People and place

I’ve done an awful lot of reading over the last year. Getting sick freed up time and changed my habits. For a while, after coming home from surgery last year, I didn’t have the concentration to read for long periods. Still, outside of my daily sessions for chemo and radiotherapy, there wasn’t much I could occupy myself with. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t writing, and I was sceptical of watching daytime TV. I’d keep myself busy with small things, often just browsing social media and the internet on my iPad. I’d break it up, though, with reading.

At the same time, my daily routine changed. I’ve always read before going to sleep, but in the old days, that might be a half-hour after going to bed at 11pm. Suddenly, I was going to bed by 9.30 because I didn’t really have the energy to stay up much later than that, and I’d read for an hour – or more – before switching off the light.

Before, I would go to the library for my books and otherwise judiciously order a book or so online for delivery every month. I barely left the house when I was sick, so the library became impossible. I still bought the odd book, but with less money coming in, I did that less and less. I’d never really taken to it before, but suddenly Kindle became my main way of reading. I’d still rather read an actual book, but it was cheap and convenient to check for specials and purchase for a few dollars.

Reading by Kindle opened up many different reading options than before. Besides the mainstream stuff, here was the stuff aspiring writers would self-publish to the world wide web. Not surprisingly, the quality was pretty haphazard. Since the start of the year, I’ve read about 70 books, probably 50 of them on Kindle. About half of them would get my tick of approval.

Recently, I’ve read two books described as viral bestsellers, and in between, one of Agatha Christie’s books.

In a way, I could understand the popularity of the contemporary books. Both had an interesting premise, which is why I read them. In both cases, I was disappointed.

I love literature, and I’ve read a lot. I like to be entertained, and sometimes I’m happy to immerse myself in some escapist fiction. Ideally, I want to be moved also, and perhaps even informed. I don’t expect that so much, but having been brought up on great literature, it’s always a pleasant surprise when I am. What I do expect is a standard of story-telling that draws me in and is credible not just as a plot but in the characterisation. Ideally, I want to feel as if I’m in the same room and feel as if I know the characters. That, to me, is good writing.

The two contemporary books were racy but lightly sketched in comparison to that. They feel very much a product of the social media age, so I wondered if the kind of writing I enjoy is now old-fashioned? Does it – indeed, can it – resonate with a younger generation as it did with me? Am I out of step and my expectations unreasonable? Have I been spoilt – and others, ‘unspoilt’, more capable of enjoying this because they know no better? Or is it just a matter of disposable nonsense?

So many questions!

I’m not expecting high literature, though certainly, in the case of one of these books – which aspired to be more, I think – the opportunity was missed to transcend the storyline. It was a much-lauded book compared by one to Annihilation, which is indeed an excellent and much superior book (by a proper writer). Look, it wasn’t terrible, just a bit tedious, unconvincing, and filled with unlikeable characters.

What is lost is depth. There’s very little sense of place or much consideration to it, it seems. The setting was conceptually vivid in both cases, but nothing more was made of it. It’s like writing a book set on Krakatoa and letting that be the sole reference point, without any description of the burbling volcano or the jungle or the sea surrounding it. We got signposts, not descriptions, interior or exterior.

Then there is characterisation, upon which so much good writing and great novels rest. But, again, we’re given outlines without detail or insight.

I read both to the end out of curiosity, but there wasn’t any tension. To my way of reading, they both lacked weight and heft because nothing was described sufficiently for you to care about. As a result, nothing got under the skin.

I’ve mentioned Agatha Christie for context. I’ve never been a great fan of her work. I read a few in my teenage years, but probably no more than two or three since then. Her appeal now is a quaint nostalgia, helped along by the iconic characters she created. I’ve always found her formulaic but inoffensive.

I don’t know what it was, but I enjoyed reading the old Christie novel (The 4.50 From Paddington) more than I did these other two books. Perhaps it was familiarity with her work and characters. Though much in the time she describes is foreign to us now – servants and whatnot – its novelty has been diminished by the years past. Ultimately, there’s more warmth and vitality in something written as if from memory than something designed to shock and constructed out of old tropes.

But then, I’m certainly becoming a curmudgeon as I grow old. I reckon I have similar views on music and movies.

There is still a lot of decent writing out there; you just have to seek it out. I’d encourage anyone who seeks to write, but let’s not overpraise nor condemn. That’s true of anything, anytime. I get that blurbs and a lot of critical comment today is meant to catch the eye, and not all of it is sincere. Judge with discretion. Nothing gets better without saying it as it is.

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