Revisiting the classics

My Mum, when I was younger, used to read me the books of Ellis Peters. I loved them. In my innocence and naivety I never realised that they are, in fact, pretty poor. The crime-solving (and let’s not forget that the Ellis Peters award is still given to the best historical crime novel every year) is weak; the romances that always went hand-in-hand aren’t even worthy of Mills and Boon. But they’re loved and still a most pleasant way of passing an evening.

Same goes for Agatha Christie. Hugely important, the first name of the Golden Age of crime-writing – but are her novels actually that good? Not really. You couldn’t expect them to get published today.

See, I have a theory that books – like popular music, in fact – are much better now than they ever were in the past. There’s been a massive improvement throughout literature and now classics are held as such more for what they did at the time than for their actual literary merit.

Take James Joyce’s Ulysses. By all accounts that’s a fearsomely difficult read. Can you really hold that out as genius when most people can’t get past the first few chapters? Take Philip K. Dick. Now PKD’s been a huge influence on me. He was, is, and will be the first person you turn to if you want ideas. Just look at the influence he’s had on movies, all the novels he’s had adapted. But he too was, by modern standards, a pretty poor writer. He jumps from mind to mind so you often don’t know whose thoughts you’re sharing. His prose is unnecessarily complicated. You often have to re-read his paragraphs three times to get what he means.

(Same goes for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, by the way. Another genre-progenitor that’s fearsomely difficult to read. Asimov’s not great either.)

This is not a criticism of these particular authors, by the way. I admire them all hugely and it’s never possible to divorce a writer from the times and circumstances they wrote in. Without them we’d never have their successors – like me. If I can write it’s because I was raised on Peters and Christie, Tolkien and Dick. They taught me a huge amount about literature and stories and craft.                                                                                

But do they stand up as good novels by modern standards? I say no. I say they’d never be published today.

I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s stuff; seems to me there’re a lot better things to choose in a big old literary market. But everyone who enjoys his books says that they’re incredibly easy to read. Isn’t that, first and last, what we need from a novel? Something that sucks you in, drags you along, and turns you out as a slightly different person at the end? In terms of craft I think you could make a pretty decent argument that he’s a better writer than all the aforementioned.

And what of Tolkien? Lord of the Rings – most popular novel in the UK, a creation that’s influenced every fantasy (and historical) novel ever since. Single-handedly this work created the epic fantasy genre.

But there are faults. Some, the songs and poems, I don’t actually mind so much. But the characters are all drawn so shallowly. Only Sean Bean shows any real character development. The plot holes are legendary. It’s my assertion that this book never would have been published in today’s market – certainly without a hell of a lot of editing. Ditto Kerouac’s On the Road. Not sure about Catcher in the Rye. I reckon Catch-22 might have scraped into print, although the non-linear structure might frighten more than a few agents.

For all the talk of a decline in literacy in the Western world, the standard required to be published has improved enormously. More than that, the number of good quality books that are being rejected for publication is incredible. Is this a sign of the democratisation of reading? That it’s not just a hobby for the ‘intellectual’, the ‘elite’; reading is now for everyone and the hoi polloi require books that are easy to read – even if they lack the depth and psychological truths of a Virginia Woolf?

Maybe that’s a bit cynical. Maybe it’s that we expect more these days. We expect reading to be a pleasure, not a duty. We expect books to be properly constructed, the laws of point-of-view to be obeyed strictly. We demand an absence of errors. And whilst a good story can still blind us to obvious plot-holes, we’re looking for these things more and more. We’re less forgiving, perhaps.

It’d be fascinating to know what the luminaries make of our modern tastes. Would Tolkien enjoy Terry Pratchett? Would PKD be a fan of Ann Leckie? Dostoyevsky – would he like Akunin?

In a hundred years time which of today’s books will be classics? And will they be the ones that are most read?

Readers and writers

Reading isn’t the same as watching a film. It’s kind of strange: you enter a world that is fundamentally of your own creation, a compact between you and the writer. What’s in their head as they write is likely to be different to the one appears in yours. It’s kinda creepy, if you stop to think about it.

When you watch a film all the decisions have been made for you. You know what the characters look like because they’re there in front of you. You know the environment because you can see it; can see all the props, the explosions, and with good acting and direction and dialogue can even get a sense of smell, weight, mass… It’s all there for you. Watching a film, therefore, is a passive experience. I think this is why the films that stay with you longest aren’t the flashy effect-a-thons, but the ones closest to a literary experience: those that suck you in with the intangibles: plot, character, the things for which words can’t quite grasp.

Books are different. Books have always been different. If you and I were to read the same book then we’d be experiencing different things. That’s kind of magical, if you stop to think about it. The author writes something. You read it in your own way and get something else out of it. You lend it to a friend and they get something else again. Magic.

This is, I suppose, down to the nature of description overlaid against your own experiences. I’m currently reading a book set in India. I’ve never been there. I trust the author has, or has at least has done extensive research. So they have a more complete mental image of the landscape, the smells etc than I have. Is that a problem? No, because the author (should) provide enough hints, enough description, enough evocation for a world to be built in my head. I suppose this suggests that the author’s world is more ‘right’ than mine. But that’s not true. Books are democratic. I said at the beginning that books are a compact between author and reader. I rely on the writer to give me enough hints to mould my mind’s eye without dictating strictly to me. It’s an intensely personal thing without right or wrong.

This is an area where it’s much more preferable to be under- rather than over-done. My personal hate (and this is found more on the internet than in print) is of stories that begin with a great list of a description – sometimes of background but more often of people. We want to have description drip-fed to us so we get the essence of what a character is without having them summed-up to the precise bra-size, to the last stray hair. Description should some up a character’s personality rather than appearance. Why is this? Buggered if I know. I suppose partly because a novel needs to involve the reader and nothing involves you more than having to work on it yourself. It’s collaborative. And the best stories leave you with a vivid impression of a character (or landscape) without you ever having any memory of being told anything about them.

Which is why readers can get upset when the character they held in their mind is changed for film or television adaptation. Remember the controversy when a black actor was cast in Hunger Games – even though the book actually specifically said he was black? It’s because it’s so easy to miss the small details. And then the character becomes solid in the reader’s mind – more real, sometimes, then your neighbours. You fall in love with these people. They matter. The illusion is precious, and fragile.

I suppose this article is more about description than the actual meaning behind the novels, but the same applies to text and subtext. One man’s novel is not the same as the other, and authors can be as surprised as anyone when critics see themes in their writing to which they were oblivious. I’m still mildly amused by the tale of JRR Tolkien: as a passionate Catholic he was regularly infuriated by fan-letters from neo-pagans and hippies. To his mind, they had subverted his stories. But he had inspired them. Who was right? Neither, I’d say, or both.

It’s also a (somewhat trite) fact that you can’t read the same book twice. Each time you read you do so with different eyes. You’ve learnt new things. You see things you missed before, make connections that resonate in different ways. The words speak to you with a different voice.

Because books are magical. Stories are special, and precious, in a way that nothing else is. Because the author only creates the outline. The real work is done by the reader. You are magical. Possibly also insane, but mostly wonderful and amazing. And probably very clever. Especially if you read my work.

Ciao for now, folkses.