A very bookish friend of mine recently made what I thought was a shocking admission: he had never ever finished a single E.M Forster novel.
I gaped. I tch tched in my throat. I delivered my overused but underrated How Can You Never Have Read Maurice When It’s the Loveliest Novel Ever Written speech. And, of course, a large part of my brain thought: Thank Fuck. Because if said literary friend hadn’t got around to touching Forster in 40-odd years perhaps I could now admit that I’d never read more than about five pages of Dickens. Or finished anything by Dostoevsky. Or even TRIED to read Henry James. Or – no, no, stop, you’re giving away too much, Kate.
So this survey out last week for World Book Day, which found that 65 per cent of respondents admitted to lying about which novels they’d read to impress others pleased me even more. In the interests of full disclosure I should say now that, while I don’t think I’ve ever outright lied about having read something I have not, I have certainly let my silence do the lying for me on more than one occasion. You know what I mean:
SOMEONE I FANCY: Blah Blah Blah… the Golden Bowl. Right?
ME: Um, yes.
SOMEONE I FANCY: It’s so different to Henry James’ early work, too. Don’t you think?
ME: Um, yes?
SOMEONE I FANCY: Blah Blah Blah.
ME: What, sorry?
SOMEONE I FANCY: I said and what did you think of the last page of Crime and Punishment?
SOMEONE I FANCY: Why have you just taken your top off?
Most of us do this sort of thing to some degree: it’s just another version of smoothing down those rough edges for those we want to impress, regardless of whether it’s impressing them into bed or something a bit more platonic. I have, for instance, frequently answered my phone while lying on the couch, watching The Biggest Loser and eating crisps off my belly. But when the person on the other end asks what I’m up to I do some editorialising: suddenly I’m listening to Wagner and reading Tolstoy in front of that roaring fire I don’t actually own. If those video telephones I always see in sci fi movies ever make it to market I’ll be fucked.
Naturally brilliant Guardian columnist and (fingers crossed) my future husband Charlie Brooker says it all much better than me:
“Of course, whenever two people meet, literary fibs are just the tip of the iceberg. As potential partners initially circle one another, a full 98% of their conversation consists of out-and-out falsehood. The remaining 26% is wild exaggeration. It's an unnecessary game of bluff in which you both claim to be into the same bands, hold the same political viewpoints, harbour the same dark secrets and so on. Assuming it works and the pair of you get together, the rest of the relationship consists of either a) both of you slowly discovering what the other one's actually like, or b) one of you grimly maintaining the fiction that, hey, you're really into Bruce Springsteen, fell-walking or sex parties too, until the facade finally crumbles or you die of sheer despair.”
And, of course – as Brooker points out a bit later – the silver lining here is that if you’re busy wanking on about any of the books which this particular survey found to be the most lied-about reads (including 1984, Ulysses and Midnight’s Children), then chances are the person you’re banging on to about it hasn’t read them either. In fact He/She probably didn’t even notice when you referred to Mr Darcy as “Mr Firth”. You’re totally home free.