At a recent book group meeting someone asked whom we would choose if we could only read the works of one author for the rest of our lives. This is, I hope, a hypothetical question that sometimes comes into my mind if I happen to catch the end of the radio programme, Desert Island Discs, where a guest is asked to chose not only the eight pieces of music they would take with them were they to be castaway on said desert island, but also to nominate a book to sit alongside The Bible and the Collected Works of Shakespeare. (As an aside, people often ask for a specific translation of The Bible, but I have never heard anyone ask the, for me, far more important question concerning which edition of the Collected Works; believe me, it matters!) Sometimes the castaway tries to cheat by asking for a group of books by an author, say all the Barchester Towers novels, to be bound together in one volume. I sympathise, but it isn’t really playing that particular game. It does, however, raise the question of which author I would chose, a question that we found ourselves discussing at our last meeting.
In the time that we had it was only possible to give just a snap answer, with writers like Trollope and Dickens springing immediately to mind, but coming away and giving it greater consideration later I began to think rather more seriously about the criteria I ought to be bringing to bare. Just from a practical point of view, I suppose the more books they have written, the better. However good the work might be, I can’t see me opting for a one hit wonder. But, being prolific doesn’t necessarily walk hand in hand with producing work that will stand the test of time. Which is going to be more important?
Having put to one side for the moment the temptation to choose an author simply because they are on that list of classic writers who have stood the test of time, I found myself considering popular, but rather more light-weight candidates: people to whose work I turn when I am having one of those days. Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s, come to mind. (As a second aside, do you know that you can now get St Mary’s merchandise? I am so definitely having a mug with an honour and a privilege on it.). There is also a 60s and 70s writer, Jane Duncan, who wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels about growing up in the Highlands during the early part of the twentieth century and her time living in the Caribbean during the 1950s, when her husband’s work took them out to one of the last great sugar plantations in private ownership. Neither of these authors is likely to win prizes for great literature, but what they both do is create a cast of characters with whom I want to spend time. I know that Taylor’s Max and Peterson and Markham aren’t real, and that however much I wish it wasn’t the case, Duncan’s Janet, George and Tom owe as much to her imagination as they do to the real life members of her family; none of that matters. The characters these writers have created are ‘friends’. There is an entire set of both series on the kindle that goes everywhere with me and if I find myself with just five minutes to spare and don’t want to simply pick away at whatever I happen to have currently on the go, I will select a favourite episode and relive a much loved moment. (Aside the third – there was an article in one of this morning’s papers about boots with soles that heat up in cold weather and I automatically found myself asking if their design was based on Bashford’s testicles. Most of you will have no idea what I am talking about, but anyone who has read Taylor’s What Can Possibly Go Wrong will have raised exactly the same question. Has Professor Rapson finally got it right?)
I found the fact that I was being drawn to writers whose work is at least as much based on character as on plot surprising, because I have always thought of myself as being a plot driven reader but perhaps a writer who appeals just because of their plots isn’t the one to choose in this scenario. You can only mine a work for its plot just so many times. However, neither Taylor nor Duncan are using fiction to ask penetrating questions about the human personality and the way in which society works and perhaps over time I would need that. Choosing an author with those criteria in mind is going to take greater thought and a second post. Do you have any suggestions?