Once Upon A Time There Was A Soapbox….

OK so I know I’ve written about this before, and not all that long ago either, but yet again I’ve found myself putting down two books in succession because whatever the author was doing, or even thought they might be doing, they weren’t telling me a story.  I know that plot isn’t the be-all and end-all of a novel, but for me it is the most important aspect of narrative and if a book just ambles around and eventually goes nowhere then I’m sorry but it and I are going to part company.  I think I might be more attuned to this at the moment because of a conversation I had with my hairdresser on Thursday. She has two children, a boy, thirteen, who reads as if books were going out of fashion and a girl, eleven, who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day.  (Stereotypes eat your hearts out!)  Well, last week there had been a book fair at school and the lass had come home with not only a book bought out of her own money but also a bad case of what I call ‘just one more chapter’ syndrome.  (If you’re reading this then you know precisely what that is. I have lost count of the times I’ve been late as a result of ‘just one more chapter’.)  When I asked what the book was it turned out to be Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, the first in his trilogy about Lyra and the alethiometer and inevitably this brought to mind the author’s acceptance speech when the novel won the Carnegie Medal. In adult literary fiction, he claimed, stories are there on sufferance. Writers take up their stories as if with a pair of tongs. They’re embarrassed by them. If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do. If you want to find adult literature with stories, he asserts, then you need to go to genre fiction.

Now, I think Pullman is rather over-egging the pudding in what he claims about adult literary fiction, but nevertheless he has a point. I wouldn’t have had to go searching for a story in a book intended for children, nor in, say, a crime novel or a fantasy tale. Style over substance isn’t going to wash in any of those areas.  But we all need story.  It is how we make sense of the world.  It is how we come to empathise with people in situations we are never likely to encounter.  It’s why services like Netflix are so popular, because they dish up story after story after story.  As Pullman remarks, we need stories so much that we are even willing to read bad books to get them. I can verify that this is true because as a result of my two failures I picked up a crime novel that I had been avoiding as I knew how poor it would be stylistically, just because I had to have a story.  The poverty of its writing was made all the more apparent because I had just finished another crime novel, William Brodrick’s The Sixth Lamentation, which is not only a good story but is also beautifully written.  The contrast very nearly made me put down a third book, but no, it had a story and so I persevered, got involved and read on to the end.

Of course, there are some writers of adult literary fiction whom I can trust to give me a good story every time and to tell it stylishly as well.  Pat Barker, Penelope Lively, Maggie O’Farrell, Sebastian Barry, Patrick Gale, Simon Mawer, Kate Atkinson, William Boyd, Hilary Mantel, Ann Patchett, Curtis Sittenfeld and Anne Tyler come to mind.  But when you’re taking a chance on someone new…well, it can be a chance indeed.

OK, I will get down off my soapbox now and go in search of a recent story that isn’t necessarily either genre fiction or written with children in mind.  If anyone has any suggestions they will be grateful received.

26 thoughts on “Once Upon A Time There Was A Soapbox….

  1. lauratfrey July 7, 2019 / 2:04 pm

    So…. what were the two books you put down? 😁


    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 2:10 pm

      Not telling, Laura, it one was a 1960s publication that was about several character without offering a story to hold their actions together and the other a 2018 publication that was little more than a series of unrelated episodes. I’m not against experimentation with style, but you can do that and still tell a story. Milkman (Anna Burns) comes to mind.


  2. Davida Chazan July 7, 2019 / 2:18 pm

    Hm… interesting… I’m happy with a character driven book, but yes, there does need to be a story there as well.


    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 5:57 pm

      Yes, Davida, I appreciate that not everyone is as plot driven as I am, but all my research work has been into story and the way in which it is organised so I shouldn’t be surprised that I am so biased. Either I have been heavily influenced by my research or I chose my research because I was already naturally biased that way. When you add my years lecturing in Children’s Literature into the mix I suppose my bent is inevitable.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. stargazer July 7, 2019 / 3:05 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with this post! Pullman is definitely exaggerating, but he certainly has a point. Btw, I read Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy as an adult and still enjoyed it very much.


    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 3:39 pm

      Pullman and I are contemporaries and both did much the same job but at different Higher Education Colleges so I also read him as an adult. Since I retried I have rather lost touch with what is being published for children and young adults and I am beginning to regret that considerably.


  4. BookerTalk July 7, 2019 / 3:37 pm

    We’re hard wired from birth to appreciate stories so not surprising that is what we enjoy when we read for ourselves. A recent publication that is not genre fiction? Hm that’s a tough one. I would have said Circe but you’ve read it already.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 3:41 pm

      ‘Narrative is a primary act of mind’ as Barbara Hardy so memorably said. I think I am going to have to mine the Walter Scott Prize lists, it I suppose Historical Fiction counts as genre too 😕.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BookerTalk July 8, 2019 / 4:25 pm

        Well yes it does count but maybe its less predictable than some of the other genres


  5. Claire 'Word by Word' July 7, 2019 / 5:47 pm

    When literary + story do come together, that is a magical thing.
    Looking back at recent reads, I’d recommend Nothing But Dust by Sandrine Collette or for a lighter read Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain, both are translated from French but beautifully translated excellent reads.


    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 5:54 pm

      Thank you Claire. Neither of these authors is on my ‘radar’ so I shall add them to the library list and try them.


  6. kaggsysbookishramblings July 7, 2019 / 6:54 pm

    LOL. It’s your blog and you can soapbox if you want to. I *do* like plot but not necessarily all the time – good writing if it has substance and is making a point will do it for me as well.


  7. robinandian2013 July 7, 2019 / 7:13 pm

    Have you tried John Boyne? His stories are interesting and the writing is top quality.


    • Café Society July 7, 2019 / 7:15 pm

      I didn’t get on very well with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and so I haven’t read anything of his since. What would you suggest?


  8. Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2019 / 10:34 pm

    I can’t remember if you’ve written up any of Lissa Evans’s books but I just read ‘Crooked Heart’ and thoroughly enjoyed it.


    • Café Society July 8, 2019 / 8:46 am

      I haven’t, Rohan, but I was looking at a copy of her latest, ‘Old Baggage’, the other day and thinking “maybe?” I shall give her work a try.


  9. Kat July 8, 2019 / 2:14 am

    Well-put! I know exactly what you mean. The doldrums of much-revered rambling plotless autofiction have sometimes defeated me. Style and story are ideal!


  10. Calmgrove July 8, 2019 / 8:31 am

    We already live daily lives that are plotless—all the elements are there but there is seldom finite resolution in politics, the environment and so on—and, as you say, we are plot-driven animals who relish resolution, if not happy-ever-after then some tying up of threads, which current affairs rarely satisfy. Except, when we’re feeling helpless and pessimistic, there’s always the endgame of extinction to imagine.

    So, ‘Waiting for Godot’ may be thought provoking but too much irresolution does our heads in—we want stories: the Quest, Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Overcoming the Monster, Comedy, even Tragedy.


  11. Laila@BigReadingLife July 8, 2019 / 8:56 pm

    Well, if you’re not sick of books set in and around WWII yet, I can recommend The Huntress by Kate Quinn. It’s a real page-turner (although you might have to squint at some of the more unlikely plot developments, not look too closely.) I was immensely entertained by it.


  12. Liz July 9, 2019 / 1:50 pm

    It’s always good to have a soapbox moment every now and then! Let me put in a quick thumbs up for Old Baggage, which I thought was excellent. And I have just finished Richard Roper’s Something To Live For which is a light read in many respects but also a great story with a memorable theme.


  13. Jeanne July 9, 2019 / 7:56 pm

    You know I think everyone should read something by Nick Harkaway, the son of John Le Carre and a wonderful writer who always has a good story to tell. For you, I’d recommend starting with Angelmaker.


    • Café Society July 11, 2019 / 8:32 am

      Thanks Jeanne. I hadn’t realised Le Carre (who definitely knows how to tell a story) had an author son and certainly hadn’t heard of Harkaway. I will definitely look a copy of Angelmaker out.


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