Popular Prose And The Public
I have always been fascinated with the physical acts of reading books. It’s something we don’t much discuss. Critics often seem to regard ‘readability’ as a bad thing, something to sneer at, but what is wrong with wanting to communicate clearly?
Popular non-fiction can become academic and abstruse, littered with notes and references. But Jason Goodwin’s ‘Lord of the Horizons’, about the Ottoman Empire, makes you believe he went back in time, and manages to thrill without simplification. Should that ability be denigrated?
My father always told me that American science journals were better than European ones because they made comprehension easy. Malcolm Gladwell is good at melding populism with the abstract. His latest, ‘Talking To Strangers’, raises an interesting point about the global popularity of TV show ‘Friends’ (which I confess I’ve never seen). The facial exaggerations of the characters are a dumb show that allows you to turn down the sound without losing your comprehension of the plot.
I’ve always argued that you shouldn’t be able to turn off the sound and tell whether something is a comedy or a tragedy. My benchmarks for this idea were the TV show ‘Steptoe & Son’, and the film ‘The Man in the White Suit’ (opening in the West End now as a play), to which can be added ‘Fleabag’, ‘Arrested Development’ and others. The problem besets the CG ‘Lion King’, described in the New Statesman as ‘David Attenborough with showtunes’. Animal features are not human. Animation bridges the gap. Photorealism makes the exercise absurd.
Writers like Robert Harris, Gillian Flynn, Michael Connolly, Alice Walker and the late Michael Crichton are highly readable without losing nuance. It’s only at the extreme end of this process, in Dan Brown’s books, that readability goes wrong, because he’s not a good enough writer to keep things simple without making them stupid.
When I write a Bryant & May novel I stand by the exacting principles of crime writing, but I also do two things that limit my readership;
I use humour, which removes gravity from prose no matter how it is employed. And I don’t simplify my cultural references, because my main character functions through them.
I face criticism sometimes, accusations of being ‘deep English’, and I’ve sacrificed global rights – Bryant & May does not exist in a single translation. All of my non-B&M books can be found in other languages.
Bryant & May is not only untranslatable, it’s ongoing and heading for twenty volumes, with loyalty points built in for regular readers. No wonder I was warned off from attempting the series at the outset.
As I’m putting the finishing touches to the 2020 Bryant & May novel, I have no plans to broaden the appeal of the books, and have accepted that they are what they are; a joy to write, and I hope not too annoying for new readers to try.