You know when you're chatting to a group of people and you confess to some problem you thought was pretty common and then everyone looks at you blankly and you realise it's just you? You all know that feeling, right? No? Just me then.
Well I have no idea if this is a common problem - in fact I'm not even totally sure it is a problem, though it's undoubtedly an obstacle given the line of work I'm in. For twenty-five years I've read a novel a week, on average. Lots of it was trashy, but not all. I viewed every train ride as a golden opportunity to read and I'd get anxious at the thought of starting out on a journey only to find that my novel was still on the hall table. The idea that I'd be forced to look at pylons and people's back gardens instead of re-immersing myself in some fabulous story always felt like an important chance wasted, leading me to stuff two and sometimes three books into my bag to be on the safe side.
Then about five years ago I started trying to do a bit of writing. I don't know if that's what triggered the change, but the timing is suspicious and I'm sure it's part of it. The more time I spent trying to put words together and figuring out what I did and didn't like at the level of sentences and paragraphs, the less fiction I read. A big part of it is that nowadays unless I'm reading something very fine indeed, I can't help but think 'I wouldn't have written that, I'd have written this instead'. Or then I'll think of some third alternative, and before you know it I'm writing not reading. And of course (as the observant reader will have spotted) it's not that I'm the most talented writer in the world; it's just that increasingly (to borrow from the world of the lay art critique) 'I know what I like'.
Time was, when I finished every book I started, but I've abandoned more novels in the last five years than I've read. Some phrase will hit me like a wrong note in a song. Some hammy word choice or clumsy expression will jar and I'll just think 'I can't be bothered'.
In case you think I've had it with the written word - which really would be a career-limiting development - I should say that I've compensated by filling the void with non-fiction - oodles of it. For some reason that I don't understand, reading for me has become like that game where you thread a loop of wire round a bent coat-hanger, trying not to make contact and set off an annoying buzzer. Inexplicably, non-fiction is like a neurosurgeon, nimbly able to get from start to finish without a hitch, whereas most novels are lurching drunks with bad hiccups.
But I don't think it's all about hyper-sensitivity on my part; it also seems to be a lack of motivation. I can't decide if it's just that I'd rather learn something than entertain myself - because undoubtedly that can get addictive once you get past your boredom threshold. Factor in that I watch more movies than ever and it doesn't seem that I've gone off storytelling. But for whatever reason, I just don't care enough to get more than a few pages into most novels. And just to remind you, this is after a quarter-century of effortless, marathon-style, novel reading.
Thankfully I still find fiction from earlier eras quite palatable. I can read Victorian literature without my interest flagging. Re-reading some Austen went well. Gulliver's Travels was fabulous. It's something about the quaintness of the language, maybe, that lets it slip past my hyper-active fiction allergy.
And this problem doesn't stop me writing fiction or reading back what I've written.
But what if it gets worse? What if, eventually, fiction from all eras is a problem? It's a worst-case scenario, but somewhere up ahead I fear joining a club populated largely by footballers and Big Brother alumni. With them it's all books - and I'm not quite that bad - but I worry that a time will come when I write more novels than I read. That can't be healthy, can it?
p.s. That picture at the top is a mast cell, by the way. They're involved in the process of allergic reactions. And sometimes they look pretty too, like some sort of space cauliflower. Picture courtesy of Nano Picture of the Day.