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.