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Last Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007, 12:02 GMT
How to bluff War and Peace
Book entitled War and Cheat

The Magazine challenged readers to identify the bluffer in a discussion about Tolstoy's War and Peace. Well, the one pretending to have read the book had you fooled. So how did he do it?

Talking intelligently about a novel you haven't read may be easier than you think.

Ross Leckie, author of The Bluffer's Guide to the Classics, proved it can be done when he held a conversation about War and Peace with esteemed literature expert, Professor John Sutherland (read their discussion via link above).

Not only did Leckie hold his own in the discussion about a book he had never read, but he convinced more than half of you that he was the expert.

Speaker A and Speaker B were unidentified. Those readers who voted that Leckie the bluffer was Speaker B were wrong. He was A. Speaker B was the professor, who chaired the Booker Prize judges last year.

So what is Leckie's secret to bluffing? And why bother?

The vote results from Thursday's story

Leckie says there are three simple rules to having a conversation about a book you haven't read:

  • clarity

  • conviction

  • connection

"Identify two or three points that you can articulate with conviction and stick to them," he says.

"Most people when they bluff tend to waffle and are rarely clear.

"People assume clarity is the result of knowledge. I wish it were. Sound convinced by yourself and you will sound convincing."


Make connections to bigger issues, he says, so he presented War and Peace as a novel about war, peace, death and the universe (and you can't get much bigger than that).
Ross Leckie
Any fool can be long-winded, it's being short that's hard
Ross Leckie

Leckie did make a failed attempt to read Tolstoy's 1,500-page tome 20 years ago, but gave up, although he has a love of Russian literature and therefore is quite knowledgeable of the country's history and culture.

To do the basic revision and make an argument, Leckie recommends using revision notes.

He says he could only talk with confidence on two characters in War and Peace, Pierre and Natasha. In his debate with the professor, he says there were sticky moments, but his tactic when the subject became unfamiliar was to agree and change the subject.

Bluffing is a bit of fun and panders to that innate human characteristic, bravura, says Leckie.

Other major works he has talked about but never read include Moby Dick and Ulysses, which he once gave a lecture on. And he does not believe he is missing out.

Girl reading
There has to be an easier way...

"I think the best writers are miniaturists. I don't think many people can paint on vast canvases or write vast novels, but I think any fool can be long-winded. It's being short that's hard.

"Take Paradise Lost. There are huge sections of that which are interminably dull although there are moments of English language and poetry at its most quintessential."

There are some long books which are exceptional, he says, like Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, which reads "like a symphony".

Professor John Sutherland
To enter into the 'big conversation' you do have to give an impression
Professor John Sutherland

Sutherland says the pressure to read is the reason why people bluff.

"One has to do it. There are more books than one human being can read and to enter into the 'big conversation' you do have to give an impression. Most people can pick up enough and we sometimes get by on the escape clause 'I read it but I can't remember it in detail'"

We love to talk about books and such conversations are very civilised, he says.

"But to participate you have to have the ante, the names of the characters.

"Ross demonstrated that you can pick up sufficient to keep the ball rolling but there's a danger of falling into the elephant trap."

And even the very best can trip up.

Leckie gave it away only once during their chat, Sutherland recalls, when he appeared to suggest that Ivan Illych, subject of a Tolstoy short story, was a character in the novel.

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