Many users of the popular website Goodreads who have awarded five-star reviews to best-sellers such as 'The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair' (TTATHQA) have declared themselves perplexed by the number of reviewers, myself included, who have seen fit to award just one star to the same work. Some of them have written to ask whether I, with my vast knowledge of literary matters, can shed light upon this polarisation of opinion.
I should explain at once that the cause is medical in nature. The pitiful truth is that there exists a disease, more suffered than understood, which afflicts about one person in every 83; a disease of such stigmatising impact that its sufferers shrink from discussing it; a disease that it is my painful duty now to describe. I can only hope that my revelations will evoke pity and understanding among those to whom the existence of the disease has been unknown until now.
I and my fellow sufferers experience a collection of symptoms which has been largely unrecognised by the mainstream medical community, but which is known within specialist circles as Ocram’s Syndrome.
The symptoms of Ocram’s syndrome amount to an irrational and debilitating intolerance that prevents the patient from enjoying the simple pleasures of reading best-sellers. The symptoms are too many to list exhaustively here, but some of the more common can be described with reference to examples from TTATHQA, as follows:
When we see a sentence such as ‘She collapsed to the ground’ we cannot simply accept it and pass-on to the next. We have an irrepressible urge to expunge the surplus words ‘to the ground’, leaving just ‘She collapsed’, which to our tormented and deranged minds seems clearer and shorter.
When we read such a metaphor as ‘I felt like a volcano waking up and preparing to erupt’, the dreadful mental tic repeats its corrosive effects on our judgement of the book. Volcanoes don’t ‘prepare’, says the little devil-voice in our head. How can volcanoes make preparations? And anyway, the voice says, it should be a volcano waking, not a volcano waking up.
A fictional writer is continually mobbed in the streets by people with gnawing questions about his book, and our unbalanced minds say ha! Just as if.
When a professor of literature pronounces that ‘if you can go for a run in the rain then you can write a great book’ our sick and distorted minds raise absurd and spurious objections. Surely there must be other necessary conditions to be satisfied, we say. Surely some facility with language is needed, some rudimentary creative urge, some tendency to reflect and self-criticise… on and on we go.
The dreadful psychosis manifests again when the professor says that writing a book is exactly like a boxing match. Our afflicted minds can only conceive of perhaps some partial tenuous analogy between writing and boxing. For some inexplicable reason we can’t recognise that writing and boxing are exactly the same.
And when a phrase or plot-device appears which has been used millions of times before, we cannot recognise its classic status, and instead our twisted minds react as if it were a cliché.Hopefully those few examples of the many symptoms of Ocram’s Syndrome are sufficient to indicate its debilitating impact. While the non-sufferer can cheerfully and avidly read to the end of a work such as TTATHQA, enjoying its many twists and turns, we sufferers can barely reach the end of page two before our sympathetic carers have to administer the tranquilisers, wheel us back to our padded cell, check there are no Dan Browns hidden under the bed, and lock us in until we recover from the attack.
Hopefully you will now understand that a one-star rating given to a popular best-seller must in no way be considered an indication of criticism; instead it should be taken as what it is, a health warning to the sufferers of Ocram’s, much as symbols on menus are used to highlight dangers to those with food intolerances.
I can also announce that ever since I first identified the syndrome that now bears my name, research teams have been working night and day to develop solutions to lessen its impact. One line of approach showing promise in the labs is a specialist technique known as ‘editing’. Preliminary tests suggest that as little as a person-year of 'editing' might be sufficient to eliminate all the triggers of Ocram’s in a work such as TTATHQA. Of course it will be many years before these early trials might lead to the eradication of the complaint. The barriers to be overcome are not just medical- the harsh and rapacious publishing industry, which is to Ocram’s what the tobacco industry has been to cancer, will need to be tackled, and I see little hope of early success in that endeavour.