My Problem With Fiction
"These days, a book he [Rebus] disliked was unlikely to last ten pages of his concentration."
- Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin.
When I was young, I read a lot of fiction. I was mostly working my way through the nineteenth century classic novels - Hardy, Eliot, Austen, Thackeray, etc. - plus some less commonly read authors like Thomas Love Peacock. I also read quite a lot of contemporary fiction. But for many years now I have found novels impossible to read.
Every so often I make another attempt. Sometimes I choose a book by a hugely successful writer, partly to try and see how they do it and partly on the assumption that, whatever its literary shortcomings, it will at least be entertaining. But I always toss it aside after a few pages.
There can be several reasons for this.
If, after a few pages, I don't know who the characters are or where the location is or see the beginnings of a plot, I become angry and abandon the book. I recently threw down an Ian Rankin book because for several pages he failed to explain the relationship of one character to another - wife?, girlfriend?, mistress?, daughter? Oh, for fuck's sake! I don't mind waiting till the last page to find out who the murderer was but when a new character appears I want to know within three paragraphs who they are.
I also have a problem with badly constructed sentences: those sentences you have to go back and read again because the meaning wasn't clear or there was a confusing ambiguity. If that happens more than once, I'm finished.
I don't entirely blame the authors. Everyone writes a bad sentence sometimes. But these people have editors and copy readers. I'm amazed at how much bad writing you find in the books of very successful, highly-respected authors. That's why I get angry: some of these people are multi-millionaires but are ignorant of the basics of their craft. I've never read J.K.Rowling but her former English teacher claims she is one of those people who doesn't know the difference between a comma and a full stop. To put it another way: she doesn't know what a sentence is.
I keep trying again because, much as I love biographies, diaries, social history, politics and science, I sometimes crave the childlike comfort of escaping into another world and being hooked by the plot of a good detective novel. So I've just started reading Ian Rankin's first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses (1987). So far, so good. I think I might even finish this one.
The author, in an introduction written in 2005, is disarmingly frank about this early book's shortcomings. "I was a young man in love with language, striving for a voice and sometimes overreaching."
So it may be unfair of me to criticise the use of language. I do so only because a choice of word or phrase is another thing that can bring my reading to an abrupt halt while I puzzle over the writer's exact meaning:
"Rebus shrugged, feeling a slight sensation of attrition in one of his shoulders."
Don't you just hate it when you get that slight sensation of attrition in your shoulder? The last time I mentioned attrition to my doctor he said "Bless you! But don't sneeze all over my desk."
It's not technically incorrect, as a dictionary will reveal. But it's an unusual usage. So is this:
"He sucked luxuriously on his short, tipped cigarette."
We know what he means here but we have to do an instant translation: luxuriously=deeply. "Sucked luxuriously" seems to have escaped from an erotic novel.
Then there's this:
"The reporter looked interested again. When he was interested in something, his shoulders shivered slightly."
For me, this is far more problematic:
"Puzzled, Lupin went to light a cigarette. Then he remembered he had stopped smoking so instead he sucked luxuriously on a Nicorette inhalator.
''When he was interested, his shoulders shivered."
What the fuck?, Lupin muttered to himself. He put the book down and closed his eyes, trying to visualise a shivering shoulder, symbolic of interest.
It was no good. The body language made no sense.
He tried to recall someone - anyone - whose shoulders had shivered in anticipation of what he was going to say. People sometimes shivered after he had spoken. That was the effect he had on people. He was that kind of guy. Often it was followed by "Fuck off, you creep." But he'd never noticed any shoulder action.
Lupin moved to the bathroom mirror and experimented with interrogative twitches of his shoulders. But he just looked like a slack Thunderbirds puppet doing an impression of a pimp.
Worse, he was starting to feel a sensation of attrition.
And, at this rate, finishing the book would be a long war of attrition.
Back on page 7, "Rebus shrugged his shoulders."
Still on page 7: "Rebus shrugged again."
Christ! This guy shrugs more times than a Frenchman on speed.
Still, you know where you are with a shrug. A shrug is nice and clear.