I was inspired to write this book by Pierre Bayard's Comment parler des livres que l'on n'a pas lus? Or rather, I was inspired by its title.

At the time I had no idea that Bayard's essay would be translated into English; I imagined I'd be able to call my own, very different effort How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. While I was working on my book, though, an English translation of Bayard came out, and my publishers suggested the best thing was for me to add "Really" as the third word of my book's title. I wasn't thrilled about this, but saw no happy alternative. The book was later repackaged at the publisher's suggestion. I like the revised title now, though I wasn't sure about it at the time. When I tried it on a friend who's a novelist, his disconcerting response was "Who's afraid of Jane Austen? No one."

Originally there was a chapter on self-help books. At one time I'd considered writing a history of self-help, and some of my reading for that abandoned project found its way, without my planning it, into the draft of this book. A sensible friend (not the novelist) urged me to cut it: "Save it for... well, for the bin."

When I gave a talk about this book in Sheffield, I was heckled by an audience member who thought it was outrageous of me to discuss Tolstoy without having read his novels in Russian. "You should learn Russian before having opinions about Tolstoy," he boomed. Afterwards he came and introduced himself, saying, "I thought my intervention was the highlight of the day. Didn't you?" I told him the highlight of my day had been a £5 "all you can eat" Chinese buffet.