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Books, Competition, Features

The Literary Guilt and Inferiority Quiz

GuiltMany of you book-lovers will have seen this very interesting, possibly funnier than intended article by the supremely erudite Will Self in The Guardian, lamenting the death of the serious literary novel (again). Now, serious and literary are two of my favourite words but this piece contained one or two (dozen) others which challenged my view of myself as an articulate and well-read Literary Sofa proprietor.

This week’s post isn’t serious but it is literary. Kind of. If you’ve ever had a complex about your reading habits, have a crack at these deeply revealing questions. I’m giving my own answers to make you feel better. Maybe.

Answers below.

1. Do you have an English degree?

No, and it’s a really handy justification for all the books I haven’t read whilst simultaneously implying that I’ve devoured the entire canon of French and German literature.

2. How many lines of the Will Self article did you read before encountering an unfamiliar word?

Horrifyingly, the answer is NONE because I didn’t know the word benison. I wrongly assumed it meant benefit, when in fact it means blessing, which I should have been able to work out from French. I was comforted by the fact that the next unfamiliar word wasn’t until paragraph 8, until I discovered Panglossian (excessively optimistic) derives from the character Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, a book I have actually read.

3. Have you ever read a novel by Will Self cover to cover?

You have? Then what are you doing here? I couldn’t get past page one of Umbrella.

4. Do you find long novels off-putting?

I have rarely read a book longer than 500 pages that didn’t need a serious edit, in my humble and unqualified opinion.

5. Have you ever tried to estimate how many books you have time to read before you die?

No. I am useless at maths and I don’t know when I’m going to die.

6. Do you skim-read novels or skip pages?

What do you think? It took me three years to write a novel. Either I read something or I don’t.

7. Do you feel bad about giving up on a book?

No – I do it more and more. It’s my lookout to pick books that appeal to me and the writer’s job to make me want to keep reading. Sometimes a book becomes a personal challenge and I grit my teeth and power through even if I’m not enjoying it. Especially if it’s a ‘difficult’ novel and/or written by a man. I don’t like to be defeated.

 8. Have you ever purposely watched the film version of a novel instead of reading it?

Occasionally, especially if it’s outside my usual orbit. I’ve never read the Harry Potter books, for example (for some reason I feel bound to say that I have great respect for J K Rowling). I usually prefer to read a book first but Watching Never Let Me Go, The Road and Revolutionary Road made me want to read them.   As someone who’s not that keen on historical fiction or very long books I’d like to see Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies on stage. That’s a bit classier, no?

9. Have you ever been embarrassed by your taste in fiction or to admit you enjoyed a particular book?

No, and I don’t think anyone should be.   Now and again I love reading a trashy blockbuster which wouldn’t come off well if I got my reviewing fangs into it (which I simply wouldn’t). Diplomacy rather than embarrassment prevents me giving examples.

10.  Do you have a physical TBR list of titles you want to read?

No. That would be terrifying. I have a physical pile of the next six or so books I fancy reading, and shelfloads of possibles. But I am horribly fickle and often ignore both in favour of something exciting that’s just come through the letterbox.

11. Have you ever felt alone because you didn’t enjoy a book everyone else seems to love?

Yes, but I know to keep my mouth shut unless we’re in the same room. And you’re not the author.

12. Did you tell people you read Fifty Shades of Grey ‘just to see what the fuss was about’?

Yes. It was even true. Just the first one though.

13. Have you ever read a Russian novel?

No. That feels like a terrible admission and I don’t even know why. I did feel a bit of a fraud making a joke about War and Peace in story I wrote recently. I downloaded it though – does that count?

14. Have you ever pretended to read a novel you haven’t read?

That was implicitly the case for my entire English A’level syllabus, including Vanity Fair, although in my defence I didn’t actually claim to have read the texts in my exam answers. I was in a huff because they wouldn’t let me do geography and was aiming to fail, but it backfired and I got a C.

With maturity comes the realisation that nobody else has read everything either. These days I would never pretend to have read a book I haven’t, though I sometimes wish I could pretend I haven’t read a book I have.

15. Have you ever embarrassed yourself whilst discussing books?

Listen, I can’t be expected to remember every daft thing I’ve ever said at a party, but last week I was chatting to a very nice man but somehow had the feeling we weren’t on the same page. Turned out he was talking about Dave Eggers and I was talking about Dave Pelzer. I regularly attribute the entire oeuvre of Henry James to Edith Wharton and vice versa (well they were very close, and I love them both). I once cited The Commitments (sic) as my favourite novel in a conversation with a literary editor who either didn’t hear me or is very good at keeping a straight face (have since gone off Jonathan Franzen so at least it won’t happen again) Don’t get me started on Chandler, Cheever and Carver – the potential is endless.


There are no answers! Only you can know if you feel more or less smug or inadequate. But don’t keep it to yourself…


…the best answer (in MY opinion) to any of the above questions (max. 3 answers per person please, in one comment) will earn the winner their pick of title from my groaning bookshelves. (Answer them all if you want to, but that’s a post for your own blog).

Winner picked 6pm UK Sunday 11 May.

AND THE WINNER IS… This was almost impossible to decide – you are such a well-educated, well-read, witty bunch.  The post got masses of hits and I really enjoyed all your answers, so thanks very much to everyone who took part.  After much agonising and laughing out loud, I picked ELUNED as the winner because all 3 of her answers were funny and contenders for the prize in their own right.  If it weren’t for the cost of postage, I’d love to send you all a book.  Blame the Post Office.

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


24 thoughts on “The Literary Guilt and Inferiority Quiz

  1. Brilliant. There is a lot of guff talked in the name of being literary. One of the degrees I failed to achieve was an English one – does that count? If it makes you feel better, I invented a handy flowchart for any sticky social situation when you need to mention a book (please forgive me leaving a link here – I know it’s cheeky, but seemed relevant): http://isabelrogers.org/2013/01/28/flowchart-are-you-well-read-2/

    Posted by isabelrogers | May 8, 2014, 12:58
  2. I didn’t get ‘benison’ either. I wondered if it were a combination of venison and denizen (Tennyson?) but they didn’t make sense. Did a mental shrug, confident that there’d be more words I didn’t know, and ploughed on. There were!
    You’re right – he is erudite and I liked his canary analogy, but why oh why can’t he put in a few more paragraph breaks? He seems to make it dense on purpose. Along with having a word in his opening sentence that nobody knows (i.e. you and me).

    Posted by Whisks | May 8, 2014, 13:37
  3. My answer to Q14.
    More than half a century ago (1961, to be precise), I was sitting an exam in English Literature for the degree of Licence ès Lettres of the University of Lille. The exam lasted four hours, there was only one question (no choice!) and fourteen set books. It turned out that the question concerned Sons and Lovers, which I had barely looked at and had certainly not read cover to cover. Since I had been given the morning off to do the exam from the school where I was teaching, the potential for embarrassment was too great for me just to walk out, so I started thinking along these lines: if I were asked this question about a novelist and a novel which I really knew, how would I tackle it? I spent three hours thinking about this (as if it were a question on Balzac!), and fifty-five minutes writing, finishing with five minutes to spare.
    Several weeks later I was amazed to receive a letter saying that my performance had qualified me to tackle the oral part of the exam. When I presented myself for the oral I was even more astounded when the examiner stood up, shook my hand and congratulated me, because my essay on Lawrence had shared first place with one other candidate.
    I have often wondered whether the result was influenced by what I had to write alongside my name at the top of page one: Place of birth – Nottingham! (Which was true, but totally irrelevant!)

    Posted by Tony Whelpton | May 8, 2014, 13:37
  4. 1) No, I have a degree in economics.
    3) I read The Quantity Theory of Insanity cover to cover, which isn’t a novel but I did think it was excellent. Also I liked the economics joke.
    15) Not as such, although when everyone was reading 50 Shades there were a few uncomfortable moments. What I particularly enjoy about discussing books is that you can do it with anyone, it can be a great conversation starter, and it gives you insights onto both the person and the book. But I found it odd discussing with a sprightly old gentlemen at a book signing I did, just how much he had enjoyed 50 Shades although he found the sex scenes a little unrealistic…

    Posted by claire king | May 8, 2014, 14:30
  5. I heartily endorse what you have written here. I can’t think of any funny answers to match yours, more’s the pity.

    Posted by writerlyderv | May 8, 2014, 14:39
  6. My answer to Q13 – I’ve read a novel called Death and The Penguin. It’s by Andrey Kurkov, about an aspiring writer who has a pet penguin. He rescued the penguin from a struggling zoo and now keeps it in his bathroom where it lives in the bath. What’s not to like? Maybe not quite what Will Self had in mind

    Posted by Anja de Jager | May 8, 2014, 15:18
  7. Hahahaha !!! This is a great post Isabel and really made me smile :)) I didn’t know what Panglossian meant …..and couldn’t be ar*ed to look it up so thanks for saving me a job !!!!! Actually Will Self is a pretty good novelist once you get over his rather affected style and Umbrella is worth persevering with ( but avoid The Book Of Dave). Also , you absolutely MUST read Anna Karenina ASAP 😉x

    Posted by hastanton | May 8, 2014, 15:37
  8. 1. No, mathematics, and psychology several times over, which is why I think Beowulf is a feral version of Pavlov’s dog.
    2. DK, but getting worried that I guessed Benison correctly and knew what Panglossian meant.
    8/14. There are few books I genuinely don’t know whether I’ve read or not (you’ll look back on this fondly when I’m diagnosed with early onset dementia).
    Thanks for a fun distraction, Isabel on a rainy day afternoon.

    Posted by Annecdotist | May 8, 2014, 15:50
  9. I achieved a solid A in my English degree. This was achieved by applying Marxists feminist theory to any and all books. This was especially useful for the books that were too boring to read such a) long ones and b),Dickens (usually the same thing) and c) Russians. My thesis was an exercise in academic bamboozlementation and I spent much if the 90’s recovering from post a structuralism. I consider Eeyore the greatest literary character of all time.

    Posted by fiona melrose | May 8, 2014, 17:52
  10. Fun! My answers aren’t funny though.

    Q.1 I have a degree in Literature from the OU. Quite proud of that as it took me 12 years of part time study.
    Q.7 I do give up on books and I don’t feel bad about it… but re Q.6, I don’t ever skim read or skip pages, as that would make me feel bad.
    Q.11 I can’t stand Mrs Dalloway. Tried it twice but couldn’t fathom it or enjoy it. It’s on my NTBR shelf.

    Posted by louisewalters12 | May 8, 2014, 18:11
  11. Q1) No, and it plagues me everyday. I feel extremely inadequate and almost fraudulent when I tell people that I’m a freelance writer and they respond with, “Oh, where did you do your English degree?”

    Q4) Not at all. The size of a novel never bothers me, but if I’m in no way hooked by the end of the first chapter then I won’t read on. Which I guess kind of answers Q7 as well.

    Q14) Erm…not as such. I may have held conversations that implied I had read certain novels without actually saying that I had or hadn’t. Which, technically, isn’t lying….is it?

    Posted by emmahalley | May 8, 2014, 18:15
  12. Qu 1. No – my degree’s in Biological Sciences, specialising in Microbiology. Which is pretty appropriate for a 5 foot nothing tall author. Now, if there was a degree in ‘loves to play with words’…
    Qu 6. All the time…can’t stand long rambling descriptions. I want to get to the action, which is normally the next bit of dialogue.

    Posted by Katherine Hetzel | May 8, 2014, 19:41
  13. 1. Do you have an English degree?
    No but I have got a Business Studies Degree (and I did it in English). Seriously – I’ve got a degree? Blimey, I deserve a book for that alone. I hardly went to any lectures you know?

    5. Have you ever tried to estimate how many books you have time to read before you die?
    Yes, all the time, what else are you supposed to do in meetings?
    Oh books? Sorry, no. I thought you said Jaffa Cakes and eat.

    9. Have you ever been embarrassed by your taste in fiction or to admit you enjoyed a particular book?
    Dude, when ‘Against All Odds’ (by James Dyson) is your favourite ever book, fiction is the least of your worries!

    Posted by benmblackman | May 8, 2014, 20:55
  14. I reckon the best answer to No.4 comes from Michael Cunningham, who said in an interview ‘As a reader, I prefer a shorter novel. When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is, oh fuck you. I don’t want to read your giant book.’


    Not sure he’s always right (Wolf Hall is 650 pages) but meanwhile, The Goldfinch remains, unread, on my shelf. Just can’t face the heft when I have lots of lovely 300-pagers vying for attention…

    Posted by JulietW | May 9, 2014, 12:02
  15. 15. Have you ever embarrassed yourself whilst discussing books?

    At every opportunity.
    The first time, I was 13, it was the school holidays, and I was visiting a friend. Away from school, we’d been reading Jackie, Cosmo, and the like — and although I loved them, I figured they weren’t great literature. One night, her parents hosted a party and her very lovely author-grandad asked what I was reading.
    “Oh, nothing much,” I said, “just magazines and -”
    “And?” he was genuinely interested.
    I’d been going to say ‘crap’, but I didn’t want to say ‘crap’ to a grandad, and right there and then, I forgot every other word in the dictionary. “Ummm,” I said, “dollop.”
    As if ‘dollop’ wasn’t bad enough, HE THOUGHT I SAID TROLLOPE.

    Posted by t upchurch | May 9, 2014, 18:55
  16. Brilliant, T Upchurch! As a great-grandfather myself (twice over now), I especially like the idea that grandfathers might be upset by crap!

    Posted by Tony Whelpton | May 9, 2014, 20:07
  17. 3. Um, yes. I’ve read The book of Dave. I was rather surprised when they named a TV channel after it.
    13. (and 6.) Yes, Anna Karenina, but I skipped all the bits about war or politics, so it ended up quite a short book.
    15. Yes. At a university tutorial about Ulysses (which I didn’t like, or really understand for that matter) the tutor said “This book’s themes are love and hate”. I replied that I thought those elements could be found in most books. But instead of ‘elements’, I accidentally came out with ‘elephants’.

    Posted by Eluned | May 9, 2014, 20:33
  18. # 13: I have read several Russian novels, but I only appreciated Anna Karenina. Notes from the Underground (which I had to teach), War and Peace, and even the Brothers Karamazov didn’t hold my interest. I’ve read almost everything of Chekhov’s and thought he could have done some editing, but I enjoyed asst. directing his work, especially Three Sisters. One of my theatre professors used to tell a story about visiting Chekhov’s grave every year and would cry about it. I was certain that he knew Chekhov intimately somewhere in the “spirit world” since there wasn’t any chance they would have met in mortality. My mother and father felt the need to guide my reading habits, from a very young age. My mother would suggest a classic (she is a big fan of Tolstoy) and my father would suggest sci-fi/military-focused books. I think both of them contributed to my love of a wide variety of literature. However, I still haven’t read Catch 22 or The Lord of the Flies. Perhaps I’ve already experienced these books in real life, no need to re-live them in fiction.

    Posted by brittajensen2013 | May 10, 2014, 12:20
  19. Reblogged this on Britta Jensen and commented:
    If you haven’t read this wonderful post of Isabel Costello’s you really must!

    Posted by brittajensen2013 | May 10, 2014, 12:22
  20. No English degree, and generally I think life is too short to be bothered with Will Self and his pretentious twaddle, so I haven’t read the article, but I did know benison, and Panglossian, but not because I’ve read Candide; only because I saw the Leonard Bernstein musical at the Menier Chocolate Factory last December. I read most of Tolstoy’s novels as a teenager, sitting on the floor of my bedroom my back against the radiator, listening to my Jethro Tull LP. I didn’t understand the philosophy nor much of the history and my image of 19th century Russia had a peculiarly English folk rocky soundtrack but I can still remember the stories more clearly than some of the novels that I’ve read in the last 12 months.

    Posted by rowena | May 11, 2014, 08:11
  21. 1.
    No. American Studies at Birmingham, although half the course was taught by the English department so I ploughed through a good part of the canon (well, I was meant to) and I had to learn almost enough literary theory to understand a Will Self article (but not quite).

    Your post made me look up Self’s education and I was surprised that he went to public school and Oxford. I must have been bamboozled by the taciturn Grumpy Old Men persona and the stories of addiction and debauchery that tend to accompany his reputation (remember the Tony Blair plane thing?). I had the naive impression he’d come from much more of an alternative background and thought his ostentatious erudition was something of an outsider’s mockery of that world. The irony seems to be elitist rather than cleverly post-modernist although I suspect Self is still writing this stuff with tongue-in-cheeek — ‘This is the Guardian, got to bang in references to Rousseau, Feodor Chaliapin and Jeff Bezos in the same article .

    I got as far as melioristic, which is two words after Panglossian — shame on Will Self for using such a plebian word as ‘and’ to link the two — why not ‘agglutinated with’ or something even better from his mental thesaurus? I managed to understand Gesamtkunstwerk but only because I’ve been round a load of German art exhibitions as research for my own novel.

    I did on my degree course when reading them felt a bit like work (when I’d rather have been in the bar) but I’m more offput by long Guardian Books articles.

    6, 7 and 14.
    (See answers to 1 and 4).

    As an aside to the questions, I’m surprised those who protested against Hanif Kureishi’s comments about the creative writing teaching industry haven’t howled about this dismissal of Self’s creative writing doctorate student’s work (and that of many other): ‘Not that he’s a neophyte: he already teaches creative writing, he just wants to be paid more highly for the midwifery of stillborn novels.’

    Actually, I’m not surprised that no one has picked it up as it’s buried so deep in the article that I guess most readers, even those of Guardian Books, would have skipped over it or given up on the article long before.

    Posted by Mike Clarke | May 11, 2014, 15:34


  1. Pingback: Small social deaths: the literary gaffe (and a literary sofa, and a literary giant) | T Upchurch - May 9, 2014

  2. Pingback: Small social deaths: the literary gaffe (and a literary sofa, and a literary giant) | T Upchurch - May 10, 2014

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