I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in my time. Every one, even the shit ones, demonstrates to me why I’ll never be able to write a novel myself. From ever-inventive meteorological waffle to hilarious one-liners that have me begging for a nurse with a sewing kit, it’s just not how my brain operates when faced with a blank page.
Some people can create a plot that’d leave Christopher Nolan dribbling with confusion and characters that live in the mind long after Oxfam have burned the book to make space for more Potter. These are talents I’ll never possess and I’m fine with that. As Bill Hicks would opine, I am a reader.
But I’ve started to realise what a conservative reader I’ve become, because of the number of books these days I hurl at the fireplace in disgust after a couple of chapters. And they’re all modern-ish books – not in their setting or era, but written recently, by people who should have been forced to stick to office jobs, or perhaps prostitution.
Nine out of ten contemporary novels seem to involve the author screaming look how clever I am from every paragraph. Not in their use of language, mind: go long like Camus or go home like Bukowski, it’s all the same to me. But messing the reader about with bonkers devices to make the author out to be some master of tricky prose has become the literary equivalent of a ‘Deconstructed Beef Wellington’ on Masterchef.
Top of the shit tree is bouncing back and forth in time. Listen, I can tolerate the odd flashback and you can lay out incidents from Alice’s past however you like to explain why she’s started putting cats in bins. But don’t be writing a book where every chapter is named either ‘Now’ or ‘Then’, alternate those chapters all the way through, and still expect your 90% unread masterpiece to end up anywhere other than the river.
Books written in the present tense have a special reservation in hell. Better yet, the present tense and in the first person. I’ve been knifed but don’t worry I can still explain how my femoral artery flaps about like a glistening reed in a tropical storm. Oh shit I’m dead as the coroner carves a V into my sternum and I’m somehow still able to describe that to you, making my death a bit of a plot hole if I can still fucking bang on and on about it from the beyond.
But oh, please do write something in the second person – you are drinking a Dr Pepper for some ungodly reason, you were rightly explaining why jazz is evil. Please, explain what’s happening to me every stage of my day while I repeat “No I didn’t” and “No I’m not” after every sentence of luminous pish, you clever prat.
Nobody just writes a story any more. I used to think I needed a story to be plot-driven, that character is secondary, but if a book is written well I can happily take it either way. In some of my favourite books, when you finish you realise next to sod all has really happened and yet the book’s coherence lets the author get away with it.
The exception to that rule is when a writer introduces a detective at length before the crime they’re investigating. Before you set DI Laura Strang up for a lengthy, lucrative series, telling us all about the tough upbringing that’s made her a maverick down the station, how about you let us decide if you can actually fucking write?
The gender of the author can complicate things. I’d be a liar to deny I sometimes avoid female authors because I fear ‘love’. Not sex, that’s easy to skip over (the occasional book that says something like ‘Then they fucked’ and moves on gets my vote every time). But female authors do seem more inclined to blather on about love and emotions and other things that frighten me. I don’t need explosions but I really, really don’t need Bethany dissecting Jonah’s reluctance to communicate his feelings over a complicated macchiato.
However, I will take a linear, set-in-the-past Mills and fucking Boon above another ‘magical reworking of the western’. Give me the entire back catalogue of Danielle Steel in hardback and make me carry it everywhere I go before I have to endure another surrealist coming-of-age drama set, of course, in Tehran.
So I’ve started to go back to books written long ago. Much as it pains someone obsessed with new things to say this, old books are often so much better – some structure to them, all very different but without the author baying how incredibly innovative they are from every page. Turns out it made more sense for an author who wanted people to actually read their work to create a Brave New World or a Frankenstein – to sell books because they’re good, not because some Twittertwat declares you the new Murakami and all the horrors that involves for the rest of us as you await your turn on the 99p Kindle wheel of fortune.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s a narrowness of imagination on my part that makes me bin books involving genre-hopping pansexual time-travellers or metaphysical cattle. I’m closing my mind to some fantastic literature I’m sure, the type that wins prizes for clever authors awarded by judges who want to be sure we know they’re clever too.
But reading isn’t meant to be a chore, surely. So if I want to read a black tale about a stag weekend gone tits up rather than a mystical journey of self-awakening in the slums of Bogota, I’m bloody going to and if you think it demonstrates a tiny mind you can insert your Rachel Kushner novels fundamentally.
Somebody will read this and tell me to write a book if I think I can do better. I can’t and I won’t. I’m a reader. Writer, write me a story and let me read it in peace.
You’re the one getting paid, not me.