danger with buying a book solely because it is .99p is some readers are obviously buying novels of a type they wouldn’t otherwise choose. That’s good for sales, but not for reviews. Which is unfair to the author.
If Michelin star restaurants had menus with dishes at budget prices, they’d soon rack up lots of negative reviews for small portions, incomplete plates, and dishes that made no sense at all.