Wonderful Books, Awful Books

Reading & Writing


Now that ‘Invisible Ink’ is finally wending its way toward us in a definitive form (publishers being met, deals being studied etc) I find myself with a dilemma. The weekly column, which ran for almost ten years in the Independent on Sunday, perfectly suits expansion into a longform format, but I’d like to sift the wheat from the chaff and lose some of the less interesting authors I included at the time for the sake of deadlines, editorial requests and so on.

One of the sections that I first thought should go was on the subject of ‘Authors That Deserve To Be Forgotten’. I know how hard it is to get published in the first place so I’m the last person to diss a weak effort. I did knock Stephen King’s ‘Dreamcatcher’, mainly because its hugely expensive marketing campaign bullied every columnist in the UK to cover it irregardless of merits – I think I described it as a long literary hamburger marred by television-derived cliches – but I also said nice things about King himself, whom I have never met but greatly admire for a variety of reasons.

So, should you cover books you don’t like as well as the ones you do? Reading is so subjective. Well, part of the fun of ‘Invisible Ink’ was to name and shame a few of the books that became huge hits even though we now look back and ask ourselves, ‘What on earth were we thinking?’ Brigid Brophy famously wrote a book entitled ’50 Works of English Literature We could Do Without’, but sharing actual titles usually gets you into trouble with readers.

I have that problem with Terry Pratchett – I simply don’t get him. I’ve tried, God knows, but for me nothing about his Dumbledore-ish work, from his lifeless prose to his secondhand ideas, takes flight. His vociferous fans would obviously disagree and have every right to. Perhaps I should have read him when I was ten.

The problem is that I detest flat sentences. I’m not sure I can ever forgive Stephen King for saying that no writer ever needs a Thesaurus – good language makes the slightest plot endurable. Having just reread ‘Titus Groan’ for the third time, I’m of the opinion that Mervyn Peake could write ten pages about a dry stone wall and make it thrilling, which is why I love reading Pulitzer Prize entries. The Pulitzer winners are prose stylists, unlike the Booker winners, who generally follow the current line of fashion.

The upshot is – there will be a section on bad writing in the new ‘Invisible Ink’. More news shortly.

13 comments on “Wonderful Books, Awful Books”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Feel the same about Pratchett. I tried, but not for too long. At about 8 my son wrote a short story called The Colour of Magic, so he used that title first and it was better written (only some prejudice here).

  2. Brian Evans says:

    I can’t get on with Terry Pratchett either. I’ve tried 3 and given up.
    Though I did once see an amateur production of one of his novels adapted into a play (forget which story) and rather enjoyed it. Perhaps he’s better to watch (as Dickens is for me) than to read.

  3. Vivienne says:

    Oh, Dickens without all the words would be diminished for me. Like Shakespeare earlier, he seemed to rejoice in the written word. Which does make you wonder about Shakespeare: given that a lot of people would just see a play once, who did he think would appreciate all that complexity? ( rambling thoughts here).

  4. Phil Gray says:

    Contrariwise I couldn’t grok Peake’s books – lovely covers, but oh so turgid a content. But then I also read Donaldson’s Covenant series so maybe its not just that?

    I wouldn’t lay claim to be a vociferous fan of Pratchett, but I did enjoy the early Discworld stories.

  5. Julie says:

    I have a fondness for Mr Pratchett, as a children’s author. Subjective is right which is why literary criticism, even the best, tends to leave me cold.

  6. Julie says:

    My wonderful books include an old copy of treasure island illustrated by Mervyn Peake. Great artist too.

  7. Ness says:

    If you love Douglas Adams you will love Terry Pratchett. Well, that’s the popular wisdom and that of those that buy books for me but no. To me it’s the difference between Monty Python and the Three Stooges.

  8. Steve says:

    Titus Groan takes quite a while to get going, in my feeling, but it does absolutely grip when it does. I can still clearly remember when I first read it 40 years ago. It was at Steerpike’s flight over the roof that suddenly I was gripped, right the way to the end of Titus Alone.

  9. Vivienne says:

    Absolutely agree. And those characters stay with you. Steer like is a tour de force, quite brave of Peake to invent him.

  10. Vivienne says:

    Sorry, Steerpike

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Well, here’s from the opposite side of the fence. I still have Titus on my dresser and have tried three times, I’m into it and will try again, but nope, not so far. I laugh at Terry Pratchett, love the Guards and Sam. I do not agree with his science (although most of you people probably do) but there are so many of his characters who are fun to talk to. Flat sentences, well, there’s something else happening there, I think. Several of his later books were a waste of the trees that died, I admit quite loudly and I resented being almost extorted into buying them to provide him with the income he needed to cover his illness. (Don’t address that issue.)

  12. Julie says:

    Angela Carter’s final book Wise Children is among her best, a great way for a lover of words to say goodbye, with no SOS. Bit sideways but hopefully coherent 🙂

  13. Jill S says:

    I love a good storyteller – I’ll get the Peake books on audio as I couldn’t get into them when reading. I’m sure a long drive will get me into the stories. I love Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, I like my brain prodded and a good giggle and they provided both – Last Chance To See is my favourite Adams book. I also like a good character and wept copious buckets when Granny Weatherwax died in the last Discworld book – to me it meant the end of all things Pratchett.
    I get a family feeling and a wonderful character hit from the only recently discovered Bryant and May books. I know I’m with a series when I go on Google Streetmaps to see where the places are so I can feel I’m there!
    Before there were books there were storytellers. Give me a good story and I’m easy about what colour the stormy sky is – I’m happy with ‘bruised’, tell me it sounds like Charlie Watts had a serious falling out with his drum-kit and I’ll smile and you’ve got me.

Comments are closed.