The Problem of Dull Books*

*For a value of dull that = my perception

This week I went to an event for the paperback release of David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks (which you may remember I rather enjoyed). One of the recurring themes of the conversation was the way his novels mix and embrace genre, his reasons for doing this (short answer: he likes it) and the critical response to it (short answer: some literary snobs don’t like it).

He was delightfully straightforward about it. While his short answer to the first was that he enjoys it, his slightly longer answer was essentially (a) that writers should do what their story requires, that some stories require dragons, and that those stories are not inherently or objectively less good than stories without dragons.

If it needs and wants a dragon, it is your duty to put a dragon in it.

And (b) he argued that there was quite enough social realism in the fiction department and he didn’t feel inclined to add to it. He was very clear that he doesn’t think those books are inherently or objectively bad either, just that he doesn’t want to write them.

For which I am quite terribly grateful.

At the grand old age of thirty-four, I am finally embracing the fact that a lot of social realism in serious literary fiction bores my socks off, and I do not want to spend time reading most of it. And also, I am willing to take my case to the Guardians of the Western Canon, to tell them I think that they are old fuddy duddies with no sense of fun, optimism, or interest in the future. Life is too short and too interesting.

I’m not saying I’m ruling out reading social realism or serious literary fiction that takes itself seriously written by a white man between the ages of 30 and 70 ever again (I’m never giving up Graham Greene). I’m just saying it’s going to have to be well sold and hold up to my attention lest I ditch it after 150 pages. It might be good and not hold my attention. That’s fine. I’m not going to feel obligated to read them any more. I’m going to remember the other thing Mitchell said:

Some writers you know are great writers can leave you cold because their understanding of the author-reader contract is different than yours.

This all springs to mind just now, because I recently finished reading Matthew Thomas’novel, We are not Ourselves. This was my April book club book, and I confess to having been unexcited about it when I saw it in the shop, but I dutifully picked it up and started reading. I chewed my way through 400 resolutely well written and resolutely failing-to-gel-with-me pages, before I realised I was double booked and couldn’t go to book club – at which point I put it down (as an aside, if you ever have to choose between We are not Ourselves and a performance of the ballet, La Fille Mal Gardee, I absolutely recommend that you choose the ballet).

However, I had read 400 pages of a 600 page tome, and I’ve still not quite managed to shed the, ‘Well I’ve invested this much effort in it so I’m darn well finishing’ problem that I have (I’m working on it), and so I took it on the plane to the States three weeks ago. I finished it on the plane, and left it in the overhead locker for some lucky cabin crew to pick up and read. (Sorry, cabin crew). It remained objectively well written and subjectively completely dull.

It reminded me, unfortunately for it, of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, which heads the list of Books I Think are Overrated and Completely Anticlimatic No Matter How Good the Prose. I don’t struggle to read the words in these books. In fact they flow smoothly from my eyes to my brain at quite a pace, mostly because they do not make me stop to think about them or the story they are telling about the world. These are books that, no matter how well they describe the world, don’t tell me much of anything I don’t already know about it, nor do they create any strong emotional response by way of either sobbing heartbreak or tremulous joy and hope. They’re just perfectly well constructed blocks of words. It’ s not that they’re a challenging read. They’re just dull.

They may be objectively better blocks of words than many books that I like more – The Bone Clocks had its flaws, after all – but they don’t move me. They don’t touch my soul. Sometimes I’m not sure that they want to – I suspect the writers might find that level of emotion and sentiment embarrassing.

And so, this is my contract with my authors.  I would rather have a flawed book of vaulting ambition that wants to tell me something new about the world and the people in it – especially a book that breaks through the pain and mundanity of the every day to reveal the joy that lurks around corners and under lettuce leaves – than a marble masterpiece. That ambition could manifest itself in something as utterly simple as the narratives of books like The Art of Fielding or Shotgun Lovesongs which aim to reveal something of the beauty of the ordinary, or the insane complexity of a David Foster Wallace. Give me messy, unfinished, imperfect, The Pale King over the formally majestic The Corrections every day.

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