Are Bryant & May Books Hard To Read?
A chance remark from a friend has thrown me.
Through him I gave a middle-aged Australian lady a copy of ‘Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour’. She had complained that she’d used up her Lockdown books and was looking for something new. My friend later explained that she hadn’t got on with it, and had actually got stuck very early on in the book, during Raymond Land’s briefing to the unit.
Now this is interesting. When you give someone a book the next time you bump into them they always guiltily say, ‘I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.’ I point out that it’s not a test, I don’t mind whether they read it or not. If I give someone a T-shirt they don’t have to wear it. A gift is not meant to be a burden.
And they’re never honest if they have read it. They always say it was great, or really enjoyable, not that the middle sagged or some of the characters were annoying. They don’t give you anything you can grab onto and work with.
It made me think about readability. The books I’ve had most trouble reading are the mountain-peak books; Proust (because I was uninterested in our weedy hero staring at girls and trying to work out if they had good shapes beneath their bustles in ‘Swann’s Way’), ‘Don Quixote’ (millions of references I didn’t understand, gave up), ‘Paradise Lost’ (don’t have the religious mindset), ‘Moby Dick’ (good story, strangulated language) and ‘Ulysses’ (never bothered, in the way that I’ve never bothered with cryptic crosswords).
There are far more accessible books that remain on my shelves unread because of a lack of magnetism between me and the book that makes it easy to say, ‘I’ll get to that at some point’. There are crime novels, too, that have no appeal, and some that read like walking over broken bricks in bare feet. Something has been lost, you feel, when the latest hot-button crime thriller is less enjoyable than a Maigret novel.
I try to avoid boring or confusing readers, even when the plots get complex, but I made a decision early on not to water down the density of the books, because they’re a reflection of my own speech, fast and overstuffed with information. I figure that if you don’t know a word you look it up – isn’t that part of the fun?
My friends tend toward the lurid and opinionated (especially after a drink). I used to dry up with those who had little to say, but Lockdown has forced me to be gentler and more patient. I’ve realised that most people do not want to read anything uncomfortable, and that even though serial killer novels are almost pornographically visceral they don’t count because they’re clearly not real. I recently read ‘Tender is the Flesh’ by Agustina Bazterrica, about a slaughterhouse worker in an abattoir of human beings, and it was too much for me.
If readability is a problem – I never got over the sting of being accused by an American reader of writing in ‘deep English’ – then I’m screwed, and it would probably explain why the dumbest comic book gets filmed for TV while Bryant & May never get a look-in. I could write a novel in a crime novel pastiche and see if that sells. ‘Arthur Bryant looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like shit.’ Part of the fun was creating a character that went against the accepted rules for heroes.
I’ve written more than my fair share of feisty females, and specifically wanted Bryant to be someone I’d never really seen before (the hero of Pixar’s ‘Up’ probably comes closest). I wanted the language to be occasionally outlandish because (my mantra) dialogue is not conversation. As I embark on the 20th Bryant & May novel, I find myself more than ever committed to the tenets of the first novel. If that leaves me in a niche, it’s a nice niche to be in.