Books I Fight To Finish
Writers are not supposed to name the books they don’t like; it’s an unwritten law, as if by doing so we’ll somehow damage the trade. All writers have flaws and quirks; it’s what makes them individual and interesting, and is why instructional books like Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero’s Journey’ cannot be applied to the letter, because if we did that all books would be the same. But there are some novels I struggle with, a few I detest, and many I respect but recognise they’re not for me.
Among the classics I’ve tried ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Tristram Shandy’ and didn’t care enough to finish reading either – my fault, not theirs; I’m an impatient reader who is starting to panic about how many books I still want/need to read now that my youth has passed and time is telescoping fast. I will finish ‘Vanity Fair’ because I was semi-enjoying it but the timing was wrong so I’ll wait for another lacuna. I’ve read all of Dickens several times over. I’ve reread ‘Gormenghast’ countless times.
I’m not always good with magical realism. I struggle with a certain kind of whimsical European novel. I had several goes at ‘Shadow Of The Wind’ and gave up. Likewise the ‘Harry Potter’ series, which teemed with incident and had interesting locations and characters, but lacked ambitious plots.
There are dozens of crime novelists I greatly admire, including Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, Lee Child, Martin Edwards and Margery Allingham. I found Stieg Larrson laborious, loved ‘Gone Girl’ but couldn’t finish ‘The Girl On The Train’ – that quote above is from it, and I have no idea what it means. Maybe it’s a certain kind of thinking men don’t have. I don’t know what a hole in my life is, or why it must be avoided, and every time such a statement came up in the book I simply skipped over it, like bleeping out the long Russian names in ‘War & Peace’.
Worse was Kate Mosse’s ‘Labyrinth’, which to my mind had an unlikeable, unbelievable heroine shaped only by the absurdities of the plot. Others may enjoy her; we’re not all cut from the same cloth. This was a case where I actually preferred Dan Brown, and that’s not an easy sentence to write.
Over the years, my most problematic relationship has been with Stephen King. He’s a master-plotter; ‘Carrie’ and ‘The Shining’ are almost perfect. I greatly admire him for overcoming past problems in his life and continuing to write. Perhaps because I’m a snooty Englishman I have trouble with his instruction that ‘writers should use the first word that comes to mind’. I don’t understand his oft-repeated hatred of literary elegance, his folksiness or his obsession with bowel movements. He uses a style of Americana I can’t relate to. It’s not like I don’t know what he means, it just doesn’t resonate with me. When he says something is ‘turkey-red’ it’s alien because in the UK turkeys are white and sealed in supermarket plastic. Obviously I know what he means, but here’s the difference; when that most American of authors Ray Bradbury writes of the sound of the calliope drifting on warm sunset air I can vividly picture the circus and the town without ever having had a travelling circus come to my town. Bradbury doesn’t use complex language but his language thrills; it’s packed with surprises.
King’s perky vernacular peppers character’s memories and conversation with language that feels simultaneously genuine yet stylised. Characters are defined by their choices, and the mental processes of the heroes are broken down into miniscule moment-by-moment detail. But so keen is he to have you identify with his heroes that he assumes you’re just like them, and that’s something no writer can afford to do, because our readers are all very different. I know my lack of appreciation for his home-spun similes is a cultural issue, and it doesn’t invalidate his use of them; it just leaves me cold in the way that I imagine a lot of my books leave others cold.
King once wrote a Sherlock Holmes story and did it well – but he wouldn’t let it end. It just went on and on and on until all the mystery had been explained away. Cormac McCarthy (whom King has ridiculed in the past) always leaves something thrillingly unknowable. The interesting thing is that in the fight for press space, newspaper literary editors always demand that the new King is covered, even when it’s not one of his best. Editors are theoretically shaped by the taste of their readership, but often they simply do what’s easiest. And for everyone else, getting the traction that comes from coverage becomes that much harder.
It’s okay to recognise that certain writers are not for you. That’s the wonderful thing about books – there’s always another one you’ll feel passionate about, if you can just find it, lurking behind those endless copies of ‘The Girl on the Train’.