I’m never happy when a book takes more than a couple of chapters to grab my attention. Still, I’m willing to give almost anything a fair shot if it will eventually get moving. My preferences are for authors who can grab my interest in the first chapter, prefereably by the end of the first paragraph. I know, it’s a tall order, but it’s possible and with the prolifieration of libraries and book stores, it’s not hard to find quality fiction these days. Sadly, I don’t think my current reading endeavor qualifies. To explain, let me contrast the two novels I’m currently reading through.
The first is the offending piece of literature that I’m finding slow, awkwardly written, and on the very fringes of believable, even for a murder mystery. It’s a murder mystery by english author P.D. James by the name of Original Sin. I bought this book over a year ago and am just now half way through the volume. Before you laugh or criticize, that has nothing to do with my rate of reading. I’ve tried a half dozen times over the last year to get into it and never got myself past the fifth chapter. It is, simply put, boring.
Why then am I reading it? Good question. I guess there are two reasons. First, I feel an odd and unexplainable loyalty to any book that I begin. If I’ve started it, I feel obligated to finish it. Second, I was in need of something to read while administering SATs this week and it was the only unread novel on my shelf. It’s hard enough to stay awake and alert with something to read. Try sitting watching kids take tests without a diversion.
What makes this worth writing about is that as of last night I saw a fascinating contrast. Last night I handed my wife a copy of “The Green and The Gray” by Timothy Zahn and she started reading it aloud. Now, this is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s easily my favorite Science Fiction/Fantasy novel. It’s really good. Which makes the comparison to what I’m reading today all the more ghastly. Here’s what I saw last night.
Zahn is no Edgar Allen Poe. He’s certainly not as popular or prolific as say, Stephen King or James Patterson. But I’ll tell you what, Zahn can tell a story and leaving you begging for more at the end of every chapter. By the end of the first page I was grinning with anticipation and Katherine was eager to see what was happening and what would happen next. She was even already emotionally attached to the main character. This is what I love in a novel.
Oddly, it’s not incredibly attractive to my wife. To be honest, she thought the opening chapters were too intense and is leery of the rest of the book. She remains unimpressed with the brilliance that I see in Zahn’s writing.
Let me back up just over a year. The reason I purchased “Original Sin” was because I wanted to expand my library in ways that were, for me, unconventional. I had never purchased a murder mystery before but knew that I enjoyed the style. Not only that, but I wanted to extend past the obvious Agatha Christy or James Patterson and read an author that I had no previous knowledge of. I know, that’s a recipe for disaster, but I had a plan. I looked for an author with a large section of books that had been in print for a significant period of time. I assumed that their success would dictate that their style and technique was at least good, if not great, and the stories would be engaging.
I failed to recall one slight detail.
The section of novels by P.D. James that I found was extensive. Her name was mildly known to me. She is, from a publishers point of view, a great success. Timothy Zahn, a personal favorite and inspiration, is none of these things in the modern bookstore. His shelf space consists of maybe two feet if the store’s collection is extensive, and that includes multiple copies of his more current endeavors. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more than one printing of most of his novels. He is successful, but not in the same way.
Here’s what I wasn’t factoring in and what I failed to think of before expecting my wife to be as excited about a book as I am.
It’s simple, really. The idea that what we appreciate and enjoy is individual, personal, and varies greatly from person to person. We all know this is true. Some would say the story I just told proves that I have poor taste. Some of us try to make ourselves feel better about it by proclaiming that our tastes are truer, purer, more universally correct. Those who disagree with us are simply uneducated, ignorant, or careless in what they choose to like. I really don’t see either of these as valid though.
I believe firmly that there is a standard for good writing that causes bad writing to exist. I believe that there are poorly written manuscripts, even in print. I have to remind myself though, that other than being inferior, most of the things I dislike in literature come down to a matter of taste.
I want to be thrilled and excited when I read a novel. This is why the works of Poe, Lovecraft, Zahn, and Stackpole entertain me so much. Not everyone is looking for this thrill-seekers high in their reading though. In their minds the high adventure style I enjoy fails to connect with the reader on deep emotional levels that allow true connection to the characters and stories portrayed, so they see the work as poor fiction. Yes, we’re dealing with a matter of taste.
Honestly, I could probably write this same post about music, film, or any other art for you choose to mention. We all know it’s true, but we fail to remind ourselves to bear it in mind when we interact with those who disagree with us.
So there you have it. It’s not brilliant, but it’s what’s on my mind.