The sole book to be seen was Page Turner, the latest Turner adventure from Midas Paperbacks, bound in either gold or silver depending, Boswell supposed, on the reader’s standards” – an acerbic observation from a nineties tale of mine, “No Story In It”. As I said at the time, I had the (already late) John Brunner to some extent in mind. Years before his death, but years after the effective end of his career, John looked around the dealers’ room at a science fiction convention and was dispirited to find books outnumbered or at least outweighed by other items. He thought books were seeing their last days. They haven’t yet, and my possibly over-optimistic instinct is that they never will, but I do have a sense that some – by no means all – publishers’ editors are a little desperate to woo or keep their readership. Hence the notion that a book is good only if it keeps the reader turning the pages, and hence my old sly gibe.
To what extent is it a bad attitude? I would certainly suggest that imposing pace for its own sake on the material is bad. One editor who looked at my novel Silent Children wanted to cut out the quotations from the tale within the tale, admitting that he had also skipped those sections of Steve King’s Misery. I didn’t, and I don’t think such cuts would improve either novel. For a while some editors seemed to take the view that because the pace of life is faster these days than it used to be, readers no longer have the time to savour prose or to allow a narrative its own pace. One – in my view, wholly deplorable – recent response to this was the release by a reputable publisher of versions of Moby-Dick and David Copperfield edited to about two-thirds their length in the supposed interest of winning the books a new readership. Of course this isn’t new – the Reader’s Digest has been truncating tales for decades – but it has seldom been applied to works of this calibre. Anthony Burgess once prepared A Shorter Finnegans Wake, but I take his intention to have been to ease the adventurous reader into the full text of Joyce’s novel. By contrast, I fear that the purpose, or at any rate the effect, of the new editions of Melville and Dickens and other classics is to convince readers that they don’t need to take the time to read the original. They should.
I’m not denigrating conciseness, and a good editor is a great boon to a writer, but that relationship should be the province of consenting adults. There’s nothing wrong with making people want to read your text, but a breathless pace or rapid prose aren’t the only ways – they certainly aren’t for me as a reader, though sometimes they work. David Morrell’s novel Long Lost (good title, David!) deftly entices us further and further in with a succession of chapters that occupy less than two pages each. I don’t recall how many times I told myself I’d read just one more – it’s an addictive process. On the other hand, his novel Testament doesn’t use this method but has an opening chapter that renders it unputdownable. Similarly, the prose in the tower scene in Iris Murdoch’s The Sandcastle is the literary equivalent of Hitchcock’s editing of the attic scene in The Birds – a great many short sentences that build up considerable suspense – but (for this reader at least) the same author’s The Flight from the Enchanter and The Bell are fully as compelling in the lucidity of their prose and the vividness of the characterisation and events. A final example, and I cite myself only as a questionable one. My old tale “The Interloper” has its admirers, but I have to admit that its increasingly breathless pace owes everything to the fact that I wrote it in a single day and lost so much of my interest in the characters before the end that I gabbled the final scenes. Weirdly, the inadvertent affect seems to work. Well, you know what D.H. Lawrence said about trusting the author.
Let me suggest that while unputdownability (a horrid word, or a useful one, depending on your taste) may be contrived, it’s worthwhile only when the content itself is worth having. Let me further propose that a piece of fiction is most likely to be compelling when the author’s imagination is fully engaged by the material. Don’t take my word for it – examine the works you yourself couldn’t put down – but I’ll name a few favourites to demonstrate their diversity. The Trial is immensely readable in Max Brod’s translation of Kafka. William Golding’s Free Fall fastened instantly on my imagination and never let go until the last page was – yes – turned, and I can say the same of much of his other work: Pincher Martin, The Spire, certainly Lord of the Flies, if you even need to ask. I would say all this of Alan Garner too, above all his masterpiece Red Shift (which shares with Golding’s prose the virtues of extreme compression and precision). Few writers pare away more than Beckett, though, and his Unnameable is a book I read in a single sitting, utterly immersed in the experience. Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying is the author’s first novel but still his finest, as exciting second time round as on first acquaintance. Richard Matheson’s early novels – I Am Legend (considerably better than any of the films), The Shrinking Man, A Stir of Echoes – are models of narrative suspense, and I found his Hell House more unputdownable than seemed ideal when I stayed up by myself after midnight to finish it. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock (which he classed as one of his entertainments) is no less urgently readable than The Power and the Glory (which he regarded as a serious novel; Lawrence’s principle comes once again to mind). One more: Nabokov’s extraordinary Pale Fire, a novel in the form of a preface, a poem of nine hundred and ninety-nine lines in four cantos and a book-length commentary by the poet’s editor. It remains one of the most entertaining and compulsive novels of my experience, and yet I can hardly imagine a book less contrived to be a page-turner. The moral? Surely that there’s nothing more entertaining than great art. Let it be respected, not pre-digested, and learned from.
This article originally appeared in Prism (2010, issue 1).