I came across this great quotation over the weekend by Colm Tóibín, a writer I love. He’s just won the Hawthornden Prize for literature:

“You can do anything you like as a novelist at the level of the sentence but what you can’t control is the nervous system of the book, its emotional connection. The only person who can do that is the reader.”

I love the idea of a book having a nervous system but does the reader really control it? As a reader or a writer what do you think?


  1. Most of us can’t control our own nervous systems, so I imagine controlling that of a book would be even harder whether you are a writer or a reader. What is certain is that a reader’s emotional connection with a book is by definition different to that of the writer, even when the writer later becomes the reader of his own work. For myself, writing something and then reading it later always produces a different response. Sometimes the pleasure is from writing and sometimes from reading what you have written. Could it be, that the harder the first part is, there is more enjoyment in the second part and vice versa?

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    • Hi, Keir, that’s interesting about reading back over your work. It takes me a long time to be able to do that without wanting to change everything about it. The only pleasure I usually have is in jokes I may have made!


  2. Hmm, interesting point, and I can see the perspective, because you can’t control what the reader brings to your story or how they’ll react to it. Still, I think we have to take some credit for at least framing what that response might be.

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  3. Toibin’s a master of this – the apparently simple sentence that simply tingles with meaning and emotion. It’s the difficult thing to do as a writer, to know just when the book’s nervous system is being felt rather than simply shovelling on too much detail and information. Hollinghurst is another writer who can take your breath away with an apparently random phrase. But we the readers are the receptors and everyone responds differently.

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  4. I think I would agree. But then I am not a writer in the way you are!
    I always think that with my paintings they are only doing half their work if they stay with me – they need to go out and find their destinies and impact on a new viewer. But perhaps it is easier to think of the the nervous system of an abstract painting being controlled by the viewer, than it is a reader of a book.


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