Saturday, 12 February 2011

A Dreadful Confession

Okay here goes: I don't always finish reading novels. Sometimes, (shuffles feet, tries not to look shifty), I get sick of them. Occasionally (well, quite often actually), I read a hundred pages and then I give them up. Am I alone in this appalling habit? In my neighbourhood, it seems to be viewed as some kind of disgusting social crime, (mostly by people who don't actually begin reading novels, let alone get as far as finishing them - which reminds me of my friend's husband who announced he'd never set foot in a church again if women priests were ordained, when he hasn't actually set foot in a church for thirty years even as things stand.) Anyway, my argument is that life's too short to waste reading rubbish.

And I should explain that I don't take the decision to abandon a novel lightly - it's not done on a mere caprice. I don't give up suddenly, hurling the book across the room, narrowly missing passing cats or husbands. It's a much slower process. First, I start having doubts, but I try to plough on. Then, if things don't improve (and they usually don't), I find I can't resist the temptation to riffle a little further forward, to see if the part I'm in is going to get better or at least finish quite quickly. If I decide it isn't, I riffle a bit further still. Then, if it seems to me that the whole thing is simply getting worse as each new page succeeds the one before it, I give up. It is only at that point that I go to the last page, read it, and then make my way back through the body of the novel, skimming odd passages, until I've worked out the general drift of what I was going to find out, if I'd bothered to continue, and checking that nothing exciting happens and that no spaceship suddenly lands in the middle of Christmas Dinner, bringing green visitors from Mars.

And, in my defence, I should point out I've never done it with a decent novel. That is to say, I've never done it with novels written more than a hundred years ago. This is not a policy I've formulated; it's just the truth. Novels written more than a hundred years ago don't betray their readers - or, to be accurate, novels that have stood the test of time and are still available after a hundred years don't betray their readers. Most importantly, novels written more than a hundred years ago - at least all the ones I've come across - don't leave their readers adrift in an amoral universe, in the company of characters who are all equally contemptible, irredeemable and hideously flawed (now what can I be thinking of here?). Writers more than a hundred years ago seem, on the whole, to have understood a basic but fairly important point: a reader has to have a reason to keep on reading. Reading is not like breathing; it's a choice and there are other books to be chosen and other things to do.

And, most importantly, and contrary to much of the current advice from those who purport to teach 'creative writing', having a plot is not enough to keep a reader reading. Plot is what Agatha Christie was good at - and if there is one single writer more than any other who set me on the road to the sin of not finishing books, Agatha Christie is that writer. While she does persuade me to want to know who has done it, she has never convinced me that any of her characters is worth caring about or indeed that they actually exist. She is all plot, and she props plot up with stock figures - the military man, the maid servant, the damaged young artist back from the war - and no insight into the human predicament at all.

Mind you, a writer whose only insight into the human predicament is that no-one in the affluent Western world - which, in their view, is horrid anyway, because the cult of individualism is no longer tempered by any kind of moral structure - is anything more than a collection of self-serving impulses and Freudian reactions, (still can't imagine who I'm referring to) makes it very hard for the reader to sit up night after night, holding his 500-page product and dragging their eyes over those funny little black squiggles that are commonly known as words.

And writing a spectacularly brilliant opening isn't going to improve things, if, after the first sixty pages, your prose sputters out with the disappointing hopelessness of those Catherine wheels that fail each Bonfire Night after a moment or two of dazzling fire.  The promise that is created by a captivating opening only makes the reader's dismay and disillusion greater when the whole structure grinds to a dreary halt. It is no good creating a showy first section that flares up brightly, if it turns out that the brightness you've conjured is just the kind of empty brightness you get when you make a fire from scrunched up paper. If there is no real substance behind the inferno, if the whole thing doesn't keep going, the reader experiences a real sense of let down. A book like Freedom, (just to pick a completely random example) begins in a blaze of splendid writing but the flames from that blaze subside all too rapidly, revealing that there is nothing solid at their heart. This creates enormous disappointment in readers. And disappointed readers soon become angry readers, distrustful readers and ultimately, like me, impatient readers who lose heart when a book seems to be drifting and slip into bad habits, abandoning more and more novels before they reach their end.


  1. Michael Kinsley, sometime editor of The New Republic, became suspicious about the big fat books that everyone in Washington was talking about--on economics, politics, foreign relations what have you. He took to visiting Olsson's (then the leading bookstore here) and slipping into these books, about page 250, pieces of paper redeemable for $20 at the NR offices. He never had to pay up. And Samuel Johnson, once pressed on whether he had read some current book all the way, said "No, sir. Do you read books through?"

    I think that every age has its quirks, which affect its weaker literature. Think how much of Kipling makes one cringe today. So while I am not a Franzen fan, particularly, I don't think that we have consistently worse authors, just more authors. You shouldn't neglect the effect of time sifting out the readable stuff.

    (I believe, by the way, that Edmund Wilson once wrote an essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?")

  2. Not sure which I liked more, the previous comment to mine or the blog post. I like your attitude about being very demanding of books, after all there are billions out there and I don't need to get to the end, it's the author's job to convince me to keep reading. One thing in support of finishing books which aren't enthralling, although there are many I wish I hadn't. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude to be utterly tedious until it got to the last paragraph and then I almost started reading it again. Sometimes you just never know. Thanks!

  3. You're not the only one. I think I'm getting better at it though - I never bothered picking up Freedom. I have you, my wife and a particularly acute review in The Atlantic to thank for that.

    I've noticed that I feel almost betrayed by a bad novel but not so by a bad non-fiction book. One can infer from a bad novel a sort of bad faith on the part of the author - in part, perhaps because it's a more intimate form and you've placed yourself temporarily in their trust. And I just knew that reading Freedom would lead to a very great hatred of its author. That's a bad thing, of course, so, again, thanks!

  4. There's no guilt for me in not finishing a novel, either. I've stopped in the middle of some of the old ones, too -- some that a guy with my academic background wouldn't dare mention in a pubic forum.(As a teenager, I once threw MIDDLEMARCH across the room where I believe it still resides on the floor behind a cabinet, but we'll chalk that up to immaturity and the theatricality that comes with the age.)

    Besides amorality and ugliness, I also find that many new books are simpy lifeless -- devoid of a soul. I have tried, for example, to read three Michael Chabon novels which I put down before the end. There's nothing I can pinpoint about my lack of interest in his work except that it feels *empty* to me. He's an excellent craftsman and he has a furtile imagination(For Pete's sake, I even once met him and we had a great conversation--nice guy; good sense of humor...), but I just can't seem to get enthusiastic about his work. I think I put down ...KAVALIER AND CLAY about fifty pages before the end; I had simply had enough.)

    I agree with the comment above: the onus of engaging me is on the writer. If he doesn't, one of us is wrong, but since the author is never likely to see me lazily toss his book onto the table and walk away, I won't worry about figuring out which it is.

  5. George - I love the Wilson quote, and am cheered by Samuel Johnson too (the NR experiment may merely demonstrate that everyone in Washington is paid too much and can't be bothered to redeem $250). Funny you should mention Kipling and cringing, as I just listened to a Radio 3 programme advocating his rehabilitation (while recognising that not everything of his would read well nowadays). General consensus among the contributors was that Kim is possibly the greatest book ever written from an English viewpoint about India. I haven't read it but was thinking I might after that endorsement. I enjoyed Puck of Pook's Hill as a child - I think it's by him (ashamed to say I never especially liked the Just So Stories)
    Ephemeraldigest - very interesting to hear that about One Hundred Years of Solitude. So far I have not got beyond its front cover, but, if I ever do read it, I shall make sure I read it to the end (or would it perhaps be better to read the last paragraph and then launch into it?)
    Gaw - just after I read your comment about fiction and non-fiction, I saw this quote from Tom Wolfe: "The problem with fiction: it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction." I agree with you about feeling betrayed - it's as if you've just made a whole group of nice friends and then they dump you.
    Chris - I have exactly the same problem with Chabon, although at least he doesn't start off with a really engrossing hundred pages - my interest is never caught by his fiction so at least I don't feel any sense of anti-climax. In a way what I find most baffling is a book where the writer obviously can engage me - but not for very long. I am fairly certain in these cases that it is usually the writer who runs out of steam, not me.

  6. Zoe: I greatly admire some of Kipling's stories. To name one, I don't know a better story about teaching than "Regulus", one of the Stalky & Company stories. His autobiography is wonderful reading. But then there are the stories one blushes to read or finds infuriating--I'll mention "Timlay Doola" as an example and leave it at that. And his dabbling in supernaturalism leaves me cold.

    And might I suggest "Nobody Writes to the Colonel" as a good starting point for GGM?

  7. Thanks, George - the programme I was listening to partly covered the rise of spiritualism in Britain (forgotten the sequence, but something to do with a combination of Darwin's theories and post-ww1 loss of faith possibly - I tend to listen to these things while I'm swimming and my mind often drifts away after about lap 50). Will try the GGM you suggest.

  8. (Sorry, the story is "Namgay Doola".) I guess a handful of Kipling's stories one finds in anthologies would fit in the "rise of spiritualism" theme.

  9. 'And his dabbling in supernaturalism leaves me cold.' - I may have been equating supernaturalism with spiritualism.

  10. It's not just Franzen that is guilty of sucking you in and dumping you with lack of real substance, by the way - I admire Christos Tsolkas's writing too, but he, for my money, also does a bit of the paper fire thing - bright, even dazzling, but nothing to it.