Yesterday I picked up a book which has been long listed for at least two of this year’s major awards. For once I had a whole afternoon free and I was looking forward to really getting into this new novel. Two hours later, having crawled my way through the first fifty or so pages, I put it onto the pile to go back to the library wondering just what had gone wrong. I could see that it was a very well written work. Here was a writer who loved language and knew how to use it. The author also had a keen eye for detail and created believable and precise characters and locations. However, what there didn’t seem to be was any attempt at telling a story. Breaking off to seek out reviews, what I discovered was a series of comments about the way in which the lives and characteristics of the central figures were portrayed and the extent to which the writer had used them to comment on a certain strata of society. Nobody tried to tell me about the plot – probably because there isn’t one.
Let me say straight away that I am not condemning the book on this account. I’m sure that for some readers it will be a delight. What I am more interested in is what it says about me as a reader. I want a story. I want a plot with the ubiquitous beginning, middle and end, even if those elements don’t come in the right order. Oh, I’m interested in character as well, but I need them to do something other than just walk through their daily lives. I want to be able to describe at least one of them as a protagonist, which was a word I almost used in the previous paragraph before deciding that something as proactive as that could never be associated with any of the characters I had been reading about. Maybe this makes me an unsophisticated reader, but do you know what, at this point in my life I don’t care. Story is what has always been important to me. I think it is important to most of us. As Barbara Hardy so famously once said narrative is a primary act of mind, we all automatically tell stories about what we’ve been up to, even if what we are describing is the most mundane day of our lives. Not for nothing did I spend my working life researching and teaching the way in which, from our earliest days, we learn how to shape and communicate the stories that define who we are.
Perhaps I should make a bigger effort to engage with novels that don’t work with plot, but when there are so many books out there that I want to read which do have a story to tell to be honest I’m not sure I really want to try. Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood this morning.