I’ve just finished writing a massive, technically difficult novel and ground my brain into dust trying to make it feel, to the reader, luxuriously, joyously clean and simple. I believe it’s a writer’s job to be a good host: to welcome the reader, make even the most difficult subject matter and obtuse characters easy to enter.
Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be a priority for other writers. Or perhaps they’re just not able.
In the last three or four weeks I’ve downloaded dozens of sample chapters only to become irritated and impatient. In this regard, the Kindle is very frustrating: I can’t throw it at the wall. I have to put it down carefully, then throw something else at the wall. Tuh.
I’ve read one paper book all the way through, my ancient 1961 paperback of Alistair MacLean’s Fear is the Key. The object itself is in dreadful shape:
If you look carefully, you’ll see the bookworm holes in the cover. Here’s how it appears from the inside:
Don’t worry. Those worms are long dead. And, just in case, we keep it in a plastic bag. This has the added benefit of keeping the book together. Alas, we’ve already lost about thirty pages over the years. Not so bad when you consider the thing is nearly as old as I am. But it doesn’t matter; I know the story; I’ve read it often enough.
But it’s sad when one is reduced to reading a broken, vermin-riddled, mouldy, fifty year-old paperback.
Of the newer books I’ve attempted, some are not acceptable because the writing is pitiful. Sometimes the digital design and/or conversion is appalling. Sometimes the premise, story or characters are tedious and/or unbelievable. Sometimes the style is stiff and unconvincing. Sometimes–no, often–they suffer (I suffer) from a combination of the above.
I admit I’m currently a difficult customer, but here’s the thing: I don’t need a book to be perfect. I do need it to do something interesting and/or do most things competently. Finding books that pass even that low bar hasn’t been easy.
Here are some of the books I’ve actually finished in the last three weeks, all sufficiently engaging to get me through to the end:
Reamde, Neal Stephenson
11/11/63, Stephen King
Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey
The Long Tomorrow, Leigh Brackett
The Affair, Lee Child
Island, Thomas Perry
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
Haweswater, Sarah Hall
These are books I’ve read a bit of and might very well read more:
Floating Worlds, Cecelia Holland
Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel
Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan
The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst
The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
These books failed me:
State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman
The Element of Fire, Martha Wells
Sister Mischief, Laura Goode
How Fiction Works, James Wood
I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
Tomorrow I’ll talk about why.